Be honest: If someone were to play 10 themes from common sitcoms, you’d probably be able to identify over half of them – I
know I would! Singing theme songs is a common event when hanging out with friends, going on a date, or just trying to see who knows the most theme songs (I think this guy wins!). We sometimes tend to identify the song before we can recognize the sitcom it belongs to. We expect sitcom theme songs. We turn on our favorite sitcom, and about 2-3 minutes in, the sound drops and the theme music and title sequence begin to play. Why are we so used to it, though? Honestly, if the theme music were not to play at the beginning of my show, I would probably be confused and wondering through the remainder of the show. I think the theme music acts as a sense of closure for some people, as in, if the music doesn’t play, the show never was.
Compare sitcom title sequence to a daily routine – we get stuck in ruts, doing the same thing day by day; but if something is missing from the routine, we feel wronged for the rest of our chores (or show). Not only does the music play a big part in a sitcom, it also sets the scene for the show. In the title sequence, we get to know the characters. Even though we don’t get to know them omnisciently until the show begins, from the music we learn something about the plot of the show, and a little tidbit of each character’s personality. Think back to the days of Full House. Neat freak Danny Tanner is seen in the opening credits dusting his car, then looks sweetly to the camera. If we didn’t get these title sequences, we wouldn’t get that quick glimpse until the show began. Who knows, you may be completely turned off by a show due to its title sequence. First impressions count!
I think the funniest thing is when the title sequences sometimes switch from season to season. If something about the main character’s life changes, then that automatically warrants a change for the opening credit sequence. For example, in the first season of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (back in the day), Sabrina resided at home, so the title sequence took place in front of her mirror. A few seasons later, Sabrina went off to college, and the title sequence was her making her way through college, and the music was about being “out on my own.”
The Friends title sequence, tried and true, will always be my favorite. It’s well known almost everywhere you go, you get a quick
glimpse of each character’s personality traits, and it changes almost every season. It’s really funny to go through and notice all of the hairstyle changes throughout the years! What do you think is important in a title sequence?
Generally speaking, two is better than one… well, most of the time. Think about all relationships you have seen come, go, and stay within any sitcom. Some, we love right away, or learn to love, and can say, “Awww” at. Others, we take a look at, and instead of loving them, our immediate thought is, “Why them?” Just like real life, some relationships work right away, others take a little bit of time, and others are just a no-no from the get go. Think about Lily and Marshall from How I Met Your Mother, or Monica and Chandler from Friends. We view their relationships as something that makes the show better, just because we love them so much. On the other hand, looking at the Dwight and Angela duo from The Office, we see them as annoying, or maybe as even a hinderance to the show itself. There are four easily recognizable relationship patterns in sitcoms, some good, some bad, and some just UGLY.
The “Together Forevers”
A lot of the time, Together Forevers are introduced as a couple from the very first episode of the series. For example, How I Met Your Mother introduces us to Lily and Marshall as a couple that has been together since college – first loves – and as a couple that has no intention of breaking up – ever. Then of course, there’s the lovable Peter and Lois Griffin, who sometimes don’t seem ideal for each other, but in the long run, they make it work well. Other Together Forever relationships come quite later in the series, like Monica and Chandler, or even Becky and Jesse from Full House.They may not be “authentic,” but we still like them just the same. We usually see a lot of character development from the Together Forevers: families are built, new friends are made, new jobs are to be had, and if they plan on being together forever, some change and adaptation of their character is a must.
This relationship pattern is similar to watching a game of table tennis – back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes the couple in question are together for a long period of time (faux Together Forevers) and then split and cannot make up their minds, quite like Ross and Rachel from Friends: they think they are perfect for each other, then, “THEY WERE ON A BREAK!” and then someone gets jealous and it starts over again. In other instances, these couples are off in on in a matter of weeks, days, or even hours. JD and Elliot from Scrubs are a perfect example. They can spend the day finding their love for each other, but by the end of the day, they want absolutely nothing to do with the other. From these characters, we tend to see more character development outside of the relationship, with their friends, jobs, or living situations. They may date other people, but we all know there is only one underlying love interest!
The “Why Bother?(s)”
These couples make for the best catastrophes and sometimes the best entertainment. Usually in cases like this, we are in love
with one side of the duet, but the other side is a little questionable… and sometimes obnoxious. Take Chandler and Janice from Friends. We know Chandler as a character, but as soon as we are introduced to Janice, we are immediately turned off. Once they began dating, it was all downhill. Even though couples like this are unbearable to watch sometimes, they don’t make the sitcom any less entertaining. We continue to watch the couple “develop” over the episodes, even if sometimes all we are saying is, “Please break up! Please break up!” Another couple like this is Angela and Dwight from The Office. But let’s be real: we have a hard time getting along with either of them! WARNING: Why Bothers can easily transform into On-Again-Off-Agains! Last,
The “Together ForNevers”
Ever met someone like this? They try out multiple relationships, but no matter what, they never seem to work out. Usually, this is due to one of the character’s vices or even pickiness, and sometimes due to the other party’s unwillingness to change. I think my favorite example for this is Ted from How I Met Your Mother. Robin was Ted’s main squeeze for a while, and he was sure they were meant to be (and still is a little bit). After months of dating and no change, they decide to call it quits. Seasons later, obviously we STILL haven’t met a mother. (Read someone’s Ted/Robin lament here) Come on Ted! Like they say, though, there is someone out there for everyone, and who knows? This Together ForNever may put himself in a Together Forever situation.
These categories can almost be interchanged sometimes, and of course, not all of these are concrete. A couple could be Together Forever one day, and then Together ForNever the next. It all depends on the plot development. Have you recognized any other relationship patterns or apply these in a different way? Next time, we will be talking about the importance of familiar music in a sitcom.
Our favorite characters in sitcoms are the ones we see, interact with, and grow with each episode. Sometimes we tend to forget those who don’t actually physically exist and partake with the other characters in the show – I like to call these characters “invisible characters.” I think writers like to incorporate these unknown characters into their show for the element of surprise and unknowing, and for the hopes that viewers stick around each week to maybe, eventually, find out who these characters really are. Invisible characters’ roles in sitcoms vary: they can be one of the main characters, or just a minor, side character, and they can either be a protagonist or an antagonist, or sometimes they are just there for pure comedic reasons. I chose three of the most “recognized” invisible characters, and want to look deeper into their roles in a show. First…
“Ugly Naked Guy” (Friends)
We don’t know his name, what he does, or what he looks like – we just know he is ugly, lacking clothes, and is always up to
something in his apartment. Ugly Naked Guy is one of those characters who the show would function perfectly without, but is just added in by writers for the sole reason of cracking a joke. Similar to this guy is Howard Wolowitz’s mother from The Big Bang Theory. These people have no other purpose in the show other than to be mocked, and having the audience wonder what they will do (or in Mrs. Wolowitz’s case, yell) next.
Wilson (Home Improvement)
As far as we know, he only has half a face! Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor’s neighbor Wilson W. Wilsonis always shown tending to his lawn behind his picket fence when Tim has something to talk to him about. Wilson, unlike Mrs. Wolowitz or Ugly Naked Guy, plays a very important role in this sitcom. He may be just Tim’s next door neighbor, and he doesn’t talk much, but when he does, it is worth listening to. We don’t need to see his face to understand his character; whenever Tim has a problem, either at work or from within his family, Wilson is there to give him advice, and even play mediator between him and another character. The thing about Wilson is – we WANT to see his face! Just like all of the main characters, we want to be able to see him and interact with him and follow his story.
Your Mother (How I Met Your Mother) This character may be the most important invisible character of them all… Heck, she’s in the title of the show, and seven seasons later, all we know about her is that she carries a yellow umbrella. We yearn, season after season, just to learn a little more about who this woman is and why she is so great; that’s where the suspense comes in! We know we have to meet her eventually, but which episode is the one? Will she be everything we hoped and dreamed she would be from the way Ted describes her? This thought reminds me of the invisible wife of Niles Crane from Frasier, Maris. Niles makes her out to be a terrible lady, as they are divorcing, and viewers perceive her to be just that. As far as we know, she could have been a lovely lady, and Niles was portraying her the wrong way. We never know! (Spoiler alert: It is rumored that in the 9th and final season of How I Met Your Mother, we will finally find out who this lady really is!) It is the secrets of the writers and producers that drive us crazy and make us want to watch in hopes to someday figure it out. What other invisible characters can you think of, and what did they bring to the story? 
There’s that age-old saying that, “Laughter is the best medicine.” In fact, for years, American magazine Reader’s Digest featured a section titled exactly that! Not only is this saying applicable in real life, it is also played on in many sitcoms. Even the funniest of shows feature those dark, remorseful scenes, but somehow these program writers find a way to make light of any serious situation… It’s just a different kind of ‘situation’ in a ‘situation’ comedy.
From childhood, I’ve always remembered an episode of Friendsin which Ross and Monica’s grandmother, Nana, passes away.
We, as viewers, can relate to this situation, as we’ve probably had a relative pass away in our lifetime. However, the writers gave it a little twist: Nana came back to life briefly, and then promptly flat-lined once again! Let’s admit, even though death is a difficult thing to handle both in real life and in sitcoms, it was hard not to laugh at the characters’ shock and surprise as Nana wakes from death for a few seconds. Later in the episode, this scene causes the characters a few laughs as they reminisce.
Another classic example of a comical death is in almost every episode of the cartoon sitcom Southpark. We’ve all heard, “Oh my God, they killed Kenny! …” While, yes, a death of a child in every other normal situation is a great tragedy, in every episode, writers Matt Parker and Trey Stone come up with the most creative ways for Kenny to die – Including, but not limited to mutant turkeys and tether ball ropes.
Death is not the only serious situation that can be made lighter in sitcoms; lighter subjects such as political views can be made into laughable spats in which names are called and parties are mocked. During the middle of the presidential election last November, the new sitcom Last Man Standing premiered their second season with Mike Baxter (Tim Allen) and his daughter Kristin Baxter (Alexandra Krosney) debating over who they want to win and why. Through the episode, we listen to both sides, similar to how we would in a REAL political debate. They only difference is that they take on the cliche’ of not talking about politics within the household (or, at least that’s how I was raised). Politics is usually no laughing matter, but when two family members violate the norm, it’s almost hard for it not to be funny.
These are just scratching the surface of these types of situations seen in comedies. What serious situations can you think of from your favorite sitcom? Why was it funny? It’s hard to think about making light and picking fun at any tragedy, but when you’re looking back at it over time, you really do realize that “laughter is the best medicine.”
As we’ve seen from our TV guides, comedy programs are not limited to our typical sitcoms – Look at Comedy Central: they host a variety of show types ranging from sketch comedies to our favorite featured stand-up comedians. These sub-genres can be just as funny, or sometimes even funnier, than our average Friends or Modern Family type sitcoms. First, we’ve got:
- News Comedies
Like Fox News or CNN, news comedies give us the scoop on what’s happening in the world, but with a spin. Hosts like Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report or Jon Stewart from The Daily Show like to pick fun at newsworthy figures such as politicians, activists, and even those featured in the sillier news stories. Why are these shows funny? We watch the news daily and hear the same stories over and over again, hoping to hear something different. THIS is the something different. Colbert and Stewart can take the most dramatic stories and put a hilarious spin on them, making us willing to hear the story from this point of view. They feature guests, and openly pick (or make) fun of them on screen with no regrets, just to make the audience laugh, have a good time, and tune into the next “plot twisting” episode.
- Sketch Comedies
Saturday Night Live (SNL) is probably the most popular sketch comedy aired on television, and it has been (on and off) since 1975. Besides having a guest host and a musical feature each week, the show hosts a variety of different situations with our beloved SNL actors like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jimmy Fallon. It is so fast paced, it is difficult not to pay attention to the different skits like Keenan Thompson’s “What Up With That” show, or Andy Samberg’s weekly Video Shorts. Each sketch is like a mini-sitcom, in which we find those characters that are so easy to relate to and laugh at.
- Viral Video Comedies
We’ve all seen “Charlie Bit Me” and “David After Dentist,” and they are funny by themselves, but a little extra commentary can
make them even more hilarious and even more viral. Naturally, Daniel Tosh from Tosh.0 come to my mind first. Yes, his narration can be a bit crude and inappropriate at times, but, let’s face it, that’s truly what makes them funny. Similar to News Comedies, Viral Video Comedies feature guests, but from viral videos (such as Tosh’s “Web Redemption of the Week”) and pick fun at them shamelessly, just to get a laugh from the audience… and we come back week after week to see if our favorite videos have made the cut. And last, we have… Check out The Soup, too, for more viral video hilarity.
- Stand-Up Comedy
Jim Gaffigan, Larry the Cable Guy, Jon Lajoie… We know of a lot of stand-up comedians; some we love, some we hate. They all have their different styles and ways of delivery, and that’s how we choose who we want to watch when Comedy Central hosts a “Comedy Central Presents…” program. We have the redneck humor, brought to us by Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy, and there’s the more crude humor, which some of us love (or love to hate). They have their different styles, and so do we! That’s how they build an audience who will die to watch their stand-up special, whether on the tube or live.
I urge you to break out of the sitcom cycle and explore other types of comedy. You never know what you will find and what you will love!
Next week, we’ll look at the “dramadies” and how sitcoms can make light of the most serious events.
So, now that we better understand what a sitcom is made of and what makes people gather around the television for their favorite show, I want to look a little bit deeper into what we love so much about the characters that the show revolves around. That’s what we watch the show for anyway, right?
In my sitcom watching experiences, I have noticed five different, self-named character archetypes that I love seeing in any funny show… There are many more that can be explained, but these specific five are what I think audiences love to see and keep them coming back for seasons upon seasons. First…
- The “Every-Day-Normal-Guy (or Gal)”
This character is usually the main character, or protagonist in the sitcom. They live by the rules and will reprimand anyone who refuses to live by theirs. A few of my favorite Normals are Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother (naturally), Monica Geller from Friends, and Full House’s Danny Tanner. All three of these characters can be related to by almost anyone. They live a fairly normal life, are a little geeky on the inside, and have their own little quirks, like Monica and Danny’s borderline OCD cleanliness and Ted’s inability to find the perfect girl for him. They are the Ray Romanos of sitcoms, and their reactions to and relationships with the other characters is what makes them dynamic characters, like the rest.
- The “Large-and-in-Charge”
Like the Normals, Large-and-in-Charges have their (sometimes over the top) rules, and demand that everything goes their way- if not, someone will have hell to pay! Scrubs fan? Take Dr. Perry Cox’s relationship with young doctor JD: essentially, Cox istrying to “fix” JD, almost like he wants JD to be just like him. He bullies him, calls him names, but it’s almost hard not to laugh, because the dry humor from all of this is all too funny. We look forward to see how this character will interact with their “plebes” next!
- The “Man-Child”
It seems like the Man-Children are featured solely to get picked on, doesn’t it? They don’t act their age, throw tantrums and are typically looked down upon (humorously, of course) by the Large-and-in-Charges. Besides Marshall Eriksen from HIMYM, my favorite Man-Child has to be The Office’s Kevin Malone, played by Brian Baumgartner. I’m not sure if it’s because he wants to, but Kevin adds some comic relief right when we need it, as do most Man-Children. He drives Michael Scott (a Large-and-in-Charge) crazy, as well as the majority of the characters he interacts with, though it’s all in good fun – he really doesn’t mean to.
- The “Out-of-the-Box”
- The “Silver-Tongued-Snake”
The charmer. The wooer. The, “How you doin’?” Girls wish they had them, guys wish they WERE them. They’re smooth, womanizing men who almost never let an opportunity sneak away. We already know Barney Stinson fits quite well in this category, but often overlooked is Todd Quinlan from Scrubs, fondly known as, “The Todd”. He is a bandanna wearing, high-five giving ladies man! Even if they don’t want to be, everyone is charmed by The Todd. He bears little to no enemies (that he would care to remember) and has his own sense of humor that everyone understands and loves.
The next time you watch YOUR favorite sitcom, take time to pick out these character archetypes, and maybe find new ones that YOU love to watch. Notice how they interact with those around them, and why it is well… funny!
Next week, we’ll look at different kinds of sitcoms and how their differences make them equally funny.
We’ve all had those times when we’ve thought, “My life could be a sitcom.” But why is that? The word “sitcom” is an abbreviation for “situational comedy”; a character is put in a real-life situation and acts it out just as you or I would… except peppered with witty dialogue and a few atypical characters.
So if sitcoms are so “normal,” what about them ropes in viewers for multiple seasons and possibly give them heart attacks during the mid season breaks? Take a look at Friends: a group of six normal friends with normal jobs, normal relationships, and all around normal lives. What is so fascinating about that? First, think about the first thing you’re drawn to – the characters. Directors make the characters normal for a reason: it is easier to relate to a character and their situation easier if they are just average Joes, like the majority of people are.
Okay, so maybe people don’t have a “Play Book” or get hundreds of women like How I Met Your Mother’s lovable (but easily resented) Barney Stinson, but that’s just another reason sitcoms are so appealing to viewers. There always seems to be one character who is not as relatable to as the others. I view these characters more or less as the football players and cheerleaders of sitcoms; they are looked up to or envied, even though they are just actors portraying a character.
It is so easy to place ourselves in the shoes of sitcom characters. We have lives, jobs, apartments, friends, and problems just like they do. At the end of the day it is so easy to detach ourselves from our own lives
and strife and think of ourselves as Ted Mosby or any of the characters from Friends. This may be due to your willing suspension of disbelief. Similar to going to the movies or seeing a play, we fill the role of the people we see on screen or stage and leave our own lives behind us. Until the moment our show is over, you don’t think about the presentation for work tomorrow or the test you have to study for next week – you are in the exact place, time, and situation of the character you are watching on your television screen.
The reason Friends had 10 successful seasons and How I Met Your Mother is on its 8th is because their weekly viewers are so invested in the lives of fictional people, they can’t bear to miss what happens in “their” life next!
Next week we’ll take a deeper look into sitcom characters and how they act as the beating heart of some of well known shows. (Word count 443)