One of the Most successful sitcoms in the early years of TV was I Love Lucy. I Love Lucy was one of the first sitcoms to use a multiple-camera setup, and centered on Lucy Ricardo (Played by Lucille Ball) and her singer/bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), along with their best friends and landlords Fred Mertz (William Frawley) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance). In the second season, Lucy and Ricky have a son named Ricky Ricardo Jr. (“Little Ricky”), whose birth was timed to coincide with Ball’s real-life delivery of her son Desi Arnaz Jr.
Situation Comedies, or “Sitcoms” have been around for decades, even finding inspiration from works from William Shakespeare. However, unlike films that experiment and play around with codes and contentions, sitcoms tend to stick to the same tried and tested formula. Or do they?
Sitcoms all follow a similar basis and I Love Lucy is no exception. The characters are typical for a sitcom, Lucy is naïve and ambitious, with an zeal for stardom and a knack for getting herself and Ricky into trouble. Fred and Ethel, are former vaudevillians and this only strengthens Lucy’s resolve to prove herself as a performer. However, Lucy has few marketable performance skills. She does not seem to be able to carry a tune or play anything other than off-key renditions of some songs on the saxophone, and many of her performances end tragically. However, she is shown to be a good dancer and singer. She is also offered contracts by television or film companies—first in “The Audition” when she replaces an injured clown in Ricky’s act, and later in Hollywood when she dances for a studio benefit using a rubber Ricky dummy as her dancing partner. If we liken this to a more modern sit com such as Friends (1994-2004) we can see some similarities in the premise. In friends, the Character of Joey Tribbiani. Both Joey and Lucy aspire to be successful entertainers but continuously struggle to do so, often for our entertainment.
I Love Lucy is also interesting in its representation; here we have a sitcom in made in the 1950s and yet the two main characters are a woman and a hispanic man (image below). In a time of repression, sexism and racism, it is interesting to note that a sitcom (or any form of media text) could gain such popularity and be accepted into society with such ease.
Another similarity is the small social group. In I love Lucy, you have a small group of four close friends as the main characters of the show, in Friends, you have a slightly larger group of six close friends, in How I Met Your Mother (2005 – 2014) there’s a group of five friends. This trend occurs in many sit coms.
This begs the question: Do sitcoms follow the same premise? And if so, why?
It certainly seems like they do and It could be argued that they all do so because it’s a tried and tested idea, it’s safe, you know people like it. However, why does no one experiment? Why doesn’t someone write a sit com that breaks away from the norm and doesn’t follow the normal codes and conventions for a sitcom?
It could be argued that the people who make the sitcoms are scared. They just play it safe. They know that the old formula is a popular one and so they use it. Some sitcoms might seem like they are trying out new things, say, for example M*A*S*H (1972 – 1983), which was a sitcom set during the Korean war is different not only in its setting but in that it doesn’t have a laugh track. (When broadcast in the UK), however, the characters all still fit within a sitcom’s codes and conventions. They are silly and larger than life, making their antics more entertaining for us. Scrubs (2001 – 2010) is another example of a sitcom that doesn’t fully follow the general “rules” of a sitcom, in it’s setting (a hospital) and due to the absence of a laugh track (bar one episode in which the main character imagines his life as if it were a sitcom), however, again, the characters in Scrubs have some odd personality traits making them larger than life. Scrubs and Friends also have a will they/won’t they subplot between two of their central characters. How I Met Your Mother spices that up a little by presenting multiple will they/won’t theys to us, while telling us that the main character ends up with another character we’ve not met yet.
But what about British sitcoms? Does the same formula travel across the Atlantic? Not Going Out (2006 – Ongoing) is a British sitcom created and written by and starring stand up comedian Lee Mack. The show is based in London and features the main character, Lee and his will they/won’t they? relationship with his Landlady (and best friend’s sister). Straight away we can see a similarity between Not Going Out and the US Sitcoms in the form of a Will They/Won’t They. It also has characters whose traits are comedically over the top, however, its main cast is noticeably smaller than most US Sitcoms, though this is probably owing to smaller budgets, sets and writing team due to being a British production. However, another similarity all sitcoms seem to share is the fact that most episodes seem to be completely separate from the others. So an episode will start off with everything calm and normal, an event will kick off the main plot for that episode as the characters deal with the problems, before we return to normality, or a new, different equilibrium at the end of the episode. Then, by the next episode, it is as if the problems from the previous week never occurred. (There are the odd exceptions, be it a two parter, or just a reference to a previous episode.) However, this does not mean that the shows just forget what happened. For example, when, in Friends, two characters get married, they are still married the next episode, but they probably won’t talk about all the mishaps that happened at the wedding, however, one single plot point from that episode might carry over, such as a pregnancy.
Although sitcoms all seem to follow the same basic codes and conventions, this doesn’t mean they cannot change at all. Should a studio find that a sitcom is falling in popularity, but not so much so that it should be cancelled, a new character might be introduced to shake things up a little bit and keep the show interesting. However, does this really effect the set up of the show? It could be argued that it does because it throws in a new character to the mix, however, supporting characters are coming and going all the time, and this does not change the show. Furthermore, adding a new character, though changing things up a little, will not change anything major. The characters will still meet in their usual places, their traits will stay the same and the show will follow the same codes and conventions.
Though none of these shows seem to really break away from the typical set up of a sitcom, each one does bring something unique to the genre. Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother both have narration by one of the characters, but utilise it in different ways. JD from Scrubs just narrates his own life because it’s part of his character, whereas Ted from How I Met Your Mother is telling the story of how he met his wife to his children. Friends, it could be argued, really started the typical set up for all sitcoms to come after it, in that a group of friends meet in a regular place (in this case, a coffee shop, see image above), a set up that is used in later sitcoms such as Rules of Engagement and How I Met Your Mother (see image below).
But on the other hand, two earlier sitcoms, Cheers (1982-1993) and Frasier (1993 – 2004), Frasier being the very successful spin off of Cheers, had a similar set up. Cheers was based entirely in a bar called Cheers set in Boston, MA. So it had all the characters meet and interact in said bar. But then Frasier then had a set up more similar to Friends (Which aired a year after Frasier), in that the main set was Frasier’s apartment, but he did frequent his workplace and a cafe, being similar to Friends’ set up of multiple frequently used sets.
My Family (2000 – 2011) (see image at top of the page) was a British sitcom based on the antics of a middle class British family and, straight away, we can see the codes and conventions of a sitcom. The main cast consists of about six family members (characters came and left throughout the show), all of whom have quirky character traits. The father of the family, Ben, is arguably the lead character of the show, but is interestingly, also probably the most “normal” character. He is a grumpy dentist who just wants peace and quiet. His wife, Susan, is more quirky, she is the world’s worst cook, constantly trying out new hobbies and careers and always meddling in her children’s lives. Nick, their oldest son is dimwitted, clumsy and slow. Also searching for his true calling, he is constantly between jobs. Michael, the youngest son is extremely intelligent, socially inept and, as we find out in a later series, gay.
All of these seem to follow the same codes and conventions in that the characters are all quirky and larger than life, however, what’s interesting this time is that, in the middle of all of this, we have a fairly normal character who is suffering through it all, offering us comedic and realistic reactions to the mayhem around him. This does not mean, however, that Ben is exempt from getting into absurd situations, however it is usually due to the mishaps of his family. The same can be said for Victor Meldrew of One Foot in the Grave (1990 – 2000), Victor is a fairly normal, albeit grumpy, person, but those around him are more quirky and he still manages to get into silly situations, or Richard Bucket from Keeping up Appearances (1990 – 1995). All three sitcoms feature a “straight man” who is just trying to survive the absurd antics happening around him. However, interestingly, all three sitcoms are also British.
The Big Bang Theory (2007 – ongoing) features a group of “Nerds” as the main group, the main characters being Sheldon and his flatmate Leonard. The Big Bang Theory seems to fit into all of the codes and conventions mentioned so far. There are quirky characters, straight characters, regular meeting places for the character, a straight man (Leonard) and a will they/won’t they (Leonard and Penny, who lives across the hall). The Big Bang Theory is also one of, if not the, biggest sitcoms out there today, with one episode gaining 1.22 million viewers for E4. Maybe that is because it combines all of the codes and conventions of a popular sitcom?
It seems that, although sitcoms seem like a rather conservative genre, not straying too far away from the tried an tested formula that has brought success to so many other sitcoms before, they do like to experiment with a few odd things. Be it the narration in Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother, or the different settings of M*A*S*H and Scrubs. It also seems that the genre does change as time goes by, albeit slowly and subtly, to adapt to what’s popular and what works. But then, maybe there’s a reason for the lack of change, maybe if you changed too much, it would no longer feel like a sit com. After all, for a piece of media to fit into a certain genre, it has to meet the codes and conventions of the genre first.