Sitcom Conventions


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A list of conventions, modes and terminology essential for studying US sitcoms.

Sitcom Conventions

  1. 1. Aspects of Sitcom Explained<br />The Running Joke<br />The running joke is a popular hallmark of both comic, and serious, forms of entertainmentEntertainment is an event, performance, or activity designed to give pleasure or relaxation to an audience (although, for example, in the case of a computer game the " audience" may be only one person). The audience may participate in the entertainment passively as in watching opera, or actively as in computer games. The playing of sports and reading of literature are usually included in entertainment, but these are often called recreation ...entertainment. A running joke or gag is an amusing situation, line (a catch – phrase), character trait or even character which reappears throughout the work. They are often unintentionalUnintentional humor is the act of making other people laugh without actually meaning to. There are several different kinds of unintentional humor that arise out of various situations. , surrounded by icons of Sherlock Holmes smoking a pipe, which adorn the station.]]unintentional at first, but familiarity or popularity of such gags among viewers encourage their reappearance. Often, the humour in a running gag derives entirely from how often it is repeated. In sitcoms they are usually associated with character’s personality or development as this is where the humour predominately comes from e.g. Danny’s denial of Jodie’s homosexuality in Soap (“He’s a practical joker with a wacky sense of humour...”)<br />The Comic Trap<br />The comic trap is the basic premise of a sitcom, on which the entire show is built. It is the situation characters find themselves in that they can’t escape from (they possibly could but won’t because then the humour and point of the show would be lost.) The humour in the show comes from the frustrations and obstacles the character/characters face because of the situation (or trap) they are in e.g. Ed Bundy’s marriage, kids and job (domestic life) in Married with Children.<br />The One-liner<br />Often a throwaway remark, the one-liner is a staple of the modern sitcom and stand-up comedy – where a lot of sitcom stars got their start. The one-liner is a joke that is made in one sentence often observational of a situation or event that has just occurred.<br />The Laugh Track or Canned Laughter<br />This is a cheap replacement for a studio audience. The laugh track has been employed where outside constraints such as studio size, budget or time could not allow for an audience to watch the taping of the show. A laugh track can often be employed when certain situations may lack humour in the writing and the producers need to maintain the comedic facade of the show. In recent years the laugh track has not been employed as frequently, because audiences have become more savvy and aware of comedy conventions. The laugh track today is considered insulting by most audiences and only ever found with younger ‘new’ audiences on either the Nickelodeon or Disney channels. <br />Parody/Spoof<br />A parody or spoof mocks, comments on, or pokes fun at an original work, its subject, or author, by means of humorous or satiric imitation. For example, Soap parodies American soap operas, by imitating conventions of the soap genre in an extreme and exaggerated way.<br />Satire<br />In satire, human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, or irony, ideally with the intent to bring about improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humour in itself so much as an attack on something of which the author strongly disapproves, using the weapon of wit. To understand satire is to understand the deeper messages behind comedy and the methods with which they are expressed. For example, in Soap Benson’s wise-cracking remarks were a social comment on the outdated prejudices of some Americans. It represented the rising voice and opinions of African Americans and other liberal-thinking social groups. <br />Mode<br />Mode is the fashion or style in which something is presented. In the case of sitcoms this is the format and the conventions that come together to create the sitcom style that we know and love – this has not deviated much but of course there have been developments. <br />Innuendo/Double Entendre<br />Innuendo is when something is inferred but not obvious, such as someone sniffing after coming out of a toilet stall is inferring they have taken cocaine. A double entendre is a pun (something that can have 2 meanings), is usually sexual and playful. For example, a character says “nice melons” and the camera cuts to a big breasted woman holding two watermelons.<br />Irony/Sarcasm<br />Irony is a device in which there is a difference between what a speaker/writer/actor says or does, and what he or she means or what is generally understood. It can also describe a clash between an understanding of reality, or an expectation of a reality, and what actually happens. Sarcasm is a disparity of expression and intention: when a speaker says one thing but means another, or when a literal meaning is contrary to its intended effect e.g. “No, really?” said in the correct tone actually means “obviously, you silly twit.”<br />Otherness<br />Not strictly a sitcom term, otherness factors into the clash that arises between characters, particularly concerning the character of the fish-out-of-water. Otherness is the expression concerning the unspoken difference between people – especially in our study of the developing confidence, recognition and acceptance of women and their rights and control of their own person in society. With specific regard to women, otherness links to the mistrust men have of women, the proven idea of women’s intuition and the established act of multi-tasking that women have over men. All combined add to the mistrust and fear men have of women, and how for centuries, men have sought to control and repress women. This exacerbates America’s hesitancy to accept anything not white, middle-class, conservative or masculine, which leads to other conflicts and clashes that are the staple for American sitcoms.<br />Postmodernism<br />The current movement of society – literally means ‘after modern’ (the modern period spanned 1810-1960 approx). It is a philosophy and a fashion, its main feature is pluralism – the idea that there are many possibilities for anything and there are no real ‘rules’ as to how things are meant to be. In terms of media there are many characteristics of postmodernism - the breaking of any genre, form or mode, mixing styles, self awareness (breaking the rule of the 4th wall – when people in the fictional media world actively engage with the audience or when media demonstrates that it knows it is media e.g. when characters in a fictional TV show talk to the camera or address the audience), confusing reality with constructed fiction (reality TV) and intertextuality are all postmodern ideas. <br />Chauvinist<br /> The term was widely used by the feminist movement in the 1960s to describe men who believe or display an attitude that women are inferior to men, speak to women as inferiors, or treat women negatively based solely upon their gender. <br />Nuclear Family<br />The typical and expected family unit in the western world – a married Mother, Father and any number of children up to 5 (more than that is not the expected norm, the mean number is 2.5) who all live together in the family home. The original sitcom nuclear families were heavily dependent on the father as prime bread-winner and arbiter of familial justice, while the women were heavily re-educated back into the role of wife and home-maker. Frequently seen in the kitchen or various other domestic roles, the woman is without her own agency as a person to disagree with her husband. The nuclear family survived for so long due to the wife playing a submissive and docile counterpart to the dominant husband.<br />Dysfunctional Family<br />This family is technically a nuclear family but one with an impaired or abnormal function that affects their day-to-day operation. Most often this is simply a lack of love between the family members anymore and they simply cohabitate out of obligation and need for shelter. In a dysfunctional family, conflict, misbehaviour and even abuse on the part of individual members of the family occur continually, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal. Dysfunctional families came to public awareness from the mid-70s when a crisis crept into the middle class and the developing fields of psychology and psychiatry ripped the secrets from behind the white picket fences. As a comic trap, the dysfunctional family came ready-made with quirky characters and plenty of conflict. <br />Pseudo Family/Postmodern Family<br />A pseudo family is a chosen family, the people you choose to live with, spend time with and look to for support and identity. A staple of Generation X, the pseudo family represents their lack of faith in the institution of marriage and the impermanent nature of the family. Gen X’ers often lived in flatting or share-housing situations and therefore flatmates became members of the pseudo family as they witnessed strained family relations along with personal relationship highs and lows. For example in Sex and the City the characters show no involvement with their own families and have created their own with each other.<br />A postmodern family is any family make-up in our postmodern world – The Jolie-Pitts are a prime example. Postmodern families can be any conglomeration of genders, sexualities, ethnicities, ages, relations and the list goes on, even the concept of family is debatable now. A family can be any group that a person feels they belong with and looks to for identity and support.<br />*family comes from the word familiar – it is what you know and understand and is part of your everyday life – in the past family was the biggest thing in everyone’s life and everyone had one and relied on one. These days some people may value other things, don’t need one or the conventional family unit has disintegrated. <br />Magi-com (The 60s)<br />This is a sitcom sub-genre, popular in the 60’s, fusing magical elements with the real world. Bewitched is an example of a magi-com. The use of magical characters enabled social comment in a time of heavy censure and conservativism in the media. Often the magical element of the show was metaphorical for some new element developing in American society. With specific regard to women, the magic of the witch and the genie from Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie respectively speak to the otherness of women in so far as the burgeoning women’s rights movement and the recognition of female resourcefulness and intuition following WWII. It also offered escapist pleasure for an audience who were living in unsettling times.<br />Sex-com (The 70s) <br />This sitcom sub-genre relies heavily on sexually suggestive comedy. Not to be confused with something like Sex and the City, a sex-com is playful and doesn’t look at deeper sexual issues. Sex-coms didn’t take off until the 70’s when society had a more open mind towards sex and was feeling more carefree. An example is Soap where marital discord stems from a lack of sexual fulfilment within the marriage or too much sexual fulfilment outside of the marriage. Sexual innuendo and double entendre which had formerly been staples of movies had made it into the mainstream of television comedy. As the sexual revolution rewrote the norms of sex and sexuality in American society, sitcoms opened a channel of sexual discourse in the American home. <br />Family-com (The 80s)<br />Family-coms are sitcoms that centre on a family unit. In the 80’s family–coms were very popular and explored topical, family related social issues. Kate and Allie looked at divorce and single parenthood as did Full House. Full House also addressed another 80’s concern – the importance of Fathers. The Cosby Show, Growing Pains and Family Ties were other family–coms that tried to emphasise the importance of the traditional family in a time of rapid change in this area, strengthened by the ultra-conservative, right-wing fixation on restoring family values. The nuclear family was revitalised in a lot of Reagan-era sitcoms with a view to having the father figure rescue the family after the abandonment by the mother for career and independence. The sitcom almost became a battle-field of sorts between the blended or matriarchal families of the liberals espousing survival despite divorce or dysfunction, and the traditional or patriarchal families of the conservatives.<br />Single-com (The 90s)<br />In these sitcoms the single status of the main character/s is the comic trap (or one of them). These are shows that young, single adults would relate to and enjoy. Single-coms took off in the 90’s when there were growing numbers of singles in their late 20’s/early 30’s. This was due to many of Generation X having been children of divorce and developing a strong anti-marriage sentiment. Gen X were delaying ‘real’ adulthood for as long as possible as it was now common to hold off responsibility, having followed the American Dream of college education and finding little satisfaction on that path. Over-educated and under-paid, over-bored and self-assured, Generation X felt failed by the family, so made their own families – pseudo families – out of their friends and flatmates. Friends, Sex and the City and Seinfeld were popular single-coms. <br />My-com (The 00s)<br />This is the current trend in sitcoms. We are now in an age of tremendous possibility. Many people don’t watch conventional free-to-air TV, because they get all entertainment from the diverse and niche-targeted cable TV channels like HBO, Showtime, MTV, and Comedy Central – or even more unconventional methods like the internet. Some people make their own via Youtube. People can avoid advertising altogether with MySky and Tivo and can schedule their viewing for anytime of the day. The popularity of DVD box sets also ensures complete autonomy of the viewer – this means that sitcom producers have to offer choice and difference to sustain an audience. This is why we have so many different shows on offer – to entice niche audiences and to build followings within these audiences. They have to really give us what we want and can’t rely on the majority anymore – they can’t preach to us either because we are aware of it and can turn off anytime we like and find something better. Shows that are popular in this time are – Flight of the Conchords, Curb your Enthusiasm, The Mighty Boosh, Entourage, 30 Rock, The Office and Family Guy. These shows really understand the importance of a devoted audience and use the internet to nurture and engage with them. There is still a market for the traditional sitcom on the four main US networks but these too have had to diversify in order to attract audiences that are becoming more and more fragmented. Releasing DVDs is also very important and giving extras with the package is now commonplace. Family Guy does not get strong TV ratings but has huge DVD sales. We are in a time of diversification and smaller niche groupings and current sitcoms reflect this.<br />