How Sitcoms Work

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We've all seen sitcoms, laughed with them and probably even sung along to their theme songs. We occasionally find their jingles running through our heads: "Here's the story of a lovely lady," click, "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale," click, "Where everybody knows your name." Their catchphrases pepper our vernacular: "Yadda, yadda, yadda." And their characters' tastes even influence what we drink -- cosmopolitans anyone? Who wouldn't agree that the backbone of American television is the sitcom?

But did you ever wonder where sitcoms come from, what makes a sitcom a sitcom and who actually comes up with this stuff?



In 1979, the New Wave band the Buggles sang "Video Killed the Radio Star." To be really accurate, they should have sung "television co-opted the radio star and made her its own," but it probably wouldn't have been as catchy. At any rate, the sentiment is true -- the sitcom owes its roots and early viability to radio. What we know as a sitcom today started as a 15-minute situational comedy on the radio. The term sitcom is even short for situational comedy and was first coined by Variety.

The first sitcom centered on the most unlikely of characters: the zaftig immigrant doting wife, mother of two and good neighbor to all -- Molly Goldberg. In this article, we'll learn about early sitcoms, unlock the sitcom format and look at the future of American television.


Early Sitcoms

Gertrude Berg smiles as she leans out of a window in a scene from "The Goldbergs," the first sitcom.
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Although television premiered in the early 1930s, it wasn't until after World War Two that families began to switch over from radio. As television became popular, networks began searching for content. CBS hired a manager of program development, Worthington Minor, who sought out new ideas. Since short situational radio comedies had been popular with audiences and advertisers, Minor decided the format might translate well to television. He offered Gertrude Berg, the creator of "The Goldbergs," the opportunity to move neighborhoods, from radio to television, in 1949.

"The Goldbergs" was a radio hit and former vaudeville show that premiered in the Catskills in 1925. The show revolved around the lives of Jewish immigrants, Molly and Jake Goldberg, and their two children. The episodes, set in the Goldbergs' Bronx apartment, usually featured a solvable friend or family-related dilemma. While resolving the problem, Molly would consult or interact with characters from around the neighborhood -- dispensing advice, recipes and a lot of humor. Future programs would replicate this style.


Following Minor and Berg's lead, several other networks lured radio stars to the new medium. "The Aldrich Family," "The Life of Riley" and "Lum and Abner" all premiered in 1949. While some shows enjoyed more success than others, one thing was certain: People wanted to see more.

In 1950, CBS program executive Harry Ackerman decided to repurpose the radio show "My Favorite Husband" for television. He approached the show's female lead, Lucille Ball, about creating a television version. She agreed to do the program if it also featured her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz. Although three of the most popular programs at the time were ethnic sitcoms ("The Goldbergs," "Mama" and "Amos and Andy"), studio executives balked at the idea of showing a Cuban band-leader as a typical American woman's husband.

Ball decided to make the sitcom on her own. She and Arnaz formed a production company, Desilu, and tested their show by presenting it as a 20-minute vaudeville-style comedy act on the road. After a successful tour, they made a pilot script that bombed. Upon viewing the pilot, their friend, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, suggested they make the characters less like themselves and more ordinary and relatable to the audience. Enter Lucy MacGillicuddy Ricardo and Ricky Ricardo. Rounding out the cast were Fred and Ethel Mertz, their landlords and neighbors.

­Vivian Vance, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and William Frawley hold a tuna fishing contest on an episode of "I Love Lucy" from 1956.
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Like "The Goldbergs," "I Love Lucy" helped set the tone and style of the American sitcom. Part family and friend oriented, part work oriented, many of Lucy's plot lines revolved around settling a dilemma. Unlike "The Goldbergs," these dilemmas were often outrageously absurd and relied heavily on physical comedy, one of Ball's talents.

"I Love Lucy" also helped determine the look and feel of the sitcom. While it was performed in front of a live studio audience and aired on Monday nights just like "The Goldbergs," "I Love Lucy" was shot in Hollywood instead of New York. Because Arnaz and Ball disliked kinescope, the process used by live broadcast television shows, they directly filmed their sitcom. Arnaz helped design a workable set that would accommodate up to four cameras for each episode. These episodes were not broadcast live, but edited and released to other stations to air in their appropriate time slot.

But what makes a sitcom a sitcom? In the next section, we'll look at the sitcom from a writer or producer's point of view.


Sitcom Format

­Comedian Jerry Seinfeld's self-titled show mastered the successful sitcom formula.
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A sitcom typically lasts around 30 minutes. In the early days of television, the show's advertising came before the opening credits and at the end credits, using only about two and a half minutes of the show's 15 or 30 minutes. Frequent advertising breaks cut today's half hour programs down to 22 minutes.

A sitcom usually has four main characters. In most cases, they include a hero, an anti-hero, a love interest and a buddy. Of course, there are always variations of this theme, but it's a common formula. Even a seemingly unlikely example like the family sitcom "Married with Children" fits the type. Ed is the unlikely hero, Peg, the anti-hero, Kelly, every high school boy's love interest and Bud, well, the buddy.


Since sitcoms are only 30 minutes long, it is essential that the plot line be fairly tight and resolvable. Successful plots will typically fall within a family or workplace setting or some combination of the two. Within this setting, there are A and B storylines. An A storyline is the main plot of the sitcom. In most cases, the A story runs throughout the show and does not resolve until the final scene. The B storyline is secondary. Depending on how many characters are in the cast, there can be other peripheral stories -- C, D, and so on. Throw in a hook or plot twist and you have a show.

Sitcoms also often have teasers -- a short scene that appears before or during the opening credits. Not all shows have them, but most include them as a way to get the audience laughing as they click through channels. The teaser may or may not directly relate to the A or B storyline. One example of a great teaser can be seen in the early episodes of "Seinfeld." Jerry Seinfeld uses a short stand-up routine to set the audience up for what they were going to see. His teaser is a lead-in joke or humorous observation.

The key to a successful sitcom is variety and character-driven humor like the running gag or inside joke. The running gag is a funny situation or line of dialogue that reappears in an episode or series of episodes. Sometimes the running gag becomes a catchphrase. The line or situation is often unintentional at first, but ends up striking a chord with the audience. When the audience reacts favorably, the line or the situation gets written back in and usually becomes funnier because of its multiple appearances. The success of the running gag or inside joke relies on the actor's delivery.

In the next section, we'll learn how the sitcom on paper translates to the show on the small screen.


Sitcom Characteristics

­The camera crew prepares to shoot a scene of the hit sitcom "Friends" during one of their last shows in 2003.
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While sitcoms come in a wide variety of situational flavors, the choice of technical styles is more limited. Sitcoms are typically filmed on set in front of a live studio audience, filmed on set without an audience (and in some cases a laugh track) or filmed on location.

Sitcoms filmed on set in front of a live studio audience usually feature a central area where most of the show's activity takes place. Think of Lucy and Ricky's apartment in "I Love Lucy," Monica's apartment or Central Perk in "Friends" or the bar in "Cheers." The set has three solid walls and the audience and cameras look through the open fourth wall.


"The Goldbergs" was performed and shot on set in front of a live studio audience. The Goldberg's six-room Bronx apartment functioned as the main set and opened to a small galley of seats for the audience and an area for the camera. The cast practiced their lines and scenes on set for a stretch of up to eighteen hours before shooting the show during the last hour. "I Love Lucy" improved upon this process by adapting the set to include walk through areas, different points of view for the camera and a static set of bleachers for the audience.

If a show is filmed on set without a studio audience, the fourth wall opens to cameras and an area for directors, producers, gaffers, technicians and other members of the production crew instead of a seating gallery or bleachers. Shooting on a set, be it with or without an audience, has many advantages. A set provides a stable environment with more control over lighting, sound and continuity.

Sitcoms filmed on location set up the whole production -- cast, crew, props and everything -- somewhere in the real world.

The location could be a street, an old office building or even an abandoned North Hollywood hospital like in the show "Scrubs." Shooting on location adds authenticity and believability to a show. By placing the characters in a real setting, the sitcom avoids the potential distraction of a fake set.

Sitcoms may be filmed using a single camera or multiple cameras. The single camera approach offers more control over the filming, providing the opportunity for close-up scenes, wide shots and lots of movement. Shows like "Scrubs," "My Name is Earl" and "The Office" use the single camera technique to follow characters as they go from place to place. The use of multiple cameras offers the opportunity to capture several angles of each scene simultaneously.

But where are sitcoms headed? In the next section, we'll learn about the future of sitcoms.


The Future of Sitcoms

­Reality shows and strikes don't stop many writers from dreaming about creating Hollywood's next hit sitcom.
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While the sitcom's technical capabilities have advanced and its plots, jokes and performances have gotten more ribald and mature, the heart of the sitcom has remained the same. At its core, the sitcom is still a 30-minute show with a cast of characters thrown into entertaining and relatable situations. Vast similarities can be seen between sitcoms throughout television's history. It might be these similarities that keep the sitcom so popular.

But with the barrage of reality shows, the popularity of hour-long dramas and obstacles like writers' strikes, it seems like a good time to ask -- where will the sitcom be in the next five years? It will probably be alive and well, thanks in large part to re-runs and syndication. Syndication is achieved after a sitcom has aired 100 times. Cable and network channels continue to show episodes of "I Love Lucy" and "Seinfeld" every day.


The sitcom seems to be holding its own. Writers continue to journey to Hollywood in droves (although you can write from virtually anywhere in the world and get a sitcom script optioned, everyone in the business asserts you must live in Hollywood to ensure its success). Producers continue to option scripts and ideas. And production companies continue to make pilots.

The sitcom genre is also beginning to branch out to new venues. The proliferation of cameras -- hand-held, computer and even cell phone -- have created an explosion of vlogs, indie films, Web soaps and online shorts. The Internet-born sitcom or Web sitcom is a short situational comedy written, acted and produced for the Web. "Break a Leg" is an example of an Internet-born sitcom. Written and produced by two brothers, Vlad and Yuri Baranovsky through their San Francisco-based ­company Late Again Films, the show is about a man who gets a sitcom deal. In addition to this Web sitcom, there are several blogs and vlogs that chronicle the process, progression and success of hopeful Hollywood writers.

To learn more about sitcoms and other related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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  • Focal Press, 2007.
  • Entertainment Weekly.
  • Epstein, Alex. "Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box." Owl Books, 2006.
  • Finer, Abby and Deborah Pearlman. "Starting your Television WritingCareer: The Warner Bros. Television Writers Workshop Guide." Syracuse University Press, 2004.
  • Mitz, Rick. "The great TV sitcom book." New York, NY: Perigee Books, 1988.
  • NBC.
  • New York Times.
  • Sandler, Ellen. "The TV Writer's Workbook: A Creative Approach to Television Scripts." Bantam Dell, 2007.
  • Wolff, Jurgen, and L.P. Ferrante. "Successful sitcom writing." New York : St. Martin's Press, 1996.