The situation comedy (sitcom) originated during the transition from the old vaudeville days to radio shows of the late 1920’s. A few of the early radio sitcoms included Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Jack Benny Show, and Fibber McGee and Molly. The popular shows caused thousands of listeners to gather around the radio as they followed the high jinks of their favorite characters.
Although many of the early radio sitcoms ran 15 minutes, in the late 1940s and early 1950s the transition to television saw an expansion of the shows to a weekly one-half hour format with commercials commonly shown before or during the opening credits and again at the end. For many years now, commercials have run during frequent breaks in the show bringing the usual run-time of the sitcom to 22 minutes.
Situation comedies consist of recurring characters who typically are found in a common location such as a home or workplace, although over time locations have expanded to include schools (Welcome Back, Kotter and Room 222), military bases (Hogan’s Heroes and Gomer Pyle, USMC), or bars (Cheers).
The main characters return weekly allowing the audience to become familiar with their stories and personalities. Other characters may come and go, sometimes only lasting one episode, while others may appear on an intermittent basis. Each weekly episode is typically self-contained resolving the current crisis or situation and rarely mentioned in future episodes.
Story arcs may carry over a number of episodes. Shows quite often have running gags throughout the season also providing a thread of continuity designed to hold the viewers interest.
In recent years, some sitcoms began providing a cliffhanger ending typically seen in genres more dramatic in nature. A recent example was Two and a Half Men where Charlie recently became engaged and his fiancé moved into his home. At the end of the finale, a former love-of-his-life reappeared leaving viewers to wonder what would happen the next season.
Early sitcoms utilized one camera to follow all the action, and many still do. After a couple of seasons of I Love Lucy, Desi Arnaz famously began using three cameras.
Whereas most sets consisted of three walls, with the fourth open for the cameras and the studio audience or the crew to look in on the action, Arnaz began using sets where the characters could openly walk through from one set to the next.
Sitcoms have evolved over the years, such as the development of animated sitcoms, talking horses and cars, and ghostly apparitions, but the characteristics have not changed. Each episode remains approximately 22 minutes in length with a cast of characters who experience relatable situations.
When viewers tune into a show, they know what they will find – a half-hour of entertainment, with varying degrees of success depending on the writers and cast members. Watching a favorite sitcom week after week is like returning to a comfortable, familiar place.
The future of sitcoms seems secure even as the landscape continues to change. One wide-open area is the World Wide Web providing writers and filmmakers the ability to create, film, and post their own sitcoms. Web casts are popping up like mushrooms all over the ‘net. Only time will tell how much of an impact these digital explorers will have over the televised versions.