Take a walk with me through the rise and fall of the situation comedy. It’s a sad tale really – of humble beginnings with so much promise, only to be murdered in cold blood by a stand-up comic named Jerry. Gen Xers knew the sitcom when it was successful, vibrant, and full of potential; so, it with a heavy heart that we watched it expire, only to be replaced by the vile usurper, reality television.
Sitcom’s life began on the vaudeville stage, as small skits. These slowly developed into television shows like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy – gag oriented, and really just extended vaudeville sketches. They developed a little, but you still didn’t have much in the way of meaty content. You certainly weren’t going to learn much from The Beverly Hillbillies or The Munsters, but they kept audiences laughing with a continuous stream of gags.
However, some of these shows decided to teach life lessons, and really give audiences something they could sink their teeth into. They started fairly lightweight with Leave It to Beaver and Bachelor Father, but these evolved into what would be the high water mark of sitcom’s lifespan – the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve seen an episode of One Day at a Time, M*A*S*H*, or The Facts of Life. You may have forgotten how hard hitting these shows were – controversial subjects were being dealt with, lessons were being learned. Good Times dealt with racism without compromise, Gimme a Break and Family Ties dealt with teen sex, Diff’rent Strokes dealt with child molestation and drug abuse, WKRP dealt with homophobia, etc., etc. Even shows like The Brady Bunch, Happy Days and Sanford & Son, had some lessons to be learned (most of the time). A show that always kept it light (like Three’s Company) was rare indeed.
Plus, these shows didn’t lose sight of keeping the laughs coming, and somehow were able to keep maintain the delicate balance…. until the mid-80’s. For some reason, these shows lost their teeth. Now you had shows like Charles in Charge, Growing Pains, Mad About You, and Full House which had neither the weighty content OR the unrelenting gags of 60’s sitcoms. What were you left with? Trite and boring nothingness – the perfect stage for Seinfeld to take over.
Seinfeld was unashamedly about nothing. Unlike Designing Women, Kate & Alley, and The Golden Girls, it didn’t even keep up a pretense that it was about anything, or had any lesson to teach. Combined with rapid fire laughs, the formula worked like gangbusters. Other shows quickly followed its lead – Friends, Will & Grace, Ally McBeal. These were really about nothing – just people’s interactions and humorous dialogue.
Well, how long can this sort of thing be maintained? How long will audiences watch humorous banter about nothing? Seinfeld was wise to bail out before the formula passed its expiration date. Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, The Office and The IT Crowd are all good shows, but they are simply the remnants of the Seinfeld boom- light on substance, heavy on gags. Unfortunately, they have not really been able to gain a strong foothold to develop, expand, spin-off, and affect popular culture significantly. Why? Because the throne is currently occupied by a maniacal cretin known as Reality Television.
It would seem that there was a natural progression from shows about nothing to reality television. You can see the fine line blurred between the two by watching The Office, which is both sitcom and reality show. In fact, most of today's sitcoms try to look a bit like a reality show – and reality doesn’t have a laugh track, so neither do present day sitcoms.
I wonder if the sitcom will ever make a comeback. Are we poised on the cusp of another wonderful decade of popular cutting edge sitcoms – or will the nation still be watching The Flavor of Love in twenty years? Sci-Fi themed shows have made a comeback (Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, etc.), why not our old friend the situation comedy? It’s possible.
End Note (Update: 7/30/09):
Upon further reflection and discussion about this topic, it has occurred to me that there may be another cause for the downfall of the sitcom: the very thing I was praising - the weighty subject matter. In other words, folks got tired of that "very special episode" and just wanted a laugh. Perhaps, they collapsed under the weight of their own self importance... Seinfeld, 30 Rock, The Office, etc. are more akin to the early sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie and The Beverly Hillbillies and actually SAVED sitcoms for a while!
Wow. Now I'm really confused.