One of television's lasting legacies is that work of art known as the sitcom. Art? Plain folks may laugh during the funny bits, but smart people like critics are quick to condemn sitcoms as "junk food for the brain."
Close study of sitcoms reveals, however, that they are shaped by a clear set of rules with an aesthetic purpose. In other words, a sitcom can be just as much a work of art as a Shakespeare tragedy or a Moliere comedy.
"Sitcom" is a contraction of "situation comedy". This is Rule No. 1 of the art form: there must be a "situation" or premise for the show - a group of characters who have a location and activity in common. This gives them an excuse to gather on our television screens once a week.
The situations are limited only by the vast imagination of the writers and producers. Over the 50 or so years that sitcoms have been on television, the situations have run from a small house in an American suburb (Leave It to Beaver), all the way to No. 10 Downing Street itself (the British hit Yes, Prime Minister). Police stations are a perennial favorite (as in Poland's Posterunek 13), as are newsrooms (Britain's Drop the Dead Donkey).
Silly and surprising
Bizarre scenarios abound, like the silly 1970s show Three's Company, starring John Ritter as a single man who pretends to be gay so the landlord will let him share an apartment with two single girls. One of the most surprising situations was the field hospital in MASH. Few people anymore remember much about the Korean War of the early 1950s, but many people feel as if the fictional doctors and nurses who bandaged the wounded in that war on MASH are among their best friends for life.
Many famous actors got their start in sitcoms. Mork & Mindy introduced the world to Robin Williams - as an extraterrestrial trying to pass for human. John Travolta started out as a troubled teenager in a tough New York City high school in Welcome Back, Kotter. British comic genius John Cleese and the brilliant Prunella Scales didn't start out in sitcoms, but many viewers got to know them at the small rural hotel called Fawlty Towers. Nigel Hawthorne leapt from Yes, Minister (and Yes, Prime Minister) to the starring role in The Madness of King George. And then of course there is Friends: Jennifer Aniston, now married to Brad Pitt, not to mention Courteney Cox-Arquette and Matthew Perry. Serious stage actors in the New Europe don't mind appearing on sitcoms either-witness Piotr Fronczewski as the head of Poland's Rodzina zastępcza (Foster Family).
Rule No. 2 is that a sitcom must be a "comedy." The show is strung together with jokes, small and large, funny turns of phrase or twists of the face. Nothing serious is allowed to break the mood for long. And the rules go further. The length of each show is (almost always) fixed by the half-hour time slot (with commercials).
This means that in the United States, for example, a sitcom must run exactly 22 minutes. In that time, we need to meet the main characters again each time and be reminded of the show's "situation." Then a new problem or issue will be introduced, often involving a guest star. For example, Grandma is visiting and doesn't know that her baby is divorced. Or a character is trying to get a raise from the boss, or perhaps go on a date with the boss. Some comic aspect of this new plot must be explored and resolved. Along the way, the audience is supposed to gain a tidbit of wisdom about human nature. To do all this in 22 minutes takes genius.
And at the end of the show, nothing has changed. The "situation" must return to normal. The following week, there will be a new 22-minute plot, and last week's story will be forgotten. The scholars might call it sitcom amnesia.
The main exception is when an actor gets bored, demands too much money, or outgrows the role, and his character is replaced. This may happen gradually over the season, perhaps in a special farewell episode, or abruptly after the summer break. And when a new character replaces an old one, the rules require that the old character must never be mentioned again on the show. Once again: sitcom amnesia.
The real world usually has little place in the sitcom. Serious money is made on a sitcom in the reruns, where the same shows are aired over and over again for decades. References to current events would grow stale. But the situation and characters do reflect trends in the society "outside." In the 1950s, mom June Cleaver stayed home and baked cookies every day. In the 1990s, Murphy Brown was a powerful TV producer with a son born out of wedlock. Murphy didn't bake. She ordered in Chinese food. Cheers succeeded in the 1980s because in a more complex world, viewers yearned for the same kind of local pub "where everybody knows your name."
Maybe the sitcom isn't what the Greek philosopher Aristotle had in mind when he wrote the rules for theater in his Poetics over 2,300 years ago. But one thing the sitcom has in common with Classical Greek theater is the chorus. Instead of the chanting citizens of Thebes or Athens, the sitcom offers the laugh track. This is the taped laughter injected into a sitcom after every joke. Just as the chorus represented the community of ancient Greeks, forming the social background for the drama onstage, so the laugh track laughs for all of us. Some of us are a little slow.