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The situation comedy, or ‘sitcom,’ has been a staple of entertainment media for decades. Starting on radio, it quickly became popular with audiences. With the advent of television (in the US) in the late 1940s, sitcoms migrated to the small screen, and it is these sitcoms with which most people today around the world are familiar. A definition of situation comedy should look at each word of the name, starting with situation. There is a continuation from episode to episode of the same elements: (1) a regular group of characters who appear in all or almost all episodes and who maintain a continuing relationship to each other; (2) a group of settings used in all or almost all episodes in which most of the actions take place and in which (3) the premise of the show is established.
Six criteria are required for comedy, for an event to elicit laughter from a person. First, it must be mechanical (Bergson 1956). In this criterion, the laughable element consists of a mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect adaptability and flexibility. Second, it must be inherently human, or with the capability of reminding us of humanity. Something is funny only insofar as it is or reminds the audience of humanity. Third, there must be a set of established societal or human norms with which the observer is familiar; and fourth, the situation and its component parts (the actions performed and the dialogue spoken) must be inconsistent or unsuitable to the surrounding or associations (i.e., the societal or human norms). Fifth, it must appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions. Finally, it must be perceived by the observer as harmless or painless to the participants. The comic action is perceived by the audience as causing the participants no actual harm: their physical, mental, psychological, and/or emotional well-being may be stretched, distorted, or crushed, but they recover quickly and by the end of the performance they are once again in their original state. When all these criteria have been met, people will usually laugh.
Dramatic stories (both dramas and comedies) are constructed following some basic rules: there is a universe in which the stories take place (e.g., unmarried friends looking for love, a war zone, an office); a problem arises in that universe; the characters do things to solve that problem, making the problem worse; and finally, they do the right thing and the problem is solved. Because of the way stories are constructed, there are three basic types of situation comedies: the action comedy, the character comedy, and the dramatic comedy (Taflinger 1996). In an action comedy, the characters simply do things, they perform actions, until they finally do the right thing to solve the problem. The character comedy requires that in order to solve the problem a character undergoes a fundamental change in who he or she is. The problem arises because a character is doing or believing something wrong: that looks are everything, that social status is more important than being true to oneself, that selfishness is the way to behave. In the early part of the story the character seems to be right, but then the negative consequences start to impact the character’s life, and they come to the realization that they were wrong and need to change what they believe. This change solves the problem. The character sitcom is rare because it is more difficult to do than just have the characters perform actions to solve the problem, and it requires a greater effort on the part of and concentration by the audience to understand the characters’ personal problems and solutions. The third and rarest type of sitcom is the dramatic comedy, or ‘dramedy.’ In this type of sitcom, the solution to the problem presented in the show is often unsatisfactory or poor, leaving it up to the audience to think about the problem and decide how they would solve it. For example, two characters may hold diametrically opposed extreme points of view.
From its inception as a form of episodic entertainment, the situation comedy has been a major element of mass media. Reflecting the mores of its audience and the times in which they live, and poking fun at them, it has provided amusement, and occasionally edification, for its viewers. Although it has had its ups and downs, and even had its obituary published more than once, it has always been and will continue to be a favorite with audiences looking for a laugh.
- Bergson, H. (1956). Laughter. In W. Sypher (ed.), Comedy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, pp. 61–190.
- Brooks, T. & Marsh, E. (1999). The complete directory to prime time network and cable TV shows: 1946–present. New York: Ballantine.
- Seylor, A. & Haggard, S. (1957). The craft of comedy. New York: Theatre Arts Books.
- Taflinger, R. (1996). Sitcom: What it is, how it works. At https://public.wsu.edu/~taflinge/sitcom.html.