Recently, the subject of sitcoms has come up in many conversations I’ve had with friends. Mostly it’s just them saying they don’t like sitcoms because of the predictable format most of them follow. I completely understand this criticism and don’t even necessarily disagree with people who dislike the formula. However, those who can only see tired plotting and applause breaks in the shows are really missing the point. In my estimation, the point of a sitcom is not so much inventive plots and interesting characters as it is delivering funny jokes for sensible chuckles. Sitcom is after all a portmanteau of situation and comedy. Poorly written shows likeThe Big BangTheory and Modern Family, both shows that are a little long in the tooth, don’t have decent jokes, or at the very least, the plots tend to focus too much on the wacky zaniness of the characters rather than letting the jokes do the bulk of the heavy lifting.
For me, sitcoms like New Girl or Brooklyn Nine-Nine are perfect examples of what a sitcom can or should be: something funny to watch while you’re eating a sandwich at lunch. That is a perfect way to view a show like those mentioned above. This is not to say that sitcoms are cheap and disposable and just a way to pass the time. Actually, a really good sitcom is hard to do because it’s a structure based on getting the audience to the next big laugh by guiding them down a smooth river of character interplay and smaller laughs. In a way, it functions like an action movie except for it’s all very dependent on words instead of actions.
In the age of prestige television, a decent sitcom is hard to come by because nobody’s out there trying to make them. Everybody seems he focused on the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad, shows that are like movies and make the audience feel smart and sad at the same time—basic exercises in what I like to call misery endurance. What the misery endurance shows seem to forget is the lesson at the core of a very old adage, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Finding a smart punchline to a joke is much harder than deciding which emotion to manipulate in a dramatic plot turn. A sitcom is like the waltz, sure we know all the steps, but does that does that stop us from standing and clapping when we see it done by the experts?