Some believe that laughter can extend a person’s lifespan. Using this logic, it makes sense why we love sitcoms so much. Sitcoms are also comforting, they are relatively predictable media and structured to make you laugh. Sitcoms are great for escapism for this reason.
A Brief History
Sitcoms, or situation comedy, first became popular on radio shows. These types of radio shows were very successful in the 1920s and 1930s. From there, the format was developed for television in later decades. The first television sitcom is said to be Pinwright’s Progress, which aired between 1946 and 1947. In the 50s and 60s, we saw some of the most iconic sitcoms to exist. I Love Lucy was one of the first and most popular sitcoms of all time, airing in 1951. Sitcoms continued to do extremely well throughout the 60s, with The Brady Bunch airing in 1969. Sitcoms have continued to be extremely popular and still are today. Shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and The Office have defined the sitcom experience of many recent generations.
Traditionally, sitcoms were shows shot with multiple cameras in front of a live studio audience. However, shows like Modern Family and The Office began to challenge this convention, using a single-camera approach.
Sitcoms are also expected to take place, largely, at one location. While the characters may go to other places, they’ll always find their way back to one location. In The Office, this is…the office. For Friends, this might be the coffee shop. There is a common location that the ensemble of characters are all grounded in. This is the “situational” aspect of situational comedy. It also adds to the comfort aspect of sitcoms because it portrays a sense of “home”– a safe place.
In most family-oriented sitcoms, it’s the house they all live in. Further, there are a list of character types in sitcoms that we see over and over again. These include the lovable loser, the logical smart one, the neurotic character, the bitch or bastard, the dumb one, and the womanizer/manizer. Looking at this list, we can almost immediately identify sitcom characters that fit these tropes. The lovable losers are Michael Scott, Chandler Bing, and Nick Miller. The neurotic ones are Monica Geller, Winston Schmidt, and Chidi Anagonye. We see these character types done over and over again, but often with different spins. This is what keeps our attention, this is what we find entertaining.
Concerning plot, sitcoms are usually circular and self-contained narratives. This means that at the end of the episode, they are more or less at the same place they were before. We can watch character arcs develop over seasons, but typically there isn’t much change within singular narratives. With a few exceptions, you can usually watch sitcoms “out of order” because each episode is so self-contained.
Airing from 2005 to 2013, The Office was a US adaptation of a UK sitcom by the same name. This show became extremely successful as it followed the lives of office workers at a paper company in Scranton, PA. This show was shot in a mockumentary style, which is one of the things that made it so enjoyable. The hilarious jokes, great acting, and intriguing romance put The Office on the map for one of the best US sitcoms.
2. The Good Place
Though it only aired for four seasons, The Good Place was beloved by many viewers. The show has been recognized for its incredible writing, acting, and story, being awarded 13 awards and nominated for over 80. This fantasy comedy series follows four characters in the afterlife. They find out that two of these four characters believe their identities have been switched and that they were really supposed to be sent to “the bad place”. Through an exploration of this system the show critiques the US prison system and makes fascinating social commentary, all while being hilarious.
3. Modern Family
Modern Family, as discussed above, was one of the first shows to feature a gay couple with a child. When gay marriage was legalized in 2015, they were again among the first to show a gay couple being married. The show is a light-hearted, heat-warming series about three families and their antics. Modern Family ran for 11 seasons, ending in 2020. One of the best aspects of a show running this long is that we were able to watch the kids on the show grow up with us. The show was extremely successful, winning 22 awards as of 2021.
4. Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso is a recent sitcom hit, streaming only on Apple TV. The show follows Ted Lasso, an American football coach who gets a job coaching for a professional English football team–with no experience coaching English Football. The show has already won four Emmy awards and broke the record for being the most nominated freshman comedy series this past year.
5. Schitt’s Creek
Schitt’s Creek aired for five years from 2015 to 2020. Co-created by father and son duo Dan and Eugene Levy, The show followed the hilarious Rose family after they lose their wealth and are forced to live in a motel in Schitt’s Creek. As much as the characters were out of touch and unrelatable in many aspects, they wiggled their way into our hearts. Another show with incredible comedy and swoon-worthy romance, Schitt’s Creek won all 7 comedy Emmy awards in 2020.
6. Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Whether you’ve watched the show or not, you’ve definitely heard of it and its iconic theme song. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, starring a young Will Smith, follows a teenager when he goes to live with his aunt and uncle in–you guessed it–Bel Air. Based on Will Smith’s own life, the teenager clashes with his new upper-class surroundings. The show ran from 1990 to 1996, and its popularity has only grown since then.
Community ran on NBC, and then Yahoo!Screen for a total of six seasons. The show had, and still has, an extremely dedicated fanbase. This sitcom revolved around a group of students at a Community College who form a study group. It uses a lot of pop culture references and meta-humor. The show was hilarious, and still known for many of its jokes and iconic characters. The show even won a Primetime Emmy Award.
Superstore on NBC
An underrated sitcom I love, and that I don’t see enough people talk about, is Superstore. The show recently ended after its 6-season run. This sitcom followed a group of employees who worked at a Walmart-esque “super store” called Cloud 9. It tackles important social issues, especially pertaining to the working class characters they are representing. They did a particularly good job at this during their final season representing the life of “essential workers” during the height of the COVID 19 pandemic.
Sitcoms are made to be comforting and light-hearted, a break from the stress of our day-to-day lives. As important as that is, they can be more than that, too. Many sitcoms make important social commentary using comedy, like The Good Place’s critique of the prison system. They can also serve as a reflection of what we want our society to look like, something to strive for. Sitcoms take these serious, complex issues and through the use of metaphors and allegories make them more digestible and open its audiences’ eyes. American sitcoms also typically tend to show a more progressive lens of society. I Love Lucy, for example, portrayed a woman striving to be independent and get her first job. Shows like The Fresh Prince of Belair and Family Matters were an incredible part of 90s pop culture and some of the most popular media portraying positive images of black American families. Modern Family was one of, if not the, first to show to portray a family with two gay men and a child. Sitcoms being socially progressive is another aspect of the comfort they can provide. Whether you’re watching sitcoms for their commentary, or simply for a distraction, you are certain to enjoy yourself.