Nothing brings people together like a good sitcom. Since the ‘50s, they have offered a brief break from reality with good laughs and beloved characters. As television has evolved, though, so has the genre. What once was a half hour of simple, family friendly hijinks is now often a more multilayered comedy with complex characters and storylines.
The sitcom, or situation comedy, has taken many forms over the years. Whether it be a housewife trying to make it as a performer alongside her husband, a group of employees and patrons at a local Bostonian bar, or the mundane lives of the employees at a paper company, the familiar genre of comedy remains a staple of American television. While easily recognizable, the sitcom remains hard to define, allowing it to change and evolve with the times.
When looking at television across history, it can be hard to believe that today’s sitcoms are even in the same genre as those in the ‘50s. Advances in television have allowed shows like “Brooklyn 99” and “One Day at a Time” to be filmed in better quality and to have more diversity, both on-screen and off.
The 1950s featured one of America’s first, and most popular, sitcoms “I Love Lucy.” The show followed Lucy Ricardo, a housewife in New York, as she tried to make it into show business, alongside her bandleader husband, Ricky. Even though the show played into sexist stereotypes that were popular in the ‘50s, it is still loved by fans today and was voted one of the best TV shows of all time in a survey done by ABC News and People Magazine.
In the 1960s, sitcoms such as “The Andy Griffith Show” gained popularity. The show followed Andy Taylor, a widowed sheriff, and other townspeople in a small community in North Carolina. In its last season, “The Andy Griffith Show” ranked as the number one show on television at the time it aired, according to ratings from Nielsen Media Research. Part of the reason it was so popular was because it stayed away from controversial issues, such as racism and sexism. The all-white cast kept to the middle lane, never trying to make a statement
Not all sitcoms at the time took the same stance as “The Andy Griffith Show” when it came to unfavorable topics. “All in the Family,” which aired in the ‘70s, was dedicated to depicting issues such as racism, antisemitism, homosexuality, and women’s rights. These issues were made more palatable to the audience because they were tied in with comedy. Because of this, the Writers Guild of America ranked “All in the Family” as one of the best TV series ever written
The 1980s and 90s had many popular, long-running sitcoms such as “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” and “Friends.” While “Cheers” and “Friends” are both beloved and highly acclaimed, neither really broke the mold when it came to diversity or discussion of controversial issues.
Even though it may not deliver on the diversity, “Cheers” has no trouble bringing in the laughs. While some shows from the ‘80s can fall flat when it comes to today’s standards, the comedy on “Cheers” stands the test of time, mostly due to the amazing performances from the ensemble cast.
Despite the negativity now surrounding the show because of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault convictions, “The Cosby Show” deserves a mention because it brought some much-needed diversity to sitcoms. Even though it had a shorter run than “Cheers” and “Friends,” “The Cosby Show” was not any less popular. It spent five consecutive seasons as the number one show on television, according to Nielsen ratings, only one of two shows in history to do so. On top of this popularity, the sitcom’s portrayal of a stable, African-American family also made history. It broke the mold of the typical sitcom at the time, which was usually made up of a majority white cast. “The Cosby Show” helped demonstrate that sitcoms with a predominantly African-American can still be successful
The early 2000s to today have seen a large variety of sitcoms. One of the biggest differences in sitcoms today compared to ones from the 20th century is the use of single-camera (no live audience or laugh track) instead of multi-camera (filmed in front of a live audience). While there still are sitcoms today that use multi-camera, such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “One Day at a Time,” the majority uses single-camera. The “mockumentary” style of filming also became popular with shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.”
Not only has the style of filming changed, the type of people making sitcoms has too. Even though television still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity, it has made great strides since the ‘50s.
“One Day at a Time” follows a Cuban-American family living in California. The mom, Penelope, is a veteran and in the first season her daughter, Elena, comes out as a lesbian. The show handles issues such as homophobia, immigration, and racism with a care and sensitivity that is not often seen on television. The depiction of these topics serves as a great contrast to the show’s lighter moments.
“Brooklyn 99,” a sitcom about a police precinct in New York, is another show with a diverse cast of characters. It has two black men in positions of power, one of whom is an out gay man, and two Latina women, one of whom came out as bisexual in the most recent season. Not only is “Brooklyn 99” diverse, it is also one of the funniest shows on television. It’s not hard to see why, with “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Andy Samberg heading the cast and Michael Schur, creator of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” as one of the co-creators. The cancellation of the showafter its fifth season was met with outrage from fans across the world. Luckily, “Brooklyn 99” did not stay down for long, as it was picked up by NBC barely a day later and fans now wait excitedly for the sixth season.
The sitcom has changed a lot since its beginnings in the 1950s. It is hard to say what will come next in the genre, but hopefully it can continue to evolve with the times. No matter what, it is comforting to know that there will always be a half-hour of comedy available whenever a laugh is needed.