The format of the situational comedy—“sitcom”, as it is most frequently called—was conceived in the post-World War II era. Some dismiss it as sub-par compared to other TV genres, while many argue it’s an art form worthy of respect. But love them or despise them, sitcoms have the power to influence the way we think and to even promote awareness for social issues like gay rights (Will & Grace), alcoholism, and even teen pregnancy (Mom)
And they come in different, colorful “packages”. Some sitcoms are centered on romantic relationships (Mad About You,Mike & Molly). A few show the funny side of family life (Family Matters,The Cosby Show, Arrested Development). Others are just outrageous, random and seem to be about nothing (Seinfeld).
So what makes a sitcom successful? And why are so many canceled before their second season?
Let’s take a look at our first case study: Fox’s Dads. The show’s concept seemed unique: a couple of thirtysomething year old men have their lives disrupted when their temperamental dads move in with them.
Sounds humorous enough. So what went wrong?
In the show Brenda Song’s character, Veronica, caused a negative sensation with a lot of people. In the pilot, her character is seductively dressed up as an Asian school girl trying to manipulate a group of Chinese business investors. Seth Green’s character, Eli, demonstrates: “Just go like this,” he tells her, giggling with his hands over his mouth. She goes along with it, emerging in full Sailor Moon attire, with her buttons undone revealing her lacy red bra. Warner (Giovanni Ribisi) yells, “Hellooooooo, Kitty!” Worse yet, Veronica doesn’t seem to mind.
This first episode alone could do a lot of damage to women’s perception of this show and potentially alienate a lot of viewers. It was enough of a red flag for some viewers who slammed the show as being misogynistic and racist. Alyssa Rosenberg (features editor of the ThinkProgress Web site) even called Dads “morally wrong.”
The Network’s response? Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly asked for patience from the critics. He defended Dads stating that it had scored favorably among a cross-section of viewers during focus testing.
“We don’t want the show to be the racial insult comedy show,” said veteran executive producer Mike Scully. He compared the negative reception of Dads to the early days of The Simpsons when some viewers felt disturbed by Homer strangling Bart.
It is worth noting that Dads is also produced by Seth MacFarlane who created Family Guy. Yet the racist jokes which appear to be ‘overlooked’ in Family Guy have been condemned in Dads.
An example, in Family Guy there is an episode where Peter proclaims his abstinence by declaring that he was going to be “as untouched as the turn signal in an Asian woman’s car.” The camera then cuts to an Asian woman asking, “How much signal I need to cut across eight lane? None?”
Are double standards okay if it’s in cartoon form? Maybe because Family Guy features animated actors, racist and sexist jokes are not taken as seriously as other sitcoms?
According to the popularity of Family Guy, this appears to be true. The animated series has been on since 1999 and has a ranking of 8.4/10 (out of 176,488 votes) on IMDB. Not even Dads’ tagline, “From the creators of Ted & Family Guy” could save this show.
How about the canceled sitcom, Whitney? As a show created and run by a woman, it had a lot of potential to showcase women writers as forces to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the show did not reflect that ideal as some viewers felt the female characters were weak and that the male characters were more likeable.
Could this be a critical issue that some sitcom writers ignore? Are weak female characters a recipe for cancelation?
We can compare Whitney to the ‘80s hit show, The Golden Girls. Why did this sitcom do so well? And what made it work?
Scott Sedita, author of The Eight Characters of Comedy: Guide to Sitcom Writing, says: “Defining a specific character and having them interact with other specific characters, creating conflict, is essential for any good sitcom.”
The writers of The Golden Girls comprehended this concept. The foundation of this classic comedy is unshakeable with its four, strongly defined female characters and their specific personalities. Their differences create conflict and hilarious moments and even though they are often vulnerable with each other, the characters themselves are never portrayed as being weak.
In The Golden Girls, women’s issues are almost always at the heart of each episode, with the show’s conclusion consistently being that they tackle and conquer obstacles life and society throw at them.
Female characters on screen should show their capability to overcome issues just as their male counterparts often do. They shouldn’t be reduced to passive roles where life happens to them, but rather that they take charge of it. This is another issue in sitcoms that could alienate a female audience, and even result in a failed show.
Examples of powerful female characters on television are Designing Women and Murphy Brown. Both sitcoms were produced and written by women. Murphy Brown in particular received praise from critics who hailed the character Murphy Brown for her confidence and assertiveness in a male-dominated work place.
A character on TV being so unapologetically powerful is quite possibly what made millions of viewers (particularly women) fall in love with Murphy Brown.
But back to the present. How about Bad Teacher?
In Bad Teacher, the main character, Meredith is sexy and tough. She takes the bull (and life) by the horns, she’s not weak and… doesn’t sex sell? Yet this show never made it. What went wrong?
The website, SodaHead asked in April 2014: “With so many headlines of physical and sexual abuse in schools by teachers; is it appropriate for Hollywood to make such a TV series as Bad Teacher?
63% on “SodaHead” said “no.”
For some viewers it is a reminder of a Mary Kay Letourneau who pleaded guilty in 1997 to raping her sixth grade student Vili Fualaau, who was 12 at the time. It is obviously a difficult and delicate subject. And while this is a show based on fiction, some viewers find the storyline of a lustful middle school teacher to be too inappropriate for primetime TV.
Can a sitcom is considered too sexy is it a goner? The answer, somewhat unsurprisingly: not necessarily.
Take for example the Emmy award winner, 2 Broke Girls. It has two tenacious female leads. Check. But how is it that this comedy which is drenched in sexual innuendos is still alive and kicking on TV?
Does 2 Broke Girls appeal to a different demographic than Bad Teacher? Has Bad Teacher suffered because of the media’s influence and news headlines? And is it fair for viewers to be critical of a show that is fictional and has no connection to actual crimes committed?
Let’s move on to the show Mystery Girls. While watching Mystery Girls, I kept staring at the screen wondering when a funny line was coming along. As a fan of the original 90210, I really wanted this to be a TV victory for Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth. I was rooting for them. However, the 3.7 out of 10 score on IMDB was a strong indicator to me that this show was likely over.
Viewers just don’t seem to like it. Here’s maybe why:
1. The show is not family-friendly. It has a Teen Nick feel to it, but then also has a lot of sexual undertones. It’s enough to make a lot of parents uncomfortable.
2. The basis of the show seems clumsy and unrealistic. They played detectives on a fictitious show, and now they believe they have the expertise to be detectives? Audiences are not stupid. They know this plot doesn’t add up.
3. The “crimes” are too simple and easy to solve. This doesn’t allow the audience to feel any satisfying suspense because it’s so obvious what’s coming next.
And how can a sitcom (or show) succeed if your viewers don’t feel some sort of satisfaction at the end just before the credits roll up?
We could study this in a different way. In his book, The Eight Characters of Comedy: Guide to Sitcom Writing, Scott Sedita says, “Comedy comes from pain and desperation.”
In Mystery Girls, the main characters go from being TV stars to instant “detectives”. No mention of college, no evidence of blood, sweat or tears. So…where’s the “pain” and “desperation”? Where’s the struggle? There isn’t any. And the fact that the writers spared any pain and desperation for its main characters is arguably what sealed this sitcom’s fate as being over before it ever really began.
So again…what makes a sitcom “great”? What makes it unforgettable?
Let’s examine the phenomenal success of The Cosby Show.
The Cosby Show was the most-watched show in the United States for four years running from 1985-86 through 1988-89 (when it dropped to second place in 1989-90).
The show featured an upper middle-class African American family living in Brooklyn Heights, New York. The matriarch is attorney Clair Huxtable and patriarch is Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable, an obstetrician. Originally Heathcliff was supposed to be a postal worker, but this plan was rejected and it is widely believed that this added to the show’s success. The sitcom rebelled against stereotypes of what African Americans are “supposed” to do for a living and promoted the idea that African Americans have the same right to enjoy financial success and an elevated status quo. As a result, many African American viewers seemed to like the show because they enjoyed seeing positive representations of themselves on TV.
Other factors which made this sitcom successful were its cast of likeable characters. Dr. Huxtable was like the perfect TV dad. He demonstrates to parents how to discipline with humor and does so with childlike actions, silly faces, and even a bit of manipulation.
And then there is Clair Huxtable. She defied the negative cliché of black women on television who always seemed to be portrayed as financially struggling, single, and with dysfunctional relationships. She obliterated that stereotype by showing us a sophisticated, intelligent and strong woman who adored her children and husband.
It was a refreshing change for viewers who enjoyed seeing such an uplifting depiction of an African American family. And so, the The Cosby Show has gone down in history as being one of the greatest sitcoms ever—if not the greatest.
Phil Ramuno and Henry Winkler sum it up in The Sitcom Career Book, “When all the elements come together the sitcom is magic… But that… doesn’t happen without inspired writing, brilliant performances and pitch-perfect direction.”
We get to support the shows that inspire and liberate us and we hold the power to reject the ones whose stereotypes and discrimination oppress us.
As Saul Austerlitz writes in his study Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community, “TV, more than film belongs to its audiences, and they determine the ultimate value-the ultimate meaning-of the shows they watch.”