The term ‘sitcom’ was created in the 1950’s to cover a new type of comedy. ‘I love Lucy’ is considered the first show to meet the full criteria but the first show considered to have created the format is ‘Pinwright’s progress’ which ran for 10 episodes in 1946 – 47.
Since the format has been created it has been used in so many different situations, work places, homes or places of leisure. They have all been covered but as I have been watching sitcoms over the years and more recently for these few shows, I have noticed that sitcoms primarily fall into one of seven categories. While they may contain elements of several categories they all fit into a primary category.
The Buffoon – These shows revolve around a single individual whose antics are the source of the comedy. These can be of two kinds, an individual who is aware of their foolishness or someone who is so convinced of their ability while everyone around them sees the foolishness. This is one of the most popular categories, some shows have even changed direction to fit into this character, it’s the Homer Simpson affect. These are a chance to laugh at the arrogant pompous prat that you know and can’t believe has gotten to a certain position in work or life. Examples are: The Brittas Empire, Keeping up appearances, Citizen Kahn, Some Mother’s do have them, Fawlty Towers
The sensible person – These shows are the counter to “The Buffoon” shows. In these the main character is the lone sensible individual stuck in a situation surrounded by idiots and trouble makers. The comedy coming from either the individual suffering through the antics of the idiots around them or getting out of trouble usually caused by said idiots. These shows reflect the frustration we have all felt at one time or another, when we have been exasperated by the incompetence of others, believing that we are trapped in a world in which only ‘I’ seem to know how to get things done. Examples are: Blackadder, Allo Allo, Porridge, The Vicar of Dibley
The grotesques – When shows move away from single main characters you have to consider the group. The first of these groups is the exaggerated and twisted versions of reality that are the grotesques. The comedy and jokes are created by the unbelievable and sometime vile antics of the group. These may push the bounds of reality and taste at time but they can also be incredibly funny, in a twisted and very British way. These are the shows that have a hyper stylised slap stick version of the world, almost ‘Looney Toon’ in the levels of violence and comedy. It’s easy to laugh at these but there is an underlying acknowledgement that the viewer knows someone, or a group of people, that are reflected in the grotesques of the show. Examples are: Bottom, Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie, The young ones, The league of Gentlemen
The Circus – A less exaggerated version of the group sitcoms are the circus. Shows that portray a group of people of differing statuses. The easy option for this category is a group of buffoons; this will either be all of them acting in their own interest or this group of Buffoons against the world. A more complex and in many cases a more satisfying version of this is having competent people at odds with one another while trying to manage the circus around them. The comedy comes from the group’s interactions and them dealing with the larger world. Examples are: Benidorm, Bread, The thin blue line, My Family, Yes Minister (Prime Minister)
The Underdogs – These are the down trodden and underrepresented. These are the shows that, when done well, usual have the most heart. These are the losers that we love to see make good but we are also happy to laugh when they fall on their arse. Examples are: Steptoe and Son, Red Dwarf, Inbetweeners, Only fools and Horses, Dad’s Army, Last of the Summer Wine.
Just us – The groups in the previous categories are usually thrown together in a situation and vary in size. This category could be considered an off shoot of the previous group categories but I think there are enough shows for it to get its own category. The shows in this category focus in small groups of 2 to 4 people. The comedy derives from the situations and the interactions within that small group. These smaller groups can be of varying status and success however the key to these shows is the sincerity of the relationship between the principle characters. Examples are: Just Good Friends, Men Behaving Badly, The likely lads, Waiting for God
Awkward! – This is a relatively new form of sitcom that has become popular in the last 10 years or so. These shows will have a focus on characters and the comedy comes from the reaction to an act or situation rather than the typical set up and punch line. It seems to me that these shows are aiming to make the viewer feel uncomfortable as well as laugh, I equal measure. Raising a question in the viewer of whether they should actually be finding this character or situation funny. Examples are: The Office, Gavin and Stacey
As I mentioned previously, the majority of sitcoms will cross two, maybe even three of the above categories. However, they will always fit into a primary category that forms the crux of the show. For Example, “Steptoe and Son” could easily be slotted into “Just Us” as the show focuses on the relationship between a Father and Son. However, I contend that while this relationship is important to the show, the bigger key to both the heart and comedy of the show is the fact they are ‘Rag and Bone men’ (add in link). They are at the bottom of the social ladder with aspirations and desires of doing better. Therefore the show fits primarily into the “Underdogs” category. If they were wealthy the relationship between the two would change and the source of comedy would have to change. The same case can be made for “Only Fools and Horses”.
The point I should make is that some shows will shift as they evolve. “Blackadder” series 1 is very firmly in the Buffoon category and actually suffers for it. The writers understood this pretty quickly and from series 2 onwards the character of “Blackadder” changed to become the ‘only sensible person’, thus changing the drive and comedy of the show. It also becomes a lot better.
Looking back at the categories above it is easy to apply them to British sitcoms. I am not so sure, however, that they could be applied to sitcoms from other countries. For example, where would Friends fit in? I would suggest it would most likely be “The Circus” but it is this its primary crux? It makes me wonder then, as with so many other art forms, can we see a fiction telling a greater truth? In this case what it means to be British. I am sure that everyone, at one point or another has said “my life could be a sitcom” but which category do you, or others, see your life in?
What do you think of the above categories? Do you agree or disagree with them? Do you think that there are different categories for American sitcoms? Let me know what you think via email or social media