A sitcom or situation comedy is a genre of comedy performance originally devised for radio but today typically found on television. Sitcoms usually consist of recurring characters in a format in which there are one or more humorous story lines centred around a common environment, such as a family home or workplace.
The situation comedy seems to have originated in the United States, but today they are produced around the globe. Many countries, such as Britain, have embraced the form and so sitcoms have become among the most popular programmes on the schedule.
The situation comedy format originated on radio in the 1920s. The first situation comedy is often said to be Sam and Henry which debuted on the Chicago clear-channel station WGN in 1926, and was partially inspired by the notion of bringing the mix of humor and continuity found in comic strips to the young medium of radio. The first network situation comedy was Amos & Andy which debuted on CBS in 1928, and was one of the most popular sitcoms through the 1930s.
Situation comedies have been a part of the landscape of broadcast television since its early days. The first was probably Mary Kay and Johnny, a fifteen minute sitcom which debuted on the DuMont Television Network in November of 1947.
This type of entertainment seemed to originate in the United States, which continues to be a leading producer of the genre, but soon spread to other nations.
Traditionally, situation comedies were largely self-contained, in that the characters themselves remained largely static and events in the sitcom resolved themselves by the conclusion of the show. One example of this is the animated situation comedy The Simpsons, where the characteristics of animation has rendered the characters unchanging in appearance forever -- although the characters in the show have sometimes made knowing references to this (the writers have made reference to that by calling The Simpsons a "frozen-in-time" show).
Other sitcoms, though, use greater or lesser elements of ongoing storylines: Friends, a hugely popular US sitcom of the 1990s, contains soap opera elements such as regularly resorting to an end-of-season cliffhanger, and has gradually developed the relationships of the characters. Other sitcoms have veered into social commentary. Examples of these are sitcoms by Norman Lear including All in the Family and Maude in the US, and the controversial Till Death Us Do Part in Britain.
A common aspect of family sitcoms is that at some point in their run they introduce an addition to the family in the form of a new baby. One exception to this are the several sitcoms starring Bob Newhart, who insisted that his sitcoms not have babies or children. However while babies are cute and give adult characters opportunities to act silly, toddlers are of little use in comedy as besides the difficulties of the "terrible twos" they basically can only look cute and say a few words - thus most sitcom kids are aged to four or five within two years of their birth - for example "Andrew Keaton" on Family Ties and "Chrissy Seaver" on Growing Pains. Cases of sticking with the same child such as Erin Murphy's "Tabitha Stephens" on Bewitched or The Olsen twins' "Michelle Tanner" on Full House are the exception to the rule.
Most contemporary situation comedies are filmed with a multicamera setup in front of a live studio audience, then edited and broadcast days or weeks later. This practice has not always been universal, however, especially prior to the 1970s when it became more common. Some comedies, such as M*A*S*H, were not filmed before an audience. (In the case of M*A*S*H, the use of multiple sets and location filming would have made this impractical.)
Specific countries of origin
Most US sitcoms are written to run 30 minutes in length with commercial breaks, leaving about 22 minutes of showtime, although ones made outside the US may run somewhat longer. US sitcoms are often characterised by long series runs of 20 or more episodes, whereas the British sitcom is traditionally comprised of distinct series of six episodes each. US sitcoms often have large teams of script writers firing gags into the script and round-table sessions, whereas the British sitcom is usually written by two co-writers or is the work of one person.
See also: Canadian humour
Despite Canada's wealth of comedic talent, Canadian TV's conventional sitcoms have generally fared poorly with both critics and audiences. One particularly notorious example is The Trouble with Tracy, regarded by many Canadians as one of the worst TV shows ever made. Other Canadian sitcoms have included Snow Job, Check it Out!, Mosquito Lake and Not My Department, all of which were mocked in their time as being particularly unfunny.
The few successful Canadian sitcoms have included: Les Plouffe and its English version, The Plouffe Family, King of Kensington, Hangin' In and Corner Gas.
Canadian TV networks have had much more success with sketch comedy shows such as The Kids in the Hall, CODCO, SCTV, This Hour has 22 Minutes and Royal Canadian Air Farce, and quirky dramedies such as Twitch City, The Newsroom, Made in Canada, Trailer Park Boys, The Beachcombers, and Seeing Things.
One of Canada's most enduring comedic television series airing today, The Red Green Show, is essentially a cross between a sitcom and a sketch series. Each episode unfolds through short comedic sketches rather than a conventional sitcom plot, but unlike a true sketch series, the sketches always draw from a single set of characters and no actor plays more than one role.
A notable Quebec sitcom in recent years was La Petite Vie; one episode of that show holds the world record for the highest market share ever achieved by a television program.
New Zealand began producing television programmes later than many other developed countries.
Early sitcoms included Joe & Koro and Buck House. Later there was The Billy T James Show (subsequently rerun in early 2004 as part of the first year's offering on Maori Television). The team of David McPhail and Jon Gadsby produced and/or starred in quite a number (such as Letter to Blanchy), with help from writer A K Grant.
Many British and US sitcoms have been popular in New Zealand, including most of those mentioned in this article.
Main article: British sitcom
The United Kingdom has produced a wealth of sitcoms, many of which have been exported to other nations or redone in adaptation. Classic British sitcoms include Only Fools and Horses, Porridge, Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army, Blackadder, Open All Hours, and The Young Ones. More recent successes have included Father Ted (a partly Irish sitcom), The Royle Family, and The Office.
The British sitcom tends to rely less on quick-fire jokes and quirky characters than plots, the analysis of the British individual and exaggerated caricatures of everyday stereotypes. There are, or course, some exceptions. Bottom gained popularity through its exaggerated comical violence and childish humour mixed with adult situations, Red Dwarf was a parody of the Sci-Fi genre, and The League of Gentlemen revolves around the macabre. There is also a tendency towards black humour - Porridge, for example, is set in a prison, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin involves a man who is suicidal, Steptoe and Son can be heart-breaking as the ambitions of Harry are quashed by his needy, manipulative father, and the end of each series of Blackadder involved the ritual slaughter of the cast.
Many British sitcoms are re-made for American audiences. For example, Till Death Us Do Part became All in the Family and the hugely popular Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son. However, most British sitcoms usually fare better in their original forms. Re-makes of Red Dwarf, Men Behaving Badly, Coupling, and One Foot in the Grave fell victim to adaptations that largely removed the essence of the comedy and did not stand the test of time. Possibly the best example of this was Fawlty Towers, where the character of Basil became a woman. This eliminated the roles of the hen-pecked lead and the dragon-like wife. Reports of plans for a re-make of The Office, with David Brent, the comedy powerhouse who made the British version so popular in America, taking a backseat to the relationship between Tim and Dawn also seems destined for the scrap heap of British crossovers.
Mary Kay and Johnny was followed by The Goldbergs which first aired on January 17, 1949. Probably the most well-known and successful early television sitcom was I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball, which is well known because the producer took the step, unusual for its time, of recording the episodes, thereby inventing reruns.
Popular or notable sitcoms
- Lewisohn, Mark (2003) Radio Times" Guide to TV Comedy. 2nd Ed. Revised - BBC Consumer Publishing. ISBN 0563487550 -- Provides details of every comedy show ever seen on British television, including imports.