How Sitcoms Work

Early Sitcoms
Gertrude Berg smiles as she leans out of a window in a scene from "The Goldbergs," the first sitcom.
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.