What comes to your mind when you hear the word classic? It is generally something old, and something that was a trendsetter. When it comes to movies, you might think of popular titles like The Godfather, Gone with The Wind or 2001 A Space Odyssey. Similarly, in case of sitcoms, popular titles like The Simpsonsand M*A*S*H might come to your mind. These shows weren’t just popular, in addition, they also brought something new and innovative to the picture, which their forerunners could take inspiration from. However, taking inspiration is one thing, and coming up with a formula is another, which is unfortunately what all this has led to.
The formula of success
The same thing that is happening with the Internet now happened with the popular sitcoms long ago. The channels soon became aware what exactly is the formula behind making the people laugh, and so without making any significant improvements over the other aspects of the show, they simply worked on the formula; and surprisingly this worked. If you have watched shows like The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, you might have had a subconscious feeling that all these shows were similar in some respects. These, in fact, have strikingly similarities as they literally work on the same formula. However, if you still haven’t figured out what that formula is, then here it is for you. The formula of a successful sitcom.
5 – Typical characteristics of the most popular sitcoms
1. Laughter Track
Despite all the blame that people put on laughter track, they aren’t all that bad actually. In fact, there’s a reason why we don’t see laughter tracks in mainstream comedy movies and why we encounter them so often in sitcoms. We normally tend to watch movies in a cinema hall, and unless the movie is awfully unpopular, you can be assured there would be plenty of people sitting around you. So, in a comedy movie when a comical situation comes everybody in the hall around you would be laughing, and so you too would instinctively know that you have to laugh now, and so you would laugh.
Why most sitcoms have laughter tracks?
The situation with sitcoms is different. You don’t watch them in cinema halls. You watch them on your television, laptop or computer. So, you are highly likely to watch them alone. However, when you are watching something funny while alone, you miss the human feeling of laughing together. Therefore, by introducing laughter tracks sitcoms provide the remedy for this loneliness. But a little more of it, and the remedy itself becomes a disease.
Laughter tracks gone berserk
The makers of the sitcoms soon figured out how much hard work it is to get laughter from the audience, so they left it to the laughter tracks. In fact, if you go to YouTube and watch clips of shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and 2 Broke Girls without their laughing tracks, they seem nauseatingly boring. Moreover, you would also find out that the new shows like The Big Bang Theory rely so much on artificial laughter that they even leave gaps in the dialogues especially for it. All this has produced a special burden on many of the genuine sitcoms that don’t rely on artificial laughter as people are more likely to mistake them for boring and unfunny.
If cliché characters aren’t annoying enough then how about characters repeating themselves? Yes, that happens more and more now. You weren’t likely to hear something like a reoccurring ‘Bazinga’ or ‘Suit up’ in shows earlier. But now that it has become a trend, we are extremely likely to see more such characters who repeat themselves morbidly.
3. Cliché Characters
Let’s face it, it’s so hard to make 300 hundred or so episodes of a sitcom without having characters that don’t have certain stereotypical characteristics. But the problem arises when this stereotype carries over from one sitcom to another. There must be some reason why Barney Stinson (The Horney Guy from ‘How I Met Your Mother’) is so similar to Sam Malone (The Horny Guy from ‘Cheers’) and why Sheldon Cooper from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ shares so much of his personality traits with Phoebe Buffay from Friends. It isn’t just a coincidence. The similarity of the characters between the sitcoms of the 90s with the characters of 2000s made it easier for their target audience to transition from one sitcom to another.
4. The same look
From The King of Queens to Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, sitcoms are approaching an almost same minimalist setting. Most of the drama happens inside a room and a large part of it happens on a couch. Most of the characters (just like the viewers) are fast approaching a sedentary lifestyle. There’s literally no movement. The setting just like the plot is stagnant, both of which would have no effect if it weren’t for the artificial laughter.
Why the formula is so successful with people?
This is where the similarity factor comes in. The same millennials who watched Friends and Cheers as teenagers on television probably grew up to watch Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother on their computers. We have had such a heavy diet of such sitcoms that they have become a permanent part and parcel of our psyche. Watching them gives the feeling of watching something that we’ve known ever since our childhood. In other words, they evoke nostalgia.
Just as we want see the things that we love again and again. In the same way we love things that we see again and again. This is a psychological tendency, which the popular sitcoms with their hundreds of episodes get a fair chance to exploit. In the beginning, the sitcoms might seem a little strange, but once we are done with a couple of episodes, you are already into them. It could become one of the reasons behind your screen addiction. And owing to the similarity between such shows, when you are switching from one show to another, you don’t feel as if you are watching something new.
3. Fear of surprises
Okay, so you’ve had the usual day at your office, school, or college. You’ve had no surprises. That’s important. In the lives of us average people, most of the surprises are unpleasant. So, it becomes our natural tendency to steer our lives away from surprises. Understanding this tendency to the extreme, the popular sitcoms don’t disappoint us in the least. Almost all the times, they are literally the same.
4. Binge watching
Binge watching on movies is so difficult (unless you are watching the movie of the same franchise). Sitcoms, on the other hand, encourage it. In fact, if you meet your friends, they would never ask you whether you are watching some particular show or not, they’d simply ask whether you’ve finished it or not (as if it were a book). Then, one day, in a surge or emotion, you’d say to yourself, ‘This week I’m going to finish all the seasons of Friends, come what may.’ And you do it, but what it does to your health is another story though.
Why the formula is so popular with sitcom makers?
1. Little Risks
When you are launching something that’s already tried and tested thousands of times. You have comparatively low risk of growing wrong.
2. Four cameras, single take
Did you know that most of the action of the popular sitcoms takes place in a single take? It is just shot through four cameras, two pointing at the characters in particular and two at the characters along with the background. It’s as simple as it sounds, as the setting too is inspired from (or is almost the same as) other sitcoms. This is not only easy but budget friendly as well. Furthermore, you don’t even have to hire professional stage actors for this, anyone who looks and sounds good on the television would do, as the laughter tracks would cover the rest.
3. Low production costs
Unless you are launching the show with a star-studded cast for your sitcom, what else would you be spending on? There’s literally nothing there.
4. Endless seasons
Even if the success rate of a sitcom is hundred to one, the sender would still make loads of profit. As once successful, they can make endless seasons and episodes using the same cast and formula, which would be working almost all the times.
There’s nothing bad in having a formula. Even Shakespeare used the classic five act structure of his times to become successful. It becomes toxic only when there’s nothing else in the show except the formula. So, next time when you are deciding to watch something new, don’t just read the user reviews or ask the friends about it, just ask yourself this question. ‘Does this sitcom seem familiar?’