Home Industry What is a Sitcom? [Definition, Origin, and Examples]

What is a Sitcom? [Definition, Origin, and Examples]

by Neil Chase

Have you ever been watching TV, and wondered, “what is a sitcom?”

From Gilligan’s Island to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to The Big Bang Theory and beyond, it’s not just laughs and punchlines; it’s a unique blend of character, comedy, and culture that’s shaped television for generations.

In this article, we’ll define the situation comedy genre, trace its history, highlight iconic examples, and uncover its impact on entertainment.

Let’s get started!

The Definition of a Sitcom

So, what exactly is a sitcom?

Well, the term “sitcom” is actually a shortened version of “situational comedy.” It refers to a genre of comedy television series that revolves around a fixed set of characters who navigate humorous and often exaggerated situations.

Whether as a traditional American sitcom like Family Matters, an animated sitcom like Family Guy, or a dramedy sitcom like Modern Family, these shows are typically set in common environments like a home, workplace, or a favorite hangout spot.

What sets most sitcoms apart is their episodic nature – each episode presents a self-contained story, yet the characters and their relationships grow and evolve over time. It’s this unique blend of humor, relatable scenarios, and engaging main characters that give sitcoms their appeal.

The Origin of the Sitcom

Tracing the origin of sitcoms, we’d have to set our time machines back to the 1920s and 1930s. Initially, the sitcom genre emerged not on television, but on radio. With their recurring characters and episodic format, radio shows such as The Life of Riley and Amos ‘n’ Andy offered a dose of light-hearted entertainment that quickly gained popularity.

Fast forward to the late 1940s, and we see the birth of the first television sitcom, Pinwright’s Progress in the UK, and soon after, Mary Kay and Johnny in the US. These shows set the foundation for the sitcom format we know and love today – a central setting, comedic dialogue, a laugh track, and memorable characters facing everyday situations with a humorous twist.

Over the years, the format of sitcoms has evolved, adapting to changes in society and viewer tastes. While early sitcoms were often filmed in front of a live studio audience with a multiple-camera setup, modern sitcoms might use a single-camera format, eschew laugh tracks altogether, or explore more dramatic themes.

Yet, despite these changes, the core essence of the situation comedy – humor derived from relatable situations and characters – has remained largely the same. This enduring formula explains why sitcoms continue to entertain us, decade after decade.

Key Characteristics of a Sitcom

1. The Consistent Cast of Characters

First up in the sitcom recipe is a consistent cast of main characters. These folks, with their endearing quirks and identifiable personality traits, are the core of any situational comedy. Whether it’s the affable everyman, the goofy neighbor, the demanding boss, or the lovably chaotic family, these beloved characters are the backbone of the story and the source of most of the humor.

2. The Comedy of Everyday Life

Next, we have the comedy, usually extracted from the characters’ interactions and the everyday situations they find themselves in. Anything from a workplace misunderstanding to a disastrous dinner party can be the foundation of an episode’s plot. The magic of sitcoms lies in their ability to take these commonplace scenarios and spin them into hilarious, and often exaggerated, comedic gold.

3. The Episodic Nature

Each episode of a situation comedy usually presents a standalone story, which allows viewers to hop in and out of a series without feeling lost. But along with these individual stories, we also see character arcs and ongoing storylines that evolve over time, encouraging viewers to stay tuned for more. 

For example, people change jobs, kids grow up and move off to college, couples marry or divorce, or new characters join the otherwise same group we know and love.

4. Common, Relatable Settings

Lastly, sitcoms usually revolve around familiar and relatable settings — a family home, a workplace, a school, or a local hangout spot. These recognizable environments ground the comedy in reality, no matter how wild or wacky the on-screen antics might get. 

Even in those exceptions where the setting is more exotic – such as a deserted island or a WW2 prison – the format breeds a familiarity with how the characters adapt to their surroundings in a humorous way.

a family sitcom

5. The Unique Charm of Sitcoms

Collectively, these characteristics set sitcoms apart in the vast TV landscape. While other shows might offer drama, suspense, or fantasy, the best sitcoms provide a slice of life with a generous helping of laughter. 

They offer us characters that remind us of ourselves and loved ones, and reflect our world back at us with a comedic twist – allowing us to laugh at ourselves and the absurdities of everyday life.

Iconic Sitcom Examples

When we think about what is a sitcom, it can be helpful to look at some great examples!

Classic Sitcom Examples

Let’s take a look at some of the best television sitcom examples from the classic days of sitcoms.

  1. “I Love Lucy” (1951–1957): Lucille Ball’s timeless comedy epitomizes the sitcom’s ability to derive humor from everyday situations and characters, with Lucy Ricardo’s zany schemes becoming a staple of the genre. The first sitcom to film in front of a live studio audience.
  2. “All in the Family” (1971–1979): This sitcom’s innovation lies in its bold use of humor to confront societal issues, showcasing how a sitcom can be both funny and thought-provoking.
  3. “Cheers” (1982–1993): Displaying the strength of character-driven humor, with its diverse bar regulars generating endless comedic situations, Cheers demonstrates the importance of a consistent cast.
  4. “Seinfeld” (1989–1998): Known as “a show about nothing”, Seinfeld mastered the art of deriving humor from mundane situations.
  5. “Friends” (1994–2004): With its relatable characters and quotable dialogue, Friends epitomized the power of sitcoms to resonate with audiences, while its Central Perk and apartment settings underscored the importance of familiar environments.
Friends Central Perk sitcom

Contemporary Sitcom Examples

  1. “30 Rock” (2006–2013): Created by and starring Tina Fey, 30 Rock satirizes behind-the-scenes of a sketch comedy show, featuring quirky characters and absurd humor drawn from unique situations.
  2. “Parks and Recreation” (2009–2015): Showcasing a distinct and loveable ensemble cast, this sitcom thrives on character-driven humor in the setting of local government.
  3. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (2013–2021): Set in a police department, this show perfectly blends witty dialogue, situational humor, and character-driven comedy.
  4. “The Good Place” (2016–2020): This philosophical sitcom explores morality and ethics with humor and heart, demonstrating that sitcoms can tackle big ideas while keeping audiences laughing.
  5. “Schitt’s Creek” (2015–2020): A riches-to-rags family story, this sitcom leverages a unique setting and a strong ensemble cast to deliver character-based humor.
 Brooklyn Nine-Nine

The Impact and Influence of Sitcoms

1.The Cultural Impact and Enduring Popularity of Sitcoms

Popular sitcoms are not just a form of entertainment – they’ve become part of our shared societal experience. We quote iconic catchphrases, reference memorable scenes, and relate real-life situations to our favorite sitcom moments. These shows have a way of transcending the screen and spilling into our everyday lives, making us feel part of their extended universe.

The popularity of sitcoms is enduring. Generations grow up on them, forming a bond of collective nostalgia. These shows often bring families and friends together, whether it’s gathering around the television for a new episode or binge-watching a classic series on a streaming platform like Peacock TV or Netflix.

2. Sitcoms’ Influence on Other TV Genres

The influence of sitcoms extends beyond their own genre. Their successful formula has been borrowed, adapted, and subverted by other television formats. Dramas now frequently use episodic structures, while reality TV often borrows the familiar settings and character dynamics found in sitcoms.

Even within the realm of comedy, sitcoms have paved the way for innovative forms of humour. The mockumentary style of shows like The Office or the surreal humour of Community all owe a debt to the sitcom format.

The Modern Day Sitcom

1. Adapting to the Streaming Era

The rise of the digital age and the advent of streaming services have brought about a shift in the sitcom world, too. No longer confined to a primetime slot on network television, sitcoms now enjoy a more flexible existence online, adapting to the binge-watching culture.

Not just that, it has also led to a diversification in the themes they tackle. Modern sitcoms have grown bolder, diving into topics once considered taboo or too serious for a comedy show. Mental health, identity, race, sexuality, political issues – today’s sitcoms aren’t shy about folding these complex subjects into their stories, adding depth to the humour.

2. Boundary-Pushing Sitcoms

And speaking of pushing boundaries, let’s take a moment to appreciate the shows that are redefining what a sitcom can be. For instance, BoJack Horseman balances hilarity with heavy existential themes, while Fleabag breaks the fourth wall in a uniquely intimate and darkly comedic way.

Shows like these push the limits of the sitcom genre, experimenting with structure, tone, and content.

what is a sitcom?

Final Thoughts

In a nutshell, TV sitcoms, with their unique blend of humor and real-life reflections, cover an impressive spectrum of storytelling.

Their ability to elicit laughter while providing societal commentary is a testament to their versatility. Understanding what is a sitcom not only enhances your appreciation of these cleverly crafted shows but also provides valuable insights into the art of storytelling and character development.

If you’re interested in acting, writing, or enjoy watching television shows, learning about the art and technique involved in creating a sitcom can enhance your viewing experience and maybe even inspire you to write your own!

So, as you tune in to your next sitcom, remember the rich history, innovation, and artistry that goes into every laugh.


  • Neil Chase

    Neil Chase is a story and writing coach, award-winning screenwriter, actor, and author of the horror-western novel, Iron Dogs.  Neil has won over 100 international awards for his writing and filmmaking, including the prestigious FilmMaker’s International Screenwriting Grand Prize Award & the ScreamFest Best Screenplay Award. His directorial-debut feature film, Spin The Wheel, is currently in post-production. Neil believes that all writers have the potential to create great work. His passion is helping writers find their voice and develop their skills so that they can create stories that are both entertaining and meaningful. If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, check out his website for tips and inspiration!

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