Day One Hundred and Eight: The Sitcom: Addendum

My my, it seems like my post about The Sitcom has generated rather a lot of hits. Somehow. No one even reposted it or retweeted it on twitter. Interesting…

Anyway, I just want to clarify a couple of things:

The sitcom is considered by many TV networks to be a “low text”, meaning that it is regarded as nothing but pure entertainment, distinct from other more realistic genres of television. In short, it is not seen in the same regard as drama or documentary. It might be quite easy to take what I said about sitcoms as demeaning to the form in some way, but that’s not the case.

Simply put, it’s important to highlight how it has taken the best part of 50 years for the sitcom to evolve and even then, it has only done so by replacing traditional sitcom elements with elements from other genres (like the docusoap style of The Office for example).

They all look like this, in the end.

Similarly, for all the reasons previously outlined the sitcom has struggled to gain any serious recognition both academically and critically, for many years.

What’s more important to realise though, that as the sitcom has mutated over the years it has allowed us to reconsider not only what we should find humorous, but also what the markers of humour actually are.

The traditional sitcom is filled with various markers that tell us what we’re supposed to laugh at and when. The obvious one is, of course, the audience laughter track (which serves a dual purpose in that it also gives us an ‘electronic audience’, giving the feeling of a communal and thus more music hall or vaudeville like experience) but also the emphasis on theatrical performance and the comedians acting.

Recently, there are more sitcoms which are replacing the traditional aspects of the genre, with devices found in other genres. Often binning the hugely theatrical and comedic nature of the actors performance, and the laugh track, making it very difficult for us to know what we’re supposed to laugh at. We’re still distanced from the action, and engaged in it, but unlike the sitcom where a staple of the format is that it is deliberately aware that its fiction, newer shows that use elements from other genres, dispense with this knowing self awareness of its own fictional setting.

We find The Office awkward, but where are we supposed to laugh at it? We find Spaced surreal, but are all its pop culture references funny? There are, of course, other markers that make us aware that we’re seeing something funny, but the more obvious ones are gone in these types of shows.

It's awkward, but do we laugh BECAUSE it's awkward?

Basically, the sitcom has never really been taken seriously and this due to its stable, generic nature. It’s this nature that has often turned me off of the big, safe shows with canned laugher, three camera set ups and three walled sets.

Comedy is subversive, and should say the unsayable. Old style safe sitcoms are not subversive. They are do not deal with social issues, political issues or any kind of real issues at all and this is because the sitcom has often had to be a commerical product. Generic and safe because it has attract wide audiences, often to the detriment of narrative cohesion or realism.

Sorry for the rambling. I just wanted clear up that I’m not against sitcoms, simply that to me, they do not do what comedy should do it.

If you got this far, thanks for reading.

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6 thoughts on “Day One Hundred and Eight: The Sitcom: Addendum

  1. totally agree with you Mark. there’s over 200 episodes of Friends and i’ll be damned if i’ve seen a fifth of them. same goes for the Simpsons as well, which technically isn’t a sitcom in some respects it is in others. both to me are just filler that get shoved on tv when there’s fuck all else on the schedule.

    The big bang theory appeals to my geeky side and is fairly well written on the whole, but can be a bit flat on some episodes, but nowhere near as terrible as My Name is Earl was during the writers strike when they put him in a coma for about 4 episodes cos the fuckin tea boy was writing the scripts then i think. It was a shame cos up until then i thought it was a great sitcom, pure entertainment but it never really recovered from that. then there’s my 2 favs in recent years, Peepshow and the Inbetweeners. both have revitalised my faith in sitcoms as they aren’t scared to be too gross or too close to the bone to help embelish a joke but we can only have such luxuries here in the UK as the closest thing the US will have to that is Curb your Enthusiasm and as much as I’ve seen all episodes and there are some stand out scenes in it, I just find it too cringyworthy to watch, and as the series went one every episode just seems more and more contrived as larry has about 2-3 things that go wrong so they all play out in a disaster for him at the end. same shit, different day. The only thing worth noting from the US in a long while was Flight of the Conchords, and that was partly originated in the UK before it was made in the US, and the writers for the inbetweeners done a couple of episodes for them I’m sure, so maybe ultimately I just like their writing.

    1. I think the US has some really great comedies that are equally as good as the things we’ve been doing. Arrested Development is probably my favourite, though.

      But I see what you’re saying, man. I’m glad we’re on the same page

  2. My offense from your previous post was not from your apparent denigration of the sitcom itself, but that you appeared to put down the viewers of sitcoms as generally less than intelligent that needed to be told where and when to laugh, that they were unable to figure this out on their own. I can see where you came to this conclusion, but I think it’s a gross overgeneralization of a very large segment of the population that enjoys sitcoms (and Britcoms, as we say here), and only because I respect *you* so much was I just a bit offended. (and I’ll get over it!)

    I’d next like to hear your take the effect of dumping the laugh track. I remember it being “news” when sitcoms first began contemplating that. I don’t remember the specific shows or which eventually followed thru with that. I’d also be curious if some shows that ditched the laugh track eventually had to return to it (it seems I remember something like that.)

    I don’t think it’s a secret that folks in a comedy movie at the theatre will laugh more when the theatre is full and more people are laughing. Perhaps more than being told when to laugh, there is something more basic going on about laughter being infectious. Is it possible that that is a laugh track’s purpose?

    The low esteem in which sitcoms (and comedy in general) are regarded is I believe evidenced that the FIRST ever comedy awards show on TV was only this month. It was only on secondary TV channels and barely covered. Comedy, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect.

  3. The intelligence of the viewer is something I’ve never called into question. In order for humour to work in any way, it must distance the viewer as well as engage them. We have to identify with what’s happening on screen but also be completely detached from it so we can find it funny. Obviously, humour works best when it’s funny and we’re given many cues by the standard sitcom in order to tell us when we’re not supposed to take seriously what we’re seeing.

    Perhaps what you really have issue with is the way the traditional sitcom treats its audience. And that’s not just my conclusion – it’s the conclusion of those in academia who are far more knowledgeable about the subject than I am.

    But it’s more than just the sitcom. Regardless of whether or not we find something funny or meaningful, the fact that something is SUPPOSED to be funny is rarely misunderstood.

    Think of the reason why sarcasm or irony are tricky to use in a text conversation. There’s no context and no cue that signals your comedic intent to the person you’re talking with.

    Similarly, the laugh track exists to give us an audience to laugh along with. Yes, it does tell us when to laugh at somethings but the cues for humour are more varied and explicit than that. Sitcoms foreground not only the comedic performance of the actors, but it also foregrounds itself – it’s aware of its fictional nature, it’s very aware of the fact it’s comedy yet it also invites the viewer to engage with it in the same way we engage with other kinds of fiction.

    The laugh track, then, acts as an ‘electronic audience’ both replicating the feel of being in an audience, and giving us something to laugh along with. So yes, it does serve to makes us feel more comfortable about laughing but that’s only one of the reasons it exists.

    So the audience has to have some cue telling them when to laugh because if they don’t, comedy just doesn’t work.

    There are a great deal of sitcoms that have no laugh track and are much funnier as a result. Arrested Development, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Trailer Park Boys…the list is pretty big. These are also shows which are NOT safe, which are funnier precisely because they do what comedy is supposed to do; be subversive.

    In the end, no matter who you are you need to be told when to laugh at something via some kind of cue. Traditional sitcoms just done it a much more explicit way in order to ensure broader appeal.

    1. “The intelligence of the viewer is something I’ve never called into question.” Perhaps not intentionally, but that is what I inferred from some of your observations. Even here in your reply “no matter who you are you need to be told when to laugh at something”… that’s what I question. I think there is great *comfort* in being “told when to laugh”, but I question its *necessity*. Although I do appreciate that probably the majority of the general public both prefers and expects this. I, personally, find most laugh tracks an assault to my ears and senses.

      (thanks for the lengthy and thorough response, I’m very much enjoying this discussion. I hope this doesn’t cut into your study time too much!!)

      1. I think you’re inferring something different from what I’m meaning here.

        We must be told when to laugh. That’s what the punchline in a joke is for. Otherwise jokes just become stories, sketches just become bizarre actions and visual gags simply become ridiculous.

        I’m not saying that a laugh track is a requirement so that people know when to laugh. All I’m saying is that’s part of the reason its used in a sitcom alongside other visual cues.

        My favourite shows have no laugh track. What they do have, however, are jokes, gags and punchlines. I understand something is funny because it has a punchline, or some element of comedy about it. Depending on the joke, there is a signal of comedic intent when we’re supposed to know something is funny. As I said, we all known when something is supposed to be funny regardless of the subjectivity of the joke.

        We all have to be told when something isn’t serious and is supposed to be taken as a joke even in programmes which have no laugh track.

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