In This Article Television Comedy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comedy Theory
  • The Domestic Family Sitcom (“Domesticom”)
  • Sitcom Case Studies
  • Sketch, Variety, and Late-Night
  • Governmental Politics
  • Gender and Feminism
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • LGBTQ Representations
  • National Identity
  • Social Class
  • Television Comedy Industries
  • Television Comedy Audiences

Cinema and Media Studies Television Comedy
by
Jonathan Gray, Nick Marx
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0186

Introduction

Few genres have commanded as much popular attention, discussion, and ratings success throughout television’s history as has comedy. Few performers, too, have been as well loved as those who make us laugh on a regular basis, and the affective relationships created between viewers and comedians can prove remarkably strong. If television studies as a whole aims to connect texts, production cultures, and audiences with the politics, meanings, and social roles of television, comedy presents itself as an especially relevant and important site for such examination to take place. Yet comedy is an especially hard genre to grasp analytically: comedy can work in the service of the status quo, or it can transgress cultural norms and give voice to scathing critique. It can often vacillate between such poles, even within the same episode. Its mode of address is markedly different from that of many non-comic programs. Hence, while inviting considerable attention from scholars, comedy has also at times required a different analytical toolkit. Comedy often takes the form of the situation comedy (or “sitcom”), with a set, limited cast, with the humor stemming from a given situation (oddball workplace, poor boy moves in with rich family, comfortable nuclear family, man with talking horse, etc.). But variety, satirical “fake news”–style programs, animation, and sketch shows have all proven popular at various points in the medium’s history too. Befitting their popularity globally, a great deal of work has focused on American comedies, with less on British comedies, and substantially less on other national productions. Comedy’s representations of norms and difference—and hence of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, national identity, and class—feature especially prominently in the literature, as do attempts to make sense of a show’s politics and broader commentary on society. And while the most common method used to make sense of comedy is textual analysis, production and audience analyses have also been used profitably.

General Overviews

Studies of television comedy have been dominated by studies of the particular form of the sitcom, hence the prevalence of titles nominally about the sitcom in the following list. However, many of the key debates—regarding politics, form, identity and representation, and performance—are no less important in other subgenres of comedy, and these readings offer helpful introductions to, and important statements within, these debates. Dalton and Linder 2005 and Morreale 2003 each amass a wide and healthy range of scholarship on sitcoms that could serve as the best starting point and introduction to the area. Grote 1983 offers an early broadside attack on the sitcom’s conservatism in a manner that encourages discussion on the political role of comedy, and television comedy’s place in the history of comedy more broadly. Marc 1992 offers a masterful, canonical, and wryly amusing journey through American television comedy history to the early 1990s, and Tueth 2005 also covers a lot of historical ground, while focusing on the genre’s politics. Mills 2009 still considers American examples, but refreshingly integrates British comedies into his analysis of the genre. Neale and Krutnik 1990 takes pains to examine the modular elements of comedy and hence presents numerous tools for analysis across subgenres.

  • Dalton, Mary, and Laura Linder, eds. The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Edited collection with pieces spanning several eras of sitcom history and covering a number of analytic sites, including aesthetics, family, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, class, and ideology.

  • Grote, David. The End of Comedy: The Sit-Com and the Comedic Tradition. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1983.

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    In a work predating many of the serial narratives that would pervade television in the multi-channel era, Grote identifies the unique aspects of the sitcom that distinguish it from other comedic traditions. He argues that episodic sitcoms overturn many established comedic forms and their radical potential by returning their characters to their original equilibrium week after week.

  • Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

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    Marc offers an insightful historical overview of the development of the sitcom in relation to other comic forms on television, from its early years through the CBS cycle of socially relevant sitcoms in the 1970s, and into the late 1980s, written with brio not typically seen in academic analyses.

  • Mills, Brett. The Sitcom. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748637515.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Part of an Edinburgh University Press series on television genres, Mills uses several British and American examples to make sense of the genre and analyze its cultural and textual work.

  • Morreale, Joanne, ed. Critiquing the Sitcom: A Reader. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Edited collection using the sitcom as a site for analyzing the relationship between ideology and culture with the goal of fostering critical sensibilities in viewers. Essays span time periods from the 1940s to the 1990s while addressing how the format constructs notions of gender, race, and class. Includes numerous canonical pieces of television comedy research.

  • Neale, Steve, and Frank Krutnik. Popular Film and Television Comedy. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    E-mail Citation »

    Through discussing film comedy as well as the basic building blocks of comedy—gags—Neale and Krutnik construct a helpful frame through which we can understand continuities and differences with television comedy, and they provide a grammar for discussing television comedy texts.

  • Tueth, Michael V. Laughter in the Living Room: Television Comedy and the American Home Audience. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Surveying a wide range of comedies in American television history, Tueth looks at the degree to which they have variously transgressed and challenged, or perpetuated and reified, social norms.

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