Sitcoms are as American as television can get: They display our signature appreciation for tight-knit circles and the eerie feeling that although time is pushing onwards, you keep reaching the same equilibrium. In their take on “time,” Daily Arts Writers, Maxwell Schwarz and Sophia Yoon tackle recent changes to the sitcom form over time, particularly the recent popularization of single-camera comedies. While Sophia emphasizes the ’90s versus ’00s sitcom debate, Maxwell analyzes further to decipher how changes in camera style and humor ultimately reflects the changing tastes of audiences.
If you grew up sometime within the past four decades, chances are you fall under one of three categories: ’90s sitcom watcher, ’00s sitcom watcher or the kid who had to resort to watching reruns of “Judge Judy” as a result of having strict parents. In the past, I was stuck in the third category, yet despite my exclusion, the genre of situation comedy never ceased its evolution.
Situation comedies are shows that revolve around the same recurring characters played by the same actors in a shared environment. Over the course of their 30-minute run-times, weekly conflicts are resolved cleanly, bringing the show back to its natural equilibrium. Traditional sitcoms are either filmed in front of a live studio audience or use laugh tracks, but this format has been challenged as the genre changed over time. The constant debate on what era of sitcom reigns over the others will never find a resolution — it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Let me explain why.
The great majority of ’90s sitcom fans will cite classics like “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” as the best the genre has to offer. They can probably recite lines and sing along to the theme songs with ease. The same goes for 2000s sitcom watchers with shows like “The Office,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “Parks and Recreation.” There’s definitely some crossover in style between these eras and their TV shows, but, over time, sitcoms have adapted other genres and transformed itself into a modernized new normal, making any new or currently running sitcoms with a live audience or laugh track structure seem outdated and often, tacky. For instance, sitcoms still consist of a group of recurring characters in the same environment, but depending on where the environment is and how the show is shot makes all the difference in how the show’s plot is set up. House-based sitcoms will most likely be about the nuclear family and domestic living, workplace-based sitcoms will vary more but follow along with the lines of the struggles of each workplace industry, and so on and so forth.
An extremely familiar and renowned style of sitcom is the mockumentary, which existed long before in movies like “This is Spinal Tap,” but was popularized with shows like “The Office” and “Modern Family.” Its divergence from the multi-camera, live studio audience is pretty evident, and the mockumentary sitcom’s development is merely a branch off of the classic format — nothing more, nothing less. Think about it. In mockumentaries, we never see the audience, but it’s presumed when the characters are interviewed by the “camera crews” following them. In “The Office,” they explicitly mention the release of the documentary, and we are even able to see a cameraman in the later seasons (which is an entirely different rabbit hole we can’t get into right now). In shows like “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation,” the characters make eye contact with the camera and have interviews, but nobody really mentions why they’re being recorded. Nevertheless, they’re aware the audience is there.
Somewhat similarly, ’90s sitcoms never address the audience directly, but scripts and jokes are tailor-made to fit between audience responses. The environment is nothing like the sleek, cinematic atmosphere of most modern sitcoms. But to its credit, live studio audiences and laugh tracks create the perfect environment to heighten reactions for whatever might be going on in the show’s plotline. Depending on your preferences, hearing audience reactions might be like nails on a chalkboard, but I’ve found that some people just can’t follow quick-witted humor when there’s not an audience telling you when to laugh.
I’m not here to judge, but I will always reserve a little side-eye for people who try and compare the different but equally iconic forms of ’90s sitcoms and ’00s sitcoms. Each come with their own factor of nostalgia, which makes it even more impossible to objectively compare these distant relatives. So don’t. Take them as they are for what they are — funny shows with loveable characters and quick resolution.
—Sophia Yoon, Daily Arts Writer
Sitcoms are a timeless television staple. From 1946’s “Pinwright’s Progress” to the comedy powerhouse that was “I Love Lucy,” to television’s current comedy darling “Master of None,” sitcoms have been been around for a long time. But if you compare “I Love Lucy” to something like “The Office,” you might have trouble equating them. We might call them the same genre, but their forms are very different. They reflect the era in which they were made — which only begs the question, where does it go from here?
When you think of a sitcom, you probably imagine a very particular kind of standard. A multi-camera set up with regular locations and the almighty laugh track. This form has persisted for decades now, with classic staples like “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” and “Cheers.” But these are the sitcoms of old. Our modern sitcoms are single-camera shows, they move freely between locations and are devoid of laugh tracks. The camera snaps between characters with rapid-fire dialogue and subtle jokes. Shows like “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” do not look like standard sitcoms. They almost look like low-budget independent films with their low lighting, dark humor and shaking cameras.
The modern shows that follow the more traditional form also seem to get an awful lot of flack. Consider “The Big Bang Theory.” If you look that show up on Google, followed by the word “sucks,” you’ll get an astounding amount of results. Or, how about “Two and a Half Men”? How often do you hear about that show?
If the ubiquity of white girls with “I love ‘The Office’” in their Tinder bios is any indication, then our generation clearly favors the single-cam approach. It seems like the evolution of the sitcom is a kind of devolution, where the fewer the cameras and the more open the world onscreen is, the better it is for audiences. However, this shift makes it difficult to predict how the form is supposed to progress from here. The multi-camera, laugh track standard has been around for decades, and with the relatively new invention of the single-camera sitcom, the genre shows no signs of departing soon from our TV guides.
I think it’s worth considering what the laugh track actually does, and perhaps, it will elucidate the causes for its decline in popularity. It doesn’t just cue viewers into the joke. It creates a sense of community, a collectivity that just isn’t present in single-cam sitcoms. If you think about it, single-cam shows are kind of lonely. Under what circumstances did you last watch “Parks and Rec”? Alone, in your bed, with the lights off? Do we really think laugh tracks make us feel stupid, or are we just more lonely that we used to be? Maybe this trend of single-camera shows won’t last. Maybe it’ll fizzle out soon. Or maybe it’ll get to the point where the only way we can connect with a show is by making the camera a character — including us in the situations, letting us live somehow with the characters, like a distorted concoction of VR and meta-television. I guess the answer isn’t so much how sitcoms will change, but how sitcoms will interact with the overarching feelings we project onto them.
—Maxwell Schwarz, Daily Arts Writer