Twenty years ago, sitcoms were the biggest thing on television. All the really big series – the ones that had people talking the next day – were sitcoms. Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Friends and Frasier were instant classics; leading a comedy that dominated the small screen. Now traditional sitcoms are all but ignored. What happened?
If you follow television closely you can probably run off a list of cutting edge shows that still kind of look like sitcoms. Fairfax did it a month ago, focusing on high profile series like Transparent, Girls, Please Like Me, and Togetherness.
But those series aren’t sitcoms the way sitcoms were at the height of their fame. They’re less about comedy (even their fans admit they’re not about telling jokes) and more about being straight drama series with an offbeat hook. Do the characters grow and develop? Does the comedy come second to exploring the ways those characters interact with each other? Then it’s not really a sitcom
Good traditional sitcoms are still being made. Tina Fey’s current Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is as funny as anything she did with 30 Rock; SBS’s police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine is hilarious week in week out. The biggest television show in the world – The Big Bang Theory, a show so big it’s currently screening on two different Australian commercial networks – is a sitcom. How I Met Your Mother was a big deal right up until it finished (though it finished so badly everyone is trying to forget it ever happened). But those shows aren’t at the heart of the television experience the way sitcoms used to be
It’s not that sitcoms have died out. It’s that television has moved on. Twenty years ago, television wasn’t cool. Television was that daggy thing you watched because there was nothing else to do while you waited for the internet to take off. And comedy is pretty much the opposite of cool. Comedy tries hard, it wants you to like it, it’s daggy: it was perfect for television.
Today, television’s business model is all about cool. Cable TV and streaming services rely on audiences actively choosing to tune in; who wants to tune into some daggy try-hard comedy when edgy dramas are getting all the good press? The rise of recap culture didn’t help either. Recapping dramas makes sense, while recapping a sitcom is just giving away all the good jokes. And drama has always been a much easier sell to critics. When a drama doesn’t quite work it’s still dramatic; when a comedy doesn’t get laughs, it’s over.
The new television started turning its back on the sitcom with the success of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Star Larry David had co-created Seinfeld so he knew how to get laughs, but its laid-back approach and focus on painful situations – at times to an almost unbearable level – sold the idea that what made it different from traditional sitcoms was that it was awkward. Soon funny was what you got for free on mainstream television; edgy and awkward was what all the cool shows were doing.
Today free-to-air television is daggy and the traditional sitcom – a format that defined free-to-air television in its heyday – is daggy too. Even when sitcoms feature performers making big hits elsewhere, they’re pretty much ignored. Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Andy Samberg gets a lot more attention for his sketch appearances and musical comedy work with The Lonely Island than he does for playing cop Jake Peralta; did anyone even realise Melissa McCarthy was appearing in sitcom Mike & Molly at the same time as Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy made her one of the biggest female movie stars in the world?
Does the traditional sitcom have a future? It’s traditional to say that it would only take one big hit to restore the format to its former glory. Ted Danson, the last big name from the golden age of sitcoms (Cheers, not Becker) has a sitcom with Kristen Bell - Good Place - due later this year from the co-creator of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He’s still a massive drawcard, and he’s kept his comedy chops fresh too with work on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bored to Death.
And that’s just the tip of this year’s sitcom iceberg. How about Downward Dog, a comedy told from the point of view of a dog? There’s Imaginary Mary, which features a lead with a CGI imaginary friend, and Son of Zorn, about a cartoon barbarian who returns to Earth to deal with his estranged wife and son.
If you like more traditional family fare there’s Marlon, based on the life of and starring Marlon Wayans, and Matt LeBlanc is back playing a stay-at-home dad in Man with a Plan. There’s workplace sitcoms too, such as The Great Indoors, in which Joel McHale and Stephen Fry bump heads at a travel magazine.
Um... maybe you should just stick with Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Watch season 3 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Wednesdays at 8pm (AEST) on SBS 2. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.
Missed the last episode? Watch it right here: