The television sitcom

Authored by: Brett Mills

The Routledge Companion to British Media History

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415537186
eBook ISBN: 9781315756202
Adobe ISBN: 9781317629474

10.4324/9781315756202.ch38

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Abstract

As is common for all genres, precisely defining sitcom is a problematic task. Analyses of the genre usually take a textual approach, attempting to delineate those characteristics which recur across those programs assumed to belong to that category. This is primarily to try and distinguish it from other, related genres: “On the genre dial it [sitcom] sits somewhere between ‘sketch comedy’ and ‘situation drama’” (Hartley, 2008: 78). Yet it is hard to precisely delineate the boundaries between these forms and it is possible to see a program such as The League of Gentlemen (BBC2, 1999–2002) as both a sketch show and a sitcom, as it contains both episodic and series-long narratives, yet individual scenes function equally well as stand-alone sketches. A starting definition of the sitcom might be “a short narrative-series comedy, generally between twenty-four and thirty minutes long, with regular characters and setting” (Neale and Krutnik, 1990: 233). The serial nature of the genre responds to the specifics of television broadcasting, according to which audiences return to situations and characters they know week after week, meaning that the pleasures of sitcom (like much television) can respond to the knowledge audiences have from previous episodes. Series such as Linda Green (BBC1, 2001–2) and Gavin & Stacey (BBC3/1, 2007–10) would fit the definitions outlined above but might also be categorized as ‘comedy drama’. Therefore there remains “much disagreement over exactly which programmes are sitcoms and which aren’t” (Mills, 2005: 25), and more recent genre analysis has instead been more interested in how genres function and how the situation in which “we all agree upon a basic understanding of what a sitcom is” (Mittell, 2004: 1) comes into being. It is precisely the assumed obviousness of sitcom as a genre, aligned with the perceived naturalness of the humor they contain, that means they are a ripe site for unpicking highly constructed social norms because it is often wrongly assumed that such straightforward entertainment “doesn’t require us to think” (Mills, 2009: 5).

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