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The Dynamics of Relational Humor in Sitcoms

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The Dynamics of Relational Humor in Sitcoms Situational Comedy is one of the most dominating show genres on broadcast television today. Situational comedies are also referred to as sitcoms. These shows endear audiences with relatable circumstances that are exaggerated for humorous purposes. Humor being one of the main focuses of sitcoms, they often times depict a main character’s experiences in life. The audience experiences the trials and tribulations of life with the character, which is partly what causes a regular watcher to develop a “parasocial” relationship with them (“Research Report,” 2013). Upon examination of the development of the television sitcom, many of the humorous moments throughout the years have stemmed from embellished situations in character-to-character relationships. An analysis of these relationships, with emphasis on those of an intimate relationship has shown that today sexuality is often the source of primary humor. This sexuality in sitcoms is currently the most repetitive type of humor and is considered the standard, but such was not always the case. Early sitcoms focused on more traditional problems of marriage, of family affairs, and other every day social inter-relationship problems, and even had a different method of presentation, but throughout time they evolved to depend on the provocative behavior of the characters. The sexual problems they experience took the role of their every day problems; vulgar topics such as this became the cultural norm in comedy today. At the start of the 1950’s the television was a new and exciting product in its early stages. In 1950 a mere nine percent of American households possessed a television set, but by the beginning of the 60’s the percentage had increased to ninety percent (Television: Moving Image Section--Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division", 2013). In the 1950’s the television was the most popular consumer product and revolutionized the American way of life. The introduction of the television ultimately changed the ideals of Americans. Some of the most important values within the average American home during this time period were patriarchy dominated ones, with the man earning income and the wife staying at home and caring for the children. During this decade, post war outlooks on life involved leisure time activities and upward mobility for the country as a whole. The increase in availability of television sets opened up a way to connect to the world via television and changed home life forever (“Research Report,” 2013).
The beginning of the show “I Love Lucy” is considered to mark the beginning of the sitcom era and is often studied as the foundation of the genre when the developments of television throughout the last sixty years is evaluated. Beginning in the 1950’s, most consider “I Love Lucy” to follow the values of the time. The Ricardos represented a patriarchal marriage, and an incompetent woman who needed her husband to fix most of her problems. In reality, some consider Lucille Ball to be a pioneer advocate for women in broadcast television ("Television: Moving Image Section--Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division,” 2013) but others felt that her role in “I Love Lucy” was against the feminist movement. Lucille Ball may represent an empowered woman during that time period, but the character she played contradicted her success in some ways. Her character was inept, and was always scheming to improve her life to no avail. She was often subject to abide by her husband’s decisions and always succumbed to his seductive kiss, which was his signal to her that she was always forgiven. This show of affection was not meant to be humorous when used in this way however. The humor came directly from Lucy and her interactions with the world around her. Lucy was almost naïve in her own way; she was presented as scheming and clever, but without the intelligence to make her plans work. This type of humor can be seen again and again, and blatant sexuality was nonexistent at this point in time.
Sexuality of any kind was once considered a taboo under the conservative standards of early television. The Ricardos in “I Love Lucy” slept in separate beds from each other for example (Boyd, 2011), which really set the groundwork for the depiction of marriage in shows and movies alike. At this point in time an on-screen kiss was considered risqué and was typically the farthest that producers ever ventured during an episode. Perhaps the most daring thing aired on the show was the inclusion of Lucille Ball’s pregnancy in the show, but they were not allowed to call it “pregnancy”, nonetheless, and had to refer to Lucy as “expecting” instead (Garrison, 2011). However, even in this conservative time period, within the airing of “I Love Lucy,” which treated the intimacies of marriage with respect, sexual innuendos existed; they were not nearly as noticeable to younger generations due to careful treatment, and to the audience’s lack of exposure to such comedic tendencies. There were incidences throughout “I Love Lucy” that hinted towards Ricky’s inability to do anything for more than fifteen minutes, which was clearly a sexual connotation, and that was only one among many. Other jokes such as this one existed regularly. According to some critics, the inclusion of these sexual innuendos were subtle and in a sense, more gently handled. Those critics claim the subtlety made it difficult to discern true vulgarity, but also more socially acceptable (Hass, 1997). It is plausible to say that audiences during these years had to think in a multi-faceted way in order to evaluate the many possible implications of the one-line jokes that were often made. Early sitcoms also included laugh tracks in order to help indicate to the audience when laughter was appropriate. Shows following “I Love Lucy” often replicated the strong family ideals of this period, along with the gentle avoidance of sex.
Careful treatment of sexuality within the American home was not unique to “I Love Lucy” alone but is perhaps the most prominent example of it. These tendencies were mimicked by other shows during the 50’s. “Leave it to Beaver,” a show that aired from 1957-1963 also followed these strict American ideals with impunity. According to Penn State Sites, “Leave it to Beaver” would come to represent a generation of television and would come to act as guidelines for familial values to come, such as hard work and marriage (Garrison, 2011). The two shows together stressed values such as family, honesty, and other standard American values for the post war mobility. Within the storylines of “Leave it to Beaver,” the biggest and funniest of conflicts that were dealt with were those incurred from not doing homework or not doing chores (Fritchman, 2013). Conflicts began to evolve following the close of the 50’s but the extent they would reach was unimaginable at the time. The following decades would build off of the template set by “I Love Lucy” and “Leave it to Beaver,” but would be filled with further changes of joke style.
With the sitcom’s increasing popularity came increases in vulgarity, but these developments began slowly. In the 1960’s sitcoms grew exponentially in numbers after the 50’s brought such success for situational comedies. The 60’s were filled with shows similar to those before it, but they were more satirical of the American home and depicted a fantastical life. Shows like “Green Acres,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” and “The Munsters” took every day family life and created exaggerated fictional lifestyles loaded with incredulity (“Series: I Dream of Jeannie,” 2013). This method of ridiculousness was the 60’s means of gaining laughter. Despite this fictitious storyline, most plot lines were still relatable with conflicts such as dealing with people, surviving work or school problems, etc. With the extraordinary aspects of these shows, the humor often came from the strange characters’ attempts at socialization and pretending to fit into the standard of a normal person.
“I Dream of Jeannie” is a flawless example of a show that used strange or supernatural characters and juxtaposed them in the real world. This juxtaposition was primarily the main source of humor rather than sexuality. However, according to the website TV Tropes, “I Dream of Jeannie” managed to imbue the episodes with diminutive sexual factors that pushed the culturally accepted norms of the time. Jeannie’s suggestive bare navel appearance was racy for conservative American households, and to have such a beautiful woman living with a bachelor was even more suggestive of sexual acts not shown on television. There were several occasions in which the producers showed Jeannie sleeping in her bottle, separately from Major Nelson (“Series: I Dream of Jeannie,” 2013). This was likely the producers’ attempt to dislodge any inappropriate connections that could be drawn. Barbara Eden, the actress who played Jeannie had to portray a naïve and dim-witted girl, which was characteristic of the ideology that a woman needed to remain in the home and was unable to survive without a man. Following in the footsteps of “I Love Lucy,” this naivety was the source of many a conflicts in which the show found most of its humorous moments. Other shows continued to use this “incompetent woman” for humor throughout the course of the decade.
“Green Acres” is another show that ultimately avoided sexuality during the time it was on the air. Marriage was shown in ways much like other shows of the time; a hardworking man who provides the logic, and a dim-witted wife that causes most of the problems and instigates most of the humorous instances. Rather than using sexual innuendos, “Green Acres” got its humor from the surrealist style previously mentioned in description of shows of the 60’s. According to Common Sense Media, “Green Acres” makes use of slapstick comedy and the couple’s fish out of water experiences to create most of the humorous moments. In actuality the show left sexuality out. For instance, most attempts to cause laughter came from someone getting hit in the head in an unlikely situation rather than an awkward sexual experience, as would be the tendency in coming decades (Filucci, 2013). It was not until the duration of the 1970’s that the humor founded in naivety that was characteristic of the 50’s and 60’s began to make way for humor founded in more vulgar, and inappropriate things. In variation from the surrealist television sitcoms previously mentioned, “The Andy Griffith Show” began in the 60’s as well, but was very different from other shows that were aired during the same time. It depicted a family that was very much similar to a middle class family, perhaps even more so than the others. “The Andy Griffith Show” did indeed star a functional family, but for the first time in situational comedies, a show featured a family parented by a single parent (Garrison, 2011). This single factor did not affect the humor, but represents shows beginning to stray from the predisposition to feature an “ideal” American family. This variation opened up opportunities for new storylines featuring new kinds of relationships and new kinds of humor.
Many critics consider the 1970’s to mark the start of when real and distinct changes began to occur. According to The New York Times, these changes are due largely in part to two men. Mr. Lear and James L. Brooks between the two of them wrote shows that began to take the sitcom style of past decades and reworked them to less blatantly ignore more realistic lifestyles. This changed the way situational comedies were described.
In the 1970’s shows typically fell under two categories, one of which was fairly new and unique to the start of the decade. Shows were divided into either more traditional based story lines, or those that represented the beginning of an evolving genre. This new category of sitcom is describable by its tendencies to push social and moral norms, but it had only just begun to make the changes that were to come. Shows similar to “The Brady Bunch” revolved around familial life in their own ways, but in this time relationship humor also began to change. Rather than shows that were always based on the traditional nuclear family, some new relationships began to emerge as new focuses of sitcoms, such as those between friends and roommates, but family based sitcoms were equally as common still.
An analysis of the family based shows portrays changing familial humor as well. “The Brady Bunch” followed in the footsteps of “The Andy Griffith Show,” by presenting a family different from the average one. The Brady’s would have been considered a blended family during a time when divorce was newly prevalent. This was one of the first instances that a situational comedy had a family with different bloodlines within it (Garrison, 2011). Despite this factor, the show was wholesome and possibly even stale in its humor. The teenage children within the show are uptight and extremely well behaved, especially in comparison to the time period in which the show aired. Rather than tackling problems associated with drinking, smoking, swearing, sex, or even disobedience of any kind, they were mostly concerned with auditions and school competitions, and humor . Similar to the shows that came before it, “The Brady Bunch” finds humor in tackling the every day problems of life that arise in a television reality (Maher, 2013). According to an analysis by Charlotte Hudnutt, the humor in “The Brady Bunch” is simple. The humorous moments were in result of various incidences that were usually solved within one episode. The jokes did not require deep levels of consideration or thinking, and an added laugh track helped indicate to the audience when to laugh, further assisting that they didn’t have to contemplate the humor. This simple humor was not always the case in sitcoms of the 70’s.
Some shows created a stylistic mix of both the traditional conservative family based styles of the past, and the new one that drove taboos of the time to limits they had never been taken to before. “All in the Family” is a principal example of this integration. “All in the Family” began in 1971, and addressed touchy subjects such as racism, abortion, cancer, and sexual fantasies. According to Mr. Lear, he did not use these taboos to gain laughter, but rather to more accurately present the American household. Besides these taboos, “All in the Family” also broke the tradition of sitcoms to have short choppy bits of humor; the dialogue included a punch line less frequently and allowed for more continuous dialogue. It is said that this was the first time in situational comedies that the characters had normal realistic conversation (Hass, 1997). This is an example of the in-between, which encouraged other producers to push tradition even farther.
In another example, there were shows that no longer addressed family life. “Three’s Company”, a primary example of this new focus is one of the most popular shows that emerged from this decade. It was likely better known to be for more mature audiences though due to the character relationships within it. Rather than depicting a family, which had been the most dominant story line in situational comedies up to this point, “Three’s Company” featured the hilarious relationship problems of three roommates: 2 women and a man. According to TV Tropes again, this show relied heavily on “slapstick” humor based off sexual humor, physical humor and errors (“Series: “Three’s Company,” 2013). This was also one of the first times that homosexuality was joked about as a consistent bit in every episode; it was not in such a way to be considered discriminatory. Vulgarity within the show was mainly found as humor in means of sexual conflicts that characters were experiencing, or lack there of. In retrospect, such humor is rather tame in comparison with sexual based humor in shows in the following decades and even today.
Humor in situational comedies in the 1980’s was similar to the 70’s in the sense that they were both relatively appropriate and generally the same humor styles. The 80’s were home to sitcoms based on varying kinds of relationships just like the previous decade, however, the situational comedies that featured families continued to explore ever more apparent sexual topics. According to a writer for The New York Times, people in television business agree that “Cheers” and “Roseanne” were two of the few shows to openly portray sexuality in a style that was new and unique (Hass, 1997). This new style was different and fresh, and was handled in an interesting way, rather than a tasteless way as many shows in the future would do. According to Lear, in the 80’s, sex on television was funny and served a humorous purpose. He also stated that this means of including sexual content to raise social consciousness would not be the case for long (Hass, 1997). The 80’s also brought “Full House” and “Family Matters,” both of which were entirely wholesome throughout entire episodes. Humor was distinctly idiocy based and in some cases slapstick in these shows. Slapstick comedy continued to be an important kind of humor in sitcoms into the next decade.
The 1990’s are without question the time when situational comedies’ humor styles become the most dynamic. New shows of the 90’s such as “Sex and the City,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and “Will & Grace” all blatantly explored promiscuity and sexuality in different kinds of relationships, and were more ostensive in doing so than any shows that had come before them. Comedy in these shows came directly from the humorous situations that resulted from various character’s one-night stands, and even personal problems in the bedroom. An article written in 1998 by M.S. Mason for Christian Science Monitor analyzes this growth. According to the article, the sex scenes depicted in shows during the 90’s were casual, unrealistic situations without consequence. Other concerns are raised because these shows, the likes of which would have been in late night television in the past, were now being aired on primetime television when younger generations would have more access to them. Mason states in his article that under the cover of comedy, these strange situations create guilt-free sex, and is standardized as the norm. While the more wholesome shows such as “Home Improvement” and “Mad About You” do in fact manage to incorporate morals and value into the humor, without making a mockery of the sanctity of marriage, etc. The humor in these shows is warm, considerate, and kind (Mason, 1998). Aside from the wholesome shows, the others that used poor handling of sexuality assisted it in becoming the template for the future.
Rather than having storylines with little references to sex included, these new situational comedies of the 90’s like “Seinfeld,” “Sex and the City” and “Friends” based full episodes on the character’s sexual blunders, their new relationships, and the details about their intimacies. According to the Christian Science Monitor, despite the producer’s claims that the inclusion of such topics was to make the shows more realistic rather than more comical, in actuality the intimacy problems that are depicted in the shows are unrealistic. James Wall, editor of The Christian Century, said, “All of these shows have one basic principle. It’s not whether the characters will be sexually involved, but when and how.” It supports the idea that sitcom characters of the 90’s were focused on instant gratification more than anything else, which often times caused humorous problems (Mason, 1998). “Sex and the City” is known for its four female stars that are all sexually empowered women that flaunt their prowess as a right. Their sexual escapades and dating catastrophes were the humorous backbone to the success of the show. This success encouraged the use of sexual humor. It also supports the point that starting in this decade, sexuality based humor and sex scenes became prominent to the point of becoming expectation.
Expectation of sexuality within a show is indicative of the turn the cultural norm is taking. Sexuality has become one of the sole means of humorous material, and at the turn of the century, the 21st century began with situational comedies that went back to family life. This family life is often were blatant and straightforward in sexual references. “Secret Life of the American Teenager” is meant to be a more accurate depiction of teenage experiences in this society, which by today’s standards is apparently assumed to be one night stands in high school, pregnancy, drugs, and alcohol. Despite all the negative things that “Secret Life” associates itself with, it opens up opportunity for discussion because it does address the consequences of certain actions. The show is not considered to be overly accurate, however; it presents adverse topics from the perspective of someone with substantial luxury so the size of the conflicts is falsely minimized (Camacho, 2013). “How I Met Your Mother” uses eccentric humor and ironic relationship situations to gain viewers. It also has tendencies to portray discreet sexism towards both genders depending on the topic (Sinkhorn, 2012). It also follows the familiar habit of exaggerating situations to increase the hilarity. Many of the scenes would never occur in reality, but that ridiculousness is usually what causes the greatest amount of laughter. “How I Met Your Mother” is also known for its conflicting themes, some good and most bad, and generally sexist. Overall, sitcoms from the 2000’s, such as the ones mentioned, and “Modern Family,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” and “Two and a Half Men,” all cover the broad spectrum of situational comedies that had been instigated in the past 50 years. They all depict relations between roommates, coworkers, or between family members, and the only thing that continues to be dynamic is the full extent of the vulgar humor used.
After the start of the 2010’s, the introduction of new sitcoms has progressively slowed down. A few of the more well known situational comedies in the last few years are “New Girl,” “2 Broke Girls,” and “Cougar Town,” all of which notably feature a female star(s) and her interactions with life. With special concentration on “New Girl” it is especially interesting to evaluate how the role of the female has changed in the course of the sitcom and in television in general. The main actress of “New Girl” Zooey Deschanel plays a modern Lucy, in the sense that she is the 21st century version of the empowered woman. Following the template of “Sex and the City,” the producers of “New Girl” grasped at the success of the sexually uninhibited woman. However, the show broke cultural tradition of even current society by reversing “Three’s Company” and placing this uninhibited woman with three male roommates. This analysis demonstrates how sitcoms often follow suite of its successful predecessors. Her male roommates assist her in having casual sexual relations, which would have been unheard of in the conservative past. Deschanel’s character is also unsettled by the sexual tension that exists between her and one of her roommates, which inevitably creates many awkward situations that most can relate to, however, the situations in the show are magnified to the point of slapstick humor which has been a reoccurring style throughout the sixty years prior to this show.
The observation of repeating styles, themes, and similar storylines is a key factor to consider when comparing the full range of transformations the situational comedy has undergone. It is almost as though the sitcom has come full circle; starting with conservative shows like “I Love Lucy” that portrays an esteemed and empowered woman as successful in physical comedy and slapstick styles, and then progressing throughout six decades to continuously change while also maintaining some successful styles. The presentation of humorous dialogue and sitcoms in general has changed repetitively back and forth, from blatant punch lines to more complex humor, from laugh tracks to silence, and audience to sans-audience. Sexuality has played its significant role since situational comedies first gained popularity, however the amounts of sexuality within the shows on primetime television has grown increasingly larger. As of 2001, sexual content in sitcom television jumped to 84% of all shows sampled, and sitcoms were the least likely to address consequences of said sexual actions (Cox, 2011). While sexuality was not the base of the humor in every sitcom discussed, and was not the sole topic in most cases, it certainly indicates something about the society desensitization has created. Sitcoms have evolved to involve mostly sexual comedy, but they still manage to be considered slapstick comedy in many cases. This study of inter-relationship comedy has shown the dynamic change from conservative material to material that only desensitized audiences can truly appreciate. This sexual humor dominates situational comedies, and denotes certain negative connotations about the sexually focused society that has been created by the airing of such humor.

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Hudnutt, Charlotte. "Social History of Television: Charlotte Hudnutt." Social History of Television. N.p., 31 Mar. 2013. Web. 11 May 2013. <http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/chudnutt/2013/03/31/socio-cultural-analysis-the-brady-bunch/>.

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