Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men

HAWK TALK – Sitcoms

This would usually be a skip week, but the world is still being a jerk, so we made you a bonus, entirely unedited, and almost entirely off-topic episode. This time, Jay and Tina Carleton of Welcome to Television talked about sitcoms!


  1. Interesting how she defines it. Some people will insist a that burger is a sandwich, others that it isn’t. In this case, I’ve always felt that Red Dwarf is a sitcom, though it’s not really worth fighting about.
    Controversial opinion: I remember both Seinfeld and Friends. While I hated them both, I still like the little bass stings of Seinfeld and once watched a whole episode. Indeed, if we discount the Simpsons, then my favourite 90s sitcom would probably be Roseanne. Never saw the revival. Any good?

  2. Loved this, what a great guest. As a script formalism nerd my definition of sitcoms is much broader (being more about a certain use of act structure, story engine and story tools) and would include almost all the shows mentioned. But Tina’s observations about shows as deconstructions of other shows is a very incisive (and fun) lens. It’s the reason why familiarity with even dated, subpar art can enrich your appreciation of better art made in the same form. Just like comics!

  3. I find I disagree so fundamentally with that definition of a sitcom that it just kept getting in the way of listening the episode.

    “Ending in a marriage” seems like a very weird fixation for such a broad category of television.

    By that metric, shows like “Will and Grace”, “The Honeymooners”, “King of Queens”, “Home Improvement” and “Everyone Love’s Raymond” aren’t sitcom’s because they don’t end with a wedding. (I mean, whether I find them funny or not (And most of those I don’t), they seem like situational comedies by most definitions). Also “Fawlty Towers”, “One Foot in the Grave”, “Bewitched”, “The Goodies” and so on.

    I’d say that “Friends” didn’t end with a wedding, it had a wedding in it’s final episodes, but that wasn’t the aim of the entire series, and was only for one of the six major characters, another two had got married years previously (Chandler and Monica) and whatever the heck dysfunctional mess Ross and Rachel had going on and the last (Joey) wasn’t involved in a marriage at all.

    “Galavant” describes itself as a sitcom in it’s infodump recap song near the end of season 2

    “Gosh, so much to dump upon your doormat!
    In our half-hour sitcom format!”

    And that one does end with a wedding, along with several other important character endings unrelated to the wedding, since they wanted to leave a set up for season 3.

    1. Reading that back after hitting send, it seems I’m being more than a little hard on, and ungallant towards, your guest presenter. who was both erudite and delightfully keen on her subject.

      My unreserved apologies to Tina (who can, of course, define sitcoms any way she chooses) for that.

    2. Friends is a a somewhat more complicated case than you give it credit for, I think. It depends on what a “marriage” is. Chandler and Monica moving to the suburbs to form a “real adult” household is presented as the completion of their marriage — up till that point, they haven’t “fully” been married in the sense of forming a proper goshdarnit American heteronormative nuclear family unit. That story thread ends where the traditional American family sitcom begins, in fact.

      And obviously Chandler-Monica had become by that point the central relationship on the show. But alongside that ending, the show revives the former central relationship, Ross-Rachel, and gives it a conclusion with them coming together in a way that is clearly meant to be permanent, although it is not an actual wedding ceremony. This is common in modern romantic comedies — once upon a time, social mores were such that the only acceptable happy romantic ending was one that ended explicitly in betrothal or marriage, but mores have obviously shifted, and it’s fine for the boy and girl to get together at the end of the story in a less formal way. But marriage is always lurking in the background as the original stereotyped conclusion.

      The Phoebe wedding is arguably mostly just underpinning the themes of those two more important resolutions, really. At any rate, Friends does absolutely end with variants on the traditional romantic comedy ending.

      What’s more interesting is that this is destructive of the idealized community of, well, friends that was the fantasy that the show was selling its audience — they’ll still be friends in a normal sense, but it will never quite be the same, because they won’t be seeing each other every day. But that’s because Friends always leaned heavily towards being a coming-of-age story, being about that moment in one’s life when one is no longer a child or that American invention, a teenager, but has not “settled down” into being a grown-up. For women in particular, marriage tends to function in stories as the moment when one comes of age, because sexism.

      So although it’s a bit different from sitcoms of this type in that it’s all a bit elegiac, it’s still got that rock-hard conservatism to it. Coming-of-age narratives tend to be conservative. Friends was in many ways an absurd series of delaying actions thrown in the way of a transitory situation coming to its “right and proper” end.

  4. I definitely wanted How I Met Your Mother to lead up to Barney’s gender transition and marriage to Ted.
    As a straight cis man Barney is pretty problematic but when the obsession with suits is masking dysphoria and the hollow promiscuity is a search for something missing…
    These are pretty relatable stumbles on the road to become yourself, at least for me.

  5. I agree with Jay in that most sitcoms are definitely “of their time.”. There are certainly a lot of jokes in the past that wouldn’t go over well today.

    Tina’s definition of what differentiates a sitcom from a drama is more like what differentiates a romance from a love story; romance ends with a kiss while a love story ends with a death. In all fairness, however, almost any definition you use is going to have exceptions. I always thought that a sitcom was basically a half hour scripted show while a drama was an hour long scripted show.

    1. I mean, to me it’s always seemed clear cut, a Sitcom is a Situational Comedy and that’s the only defining characteristic.

      So it’s a series with a consistent cast of characters, set in a limited number of standard sets, which doesn’t alter drastically from episode to episode, wherein the main aim is comedy arising from that situation. There may be drama and pathos at times, but that’s not their primary goal.

      So it’s a sitcom because it’s basic setting is family home, or a coffee shop, or an office space, a hotel, a radio station or the like.

      As I understand it, the genre was named “Situational Comedy” to differentiate it from “Sketch Comedy”.

      So the likes of “SNL”, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In” or “The Two Ronnies” are sketch comedy shows.

      1. Any attempt to define a genre in essentialist terms almost always fails. (A person makes a mistake, and through a surprising series of coincidences ends up in a very embarrassing social situation — that’s Oedipus the King.)

        But I do think that our evil host set his guest up by framing this at the beginning in terms of not knowing the theory — throw the word “theory” around and you create certain expectations of what is going to follow. I am not sure that our host’s guest was really approaching this as a solemn exercise in establishing a definitive for-all-time statement of What The Sitcom Is And Always Must Be.

        There is, obviously, a long tradition of discussing *a* type of comedy as something that prototypically ends in marriage. It doesn’t have to be an actual marriage — it can be something that functions as a marriage.

        E.g. The Comedy of Errors — while Shakespeare added romantic elements that culminate in a marriage, they’re superfluous — the resolution is the brothers’ reuniting with one another and the family being restored. As can be seen from Shakespeare’s source, Plautus’ Menaechmi, which doesn’t have any romantic element at all, and in fact involves a divorce as part of the resolution.

        To pick a modern example off the top of my head, the last episode of Cheers ends with Sam in the bar, because that’s what he’s actually married to, and the plot of that episode was about the threat to that marriage and the found family of the idealized neighborhood bar that pursuing a relationship with Diane represented.

        Note that Sam is already married to the bar — more conventionally, there are many sitcoms which are about a couple who are already married. (I have a dim memory of there being a TV show about that earlier in the year.) Sitcoms are often noted as having a strong conservative streak in them, especially in the US, as often (not always!) being about these idealized units of belonging.

        I think overfocusing on how series as a whole end is always going to be iffy here, because one does not have to go very far back in US television history to find a time when these shows were geared towards syndication and the viewer was not expected to be following a narrative across episodes to their conclusion. Sitcoms are often regarded as having as *a* feature that they often (not always!) have a main plot that is resolved within the span of the episode, even if there are ongoing subplots across episodes. (This is obviously something that they share with lots of other things.)

        What, obviously, we should all be twitting our host and his guest about is the US cultural imperialism of assuming that you can define a genre through ending in a “prom.” 🙂

  6. One thing that did bother me a bit in the discussion was in connection with the difference between David Brent and Michael Scott. This was maybe not the way it was meant to come across, but it did come across as endorsing the view that it being easier to fire people in the US leads naturally to more competent and benevolent managers.

    That’s a very one-sided view. It ignores the fact that, when it is easy to let people go, employees are often scared to come forward with complaints about managers. Because in the real world, the threat of being fired arbitrarily does not fall on everyone in an organization equally. As a result, at-will employment often *protects* abusive and incompetent managers, since the people who are in the best position to know what’s going on don’t feel that they can talk about it.

    David Brent is a caricature, obviously, but if you think that there’s no-one like him in a supervisory position in any American organization — ah, bless your heart, as some American say.

  7. I too must add my 2c to disagree with the idea that the defining characteristic of a sitcom is that it ends in a wedding. For two good examples of sitcoms for kids that don’t end with prom or an equivalent, Hey Dude and Salute your Shorts strike me as being very clearly in the mold of the sitcom formula. Likewise, Welcome Freshmen, once it transitioned from being a sketch comedy show to a storied one, was a sitcom. I also disagree that it can’t have a lot of fantastic or cartoony elements. To use lower decks as an example, while it is probably better defined as an adventure comedy, if you had a similar series set on say the promenade of DS9 about a bunch of humans and aliens in wacky sci-fi scenarios every week that would be a sitcom Other than that it was a very lovely episode and it was great to hear you both discuss sitcoms in specific and as an idea.

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