Fifty Years in the Making A genre of entertainment programming was developed and became known as the situation comedy or ‘sitcom’. Sitcoms have evolved in response to lifestyle trends and have changed drastically over the past fifty years. The sitcom format is based upon two main types: the element of family drama mixed with sibling rivalry and the element of sexual exploration. Family sitcoms specialized in family drama and focused on internal family roles of the parents, children and siblings.
Sticking to the same basic formula, sitcoms show a problem solved and a lesson learned in a half -hour, usually with a strong foundation of laughable humor. Traditional family roles in 1950’s sitcoms held the father as the head of the household and major breadwinner, and the wife as the classic domestic housekeeper. Sitcoms of the 1950’s emphasized and exemplified good values and conveyed them throughout the half -hour, in which they aired. From the stay at home housewife, to the single or divorced parent, sitcoms have developed and established a part in every American family’s living room over the past fifty years.
With their birth in the 1950’s, situation comedies mean just what their name suggests. In the beginning, the basic recipe for the perfect sitcom was this: Take a domestic family, stir in the funny antics of the children or neighbors, and add in a minor problem, which usually could be solved within the half hour. Simmer between commercials, and voila! Comedy and a new lesson learned every week (Seplow). Wait another week and the characters are back to where they were the week before, only faced with a different, traditionally comical situation. The predictability of the sitcom was the basis for its humor. The audience knows the characters will always react and respond to situations the way they are expected to. To the audience, sitcoms were “the glue that stuck them to the television” (Johnson).
However, there are many different types of sitcoms that were made throughout the years. There are: Domcoms (domestic comedies), which featured family life “All in the Family,” Kidcoms (kid comedies) such as “Happy Days,” couplecoms “I Love Lucy,” SciFiComs, “Bewitched,” ethnicoms, or shows regarding a certain ethnic group, “The Jefferson,” and careercoms or shows that revolve around a character’s workplace and life “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (Christian). One of the first ethnicoms on television, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was seen as either “the funniest or offensive show” on television (Christian).
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pulled their show from the air during the Civil Rights Movement, because it portrayed African Americans in a negative way. Of the first successful couplecoms, “I Love Lucy” is one of the few aired in 1951 that lasted more than two years. This program was the first sitcom that was done on film, and filmed before a live audience in sequence, using a three-camera technique (Cayse).”I Love Lucy,” starred Lucille Ball, as a screwball wife, married to a Cuban immigrant, Desi Arnaz. Lucy Ricardo was the first character on television to be pregnant. Lucille Balls’ real life pregnancy was written into the script and CBS decided to call her ‘expectant’, due to censorship laws during those years (Kaledin). “I Love Lucy,” remains a tradition among sitcom watchers and has been a re-run on television since the end of the show’s production in 1957.
In the beginning of the 1960’s, sitcoms broke the mold of the traditional family setting and created shows that went against the 1950’s “television grain” (Brook). The first sitcom, to break this mold was the “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which aired in 1962. “The Beverly Hillbillies,” wasn’t just the basic ‘rags to riches’ story line. This sitcom took a lower-class family from the mountains, put them in a rare situation of “striking oil” and quickly sent them into the materialistic setting of Beverly Hills, California. This sitcom, which portrayed the upper class life, instead of middle class, also sparked a new trend in rurally based sitcoms and “broke the middle class pattern in plot and characterization” (Seplow).
With the dawn of the 1970s, sitcom audiences were in for groundbreaking story lines. Gone were the days of the perfect family, which ignored important issues, such as racial equality and sexuality. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” was the first carreercom to appeal to an audience, using a happy, single woman, with a dominating and influential role in the work force (Cayse). “All in the Family” was the first situation comedy to use current social issues as the basis of their plots. The show was also the first sitcom to display a toilet and characters using it (Aamidor).
“All in the Family” also explored into such controversial issues, like racism, sex, religious bigotry, and homosexuality (Aamidor). The 1970s meant higher costs in sitcom production, being televised on-air became costly. The end of the 1970s also meant a decline for situation comedies and a strong interest in action/adventure shows. With several sitcoms being pulled from the air or not produced, and an increase in the production of adventure programs, sitcoms faced another low point (Brook).
During the materialistic 1980s, sitcom television had quite the jump in the ratings. “The Cosby Show” aired in 1987, ensuring family values, with the light-hearted humor of Bill Cosby, himself (Christian). Then arrived, a new type of sitcom, the Slobcom, was introduced in “Married With Children.” This show was exactly the opposite of the domcoms of the early days. “Married With Children” showed a dysfunctional family, consisting of a deadbeat dad, a frustrated and lazy housewife and “sexually charged delinquent children” (Aamidor).
Sitcoms basically followed the mold of previous programs, in earlier decades. Up until 1989, when “The Simpsons” came into the living rooms of Americans. “The Simpsons” was an animated sitcom that targeted both adolescents and adults, and gave “The Cosby Show” a run for its Thursday night ratings. Using the slobcom antics, similar to “Married With Children,” “The Simpsons” took situation comedies to a new level, using the classic “Doh!” humor of everyone’s favorite animated family (Bellisario).
The 1990’s ushered in the thought of “pushing the envelope” on sitcom boundaries. ABC’s “Roseanne,” presented a very popular parody of family life that included unconventional sitcom topics such as teenage sex, abuse, and lesbian romance. With the controversial shows of the 1990’s, there were also sitcoms that followed the ‘norm’ of previous years, but still keeping up with the current trends of that decade.
The trends in situation comedies since the 1950s show a move toward a more liberal attitude about subjects of humor. The early 1950s and 1960s used the common norms such as a-woman’s-place-is-in-the-home, or the-man-is-the-master. However, the norms used in many situation comedies today are attitudes about sex, violence, racism, and other subjects that didn’t even exist in early television comedy.
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