written by Sarah McLean
Why are sitcoms funny? What compels us to laugh at them? Why do we keep tuning in to our favorite shows week after week, or sometimes ten, twenty, thirty-plus years after their original air date? Why do we find ourselves binge watching the same series for 8 straight hours?
The obvious answer? Great writing! Great actors! It’s well produced! Well directed! All of those factors are true. Only the shows with all of the above stay on the air (most of the time) while lesser ones which lack some of these key ingredients fade into obscurity only to be known as footnotes in television history or as answers to trivia questions.
The less obvious answer as to why we get hooked? Relatability.
These two facets do go hand-in-hand: A sitcom with great writing, acting, production, and direction and you’re sure to get a quality show. Missing any or all of these? Good luck.
However, it’s the relatability that keeps us coming back for more. We appreciate all the other aspects, individually and cumulatively, whether we’re aware of it or not, but it’s that raw connection we feel in watching a show that pulls us in for the long haul.
The missing ingredient of relatability is why critically acclaimed shows that are well written, produced, directed, with phenomenal actors don’t last as long. Arrested Development anyone? The big complaint by audiences from the get-go was that they “didn’t get it”, meaning they couldn’t relate. They couldn’t see themselves in the show.
Now, I’m speaking in generalities here. Sitcoms as a genre. Those 30 minute series that are meant to make you laugh. Yes, there are shows that cater to a very specific audience and aren’t intended to appeal to every single person: Arrested Development, Undeclared, Party Down, Better Off Ted, or Enlightened. Those super “inside the industry” jokes in shows that you’re not meant to get if you live in Idaho. No offense to Idaho. These shows are relatable, just to a smaller, targeted group of people. That’s why they have cult followings.
But what about the shows that were created with the intent of appealing to everyone even when we’re not all watching for the same reason? For example, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, Roseanne, Friends, Big Bang Theory, etc. Why did those last for so many years and still have an afterlife? And in the case of Big Bang Theory, continue to pump out high quality new episodes while also in syndication?
Simple. They all wrote stories about the one common denominator in every human being. Our shared truth. They reflected our own insecurities, vulnerabilities, egos, over-confidences, drives to succeed, failed relationships, loss of jobs. The list goes on. While the specificity may differ slightly, the basic sentiment is the same. They showed us, and continue to remind us, how absurd and hilarious we are at the same time.
Maybe not everyone can relate to wanting to be in a variety show (I Love Lucy), writing for a comedy show (The Dick Van Dyke Show), associate producing a TV news show (Mary Tyler Moore), running or working at a bar (Cheers), being in a struggling-to-make-ends-meat middle class mid-Western family (Roseanne), living in a luxurious New York City apartment in your 20’s (Friends), or having super-human science knowledge (Big Bang Theory) but we can relate to wanting to be treated equally by our significant other (I Love Lucy), the workplace dynamics between a boss and co-workers (The Dick Van Dyke Show), being new to town and wanting to fit in (Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers), dysfunctional family dynamics (Roseanne), growing up and learning about ourselves through our friendships (Friends), or navigating life while feeling like a social outsider (Big Bang Theory).
Humor comes from the truth. The good, the bad, the ugly truth. When we see our own truth reflected back to us we acknowledge it, appreciate it, and laugh at it. When it’s done really well, when it digs down deep and hits us at our core, it resonates with us more and sticks with us long after the 30 minutes are over. That’s why we’ll still watch some shows years after they’ve left primetime but why we won’t give others the time of day.
Sitcoms that only scratch the surface in their truth-telling elicit a shrug of acknowledgment, maybe a chuckle, and then we move on with our day. Sitcoms that call us out for our own behavior get our attention, make us deeply laugh, and cause us to sit our butts down to continue watching.
When it comes down to it, we laugh at the things we know. We laugh at the things we’ve experienced. This is why sitcoms keep us coming back for more. And the sitcoms that stick with us for years, the ones that become classics, not only did this really, really well, they did it honestly and truthfully. And sometimes, when given the chance, these same sitcoms also made us cry with our truth.
What sitcoms keep you tuning in every week or voluntarily stuck on the sofa for hours on end? What new sitcoms already feel like instant classics? Leave a comment and let us know!