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Thread: Analysis of a sitcom

  1. #1
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Analysis of a sitcom

    I’m trying to compile a list of successful sitcoms from memory (to analyze for a screenwriting class) and seem to be coming up weak in the before the 60’s and after the 80’s departments. I’m trying to pick ones that are more or less well-written and exclude those sitcoms that may have had successful ratings but were rather stupid (yeah yeah I know it’s a fine line with most sitcoms….why is Green Acres on the list then, huh? I guess if in doubt throw the suggestion out) like Gilligan’s Island. So far here’s what I’m coming up with but I know there are some major shows I’m forgetting about:

    I Love Lucy
    The Honeymooners
    The Beverly Hillbillies
    The Addams Family
    Andy Griffith Show
    Get Smart
    Wild Wild West
    Hogan’s Heroes
    Gomer Pyle USMC
    Green Acres
    All in the Family
    The Jeffersons
    Happy Days
    Laverne & Shirley
    Welcome Back Kotter
    Mork & Mindy
    M*A*S*H
    The Cosby Show
    Cheers
    Roseanne
    Frasier
    Home Improvement
    Friends
    ???
    Last edited by Maister; 24 Nov 2009 at 5:36 PM.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    Post '80s:

    -Murphy Brown
    -King of Queens
    -Seinfeld

  3. #3
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Golden Girls (way ahead of its time)
    Seinfeld (very successful)


    For a recent pick, I would have to go with How I Met your Mother, hysterically funny and very well written
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  4. #4
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Oh, what the hell...let me ask as you're looking at the list.... what do you think makes a successful sitcom - what are some essential ingredients?

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    Cyburbian ofos's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    Oh, what the hell...let me ask as you're looking at the list.... what do you think makes a successful sitcom - what are some essential ingredients?
    Real life situations viewed through a distorted lens.
    An occasional dose of pathos to keep the humor focused.
    “Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future.”

  6. #6
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    Oh, what the hell...let me ask as you're looking at the list.... what do you think makes a successful sitcom - what are some essential ingredients?
    Nothing. It needs to be a show about nothing. Lots of things going on but nothing happening....

    Okay well really it needs to tell a story about the characters, but keep each episode individual and relevant.
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

  7. #7
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ofos View post
    Real life situations viewed through a distorted lens.
    Dang, you may be on to something. I believe a successful sitcom on some level has to relate to our own experiences or we lose much of the humor. It will fail to resonate.

    Quote Originally posted by ofos
    An occasional dose of pathos to keep the humor focused
    Pathos? Wasn't he one them Musketeer guys?

  8. #8
    Cyburbian ofos's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Maister View post
    Dang, you may be on to something. I believe a successful sitcom on some level has to relate to our own experiences or we lose much of the humor. It will fail to resonate.

    Pathos? Wasn't he one them Musketeer guys?
    George Carlin was a stand-up master of the comic absurdity of reality.

    I think Pathos was the Greek mouseketeer. Anyway, think of the gut-wrencher episodes of M*A*S*H for what I was trying to say.
    “Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future.”

  9. #9
    Cyburbian PrahaSMC's avatar
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    Scrubs... probably the best sitcom of the last decade, IMO

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    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    The Wild, Wild West was not a sitcom. It was a spy show set in the post-Civil War West.

    Please to include: WKRP and Taxi - which I loved.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

    ~ Otterpop ~

  11. #11
    More 60s/70s:
    McHale's Navy
    F Troop
    Gilligan's Island

    From the 80s
    Northern Exposure

    I agree: lots of nothing makes the best sitcom.
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
    "Once he timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy."
    Warren Spahn

  12. #12
    Cyburbian ofos's avatar
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    60's - "Car 54, Where Are You?"

    There's a hold-up in the Bronx,
    Brooklyn's broken out in fights,
    There's a traffic jam in Harlem
    That's backed up to Jackson Heights.
    There's a Scout troop short a child,
    Khrushchev's due at Idlewyld,
    Car 54, Where Are You?
    “Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future.”

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Plus
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    Quote Originally posted by ofos View post
    Real life situations viewed through a distorted lens.
    An occasional dose of pathos to keep the humor focused.
    How about Barney Miller because it had Abe Vigoda.
    Oddball
    Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves?
    Why don't you dig how beautiful it is out here?
    Why don't you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?
    From Kelly's Heroes (1970)


    Are you sure you're not hurt ?
    No. Just some parts wake up faster than others.
    Broke parts take a little longer, though.
    From Electric Horseman (1979)

  14. #14
    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by JNA View post
    How about Barney Miller because it had Abe Vigoda.
    A comedy classic. I loved Harris (Ron Glass) and, especially Deitrich (Steve Landesberg), who said "Honesty may be the best policy, but insanity is a better defense."

    The episode when Wojo's girlfriend made hash brownies for the detectives was the best. Fish lamented that for the first time in a long time he felt great and it had to be illegal.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

    ~ Otterpop ~

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Rygor's avatar
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    Post 80's:
    Everybody Loves Raymond
    Just Shoot Me
    Arrested Development
    Scrubs
    Two and a Half Men
    30 Rock (does that count?)

    From the 80's:
    Growing Pains
    Family Ties
    "When life gives you lemons, just say 'No thanks'." - Henry Rollins

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Seabishop's avatar
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    the Office
    Married with Children
    Curb Your Enthusiasm

    Can they be animated?

    the Simpsons
    Family Guy

  17. #17
    Hell, yes, animated!

    The Flintstones
    The Jetsons!
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
    "Once he timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy."
    Warren Spahn

  18. #18
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ofos View post
    Anyway, think of the gut-wrencher episodes of M*A*S*H for what I was trying to say.
    Quote Originally posted by Hink_Planner
    Nothing. It needs to be a show about nothing. Lots of things going on but nothing happening
    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker
    I agree: lots of nothing makes the best sitcom.
    Let's examine the (in)famous Seinfeld quote a moment. It makes for a great comedic quote but with apologies to Jerry it's not entirely accurate.

    If you take an individual Seinfeld episode it appears to be a mishmash of odd happenings that revolve around a small group of characters - just a bunch of strange/funny stuff happens. However, one can see something else going on when looking at the show's entire run....character development.

    This is particularly obvious with shows like MASH or Friends but it's going on in Seinfeld as well. Good sitcoms IMO are written on two levels; there has to be funny dialogue/writing for an individual episode but there is also a larger story arc that encompasses a season or the show's entire run. With shows like MASH certain episodes focus on the happenings that affect a particular character but along the way we also learn a number of details about the various characters that flesh them out and breathe life/believability into them (e.g. we see over time how the departure of Trapper John affects Hawkeye, or we learn something about 'Crabapple Cove' or discover Father Mulcahy was an avid boxer, or something like that). So returning to Seinfeld, there was a moment where George Castanza was giving Jerry advice on how to beat a lie detector and he says something like "I'll just say this, (pause and leans over to say in a low voice) it's not a lie if you really believe what you say is true." This joke is made infinitely funnier when one understands that the character is a pathological liar...and funnier yet when we now learn he is a master at self-delusion as well. That is where character development comes in.

  19. #19
    Gunfighter Mastiff's avatar
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    I think Coach and Fresh Prince (because of Will Smith) were successful in the 90's, and for later, That 80's Show has a huge following. Some of the new pay station are also finding success. (Arrested Development, Weeds, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Californication come to mind) I think that's because they can take story lines well over what's allowed on other stations.

    I'm not a big sitcom watcher, and usually when I find one I really like, such as Frank's Place or Dead Like Me, they pull it quickly, to be replaced by glurge... like Fat Actress. I think it's because when it's that good, the usual television watchers made up of mostly morons, can't handle it. So, enter the laugh track... it has a very interesting history (Especially M*A*S*H*). It's great that many of the new shows are opting out of using it, believing they have an audience smart enough to find the humor without help.

    I guess I'm more of a "Dramody" person. Of course, shows that I like in that genre get canceled often as well, good-bye Saved! There are a couple I watch that are still running, but I won't mention them if fear of jinxing it!
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  20. #20
    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    What makes a sitcom work? There are successful ones that I don't get (Growing Pains or Perfect Strangers). There were ones that I thought were great but did not last long (Frank's Place). There were sitcoms I loved while they were on but never watch in reruns (Seinfeld, MASH and the Cosby Show).

    I don't think there is one formula.

    What I like in a sitcom:
    1) a bemused and sympathetic central character (Barney Miller or Dick Loudon (Newhart) or Reiger (Taxi).

    2) odd supporting characters (Deitrich, Larry and his two brothers named Darryl and Reverend Jim),

    3) the characters have interrelationships beyond giving each other lines to say. These relationships present story arcs. For example: Reverend Jim's relationship with his father, or Harris' writing career affecting the detectives in Barney Miller or Loudon's frustrations with the brothers.

    4) Somewhat related to Number 3, that the sitcom develops over time. Preceding episodes are affected by the backstory of previous episodes. For example, Reverend Jim stays kooky as the show progresses but we get more of a backstory of why he is like he is and why the other people like him anyway.

    5) There should be some conflict. All good stories contain conflict. Barney Miller's frustration of Harris concentrating on his writing career and Harris's perception that it is because Miller is jealous that he is evolving and Miller is stuck in the same place. Or Louie versus everyone in "Taxi."

    6) Good writing. I am not a slapstick sort of guy. "I Love Lucy" does not amuse me. I like good wordplay and funny lines. That is a fine line to work - being intelligent without being too cerebral.

    7) Don't be preachy. I think All in the Family, Cosby and MASH were great shows. I watched them when they were on, but not in reruns. I got the point the first time around (war sucks, bigots are stupid, kids are dumb). I don't need another lecture.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

    ~ Otterpop ~

  21. #21
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Off-topic:
    [nitpick]Mastiff - I believe you mean "That 70s Show" and also Arrested Development originally aired on Fox[/nitpick]
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

    Six seasons and a movie!

  22. #22
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    otterpop makes a number of intelligent observations. I agree there must be conflict, and often times there is a designated 'foil' character (or characters - they can sometimes rotate roles in different episodes) for this purpose. Taking the example of MASH again, we see early on this role is usually taken up by the contemptable Frank Burns and/or Hot Lips Hoolihan. This is really a fine line and credit goes to actor Larry Linnville for his success in walking that line so well - the audience has to both like and resent the character. Major Burns has all sorts of hang-ups, he's selfish, false, egotistical, cowardly, poor at his trade, but at the same time the audience also gets to see his vulnerabilities from time to time and we can't help but feel just a little bit sorry for the schmuck at times.

    I think it's also interesting how the various shows writers use different structures/vehicles to build their humor around. Shows like Barney Miller, for instance, import much of their humor (Gilligan's Island is another example of this). All the action takes place on one or two sets in the station house and each week a variety of oddball characters gets 'booked' and put into the holding cell for joke material. The special guest character getting booked is funny simply because of the oddness of the character but also permits the regulars to play off of them. e.g. a crazy guy who claims to be from the future gets booked and while booking him the ever-avaricious Harris learns that zinc is reportedly a valuable material in the future and later in the show we see Harris make a phone call to his broker inquiring how much zinc sells for and when they imply its pennies a pound has him 'spring for a few tons'!

    Shows like Cheers, on the other hand relied much more heavily on building familiarity and jokes around the existing group of regulars that hung out at the bar. One of those characters was so successfully funny they ended up doing a spin-off show "Frasier"

  23. #23
    Cyburbian ofos's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mendelman View post
    Off-topic:
    [nitpick]Mastiff - I believe you mean "That 70s Show" and also Arrested Development originally aired on Fox[/nitpick]
    Off-topic:
    There just don't seem be as many good nits available for picking these days. Over harvesting? Global warming? I know the Dems picked all the Republican nits in the last election but it looks like they're growing their own crop that ought to be mature in 2012.
    “Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future.”

  24. #24
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker View post
    Hell, yes, animated!

    The Flintstones
    The Jetsons!
    Hell yes, successful formula!

    And I'm sure you've probably heard it elsewhere, but there are a number of <ahem> similarities between the Flintstones and The Honeymooners.

  25. #25
    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    Thought of one more thing a good sitcome needs

    8. A theme song. Theme music is out-of-fashion nowadays. Shows usually just go right into the action. But a theme song is useful, particularly with sitcoms, to create a mood and remembrance of the show before the show actually begins.

    The theme of "The Muppet Show" and "Barney Miller" introduce you to the characters you will see. The theme to WKRP gives you the backstory of the bemused central character whose career has brought him to a strange workplace you are about to visit. The themes for "Newhart" and "Taxi" were purely instrumental, but did provide a feeling of familiarity and a break between the commercial and the start of the show.

    One of the most effective uses of a theme song was "The Drew Carey Show." Each year the theme song was changed, A new song was introduced, or, in the later years, the theme "Cleveland Rocks" was done differently.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

    ~ Otterpop ~

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