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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dramaturgy | A Brief History of Situation Comedy

by Kristin Idaszak, Dramaturg

Lucy and Ricky, Mary Tyler Moore, Archie Bunker, Rachel and Ross, Jerry, George and Elaine—every week America turns on the television to see what shenanigans its fictional friends have gotten into.

Situation comedies developed from popular radio shows—like the Jack Benny Program—and were originally recorded live every week. In 1951, Lucille Ball shook up America with her riotous antics while Desi Arnaz, the co-creator of I Love Lucy, revolutionized the genre by recording the show on film every week, using a live studio audience, and multiple sets. Early sitcoms tended to focus on families, like Three’s Company and The Honeymooners.

By the 1970s, sitcoms increasingly dealt with real world events. All in the Family was particularly groundbreaking for its frank treatment of racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, and sexuality. The seemingly-bigoted protagonist, WWII veteran Archie Bunker, is considered to be one of the greatest protagonists in television history. Norman Lear, who in addition to All in the Family, created Maude, The Jeffersons, Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life later said, “My shows were not that controversial with the American people. They were controversial with the people who think for the American people.” Lear also considered the sitcom a 26-minute one-act play, and was consternated that it had to get interrupted so frequently for commercial breaks.

In the 1980s and 90s, standup comedians began getting their own shows. Bill Cosby’s sitcom The Cosby Showrevived a television genre (situation comedy), saved a beleaguered network (NBC), and sparked controversy about race and class in America” ( Seinfeld, on the other hand, was acclaimed for the exact opposite reason: its creator Jerry Seinfeld “found comic brilliance in the exploration of ‘nothing’ [and] penetrated pop culture as no sitcom had done before” (

Ultimately, “the idea of the sitcom is for viewers to form a long-term relationship with the characters and return to view them repeatedly” ( So we all share these friends and families every week when they enter into our living rooms, join our dinnertime conversations. They share with us their triumphs and tribulations, so we can feel a little less alone in our own struggles and achievements.

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