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TELEVISION HUMOR: Stereotypes and Innovations in Sitcoms . by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen. “It’s a jungle out there.” --Adrian Monk. THE ARRIVAL OF TV? . When television first arrived, people had dire predictions: NO ONE WOULD READ BOOKS. NEWSPAPERS WOULD DIE.

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Television humor stereotypes and innovations in sitcoms

TELEVISION HUMOR:Stereotypes and Innovations in Sitcoms

by Don L. F. Nilsen and

Alleen Pace Nilsen

The arrival of tv

  • When television first arrived, people had dire predictions:






  • In fact, television contributed to making other media more popular.

  • How can this be true?

  • What cross-overs do we see?

Humor was part of tv from the very beginning

  • In the 1950s, many people purchased TV sets just so as not to be left out of the fun.

  • Water pressure in New York City used to be influenced by when the advertising breaks came on I Love Lucy because that’s when everyone got up and went to the bathroom.

  • Several of today’s sitcoms get more viewers than did the early “classics,” but they aren’t as influential because there are now so many more choices.

I love lucy 1951 1957
I LOVE LUCY (1951-1957)

The show was praised as “a complete synthesis” of TV comedy because it had

  • The music and burlesque of Berle,

  • The plot strength and slickness of Amos ‘n’ Andy,

  • The charm of Burns and Allen, and the naturalness of The Goldbergs.

    It was the first sitcom to be filmed in front of a live audience. But, most important was Lucille Ball’s comedic talent and her ambitions in this time when domesticity was being held up as the be-all and end-all.

    She was a forerunner to the feminist movement of the next decade when millions of women were too bright and too ambitious to want to “stay in the kitchen.”

Television humor sit coms late night tv

Sitcoms were developed first for radio and then moved to television. They replaced the old jokes that were part of vaudeville and travelling shows because:

  • Old jokes could become funny when tied to individuals that viewers already “knew” and “liked.” New situations supplied the element of surprise that is necessary for jokes to succeed.

  • Stories could move faster because script writers did not have to set the scene or introduce characters for each episode.

  • Also, they served as zeitgeists, i.e. they reflected the spirit of the timesby focusing attention on whatever issues viewers were most interested in.

One of the most successful transfers from radio to television was the goldbergs
One of the most successful transfers from radio to television was The Goldbergs.

  • Molly Goldberg was a warm, Jewish mother living in an apartment in the Bronx.

  • Her radio story was popular all through the 1930s and ‘40s, and on TV from 1949 until 1954.

  • Characters with accents had been popular on radio because their accents helped audiences recognize who was who.

Television humor sit coms late night tv
In the 1950s, when Americans were giving serious thoughts to integration, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a less successful transfer.

  • It first aired on radio in 1928, and was adapted for TV in 1951. It had come out of the minstrelsy tradition, and was really “blackface comedy,” meaning whites were playing the black roles. This kind of artificial humorwas unacceptable and the show (with new black actors) lasted only one year on television.

  • Twenty years later in 1972, Sanford and Son brought a new kind of African American humor to television.


Television humor sit coms late night tv
The 1980s integration, Cosby Show featured an upwardly mobile African American family, but some critics thought it was “too white.”

The fresh prince of bel air was a new kind of family sitcom
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air integration, Was a New Kind of Family Sitcom

  • Between 1990 and 1996, Will Smith starred in a fictionalized version of his own story.

  • He was a street smart Black teenager from Philadelphia sent to live with his aunt and uncle in the wealthy town of Bel Air.

  • Of course, there were cultural conflicts that made for humor, but it also brought up serious issues.

An overgeneralized plot description of sitcoms
An Overgeneralized Plot Description of Sitcoms integration,

  • Each segment has its own plot so that the shows circle around to end much as they began with the setting and the music being the same.

  • Shows begin with a humorous complication, which the characters try to solve, but usually make worse.

  • Near the end, an unexpected force enters the scene and solves the problem, leaving the characters ready for the next week’s challenge.

The first really popular tv sitcoms were family stories
The First Really Popular TV Sitcoms Were Family Stories integration,

  • In the 1950s, World War II was over and people felt a great nostalgia for the “old days” when fathers went off to work and mothers stayed home with the children.

  • Of course, life had never been as idyllic as it seemed in retrospect, but nevertheless the idea of FAMILY was central.

  • A more practical reason for family shows was that households owned only one TV set and so families all watched together.

But very soon audiences wanted more than just the foibles of typical families
But very soon, audiences wanted more than just the foibles of “typical families.”

This meant that producers went looking for variety to go beyond Leave It to Beaverand Father Knows Best. We soon had:

  • Happy Days

  • The Waltons

  • And such blended or one-parent families as The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, andDiff’rent Strokes.

All in the family 1970s
All in the Family of “typical families.” (1970s)

The most controversial—and also the most influential of the family sitcoms—All in the Family—brought attention to middle class prejudices as revealed through Archie Bunker’s actions and statements. However, some thoughtful critics worried that the program was teaching old prejudices to a new generation instead of eradicating them.

Roseanne 1988 1995 was a kind of protest against the goody good mothers in most family sitcoms
Roseanne of “typical families.” (1988-1995) was a kind of protest against the “goody-good” mothers in most family sitcoms.

  • She was described as rude, crass, and “blue-collar.”

  • Married … with Children had a similar description.

Fantasy was another way of satirizing perfect families
Fantasy Was Another Way of Satirizing “Perfect” Families

  • In the mid-1960s both The Munsters (on the right) and the Addams Family proved that not all families are the same.

  • I Dream of Jeannie, also in the 1960s, was a fantasy about a 2,000 year-old genie in love with an American astronaut.

The best known one parent family sitcom was mayberry rfd 1950 s
The Best Known One-Parent Family Sitcom was Mayberry RFD, 1950’s

  • When Andy Griffith died in the summer of 2012, every obituary writer nostalgically mentioned Mayberry RFD.

  • Reruns had made the show known to 2nd, and even 3rd, generations despite critic’s complaints that Mayberry was the only U.S. southern town with no African Americans.

Mayberry rfd added a new twist in that andy was the sheriff other career sitcoms soon followed
Mayberry RFD added a new twist in that Andy was the Sheriff. Other “Career” sitcoms soon followed

There is no end to the careers that could make way for old jokes in new situations as with Mary Tyler Moore’s spinoff from the Dick Van Dyke Show (1970-1977), Tim Allen’s Home Improvement (1991-1999), and Tina Fey’s current 30 Rock.

Television humor sit coms late night tv
Everybody Loves Raymond (2000’s) was not as much about a couple and their children as about a couple and their parents.

  • Did Raymond come off looking like Father Knows Best or like Dagwood?

  • How important were the children?

  • Where were the kindly grandparents?

  • Was it a show for kids or adults?

Everybody loves raymond
Everybody Loves Raymond:

Television humor sit coms late night tv

The Dick Van Dyke Show let the public in on script-writing while Scrubs opened the door to the medical profession. Other popular career shows include:

  • Cheers

  • Frasier

  • M*A*S*H

  • The Office

  • Parks and Recreation

  • Spin City

  • Taxi

  • Two and a Half Men

  • The Vicar of Dibley (a BBC show)

Television humor sit coms late night tv


Television humor sit coms late night tv

Viewers like characters who resemble people they might know, but they feel uncomfortable if they think a script writer is making fun of them or of their ethnicity.

This is one of the reasons for sitcom characters to be “distanced” from the viewers.

One way of creating this distance is to make the subjects of the sitcom so extreme that viewers will not feel that the script is about them.

For example, none of us would worry that we were as incompetent as were the characters played by Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in Green Acres (1965-1971).

The 1960s beverly hillbillies were equally extreme but from the opposite end of the social system
The 1960s but they feel uncomfortable if they think a script writer is making fun of them or of their ethnicity.Beverly Hillbillies were equally extreme, but from the opposite end of the social system.

When oil was discovered on the Clampett’s Ozark farm, their new wealth allowed them to move to Beverly Hills.

Some viewers were offended, but most just chuckled and felt “superior.”

Another way to distance characters is to bring them from outer space
Another Way to Distance Characters Is to Bring Them from Outer Space

  • Alf (1986-1990) was brought from another planet.

  • So was Mork for the popular Mork and Mindy. Robin Williams became famous playing Mork between 1978 and 1982.

Settings naturally influence the kind of story being told
Settings Naturally Influence the Kind of Story Being Told Outer Space

  • One of the first animated sitcoms was The Flintstones (1960-1966), a prehistoric family show set in Bedrock. It starred Fred and Wilma Flintstone and their daughter Pebbles. Hanna Barbera created this pioneering show with the catch phrase of “Yabba, dabba, doo!”

  • Between 1962-63, and later between 1985 and 1987, a space-age counterpart, The Jetsons, was a science fiction family sitcom, that was popular with children, who loved the transportation system and the robots for doing housework.

Animated sit coms automatically create distance
Animated Sit-Coms Automatically Create Distance Outer Space

This is why Family Guy (1999-2012) is allowed to be so vulgar as the stories are told about the dysfunctional Griffins.

Creator Seth MacFarlane “voices” several of the characters.

Television humor sit coms late night tv
The edginess and vulgarity of Outer SpaceSouthpark is all the more shocking because the lines are spoken by “children.”

South park
South Park Outer Space

Television humor sit coms late night tv

The long life of Outer SpaceThe Simpsons (since 1989)relates to the smart allusions, the up-to-date plots, the appeal to all ages, and the fact that the “actors” can go on forever.

The simpsons
The Simpsons Outer Space

The popularity of non family members living together
The Popularity of Non-Family Members Living Together Outer Space

  • One of the biggest cultural changes of the last couple of decades has been the increasing number of people living outside of typical families.

  • This is especially true of young adults, and because they are the audience that advertisers want to woo in hopes of influencing lifetime buying patterns, producers can afford to put big money into shows about independent young people.

  • Three’s Company was a ground-breaker because it challenged gender expectations.

  • It would be fun to compare the humor of that show with the humor in today’s popular Big Bang Theory or with the humor in Golden Girls.

Television humor sit coms late night tv
And because the shows are about young people, we expect the characters to grow and change, i.e. to be “dynamic.”

Critic Leo Charney says that Friends, Sex and the City, and Mad About You are dynamic sitcoms because of their long arcs of character evolution and carefully worked-out resolutions.

He classifies them as a hybrid between the sitcom and the soap opera because of the way the characters age, change, and grow as they would in real life.

Television humor sit coms late night tv

The actors in characters to grow and change, i.e. to be “dynamic.” Friends were much older than their audiences believed; nevertheless college students and even teens identified with the life style.

People joked about the popular seinfeld complaining that nothing happens
People joked about the popular Seinfeld, complaining that “Nothing happens.”

Seinfeldattracted some of the same audience as did Friends—but Seinfeld also had adults in the audience and they did not expect so much growth. In literary terms, the characters were “static.”

The Seinfeld scripts fit into the traditional definition of a sit- com in that the characters are emotionally much the same at the beginning and the end of the shows.

Intricate attentive humor
Intricate-Attentive Humor “Nothing happens.”

Television humor sit coms late night tv
The success of “Nothing happens.”Golden Girls (1985-1992) showed that not just young people can imagine living in a family of “strangers.”

  • In all but one year, the show ranked in the top ten.

  • It starred Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, and Betty White, who is still performing.

  • It would be fun to compare it to The Big Bang.

Current slapstick comedy
Current Slapstick Comedy “Nothing happens.”

Arrested Development


Parks and Recreation

Tosh.O, etc.

Compare TV Slapstick to Movie Slapstick:

Jackass, The Three Stooges, Shrek, Scary Movie, etc.

Physical humor in sit coms
Physical Humor in Sit Coms “Nothing happens.”


Parks and Recreation:

Futurama icons
Futurama “Nothing happens.”Icons

Television humor sit coms late night tv

Some people consider “Nothing happens.”NCIS (the most popular show of 2012) to be a career sitcom. But we think of it as a drama whose writers have borrowed techniques from sitcoms, as in these examples:

  • An eccentric character, who can be counted on for a laugh, is Abby Sciento, the smart Goth girl who works as the forensic specialist and is always sipping “Caff cows” so that she is “hyper.”

  • Dr. Mallard, who lets only his approved co-workers call him Ducky, is laughable in the way he always wears bowties and talks to the corpses that he is examining.

  • Ziva David, the investigator from Israel, constantly makes amusing errors with English idioms.

Ncis continued
NCIS (continued) “Nothing happens.”

  • Anthony DeNozzo (referred to as Tony)is always quoting lines from movies and mispronouncing other people’s names.

  • A recurring joke is that Jethro Gibbs always shows up when he is being talked about, and a recognizable motif is the way he slaps people on the side of their heads.

  • Another recurring joke is the way they all throw around the word proby. It is a half-insult in that it stands for probationary, but it probably also reminds viewers of all the probing that goes on.

N c i s smiles and farewells
N.C.I.S. Smiles and Farewells “Nothing happens.”

In summary
In Summary “Nothing happens.”

  • Sitcoms have been popular since the very beginning, with family stories being the most popular, as the shows began reflecting changing family dynamics.

  • They often feature young adults, who are at interesting points of change in their lives.

  • A second reason for featuring young adults is that advertisers will pay for high production costs because they are especially eager to woo potential customers who are in the process of developing their life-long buying habits.

Talk show web sites
TALK SHOW WEB SITES “Nothing happens.”





Television humor sit coms late night tv

DAVID LETTERMAN: “Nothing happens.”