Turn on your TV on any given night of the week and you will come across a variety of sitcoms. From classic reruns to more current knee-slappers, the sitcom, short for situational comedy, is the hallmark of the 30-minute television show. While most sitcoms feature a cast of characters weaving their way in and out of bizarre scenarios and circumstances in the home or in the workplace, there are other key features that are characteristic of the sitcom.
Traditionally sitcoms were composed of self-contained episodes in which conflicts and events had no correlation. Although the characters were the same, the sitcom moved from conflict to resolution by the end of each episode. However, cliffhangers and on-going storylines slowly made their way into the sitcom with additions of relationships, marriages and babies. Today, the sitcom is a mixture of conflict resolution and on-going storylines that can be likened to the soap opera.
The TV sitcom you typically has certain character archetypes such as the wisecracker. This is the character that lives to make fun of the other characters on the show. The bully, another typical character archetype, has a rough exterior although they are generally good-natured at the core. The square is typically the central protagonist of the sitcom. Slightly on the nerdy side, a large part of a sitcom’s comedy comes from the square’s reactions to situations. The dork is stereotypically nerdy or geeky visually, but their nerdiness can also manifest in their actions making them the butt of the joke. Conversely there may also be a goofball. This is the ditzy character on the show. Normally existing outside the core cast of characters, there is also a sage. This person can be a neighbor, parent or authority figure who acts as mentor to the group.
Humor is a key feature of the sitcom. It is largely character-driven, resulting in zingers and one-liners at another character’s expense. Occasionally, there will be running jokes concerning a character’s personality, flaws or disposition. Sitcoms also make use of social commentary. Jokes and storylines will fall in line with current events. A recent addition to sitcom humor is the flashback. The flashback occurs when a character begins to talk about a situation or experience and suddenly the camera cuts to a blip that shows the character in an awkward or humorous situation. Sitcoms like "30 Rock," "Family Guy" and "Arrested Development" have all made use of the flashback.
The laugh track is viewed as the hallmark of the sitcom. In the 1950s, sitcoms began using laugh tracks, a pre-recorded effect that is inserted into the show during post-production. The laugh track is meant to cue the audience, letting them know when to laugh. Many shows tape in front of a live, studio audience; however the laugh track is still inserted into the show. The disappearance of the laugh track is also a recent addition to the TV sitcom. Shows have found that they can be just as funny without canned laughter.