Sitcom or situational comedy is a big part of our entertainment now. They bring solace and some much-needed laughter after a long day at work. But sitcoms have been a part of our pop culture for decades and just like everything else, they have also evolved over the years.
What you see now is very much different from what was getting aired in the 1980s and 90s. Think ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S‘ co-creator Marta Kauffman donating $4 million out of sheer guilt over the show’s lack of racial diversity. As time changes, our socio-political climate and our taste change with it. So, how far have we come?
The Inception and Popularity of Sitcoms
The sitcom genre originated on the radio in January 1926 with the initial broadcast of ‘Sam ‘n’ Henry.’ The series played on WGN radio in Chicago, Illinois. The first television sitcom in the United States was ‘Mary Kay and Johnny’ which aired on 1947. The success of this show opened floodgates for creators to come up with funny shows. By the 1970s, television was filled with sitcoms.
But several critics and viewers credit the Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld-created show ‘Seinfeld‘ for taking the genre to new heights. The show, which ran between 1989 to 1998, over nine seasons, is still regarded as one of the greatest and most influential sitcoms of all time.
The reason can vary depending on whom you ask. For most people, it was the relatable characters. The humor was forced but fit seamlessly into the circumstances. The acting was real and not over the top, unlike a lot of sitcoms before it.
The 80s also saw another influential show called ‘The Cosby Show‘. Its creator Bill Cosby has since been found guilty of rape and sexual assault. But the influence and popularity of the show cannot be denied. The main reason was that an African American was playing the lead role in it.
1990s and The Arrival of ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’
It was the 90s and sitcoms were a rage. Every director, producer, or writer wanted to cash in on this surge of demand. Shows were also following a series of tropes that are now synonymous with the 80s and 90s sitcoms. Like a laughter track, multi-cam setup, and the story of an upper-middle-class family.
Then came ‘Friends‘ and the rest is history. The show revolves around six friends in their 20s or early 30s as they live in a New York apartment. What sounds mundane on paper, is still the talk of the town three decades later. ‘Friends‘ received unanimous success both in terms of ratings and critical response. It played for a decade and the characters are now a part of pop culture.
However, now that we look back, it’s not without fault. Despite the story being set in a metropolitan like New York, there is not a single black character. Other issues range from belittling intelligence (Ross’s character) to stereotyping women for the sake of laughter, etc. But the show has etched its name in the history of pop culture for sure.
The 90s also had another interesting sitcom in the animated format called ‘Daria.’ The show is still relevant, relatable, and funny as it was two decades ago.
‘The Office’ And Bidding Goodbye To Laugh Tracks
The new millennium saw the biggest change in sitcoms. They got rid of the laugh tracks. This is credited to two HBO shows from the 90s, ‘Dream On‘ and ‘The Larry Sanders Show‘ which ran sans laugh track and garnered praise. Many showrunners learned from it and planned to apply it to future shows.
The 2000s saw a series of shows following suit like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm‘, ‘The Office‘, ‘Malcolm in the Middle‘, and ‘Park and Recreation’ among others.
A lack of laugh tracks helped creators to stray from a series of punchlines to more character-based humor and mockumentaries. Another reason might be attributed that people don’t like to be told how to feel. That’s exactly what laugh tracks did.
‘Schitt’s Creek’ And The Ever Changing Face of Sitcoms
"We're showing them what life could be like." 🌈
— Schitt's Creek (@SchittsCreek) June 28, 2020
The humor of 2010s sitcoms was very different from its heydays. Shows are now tackling difficult and mature topics. There is more inclusivity in the cast. For example, ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ has two leading black characters and a major character who is bisexual.
The fact that two major characters in CBC’s ‘Schitt’s Creek‘ are gay, is handled delicately and nonchalantly. It seems that makers aren’t trying to prove a point with it which is refreshing.
We have also seen a number of adult animated sitcoms lately like ‘Bojack Horseman’, ‘South Park’, ‘Rick and Morty’, and ‘Big Mouth‘, etc. They must thank the OG animated sitcom of all time, ‘The Simpsons‘ for paving the way.
In the end, it’s best to conclude that the genre has seen a lot of changes. All of them were much needed as we evolve.
Read More: Controversies On Sitcom Friends