The situation comedy (often abbreviated to "sitcom") has been one of TV's most popular and long-lasting programming formats. A sitcom is generally a half-hour comedy program (twenty-two minutes of programming and eight minutes of commercials). Each program features a recurring group of characters who become involved in humorous situations. Episodes are typically self-contained, meaning viewers do not have to have any previous knowledge of the show to get the jokes. Sitcoms have aired on television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) since the 1950s. Although comedy entertainment on the surface, the shows reflected the nation's changing attitudes toward gender, race relations, sex, the population shift to the suburbs (see entry under 1950s—The Way We Lived in volume 3), and other social concerns. The format has often been criticized as overly simplistic, artistically bankrupt, and appealing to the lowest common denominator of viewer. Although viewers have witnessed scores of predictable and unfunny sitcoms, TV history is also marked by many sitcoms filled with wit, intelligence, and memorable characters.
The TV sitcom has its roots in network radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) programming of the 1930s and 1940s. Among the most popular comedies of this era were Amos 'n' Andy (1928-60; see entry under 1930s—TV and Radio in volume 2), Fibber McGee and Molly (1935-59; see entry under 1930s—TV and Radio in volume 2), The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and The Jack Benny Program (see entry on Jack Benny under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3). With the rise of TV in the 1950s, many radio comedies migrated to the new medium. Audiences could now see the antics of their favorite characters rather than merely listening to them. The most innovative and successful sitcom of the decade was I Love Lucy (1951-57; see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3), which starred Lucille Ball (1911–1989) and her husband, Desi Arnaz (1917–1986). The show depicted the wacky misadventures of a housewife who constantly attempted to enter show business despite her husband's irritation. The show was innovative in that it was filmed (not aired live) in front of an audience using a three-camera process. This technique created high-quality prints that could be broadcast for decades as reruns. The three-camera process is still used in most sitcom production.
During the 1950s, sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver (1957–63), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952–66; see these entries under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3), and Father Knows Best (1954–63) depicted perfect nuclear families removed from the harsh realities of modern life. The sitcoms of the 1960s were generally escapist fantasies filled with outrageous characters in unbelievable plots, such as Gilligan's Island (1964–67), Mr. Ed (1961–65), Bewitched (1964–72; see these three entries under 1960s—TV and Radio in volume 4) and My Favorite Martian (1963–66) or rural-based shows that emphasized "hayseed humor," such as The Andy Griffith Show (1960–68), The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–71; see these two entries under 1960s—TV and Radio in volume 4), Green Acres (1965–71), and Petticoat Junction (1963–70). In the 1970s, sitcoms became less outlandish and more focused on relevant social issues. In All in the Family (1971-79), producer Norman Lear (1922–) openly used risqué language, crude humor, and racial epithets to discuss contemporary concerns. "Black sitcoms" such as The Jeffersons (1975— 85), Good Times (1974–79), and Sanford and Son (1972–77) debuted in the 1970s. And The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77; see entry under 1970s—TV and Radio in volume 4) was another of the decade's highlights as it presented a modern portrait of a single working woman.
Sitcoms remained popular during the 1980s, 1990s, and into the twenty-first century. Many programs were developed around popular stand-up comics like Bill Cosby (1937–; see entry under 1980s—TV and Radio in volume 5), Roseanne (1952–; see entry under 1980s—TV and Radio in volume 5), and Jerry Seinfeld (1954–; see entry under 1990s—TV and Radio in volume 5). Modern sitcoms may deal with material that was previously taboo, but they continue to present likable characters in wacky predicaments that are solved by episode's end. The popularity of sitcoms is best demonstrated by the hours of reruns that continue to fill the airwaves.
For More Information
Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime-Time Network TV Shows, 1946–Present. 7th ed. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Marc, David, and Robert Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From ILove Lucy to LA Law, America's Greatest Television Shows, and the People Who Created Them. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.
Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York: R. Marek Publishers, 1983.
Taflinger, Richard. "Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works." Richard Taflinger'sHome Page.http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~taflinge/sitcom.html (accessed March 11, 2002).
Taylor, Ella. Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.