"Sitcom" is the abbreviated name for the half-hour television situation comedy. It is a form of television programming, generally 30 minutes in length, and consisting, in writer's jargon, of an opening teaser, two acts, and a closing tag; in all about 22 minutes of program sandwiched between spots (advertisements), PSAs (public service announcements), and station IDs. The situation comedy derives its name from the fact that, at least initially, each episode involved the antics of a regular character who found him/herself in a particular "situation."
Like other forms of popular entertainment, commercial television has sometimes suffered from bad press. TV has been derided as a "boob tube"—a place where delinquents and couch potatoes frittered away the bulk of their sorry lives; in 1961, it was described by the Chairman of the FCC as a "vast wasteland." And what better example of all that was distasteful, moronic, and potentially culturally corrupting than the situation comedy. But the legacy of the television sitcom in popular culture encompasses more than prat falls, canned laughter, and endless reruns in syndication. From the groundbreaking achievements of the I Love Lucy show to the phenomenal success of Seinfeld, the popularity of the sitcom helped propel American commercial television from its origins as an off-shoot of radio to a multi-billion dollar industry.
Even with images and themes that are often sanitized, circumscribed, and fantasized, the sitcom has provided a compelling portrait of the American landscape throughout periods of plenty, recession, and great societal upheaval. Evolving notions about sex, fashion, urban renewal, child rearing, the government, war, and the changing status of African Americans and women have all been fodder for the producers and writers of the episodic comedy. Other programming formats have also made an impact. Made-for-television movies have sometimes provided thought-provoking portraits of contemporary issues and the historical past, while realistic police-detective dramas offer striking images of the dangers of life on the street. It is the episodic comedy, however, with its humor, weekly format, and regular characters, that has most soundly featured the taboos, preoccupations, prejudices, obsessions, fads and fixations of twentieth century American society—not only by what was shown on the small screen but also by what was sometimes omitted.
Historically, the evolution of the situation comedy on television is firmly anchored to the history of radio programming. Soon after its invention, the new medium of radio emerged from its beginnings in experimental, often amateur-produced "stunts" to organized formats. Early radio programming consisted mostly of music, drama, and public affairs. Early in the Depression years, however, radio began its 20-year reign, known as the Golden Age of Radio, as the primary medium of entertainment in America. Probably the most significant program of early radio, notes Melvin Ely, was Amos 'n' Andy. Originating on WMAQ Radio, Chicago, in 1929, the show went on to become the longest-running and most successful radio program in American broadcast history. The show was conceived by Freeman Gosden and Charles Carroll, two white actors who played the part of "Amos" and "Andy" by mimicking so-called Negro dialect. The success of this comedy led to the creation of similar shows, including Fibber McGee and Molly, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and The Jack Benny Show. All of these, including Amos n' Andy, eventually made the transition to the new medium of television.
Very early television programming was largely experimental, consisting of sports (wrestling, baseball, boxing), vaudeville crossovers, and variety shows such as The Milton Berle Show (1948-1956) and Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town (1948-1955). But quickly, programming formats that were popular and successful in radio found their way to television, including drama, soap operas, and the situation comedy.
Erik Barnouw has traced the unfolding of two important circumstances that played an important role in the success of the sitcom as a programming format in his book Tube of Plenty. During television's infancy in the late 1940s, shows were broadcast live (a throwback from the days of live radio broadcasts). A viable form of videotape recording had not yet been introduced, and film was considered an unnecessary expense. The programs that were preserved for rebroadcast were kinescope reproductions: very bad quality, filmed copies of the video signal. In 1951, Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz used several thousand dollars of their own money to produce a pilot television program that would be based on their successful radio show, My Favorite Husband. I Love Lucy (1951-1957) was wildly successful and quickly dominated the ratings. "The premise of I Love Lucy, " note Brooks and Marsh in The Complete Directory to Prime Time TV Shows, "was not that much different from that of other family situation comedies … a wacky wife making life difficult for a loving but perpetually irritated husband. …" But beyond the comi cal antics of the character Lucy Ricardo, the program forged sitcom history.
First, Lucy's show was shot employing a three-camera process and using film, providing high-quality prints that could be broadcast over and over and at previously designated times. In 1953, on the same day that the fictitious Lucy Ricardo character gave birth to her first child (to a captivated 68 percent of the television audience), real person Lucille Ball also gave birth to her son, Desi Arnaz, Jr.Additionally, Ball shot her show in Hollywood, hastening the migration of television production from the live studios of New York to the motion picture sound stages of Hollywood. The show was filmed before a live audience, an innovation that didn't catch on with other sitcoms until nearly the 1970s. I Love Lucy, sponsored by Philip Morris, enjoyed six full seasons as the number one watched program in the nation.
Another important development in the evolution of episodic comedy was the eventual partnership forged between motion pictures and television. At first, the film industry regarded TV as a competitor and refused to allow feature films to be aired on television or for film stars to make television appearances. Eventually, film studios like Paramount and Walt Disney Studios began a dialogue with television. The eventual partnerships that were forged drastically altered the course of prime time television. Motion picture studios began to produce filmed programming for network television, at first mostly Westerns, but soon including the production of sitcoms like Father Knows Best (1954-1963), which was produced by Columbia Pictures. By the end of the 1950s, the Golden Age of Television—with its live-broadcast, anthology dramatic series—had begun to fade, to be replaced by more the formulaic fare that is the modern sitcom.
Though the history of television is relatively brief, viewers and critics have already identified distinct periods of television programming. Fifties sitcoms were signified by their vanilla suburbs, their emphasis on hearth and home, and non-threatening humor. Outside of the rare light reference to a social issue like teenage smoking, the characters of The Aldrich Family (1949-1953), Make Room for Daddy (1953-1965), Lassie (1954-1974), and Father Knows Best existed in a world that was generally far-removed from the harsh realities of poverty, atomic warfare, and segregated accommodations. In the early 1960s, as America increased its presence in Vietnam, civil rights tensions heightened to the boiling point, and Khrushchev aimed Cuban-based missiles at the U.S., television viewers found solace in the hayseed humor of sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies (1962- 1971), Petticoat Junction (1963-1970) and The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). Moreover, "idiot sitcoms" such as My Favorite Martian (1963-1966), Bewitched (1964-1972), The Flying Nun (1967- 1970), and Gilligan's Island (1964-1967) occupied spots among the top-ten most watched programs. While news documentaries and variety shows occasionally dotted the program guide, the situation comedy came to dominate the ratings in the 1960s. In less than two decades, television comedy had evolved from transplanted radio shows to fantasy family comedies to scenarios about talking horses. It was the decade of the 1970s, however, that would usher in changes that were at once striking and, at times, controversial.
Leading the changes in the sitcom in the 1970s was Robert D. Wood, who became network president of Columbia Broadcasting System television in 1969. In his chronicle of the CBS network, This Is … CBS, Robert Slater claims that Wood will be remembered for his "extensive overhaul" of CBS television's programming strategy—a strategy which significantly changed the flavor of prime time American television. Since the 1950s, CBS Television had been the undisputed ratings leader. The network retained its top ranking with a strong line-up of new and old shows, including long-running programs with loyal audiences, such as Western dramas and The Ed Sullivan Show. Slater notes, however, that with the great success of programs such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres (1965-1971), CBS television was jokingly referred to as "the Hillbilly Network." But by the late 1960s, bigger threats than stereotyping loomed over CBS.
The business side of television had changed a great deal since the days of General Food's sponsorship of The Aldrich Family. Programming had slowly evolved from sponsor-owned, sponsor-controlled shows to the selling of "spots" (30 and 60-second commercial messages) to many sponsors. The findings of program research departments took on major significance. Moreover, a new concept was being addressed by television programming executives in the conference rooms of the major networks: demographics. Now it was no longer enough for a program to attract the widest possible audience; it also had to attract the "right" audience, one with disposable income to spend on advertiser's products. CBS's loyal but aging, "fixed-income" audiences for popular shows like The Beverly Hillbillies were not representative of the kind of sophisticated spender that advertisers desired. Not surprisingly, during this age of The Beatles and campus anti-war protest, advertisers were eager to orient their products to youth culture. Notes Barnouw: "Older viewers were not big spenders.… Programs now tended to survive to the extent that they served the demographic requirements of sponsors." It was clear to Wood and CBS executive William S. Paley that if the network simply rested on its laurels, it would soon lose rating points and advertising dollars.
Not only had the television industry changed, so had life in America. The 1960s was a period of great social and cultural upheaval. Americans had witnessed the assassination of President John Kennedy, his brother Robert, and civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The nightly news brought grim footage of the death and destruction of the Vietnam war to American dinner tables. Civil rights protestors were doused with fire hoses and attacked with dogs to the cheers of southern bigots. Student activists created a new American left. College campuses, draft cards, and cities burned. Television programming, it was felt, needed to in some way reflect the needs and feelings of the current culture. Though the situation comedy and the hour-long drama would remain the primary formulas, both genres would experience a shift away from the "consensual mood" of the early years of television to include social issues and themes more appealing and "relevant" to a young, educated audience.
Upon arriving at CBS, Wood initiated a "clean sweep" of the network's programming. Successful shows like Green Acres, Ed Sullivan, and Beverly Hillbillies were canceled. Banished were old favorites such as Here's Lucy (1968-1974), Gunsmoke (1955-1975), and Red Skelton (1951-1971). Independent producer Norman Lear purchased the rights to a hit British television show called Till Death Do Us Part. In the American version, now called All in the Family (1971-1979), he cast veteran actor Carroll O'Connor as the "lovable" but bigoted and totally outrageous Archie Bunker. The show included concepts never before approached on television: crude racial epithets, sexual situations, and verbal sparing unheard of around the dinner tables of 1950s sitcom families.
Paley regarded the show as too risky and feared that it might alienate viewers and advertisers alike. But Wood worked hard to allay the fears of censors and advertisers and persuaded Lear to eliminate some of the more risqué language. Notes Barnouw, CBS launched the program "with trepidation" in January 1971. Although All in the Family was not an instant hit, within about a year it became the most watched and talked about television sitcom in America.
More importantly, this program's success bred other programs, including more Norman Lear productions. These "spin-offs" of All in the Family included The Jeffersons (1975-1985), Maude (1972- 1978), and Good Times (1974-1979). In the 1974 comedy Good Times (a black-themed show about life in a Chicago tenement), suburban street crime, muggings, unemployment, evictions, Black Power, and criticism of the government were frequent and resounding themes. Also full of irreverent humor was the show M*A*S*H (1972-1983). Set during the Korean War, it was created by veteran writer Larry Gelbart from the successful hit movie. Sanford and Son (1972-1977) featured a multi-racial cast and the irreverent and topical humor of black comic Red Foxx as the owner of a junkyard. One of the keys to the success of these sitcoms was that they were "relevant."
The nature of the prime time television sitcom had changed significantly. Now there were interracial marriages, Latino and Asian characters, and scenarios about drag queens and birth control. In one famous and controversial episode of the program Maude, the character Maude, a bit past her child-rearing days, agonizes over the idea of having an abortion. At least three sitcoms featured a mostly black cast—the first since the cancellation of Amos 'n' Andy nearly 20 years prior. But social realism seemed to end as quickly as it had started. By the 1978-79 season, there was a return to the mythic world of the TV fantasy family. The four tops shows included the safe and congenial humor of Happy Days (1974-1984), Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983), Three's Company (1977-1984), and Mork and Mindy (1978-1982).
The evolution of The Doris Day Show (1968-73) offers an interesting glimpse of the sitcom's portrayal of the changing status of women. When her show appeared in 1968, Day portrayed a recent widower with two sons who returns to her rural roots to live with her father. By the second season, Doris was a secretary working for the editor of a magazine. In the third season, Doris had moved to San Francisco and was not just a secretary, but did independent writing. By the fourth and final season of the comedy, Doris was a single woman and independent writer with her life as a mother, secretary, and daughter all but forgotten.
To the consternation of traditionalists, the Women's Liberation movement in American unfolded right on the small screens of prime time television. The concerns of the "model moms" of early sitcoms were relegated mostly to issues at home. Although Lucy (I Love Lucy), June Cleaver (Leave It to Beaver) and Margaret Anderson (Father Knows Best) may have occasionally asserted their authority on some issue, it was kept safely within the minor vicissitudes of family life.
Early sitcoms occasionally featured single women with jobs, generally as secretaries, housekeepers, and assistants. In Comic Visions, David Marc describes the long-suffering career-women type who "worked for a living in lieu of marriage, which was valorized as the principal or 'real' goal of any woman." Early comedies featuring single, working women include Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) and Private Secretary (1953-1957).
Before the end of the 1960s, television featured two interesting precursors to the truly liberated woman. In That Girl (1966-1971), Marlo Thomas portrayed a young, independent woman trying to make it as an actress in New York. Some regard the Anne Marie character, with her comical antics and zany behavior, as little more than an extension of Lucy. Moreover, she was often rescued by her understanding boyfriend or doting father. But unlike Marc's long-suffering TV career women of earlier television, Anne Marie actually pursued a viable career—she wasn't simply marking time until her wedding day.
The sitcom Julia (1968-1971) is interesting in that it also featured a single, working, and professional woman. Moreover, Julia was black. "Respectably widowed" and a nurse, Julia and her incredibly polite young son Corey lived quiet lives in a safe and accepting world, successfully negotiating the minor challenges of life—far removed it seemed, from the harsh realities that existed in the black community at the time.
The Women's Liberation Movement brought more than bra burning and freedom from Victorian conventions. It shook-up long-held and cherished assumptions about women and sex, gender, marriage, family life, respect, and equal opportunity in jobs and pay. Probably the most celebrated in the vein of liberated women in sitcoms in the highly successful Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). Mary Richards was a career woman employed as an assistant producer at a Minneapolis television station. Her survival did not depend on the support and benevolence of a father figure, steady man, or for that matter, a supportive family. She had a Jewish friend named Rhoda and, in a twist on the typical scenario, together they often joked about—not envied—the life of the married woman on the show. Mary's suitably gruff boss had interpersonal problems and sometimes drank too much, but they developed a unique affection for each other. Moreover, she maintained a close but platonic relationship with a male co-worker. Now, sitcom men and women could be friends without the compulsory romantic relationship. The Mary Tyler Moore Show "transcended the model moms" of earlier TV, replaced the widowed career-women role and remade the ambitious, eligible single woman "on-the-make," notes Marc, becoming "a water-shed event in American television." Moreover, many of the principle characters of the Mary Tyler Moore Show returned in spinoff programs of their own, building the fortunes of the MTM production company.
While Mary Richards, Edith Bunker, and Maude became more liberated and assertive, black women in prime time sitcoms were poorly represented by Florida Evans of Good Times, Louise Jefferson of The Jeffersons, and occasional characters on shows like Sanford and Son. In a 1970s scholarly study of gender and race in television, the authors note that "the black female has become almost invisible."
As a prominent element of American life and culture, race has often been the subject of television programming. But late-century television viewers, raised on a diet of Family Matters, The Hughleys, Roc, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and especially The Cosby Show may find it difficult to appreciate the feelings of post-war African Americans about the depictions of black life on network television. For a century or more, African Americans endured vicious lampooning and egregious stereotyping in various forms of popular culture, including sheet music illustrations, advertising, marketing, radio, and motion pictures. Blacks were depicted as ignorant and superstitious, thick-lipped and animal-like; as servants or contented slaves in plantation tales or as dangerous savages in stories rooted in the mythical dark jungles of Africa. For postwar African-Americans, the popularity of television heralded a period of hopeful excitement. The new medium had the potential to forge positive changes in race relations as it nullified decades of pejorative depictions of black life and culture. The frequent appearance on early television of black stars such as Billy Eckstein and Ethel Waters was met with hearty approval. In a 1950 article, Ebony magazine endorsed the "liberal exploitation of black talent" as "a sure sign that television is free of racial barriers." However, an untoward amalgamation of economic forces and historical events would soon prove otherwise.
At the same period that television evolved into a viable economic medium, President Harry Truman called for the integration of the U.S. armed services, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball, and "freedom riders" staged non-violent demonstrations against segregated accommodations. At this time, major sponsors produced much of the network programming that appeared during prime time. The Southern market was of great concern to advertisers and the agencies that represented them and both were reluctant to have their products too closely associated with the concerns of black people. Media historians Bogel and MacDonald note that the fear of "White economic backlash" and the threat, perceived or real, of "organized consumer resistance" caused advertisers and advertising agencies to steer clear of appearing "pro-Negro rights."
Still, in 1950, film star Ethel Waters became the first black television series "star," capturing the title role in the popular sitcom Beulah (1950-1953) The show concerned the life of a black housekeeper working for a white family—a typical role for a black character. After three seasons (and three different dissatisfied actresses in the title role), the Beulah show finally succumbed to pressure from the black community regarding its stereotyped images. But the level of black resentment that took Beulah off the air hardly approached the clamor of controversy aroused by the appearance of another black-cast, black-themed program.
The sitcom Amos 'n' Andy (1951-1953) is probably one of the most protested television programs in broadcast history. After enjoying decades of popularity on radio, television's Amos 'n' Andy featured black actors portraying the roles of Amos (a conservative, Uncle Tom-type), the Kingfish (a scheming smoothie), the straight-laced Andy, Lawyer Calhoun (an under-handed crook that no one trusted), Lightnin' (a slow-moving janitor), Sapphire (a nosey, loudmouth shrew), and Mama (a domineering mother-in-law). The Beulah character, although an obvious stereotype, was at least well-mannered and spoke intelligible English. But Amos 'n' Andy, with its malapropisms, satire, parody, and ethnic humor, stirred up the level of black indignation almost to the boiling point.
As the series appeared in June of 1951, the NAACP appeared in federal court seeking an injunction against its premiere. To white studio executives, the show was harmless, not much different from The Goldbergs (1949-1954), Life with Luigi (1952-1953), or any other ethnically-oriented sitcom. It was funny, a testament to a remarkably talented cast and good writing. It was a commercial success and was endorsed by some vehicles of the black press and many in the black entertainment community. "[T]hey are undoubtedly funny," notes an August, 1951 editorial in the Afro-American. But, the op-ed continues, "Slapstick comedy of this type does not go well in an age where a great mass of disadvantaged humanity is struggling to lift itself to full citizenship in an often unfriendly atmosphere." This and other articles and editorials underscored the major objection of many postwar blacks. Except for the occasional black entertainer in a guest spot on variety show, the only blacks on television were the likes of the Kingfish and Beulah. CBS removed Amos 'n' Andy from the air in 1953 after two years. However, the program remained in syndication well into the 1960s, and is available on videocassette today. Moreover, except for the earlier-mentioned, 1968 sitcom Julia, another black-cast or black-themed show would not appear on prime time network television for almost 20 years.
In her book Prime Time Families, Ella Taylor describes the TV family as "[h]armonious, well-oiled building blocks of a benignly conceived American society founded in affluence and consensus." From the days of the homogenous suburban family life of Leave It to Beaver to the "sitcomic social realism" of Good Times, many have pondered the supposed effects of TV on the family—the most sacred of American institutions.
In the 1950s, The Aldrich Family, the Cleavers (Leave It to Beaver), the Andersons (Father Knows Best), and the Nelsons (Ozzie and Harriet) lived in virtual domestic bliss. By the Kennedy years, single heads of households appeared in the sitcoms My Three Sons (1960-1972) and The Andy Griffith Show. The 1960s also featured "quirky" families in the form of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Addams Family (1964-1966), Bewitched (1964-1972), and The Munsters (1964-1966). Some consider The Dick Van Dyke Show as a standout of the era. It, too, was fashioned amongst the ideals of domestic harmony. But the Petries were different, more sophisticated and hip; Laura Petrie sometimes appeared in pants, while Bob Petrie's coworkers included a Jewish man and a single woman.
In contrast, the 1970s would feature the travails of the Evans, an African-American family eking out an existence in a Chicago slum (Good Times), and at the same time present a 1950s fantasy family in the form of the Cunninghams of Happy Days. But in the decades since The Aldrich Family made the transition from radio to television, the TV family had incurred monumental change. The sitcom would now feature non-traditional families, bi-racial adoption, rebellious teenagers, parent bashing, divorce, twins separated at birth, ghetto families and wealthy ones.
In particular, one unwed mother basked in notoriety that emerged from the most unlikely of places: the American political arena. On the sitcom Murphy Brown (1988-1998), the character Murphy was a television journalist and single woman who became pregnant but showed little inclination to marry the father and settle into a life of domesticity. In 1992, former Vice President Dan Quayle led the attack on this highly popular sitcom, condemning the idea of an unmarried woman becoming a mother as being acceptable fare for prime time television. As noted liberally in American newspapers, he regarded the entire affair as "an attack on family values."
The 1980s saw the emergence of the "boomer" audience, the youngish, upscale professionals favored by advertisers who greedily snatched-up commercial time for programs like Cheers (1982-1993). For a brief time, nighttime soaps and realistic crime dramas displaced the popularity of the situation comedy. However, the decade is also noteworthy for one particular family-oriented sitcom featuring a predominantly African-American cast which rose to become one of the most watched programs of the period.
The Cosby Show (1984-1992) made its debut on NBC in 1984 and became one of the biggest successes of the decade. If the ratings figures were correct, if you were breathing and watched television, you watched Cosby. The popularity and immense success of this sitcom makes clear how programming, once considered mindless entertainment, had attained major stature. Jack Curry, in an article for American Film, explains the significance of a hit comedy to the fortunes of television networks. Not only did a popular show like Cosby "deliver its own night," but it was used as a "promotional base for other series." It was used to "troubleshoot," assisting with "ratings battles" wherever needed. No sitcom of the decade "had the impact and the acclaim of NBC's The Cosby Show, " he notes. Moreover, the show became a cash cow. Notes John Lippman in the Wall Street Journal, " The Cosby Show, for example, has generated nearly $900 million in revenue since it was sold into syndication in the late 1980s."
But while Cosby may have featured the lives of a professional, educated, upscale black family, another eighties sitcom would forever shatter the image of the TV sitcom family. Like a 1950s Mom, Roseanne Connor cleaned the house, washed the clothes, and made meatloaf for dinner. But that was the end of any similarity to 1950s-style domestic bliss on the quirky, controversial hit sitcom Roseanne (1988-1997).
Roseanne was "she who must be obeyed." She sparred (verbally and physically) with her younger, occasionally employed, and sometimes promiscuous younger sister. Roseanne's mother drank too much and at one point thought she was gay. Her boss and later coworker was indeed gay, as was a female friend who took them for a night of dancing at a gay bar. While Lucy and Desi couldn't share a bed, Dan and Roseanne Connor openly discussed the particulars of their sex life. Over the years, Roseanne's daughter eloped with a mechanic; her college-enrolled daughter was discovered living with her boyfriend; their pubescent son D.J. suffered the embarrassment of getting an erection in math class; and in one show the Connors had their electricity turned off for non-payment. They referred to themselves as "white trash." With so much contention, it is surprising that the show was as funny and successful. It enjoyed top ratings for most of its 10-year run and was probably responsible for the success of other quarrelsome, dysfunctional family scenarios like the Fox Network's, Married … with Children (1987-1997) and the animated sitcom, The Simpsons (1989—).
A 1997 editorial in The Columbus Dispatch noted that "some-thing has changed since the days when today's parents sat watching Beaver Cleaver, Andy Griffith, and Gilligan. The three networks have given way to a cornucopia of new channels, and much of the fare is coarser and more irreverent." In the Cleaver household, no one had ever raised their voice, used bad words, or suffered from intestinal gas. There was no sex, ethnic group issues, or alcoholics. Dad was happily, gainfully employed and Mom was always there when you needed her—at home. But sitcom families of the 1990s tended to feature dopey dads, absentee parents, grandparents who had sex, and moms whose behavior sometimes bordered on sadism. The flawless persona of Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best) evolved into parents whose flaws are clearly apparent. In an article titled "Father Knows Squat," Megan Rosenfeld of the Washington Post notes, "Parents are one of the few remaining groups that are regularly ridiculed, caricatured and marginalized on television. Ask a typical viewer to describe how parents are portrayed on most shows and the answer is: stupid."
Though television changed dramatically in the late 1980s and especially in the 1990s, as widespread cable access brought dozens of channels into American homes, the decade of the 1990s will still be remembered for a sitcom: Seinfeld (1990-1998). Seinfeld was noteworthy for its unique and quirky cast, its irreverent humor, and the fact that it was described as a show about nothing. Set in New York City, the program followed the life of character Jerry Seinfeld (a comedian), his three friends (Elaine, George, and Kramer), their families, and an odd assortment of occasional characters. In an example of art imitating life, the show even parodied itself as several episodes followed Jerry as he attempted to produce a sitcom about himself on the same network where the real Seinfeld program was aired. The group explored former TV taboos and "touchy" subject matter: a chef who neglected to wash his hands after using the toilet, sperm counts, and the size of a man's genitals after a swim. In one episode the group made bets to see who could hold off masturbating the longest. There were ugly babies, cancer scares, bras for men, black-market cable, scary bar mitzvahs, lesbian weddings, and stolen lobsters.
But Seinfeld is noteworthy as more than just another success story for NBC. So successful was the program to NBC and its fortunes that the real Jerry Seinfeld was paid one million dollars per episode to continue the show. The cost of advertising during an episode of Seinfeld during the 1997-98 season was $700,000 for a 30-second spot. Advertising time for the program's final episode was $1.5 million for 30-seconds, and included big advertisers like Anheuser-Busch, Visa, Mastercard, and the manufacturer of a vegetarian burger. The Wall Street Journal noted in 1998 that the one million-per-episode fee that the TBS cable network paid for reruns of Seinfeld was "one of the richest rerun deals in cable history." Noted the Seattle Times, "The program is poised to become the first television show to generate more than $1 billion in syndication revenues." Moreover, the success of Seinfeld was the catalyst for similar shows about well-heeled young professionals with too-much time on their hands, for example, the program Friends (1994—).
Unlike the relevant-issues theme sitcoms of the 1970s, 1990s comedies often featured prosperous young professionals sipping expensive coffee and drowning in self-centered angst. Concerns about "real" issues like poverty, nuclear weapons, and the government appeared to be passé. In the Nelson's neighborhood (Ozzie and Harriet), the characters couldn't use the word toilet, let alone broach the subject of sex. Nineties sitcom characters talked candidly about orgasms and their choice of sexual partners. On the show Ellen (1994-1998), the character Ellen (played by Ellen DeGeneres) even "came out," announcing to the world that she was indeed gay. Beyond the occasional gay supporting character, however, portraits of gay life would remain a scenario much too risky a venture for networks whose fortunes rested on the success of the prime time line-up.
Just decades after the far-fetched scenarios of My Favorite Martian, the 1990s also saw the exploitation of "literate humor." Rife with references to Kant and existentialism, shows like Frasier (1993—) were created to appeal to upscale audiences with graduate degrees, people who, like the characters Frasier and Niles, had "advanced" cultural tastes. The format itself has evolved, with the "situation" part playing second fiddle. Notes producer Gary Goldberg, now there are sitcom stories with no beginning, middle, and end, or four stories running simultaneously with sometimes no resolution. Moreover, 1990s sitcoms are not always funny, but have often crossed-over (with comic relief) into drama, exploring broken marriages, alcoholism, and teenage sex. Sitcoms of the 1990s featured lovable nerds, soup Nazis, teenage witches, Korean families, dysfunctional families portrayed by cartoon characters, home improvement scenarios, and shows about nothing.
Between the debut of I Love Lucy in 1951 and the demise of Seinfeld in 1998 spans a period of nearly 50 years. Given the monumental reformation in the television industry, changing concepts of what is considered funny, and the evolution of American society in general, 50 years may seem more like centuries. What is clear, however, is that the situation comedy has come to signify much more than the good old days of black and white television and nostalgic images of Lucy in a hoop skirt. The episodic comedy has ushered America and its people through recession, boom times, war, civil unrest, and conservative and liberal presidencies. It has challenged ideas about sex, morals, reproduction, and fashion. The sitcom has survived the Family Hour, Prime Time Access Rules, cable TV competition, mergers and takeovers, deregulation, debates, disputes, controversy, scholarly assessment, atomic warfare, and the building and the annihilation of the Berlin Wall to emerge as one of the more enduring forms of commercial television programming in United States.
—Pamala S. Deane
" Amos 'n' Andy Protest Rocks Radio, TV Industry." The Afro-American. July 21, 1951.
Arney, June. "Ads on last Seinfeld outscore Super Bowl." Baltimore Sun. May 14, 1998.
Barnouw, Eric. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York, Oxford University Press, 1982.
Blair, Iain. "The Producers of News Radio, Family Matters …Discuss the Serious Business of Sitcoms." Film & Video. April, 1996.
Bogel, Donald. Blacks in America Films and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York, Garland Publishers, 1988.
Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946-Present. New York, Ballantine, 1985.
Carson, Tom. "The Great Fox Chase." American Film. June, 1989.
Curry, Jack. "The Cloning of Cosby. " American Film. October, 1986.
Ely, Melvin Patrick. The Adventures of Amos 'n' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon. New York, The Free Press, 1991.
Gilbert, James. Another Chance: Postwar America 1945-1985. Chicago, Illinois, Dorsey Press, 1986.
Gross, Lynne Schaefer. Telecommunications: An Introduction to Electronic Media. Brown and Benchmark Publishers, 1997.
Huff, Richard. "What Will Be the Total for Seinfeld ? Billions and Billions." Seattle Times. May 15, 1998.
Lichter, S. Robert, Linda Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. Prime Time: How TV Portrays American Culture. Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing, 1994.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago, Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1983.
Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy & American Culture. Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law, America's Greatest TV Shows and People Who Created Them. Boston, Little, Brown, 1992.
Mayer, Martin. "Summing Up the Seventies: Television." American Film. December, 1979.
Singer, Dorothy, et al. "What Every Parent Should Know About Television." American Film. January-February, 1981.
Slater, Robert. This … Is CBS: A Chronicle of 60 Years. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1992.
Taylor, Ella. Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989.
"Television Tykes: Series Contemplates Effect on Children." Columbus Dispatch. July 18, 1997.