Sitcom Sociology

The sitcom is a fascinating genre of television. When you ask us why we love their stories and characters, most of us reply, “Because they make us laugh.” But I suspect there is something more than humour alone that draws us into one season after another. We don’t love Lucy just because she is funny.

Like all fictions, sitcoms are fantasies: they invite us into alternate realities. If we examine the sitcom universe as a whole — that is, if we compare these alternate realities to one another — some patterns emerge.

First, situation comedies are stories about particular casts of characters. The entourage must be realistic enough for us to relate in some way, but they cannot be so familiar as to be boring. Everything about a sitcom — including the humour — depends on the relationships of its characters. From this perspective, sitcoms are not really about comedy — they are about groups of people. It is the balance of similarity and dissimilarity of these social groups to our actual lives that makes them so broadly appealing. While the casts of shows like Friends, Seinfeld, The Office, Big Bang Theory, and Modern Family are indeed quirky and usual, they are also easily identifiable. In these on-screen caricatures, we recognize some of the characters in our own lives.

The true magic of sitcoms, however, rest in their dissimilarity to our own lives. The recipe to a successful series is the invention of social situations that are virtually impossible to survive in real life. In the name of humour, characters can do and say things to one another that would invariably incite resentment, bitterness, and offence in real people. In this alternate universe, repairing the social fallout from the most awkward, humiliating, and nauseating human experiences is the job of producers and script writers. Creating plausible causes for forgiveness and resolution is as easy as introducing a new little plot twist. Hearts can be changed as easily as screenplays can be written. For as long as the television network deems a show profitable, it is the job of the narrative architect to miraculously rescue the characters from the constant litany of insults and offences that would surely undermine most human relationships outside of a studio set.

I think this is one reason why we love sitcoms: they invite us to participate in imaginary social circles that are virtually indestructible. The core cast of a sitcom is a group of people who always figure out a way to stay friends despite impossible odds. As sure as there’s another episode on actors’ contracts, redemption and reconciliation are virtually guaranteed. No matter how slighted or offended a character might be — a necessary consequence occurring as the result of most comedic situations — there’s always a way to socially reintegrate everyone.

In this sense, a sitcom is, basically, what we all want in life: friends who will be there no matter what happens. Sitcoms are about much more than make-believe places where everybody knows your name: they are about make-believe places where your inclusion is permanent. The fabric of camaraderie must be always systematically threatened by internal and external forces on the relationships, as in real life, but in a sitcom the stasis of friendship is restored.

It is precisely because sitcom social circles are so indestructible that they can be a platform for comedy at all. In order to create imaginary environments where people can say and do outlandishly ridiculous things to one another (in the name of getting a laugh out of us), writers and directors require a cast of individuals comprised of personality traits and idiosyncrasies that can perpetually clash and be repeatedly reconciled. This is the recipe of every successful sitcom.

All this leads to my main argument. On the basis of the group’s guaranteed cohesion, sitcom characters are able to do something that is virtually impossible in real life: be absolutely honest with each other all the time. The fictional characters can tell one another what they really think and feel, without eventually (and permanently) alienating one another. They can make comments about one another that, in real life, would fundamentally jeopardize trust. A sitcom’s ultimate caricature is a fictionalized version of honesty itself.

What endears us to sitcoms? Trust. We are mesmerized by the idea of friends who will remain friends no matter what they say and do to one another. And their vulnerability leads to an fictionalized intimacy on screen that is endlessly attractive to us. They are know and are fully known by one another. At the same time, they never need to strategically tweak the truth to risk hurting each other’s feelings. They enjoy 100% openness and 100% acceptance.

In real life, however, trust is extremely fragile. Actual human beings don’t follow scripts. They are not contractually bound to show up again next week. What you say and do to your real friends matters. It matters a lot. Such is the plight of not living in a television show.

Sitcoms point out the inescapable psychological dissonance we must navigate in our own relationships: our desire for mutual authenticity balanced with our desire for communal stability. The sitcom fantasyland enables us to imagine a world where people can be utterly forthright and unguarded, and yet socially secure and accepted no matter what. This, indeed, is why we describe sitcoms as fantasies — we know that in the real world the way we treat one another is laced with liabilities and consequences.

2 thoughts on “Sitcom Sociology

  1. I see what you’re saying, James, about identifying with positive and forgiving relationships. What I have difficulty understanding is why people like characters in shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Friends. Would you say that it is because they are horrible people, the audience likes them more because their friends forgive the most hurtful and degrading insults from one another? So, no matter how bad their own personal relationships are, at least they aren’t Raj or Wolowitz, or God forbid, Leonard.

    • This is a good point. On the whole, most sitcom characters are pretty selfish and self-oriented people. (I imagine that their chronic selfishness ultimately serves as a comedic plot device to drive stories ahead. A group of people who don’t want things — let alone conflicting things — isn’t going to push a narrative.) My hypothesis is that we love these characters not because they are selfish per se but because their selfishness is manifestly obvious. They wear it on their sleeve. Most importantly, they live in these wonderful make believe social environments where everyone can be transparently self-obsessed AND still remain friends. They get the ‘best of both worlds’: they can think of nothing but themselves and yet it always magically works out that their friends stay by their sides. This doesn’t work well at all in real life!

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