A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
Whatever Happened to Jokes? The Comedy of the Situation
If I had to make a case on behalf of the sitcom, I would offer the following defense: As formats for humor go, the sitcom is the format that makes itself most at home in the situation where the comedy occurs.
One reason I put it this way is obviously because the name itself gives me the material for analysis: spliced into the name sitcom (which the OED tells me is a neologism produced in America in the 1960s) are the two operative words situation and comedy (which the OED tells me was already a phrase current in criticism of books and theatre by the 1890s). But the words are not the foundation of what I want to say about the sitcom; they are just a useful reminder because they happen to name the thing aptly. What I really have in mind is a formal analysis of the sitcom. As a genre, a sitcom is usually a TV series in thirty-minute episodes with an ensemble cast of characters in an easily recognizable setting: a restaurant, a bar, a garage, an office, a neighborhood, a home, etc. The big idea is a simple one: the set of wacky characters will play to type in episode after episode, ringing the changes on whatever conventional setting they occupy.
The basic formula and its conventions came into being alongside the technology of television. The idea of a set scene for characters to interact in was inherited from stage drama, but the requirements of television dictated some interesting mutations: short scenes of definite length in filmable situations that would resume every week, on appointment. Historically, sitcom producers slid almost lazily into these conventions, not pushing restlessly against the limitations of the new medium, but occupying every bit of the new space just as it became available. When better lighting and multiple cameras became available and affordable, the sitcom expanded to take advantage of them. And so, by technological evolution, a genre came into being almost by accident. It was not driven by high theory or by the deep yearning of artists for self-expression and formal experimentation. It just kind of happened. There are several disadvantages that attend its accidental emergence: the whole genre has a marked tendency toward lazy tropes and half-hearted clichés. But there are also advantages. What has congealed as the sitcom is something that gives contemporary expression to what humor has apparently always wanted to express: the givenness of human situations as the place where humor happens.
Think for a minute about the classic story-joke format. I mean the kind that are currently out of fashion, but that simply dominated previous generations. They involve a very brief narrative setup like “a guy walks into a bar” or “there was a little boy who found a frog in the woods.” These are hardly bearable to modern sensibilities for some reason. The sheer artificiality of conjuring a whole situation with a few opening words just seems intrusive to us now. As a professor who teaches undergrads, I know they’ll indulge me in many kinds of humor, extending even to puns. But I cannot imagine how a class would respond if I began regaling them with jokes in this form: “It seems a certain salesman had too many red shoes in stock, and came up with a clever idea for how to sell them.” I would stare into the intergenerational abyss only to find it ignoring me back…