History and characteristics of US-sitcoms

Academic Paper, 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 2,1

Irina Wamsler (Author)




1. The history of sitcoms

2. Characteristics of sitcoms
2.1. Strands and stacks
2.2. Canned laughter

3. References (including additional literature)

Stop being so testosterone-y.

(Phoebe in “The One With The Evil Orthodontist”/ 3min)


The scripts of comedies imitate real life and fulfill the audience’s needs in everyday lives. That means people like to relax while watching other people’s daily lives including love, friendship, or working life. They want to escape from the pressure they had during their own day and enjoy funny and easy-to-understand-shows. Additionally, humor gives, as Bärmann (1989) claims, the audience a chance to breathe.

The evolution of TV series from the beginning of this genre of TV shows in the 1950s until today is important. The first TV series were comedies and variety shows but soon this concept was replaced by sitcoms. During the 1970s and the 1990s sitcoms changed as well as society. Rapidly, new issues like friends, emancipation, or the role of the family has changed. “The correspondence between reality and fiction has become in fact the most important thing for the public: present TV series want people to recognize themselves in the fictive and unreal characters.” (http://www.periwork.com).

In sitcoms or television shows, humor arises in communicative situations, where situational humor erupts spontaneously and where laughter is the desired and calculated effect, prepared by scriptwriters. In the last decades two different forms of so called ‘mass humor’ have grown a lot in the United States, as Marc (1989) claims. He differentiates between situation comedy and stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedians represent their feelings and ideas in a funny way, whereas the sitcom “is the technology of the assembly-line brought to art” (Marc 1989: 13). In contrast to stand-up comedians, actors in a sitcom mainly have no contact to a live audience..

1. The history of sitcoms

“The so-called golden age of American humor” was in the 1920s and early 1930s (Goldstein 1999: 244). Gender based humor, class conflict, and the modern world were the major topics of jokes. This genre of comedy, which originated in the United States, was actually developed for the radio in 1922 (Mack 2002: 6). Amos ‘n’ Amy pioneered in 1930 (Bärmann 1993). In the 1950s, family sitcoms became very popular and in the 1960s this format was adapted to television. I love Lucy (1951) is the forerunner of all sitcoms dealing with the problems of emancipation a woman has. Mainly, the family or the working life is in the center of interest. Bachelor Father (1957) illustrates the life of a single-parent who raises his children and went on dates at the same time (Marc 1989: 78). In 1961, the Dick Van Dyke Show was the first sitcom which entered the “world of work” (Bärmann 1993: 14). The Brady Bunch ( 1969 ) showed the life of a patchwork family. Harmony is the key word for sitcoms in the 1960s. Due to the Vietnam War and the civil rights, Americans “found refuge in visions of Americas premetropolitan past and fantasies of witches, genies, and nannies who could do the vacuuming by magic” (Marc 1989: 118). Examples are Bewitched (1964 ) or I Dream of Jeannie (1965) .

A step forward in the women movement was The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, starring a divorced woman who tries to handle her career as well as her family. Then, as Bärmann (1993) claims, sitcoms seem to lose color because the topics are not that new and interesting anymore. The Bill Cosby Show ( 1984 ), however, breathed life into the family sitcoms. So, the 1980s “sitcom attention shifted away from single people […] and back toward the genre’s traditional center: the family” (Marc 1989: 201). New shows like Roseanne (1988 ), featuring a strong woman as the main character, was appreciated in the USA as well as Who is the boss? (1984). Besides, ethnic sitcoms such as The Bill Cosby Show (1984) or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990) starring African Americans only, became very popular.

Nevertheless, the problems of single men and women are still an issue. Concentrating on the problems of single men and women have, is also quite popular in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1982, a sitcom about America’s ‘most famous bar’ was broadcasted: Cheers. This series as well as Friends or Golden Girls, for instance, deal with relationships, jobs, and sexuality (Bärmann 1993: 17). The trend of leading a single-life and moving away from the traditional belief of the necessity of having a family comes up again.

2. Characteristics of sitcoms

The term sitcom derives from the word situation comedy. This popular format of entertainment is a weekly show that entails a regular cast of characters in a sequence of episodes which mainly take place in the same location. A sitcom is a make-believe for 24 minutes a week. Either series are taped in front of a studio audience or canned applause is taped in. Often sitcoms provide verbal plays, funny and unexpected situations, or problems which could happen to everyone and were rapidly resolved (http://www.answers.com/topic/situation-comedy).

Ross says that “[t]he humour in a sitcom comes from playing around with the comic possibilities of those particular character types interacting with each other in that situation, and may not involve lines or gags which are funny in isolation” (1998: 91).That means in contrast to telling a joke, a sitcom depends on the context in which humor is performed. This includes either utterances that proceed or follow the given utterance or the non-linguistic environment (Attardo 1994). Sitcom deal with areas the viewers can relate to and the atmosphere is intimate like being invited into the characters’ home. Bärmann (1993) describes this as an escape from daily life for the audience.

In professional humor the communications as well as the characters are fictional. Most television programs use a standardized storytelling format having about three little stories which occur parallel. Mainly, there is one major story and two minor ones. This multilayered concept serves to make the sitcom more interesting and versatile. Each of the stories is based around a group of characters. Each of the themes has a three-act structure: the beginning, the middle, and the end (Bärmann, 1993: 3). The beginning introduces the thematic context, including a problem, a difficult decision, or any sort of action. The next section, the middle, contains an escalation, obstacles and sometimes various misunderstandings which is supposed to increase the tension of the show. In the end, everything is solved and everybody is more or less happy. Even though, surprise is an important and desirable element of comedy, quite often the end is fairly predictable[1]. Moreover, almost every sitcom starts with a short teaser. It is supposed to “quicken the appetite” of the audience by briefly showing the show’s matters before the theme song is played. After the audience’s attention is caught, the characters have about 24 minutes to resolve the problem and amuse the viewers. Subsequent to the final scene and the credits, comes a so called tag. It is about one minute long and can be seen as the final scene after the final scene (Mack 2002: 10). Holzer calls this the signet of the respective episode (1999: 22).

Furthermore, the characters of a sitcom are very important for good comedy. “The best situation comedy isn’t about situations at all; it’s about vulnerable people […] comedy springs from character” (Armstrong quoted in Holzer 1999: 23). A sitcom depends on traditional stereotypes and repeated happenings or jokes like running gags because the audience needs to identify with the characters and the show in order to follow it continuously. Bärmann says that “the audience is expected to know who the characters are and why they are there. So the viewers have to be familiar with the series as a whole” (1993: 5). Knowing the background of the characters also supports that we identify with them, that we like them and suffer with them.


[1] Refer to Holzer (1999) for a detailed description of the technical and dramatic structure of the plot

Excerpt out of 12 pages


History and characteristics of US-sitcoms
University of Hannover
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
459 KB
history, us-sitcoms
Quote paper
Irina Wamsler (Author), 2007, History and characteristics of US-sitcoms, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/284775


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: History and characteristics of US-sitcoms

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free