7/29/09

The Rise and Fall of the Sitcom

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.

26 comments:

  1. As one who practically worships sitcoms and despises reality t.v. I would love to see sitcoms return.But I don't know if a new crop of sitcoms would live up to the old ones. Yes sci-fi shows are back, but they just aren't the same with all this naturalized sci-fi that doesn't look like science fiction.So i don't know if they will be the same.Then again anything is better than reality t.v.

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  2. I couldn't agree more. There's nothing funny left to watch. The last sitcom that I made a point of watching each week was "Everybody Loves Raymond", but even that seems to have set up the current "comedies" that focus on lame-o parents and their smartaleck kids.

    Love your first graphic, by the way...it appears Simon Cowell is sneaking up to murder The Keatons!

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  3. When I miss a good clever well written sitcom, I pop in one of our British sitcom DVD's. We're huge fans of the Britcoms at Monkey Central.

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  4. Sadly, it's all about money.

    Sitcoms are pretty costly to make, while reality television is cheap...and for the networks, it's all about the ratings that require less off the green stuff to spend on writers, actors, production staff etc.

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  5. How sad that TV Land has gone "reality". Damn shame.

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  6. puppetboy- I don't watch the new sci-fi either, I'm more of a Buck Rogers kinda guy.

    Goretrogirl- Damn, I should've had Simon holding a raised knife over the Keatons' heads. :-(

    Dr. Monkey- Loved Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, and Are You Being Served?... didn't laugh much at Spaced, and never tried Coupling.

    jbfunky- You hit the nail on the head. All you need to make a reality show is a camera and a group of slutty idiots.

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    Replies
    1. Have you ever tried such British shows as " The Good Life ," " Mind Your Language , " " On The Buses , " Dave Allen At Large , " or " Last Of The Summer Wine ?? "

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  7. Sam- Thank God for Netflix. The sitcom is alive and well at the Gilligan abode.

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  8. AnonymousJuly 29, 2009

    Seinfeld was the ultimste Sitcom.

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  9. AnonymousJuly 30, 2009

    Sitcoms are too expensive to produce and nearly every available subplot has been recycled to death.

    Add 500 channels that show old sitcoms 24/7 and I'm afraid sitcoms have gone the way of the variety show.

    I wish they would come back - I'm sick of reality TV.

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  10. I watched so many sitcoms when I was growing up. I loved them. Now it's hard to find anything funny at tv. I'm so sick of reality tv and crime shows. I'd love to see a really funny sitcom again.

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  11. We don't watch TV, we have Netflix and get lots of old TV shows from there. I've seen a few episodes of Seinfield and I thought they were amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny. I wonder why he was such a big deal?

    I would expand your lament to include fun shows like Remington Steele, Moonlighting, and A-Team And perhaps M*A*S*H would fit here too. They don't make that kind anymore either. Of course those shows don't really take on difficult topics (well, M*A*S*H did), but they were enjoyable without being too heavy.

    I'm sure the sitcom will come back around, most things do, it may just take a few more years than we have. Man I hate reality TV.

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  12. If you really like sitcoms, then watch Nickelodeon or Disney. The sitcom is alive and well on those two kid's channels.

    I know because my two boys love just about everything on Nick (they could do without Hannah Montana).

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  13. Excellent point, Jim. My daughter watches iCarly, Hannah Montana, Zack and Cody, Drake and Josh, etc., etc., Very true - the sitcom is prospering in the pre-teen market. I will add, though, that they contain about as much substance as Family Matters and Saved by the Bell. Recall that One Day at a Time dealt with suicide/drug overdoses and All in the Family graphically dealt with sexual assault.

    I'm not saying I want my kids to see an episode of Hannah Montana where she gets raped and kills herself... I'm just saying these are definitely meant for children and not adults. Adult oriented sitcoms are still MIA.

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  14. Lord, I hope sitcoms make a comeback. I despise reality TV. I miss all the great shows of the '70s and '80s.

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  15. AnonymousJuly 30, 2009

    Are we lamenting the demise of the "situation" in the situation comedy? Does a show have to be about a former boxer turned dentist to be good? I thought that was what Seinfeld was being ironic about. Claiming it was about nothing meanwhile it was a classic situation comedy about a comedian and his friends who are all self-centered idiots in their daily lives? Was it bad for situation comedies because they didn't all work together in a morgue or something?

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  16. Anonymous - I think maybe I should clarify: I love Seinfeld, it's a great show. This is not a dig on Seinfeld at all. I'm just stating that shows became less and less heavy handed, and more about... well, nothing. Seinfeld was the culmination of this, and it segued naturally to reality TV.

    The Office and 30 Rock have the look and feel of a reality show - and so does Curb Your Enthusiasm (by Seinfeld co creator, Larry David). They don't tackle issues, there's no real compassion, tragedy, or joy in any of these shows. I'm not cricisizing it - it is what it is.

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  17. Well I'M criticizing it!

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  18. How could you forget "Dick Van Dyke"?
    It was the first show to have Americans of color in professional occupations. It is still a show I can watch a whole day of (back when TV Land was about TV shows).

    Your history of the Sitcom was good, if not a bit spotty and viewed through rose colored CRTs.

    The first show to be funny but tackle real world issues have been "All in the Family." Norman Lear then produced a string of message shows that were the backbone of the 70s issue TV that the 60s help usher in. "Maude," "The Jeffersons," and "All in the Family" (which you did mention) all had ground breaking episodes that generated controversy as well as conversations out side of TV.
    Not all that Lear touched was gold of course. In 1977 he produced "All that Glitters," which dealt with a world run by women, where men were the sex objects. It bombed after 13 weeks.

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  19. Part 2

    Most of the sitcoms that we baby-boomers remember were from the 60s and 70s. What we do not remember is that the sitcom has always been the black sheep of the networks. What they produce to pay the bills, but what they don't admit to.

    This is still the case as witnessed by the Emmy awards. "All in the Family" won its first year, although nobody watched it then. "30 Rock" is bad sitcom (or TV show of any kind for that matter) yet it receives Emmys every year. Also remember, "Gilligan's Island" was canceled after three seasons even though it was in the top 10 of the ratings. It was axed because the wife of the network president liked Gunsmoke and the shortage of space meant something had to go to keep it. "It was just a sitcom" after all.

    Not all of classic TV is classic. Remember, the Baby boom era also produced "My Mother the Car," "Its About Time," "Captain Nice," and "Mr. Terrific," and "Ugliest Girl in Town." All stinkers, but all still better than "30 Rock."

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  20. Part 3

    The sitcom has had its rise and fall throughout the TV era. In the late 1960s very few (if any) sitcoms were produced as TV was trying to shore up its image as a cultural wasteland.

    Then in the 70s they came back with a vengeance, though with a bit more purpose, as Gilligan noted. However, for every "Mary Tyler Moore," there was a "Diana" (cheap knock off staring Diana Rigg). Sitcoms of color spread throughout the airwaves (still mainly 3 networks) so that TV could claim to be multi-cultural and more reflective of America. Most were poor and died quick deaths. Some would be good and insure that TV would not be one color ever again.

    Gilligan was also right when he talked about the role of sitcom (and TV) as the decades moved along. The 70s reflected the revolution of the 60s. However, as time went on energy faded, and people wanted to be entertained again. Rock gave way to "soft rock" the disco and Country & Western. Sitcoms degenerated (for the most part)into "Three's Company" and "Makin' It" (don't ask). There were still gems like WKRP, Newhart, Barney Miller, and Taxi, but it would take Bill Cosby to save NBC AND the sitcom, for a while at least.

    Sitcoms, like all forms of entertainment, evolve and change to reflect, if not the times, then the times the producers and creators were educated in. Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, even the Golden Girls, went new directions exploring different styles and demographics not exploited by TV before (or since in some cases).

    Today the new and driving forces in Hollywood are dark and depressing. As mentioned above, SciFi has changed to dystopia, police dramas have bad cops and sometimes the bad guy gets away with it, and sitcoms have been reduced to small circles of cast whose stories are forgettable and only left on because they project the Hollywood agenda. It will be interesting to see who gets canned now that Obama is now in the White House.

    The sitcom will always be around. IT changes, not always for the better, but classics, even now, shine through the mediocrity. I still like Dick Van Dyke and Bob Newhart. I miss Taxi and Barny Miller. Golden Girls still makes me laugh and I miss Cybil. Cheers is still enjoyable, as is Family Ties and Designing Women is watchable if nothing else is on.

    In the future Two and a half men may hold its own and How I met your Mom may as well. Others this season will fade with brief syndication and some, like Three's Company will be big hits for now, but in 10 or 20 years you will wonder what you ever saw in it.

    By then, of course, they will be replaced by the next wave of funny bone tickling shows. What ever they may be.

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  21. AnonymousJuly 30, 2009

    Part 1 of 1:

    I don't know why they went away, but I miss them. Sometimes I listen to old theme songs (Taxi, Three's Company, Barney Miller, Mr Belvedere etc...) on Youtube and just enjoy the weird nostalgic feeling I get. I know, it's sad, but true.

    I'm not a reality tv fan, BUT have you heard about the new show on Fox called "Glee"? I'm very optimistic! I like 30 Rock as well.

    Are we becoming old farts who say things like, "In the old days, we used to...."?

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  22. Anonymous- "old farts"? Hell no. I happen to like 30 Rock too, I adore The IT Crowd, and relish The Soup. In fact, there's a lot of good stuff out there now if you know where to look.

    However, that doesn't mean that we can't also remember fondly the glory days of sitcoms.

    Wendel- A little bit of clarification: I wasn't trying to give a comprehensive history of sitcoms - I think it may be "spotty" because (1) I wrote it in ten minutes, and (2) my main focus was just looking at the trends and popularity regarding sitcoms.

    I agree with a lot of what you're saying; however, I'm not so sure Three's Company will be a distant memory in ten years. It's been ~ 30 and it's still ticking. Sure, it's a bit low brow, but it's funny as hell.

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  23. Sorry about the "spotty" line.
    It was not meant to be as sharp as it looks on the screen. You do a great job on your blog AND you included pictures as well.

    The "Three's Company" line was in reference to a show I never missed when it was on, but cannot remember why I liked it when I see it now. Shows that are in the top ten today do not always age well. Others, like "Dick Van Dyke" and "Golden Girls" have a universality that stand the test of time.

    I will be interested to see if "Scrubs," one of my current favorites, ages well or will be another flash in the pan.

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  24. One thing that happened was that, just as sitcoms in the 70s learned to be dramatic, in the 80s & 90s dramas learned to be funny.

    And because dramas had an hour to play with instead of 30 minutes (or, more accurately 44 minutes versus 22) they could combine the sloppy, addictive character development of soap operas with the humor of a sitcom...

    Unfortunately, the humor in these dramas tends to be a little bit lacking in punch-- but we are generally living in a slicker, less interesting time.

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  25. Very good point Rob, and I feel like an idiot for not including it in my response.

    I will, of course, "remember it" if I need an essay on television in the near future.

    I can't believe I missed that.
    I mean, I watched "West Wing" for gosh sake.

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