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The Evolution of the American Sitcom

In November 1947, the DuMont Television Network aired a live broadcast of something unprecedented: A comedic TV program plotted around a married couple — a banker and a homemaker — trying to make it in New York City.

To the actors involved, the show was nothing special. There was no live audience and no elaborate film set. The production was shot inside a Manhattan department store. Actress Mary Kay Stearns and her co-star/real-life husband, Johnny, had taken the gig in hopes of boosting their careers on Broadway.

Little did they know, their production of Mary Kay and Johnny would make history.

Early TV star Steve Allen (who was the first host of NBC’s The Tonight Show — a show Johnny Stearns was one of the original producers of) once wrote that, “By the end of television’s first decade, [TV] was widely believed to have greater influence on American culture than parents, schools, churches, and government — institutions that had been until then the dominant influences on popular conduct.”

The situational comedy, or sitcom, would play a huge part in that transformation. And though some might claim the genre started with Mary Kay and Johnny, its roots actually reach back much further — all the way to the newspaper funnies of Chicago.

The Idea

An old radio sitting on a white shelf
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The best description of the sitcom format probably came from TV’s smartest little sister, Lisa Simpson: “It seems like every week something odd happens to the Simpsons … [but] by next week, we’ll be back to where we started from, ready for another wacky adventure.”

The bedrock of every sitcom, from I Love Lucy to The Office, is rooted in that basic principle: A group of fixed characters — whether it be a nuclear family, a married couple, a group of friends, or a team of co-workers — experience a situation that disrupts “normal” life. For the rest of the episode, the characters wrangle with the problem until, usually, there’s some return to “normal.”

Some say the format got its start on Mary Kay and Johnny. Others argue it all began on the radio, or the vaudeville stage. But according to media historian Elizabeth McLeod, the format truly got its start in large part thanks to a comic strip that’s now mostly forgotten — The Gumps.

Created in 1917 by cartoonist Sidney Smith, The Gumps was immensely popular. Distributed nationwide by Chicago’s Tribune-News Syndicate, the strip traced the lives of a typical middle class family: A buffoonish husband, a brainy wife, their two children, and their rich uncle.

The Gumps owed much of its acclaim to a clever new editorial concept: The “continuity strip.” Every individual installment of The Gumps was serialized, with each functioning as a piece of a larger whole. According to McLeod, “The storylines in The Gumps carried on for weeks at a time, with readers hanging on every panel.” The continuity strip sent papers flying off the newsstands and would land Smith a lucrative million-dollar contract, an amount unheard of for a newspaper cartoonist.

By the mid-1920s, The Chicago Tribune was riding high on the comic strip’s success and was interested in catching lightning for a second time. In 1925, executives at the paper’s broadcasting unit, WGN, wondered: Could The Gumps translate to radio?

In the United States, radio was taking off. The airwaves had started featuring musical comedy acts from vaudeville variety shows, but nobody had made a serious attempt to plot out a radio show with recurring characters. WGN knew it had to try. The broadcaster asked one of its comedic duos, two men named Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, if they were interested in bringing The Gumps to life on radio.

Gosden and Correll declined. A domestic show about married life made the men uncomfortable. They were especially worried about the logistics of voicing a female character. Instead, the duo decided to build something completely different.

In January 1926, Correll and Gosden released what is arguably the first situational comedy onto the radio-listening word. While it took inspiration from the popular comic strip, it wasn’t anything like The Gumps. Rather, it was a 15-minute act called Sam ‘n’ Henry.

A few years later, the program would assume a new name: Amos ‘n’ Andy.

The Format

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At its core, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a minstrel show — a blackface act without the makeup. The show featured two white men as they mimicked, and mocked, the dialects of Black Americans. In 1930, thousands of African Americans petitioned the Federal Radio Commission asking for the show’s removal, citing harmful racist stereotypes. Those efforts were ignored. More than 40 million Americans — about one-third of the country — were tuning in to Amos ‘n’ Andy. It would dominate the media landscape for the next 30 years.

By most measurements, Amos ‘n’ Andy was America’s first sitcom. (Some media historians, such as McLeod, argue that, since the earliest episodes were serial in nature, the show doesn’t exactly qualify.) Regardless, Amos ‘n’ Andy undoubtedly set the foundation for the format and, more importantly, proved to radio executives that listeners had the attention spans for character-based programs.

The success of Amos ‘n’ Andy led to a sitcom boom (though few who attempted to copy its minstrel stylings found similar success). The most fruitful productions chose to copy the domestic tropes made popular by The Gumps. Three important early domestic proto-sitcoms — The Smith Family (1927), Lucky and Mirandy (1927), and Smackout (1931) — would appear in the competing Chicago broadcast market, featuring the same husband-and-wife duo: Jim and Marian Jordan. The two would later create Fibber McGee and Molly (1935), a bona-fide sitcom that’d rule the airwaves for 24 years.

A married husband-and-wife duo would become a popular feature of the radio sitcom formula. Meanwhile, other early sitcoms would grow like weeds, each one honing the tropes and stock characters that’d become mainstays of the genre for generations. In fact, the formulas were already so entrenched by the early ‘30s that even the show-titles were comically predictable: Lum and Abner (1931), Vic and Sade (1932), Burns and Allen (1934).

By the 1940s, the invention of television was being touted as an extension of radio — advertisers called it “radio with pictures” — and, naturally, the medium attracted the attention of radio executives and personalities. It wasn’t long before popular radio sitcoms, such as Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Goldbergs, and Life of Riley would make the jump to TV.

Most would not survive.

Revising the Script

Cast of I Love Lucy on set
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In the early years of television, situational comedies struggled. Media executives didn’t know how to profit from television yet. Variety shows, which didn’t require a heavy financial investment, proved to be the more appealing, fiscally secure option. Meanwhile, the few sitcoms that did leap to television would suffer intense growing pains.

Mary Kay and Johnny faded shortly after it appeared. New episodes of the televised Amos ‘n’ Andy only lasted until the NAACP lambasted it as "a gross libel on the Negro.” (Though that didn’t stop stations from playing re-runs.) The Goldbergs, once a radio heavyweight, became permanently stained after its leading man was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. And the beloved Life of Riley was a casualty of the young industry’s funding woes.

Looking back, it was probably a necessary bloodletting. Writing for the journal Studies in Popular Culture, professor Lawrence Mintz notes that these shows, by superficial standards, appeared ahead of their time: They depicted Black, Jewish, and poor characters. But more often than not, these groups were the butt of the sitcom’s jokes. It would be many more years before an African American would deliver a punchline that wasn’t at his or her expense.

By the mid-1950s, the sitcom had no choice but to reinvent itself — and it succeeded by becoming a vehicle for social commentary. Back in the 17th century, English playwrights had adapted to cultural change by developing the “comedy of manners,” poking fun at the unwritten rules of aristocratic society. The successful sitcoms of the 1950s adopted the same spirit. David Pierson, a professor of Media Studies, writes:

"The characters in sitcoms … are just as obsessed and frustrated with following and often circumventing the prevailing social codes (of an American middle-class civility) as the characters in the English Restoration comedies … American situation comedies feature a wide range of dramatic characters either following, struggling with, or circumventing dominant social codes and manners."

No greater example can be found than I Love Lucy (1951). While the show followed the same tried-and-true format of a radio sitcom — it even starred a husband-and-wife team, a well-worn trope by then — the show was distinctly different in how it centered a female lead and her attempts to step away from the traditional female role of a housewife. And while Lucy was, admittedly, something of a ditz (and her attempts to climb socially a failure), her character reflected an important change in the sitcom: The audience was more likely to laugh with Lucy than at her.  

Rinse and Repeat

Cast of the Friends television sitcom on set at Central Perk
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Writing in the journal Studies in American Humor, Hofstra University Professor Emeritus John Bryant argues that the basic formula of a sitcom has never really changed.

"The situation comedy formula, then, exposes [confronts] our conflicting urges to be part of a stable group and to assert our independence from that group. Although the formula demands a final return to stability, it is in the journey away from stability, the glimpsing of forbidden worlds of freedom, and the exploration but eventual repression of the wish to grow beyond one's prescribed role that we find the formula's dynamic appeal."

While this formula has paved the way for countless successes, it has also spelled doom for nearly every production. Times change. Cultures adjust. Notions of “stability” evolve. A woman trying to get a job, as Lucille Ball’s character often attempted, might seem like a “journey away from stability” in 1951. But it wouldn’t seem so far-fetched by 1971.

According to Bryant, between 1955 and 1960, more than 90% of sitcoms on television could be classified “domestic.” But by the '60s, audiences were over it. Newton Minow, then the FCC Chairman, openly complained of “formula comedies about totally unbelievable families.”

In other words, sitcoms had to adjust to stay relevant. And they did.

By the mid-1960s, only 41% of situational comedies could be called “domestic.” Of those, many were already reflecting societal change. Some, such as My Three Sons (1960), featured a single parent raising children. Others, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961), showed characters dividing their attention between work and home. The decade also invited a slew of rural sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show (1960), military-themed shows like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964) and fantasies such as Bewitched (1964) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965).

All of these shows responded to the cultural moment. The Beverly Hillbillies, for example, fundamentally centered on the growing clash between urban and rural sensibilities. (The Clampetts might have been simple-minded caricatures, but the show’s true targets were Hollywood’s snobs.). "Liberals could see the above episode as a jab at the business establishment," Bryant writes, "while more conservative viewers might have taken it as a confirmation of traditional morality." In other words, the show successfully balanced its appeal to both sides of the political divide.

But this wouldn’t last. By 1968, the nation was embroiled in unrest, and as the nation’s divisions widened, so did the Nielsen Ratings. For shows like Hillbillies, viewership among younger and more progressive fans plummeted. The same could be said for Hogan’s Heroes, a sitcom set in a German POW camp. While the show was fundamentally anti-authoritarian, it became clear that, as discontent over the Vietnam War grew, a military-themed program would need to do more than just poke fun at authority.

In 1971, a new program successfully answered the call. Whereas Hogan’s Heroes was anti-authoritarian, M*A*S*H took things one step further — it was anti-war.

The same progression can be said for the era’s popular fantasy programs. In the mid-1960s, these shows attempted to paint subtle portraits of “liberated,” problem-solving women. These characters, however, often had to resort to supernatural means to achieve their goals. By 1970, the superpowers were no longer necessary: The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards certainly didn’t need any.

That’s been the story of the sitcom ever since. The fundamental formula has always stayed the same, whether the group of roommates are four older women on The Golden Girls (1985) or six Manhattanites on Friends (1994), or the sprawling family was The Brady Bunch (1969) or the Pritchetts and Dunphys of Modern Family (2009). What’s changed is how the characters reflect, or respond to, the moods and currents of American culture. Done well, laughter (and sometimes even ratings) has always followed.

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