Sitcoms, or situational comedies, are a genre of comedy that I have always had strong opinions on, for better or worse. There have been periods of my life in which I would binge watch Friends or How I Met Your Mother for hours at a time while browsing the internet or playing games. I always enjoyed the light plots and sense of community and family that develops between the characters and the viewer as well as the humor and ridiculousness of some of the plots. There have also been periods in my life in which I hated sitcoms and actively avoided them. During these periods, I would mock the genre for it’s repetitive and “easy” humor, it’s inconsequential and episodic plots, and it’s grating and almost insulting overuse of laugh tracks. The main object of my distaste was the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which added on a heaping helping of mean-spirited nerd stereotypes to ensure that every episode would act as digital repellant for me. I still hate The Big Bang Theory, and still think that there are problems with the sitcom genre that often keep it from rising above the status of low brow ‘junk food TV’. However, recent shows I have watched, most prevalently the beginning half of the first season of One Day at a Time, have done great jobs at changing my point of view and helping me come to an understanding of exactly what goes into making a sitcom, and what a good sitcom is attempting to accomplish.
One Day at a Time is a multi-camera sitcom. This means that it is filmed using more than one camera in front of a live studio audience that provides the laugh track that these shows are so infamous for. This is in contrast to single-camera shows, which, of course, use one camera and no audience. Reading the assigned articles on the subject and watching “The One that Goes Behind the Scenes”, a short documentary about the filming of an episode of Friends, has given me a new understanding of why this format exists and the strengths it provides to the genre.
To begin, I never realized how much effort goes into filming just a single episode of a show with this method. According to Pili Valdes’s article on going to a taping of One Day at a Time, it took them four hours to record an episode, and “The One that Goes Behind the Scenes” states that it would take them five hours to record twenty-two minutes of showtime for Friends. That is an incredible amount of work, and that doesn’t even acknowledge the massive amount of man hours spent before the taping on writing, set design, lighting, practice, and a million other things. All of this is done in specific ways so that the show can take full advantage of the multi-camera format. They do this because having a studio audience (and with it, a laugh track) helps create an important relationship between the viewers at home and the show. I mentioned before that one of the things I enjoyed most about sitcoms was the bond that develops between the viewer and the characters, and I now understand that the inclusion of a studio audience goes a long way to further this. As Manuel Betancourt states in his article about One Day at a Time, a laugh track implemented well “quite literally allowed viewers at home to feel as if they were there, laughing alongside those in the audience. Their own laughter was there in the show’s soundtrack, as were their gasps and their cheers.” This sense of community is key to making a sitcom work, and gives me a new appreciation for the laugh track beyond a cheap gimmick to make unfunny jokes funny.
I very much enjoyed watching the first few episodes of One Day at a Time, and I believe that a big factor in that was how the show addresses modern issues. Tackling issues prevalent to their time is a common thing for sitcoms to do, but I’ve never seen a show that does it so directly in this day and age. I enjoy some early sitcoms, but the issues they address have lost some of their meaning over time. Furthermore, a lot of them take weak or mostly passive stances to avoid offending people. One Day at a Time, on the other hand, makes clear stances on the issues of modern feminism, homosexuality, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is incredibly refreshing, and makes me more inclined to take the show seriously as a piece of social commentary rather than simple mindless entertainment. I particularly enjoyed the character of Elena. While I know that she can probably come across as annoying to viewers who may not like her persistent progressivism, I found her to often be a driving force for some of the most interesting and powerful issues explored in the show. Sitcoms aren’t dead yet, and One Day at a Time, at the very least, has helped revive one viewers interest in a genre that he thought may have been obsolete.