Television comedies come in all shapes and sizes; there are a wide variety of audiences to appeal to and draw in through the use of comedy on television (Mills 1). To that end, television comedies are found in different configurations, with distinguishing factors being the type of comedy, the length of the show, the way each show is filmed, etc. (Mills 33). From The Simpsons to The Office, there are thousands of different comedy shows that have been or are currently on the airwaves, but many of them have several defining attributes to them that set themselves apart from each other. Exploring the different types of television comedy out there makes for a more comprehensive and detailed understanding of how television and comedy has changed over the years, as well as the different tastes these shows cater to.
The most common kind of television comedy is the situational comedy, or sitcom – this is a scripted television show in which a group of characters react to unconventional situations in crazy ways (Mills 54). Many of these sitcoms can be further divided into single-camera or multi-camera sitcoms: in the case of single-camera sitcoms, these shows are filmed more or less like a movie, with consideration taken to shot placement, editing and shot composition – hence, a single camera only is needed to achieve the desired effect (Mills 54). Shows like The Office and 30 Rock are examples of this, as they use one camera at a time to film shots as needed, and then edit them together from different takes to compose a seamless whole that functions just like a movie. This type of style is great for involving more visual and cinematic gags, such as movie homages or focusing on a single object or character (Thompson 63).
Multi-camera sitcoms are much different; these are filmed more or less like plays, with many of them actually being filmed in front of a live studio audience (Mills 140). The way they usually work is to film entire scenes performed all at once with multiple cameras, which the director can then switch between to capture an entire scene’s worth of performance without having to change camera setups in the middle (Thompson 64). While there are still many modern multi-camera sitcoms today, like The Big Bang Theory, this style is most prevalent in older sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Brady Bunch, where televisions schedules were leaner and it was simpler to just film it all at once and present it (Thompson 65). Multi-camera sitcoms also tend to be flatter visually, as the filmmakers are not as able to play with creative shots and angles due to the static setup (Thompson 66).
Another type of comedy is the comedy-drama, sometimes called the dramedy (Bednarek 55). This show is much different from a traditional comedy, in that it is usually more like a drama with comedic elements. While the characters and situations are meant to be taken seriously for the most part, there are still many moments in which comedic situations do occur (Bednarek 56). This gives the shows a bit more realistic bent, as the situations do not often resort to outright farce. Examples of dramedies include Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmour Girls - these shows straddle the line between putting its characters through dramatic moments and comedic ones (Bednarek 54). Dramedies, because of their loftier pretensions, are usually a single-camera show, so they can attempt a greater sense of realism as opposed to the theatricality and stiffness of a multi-camera setup (Bednarek 56).
Some television comedy shows choose to avoid the tradition of telling a single story for its entire runtime; one example of this is the sketch comedy show. This type of show is usually multi-camera, but lately have had single-camera examples crop up, such as Key & Peele (Gray 187). Here, a group of actors (anywhere from two to a dozen or more) write, direct and perform a series of sketches that fills either a half-hour or hour-long show; these sketches run for any number of minutes in order to get a series of them in before the runtime is over (Gray xiv). Saturday Night Live is possibly one of the most popular of these sketch comedy shows, as it has been running since the mid-1970s and features an hour-long sketch program with a large, rotating stable of actors and writers (Gray 37). Other sketch shows, such as SCTV, grant an existing sketch comedy troupe the ability to perform for television, and this is usually the format the sketch comedy show finds itself in (Gray xiv).
Another popular kind of show, though one that does not find many pure examples on television, is the stand-up comedy television show (Gray 96). These shows mostly focus on one or more comedians, usually in a crowded room or comedy venue, telling stand-up comedy by themselves in front of a microphone, the TV audience ostensibly being part of the venue’s audience (Mills 16). The conceit of the stand-up show is to deliver a stand-up routine to the audience in a stream-of-consciousness manner. There are few shows that use this stand-up comedy routine as the entirety of their show – even then, it is usually works like Comedy Central Presents, wherein the goal is to showcase several stand-up comedians in a single show. Otherwise, stand-up elements are usually found as components of other television shows, such as sitcoms run by former standups (e.g. Seinfeld, Louie), or as segments on longer-running talk variety shows like Conan or Late Show with David Letterman (Gray 39). Sometimes, these stand-up segments are simply part of sketch shows, such as Important Things with Demetri Martin. Often, stand-up on television is not part of a series, but instead individual stand-alone stand-up specials meant to showcase a particular comedian (Gray xii).
There are many more types and variants of television comedies, but for the most part, television comedies come in these myriad forms (Mills 121). The differences between all of these works help to determine their effect on the audience, or the particular type of comedy that is being provided for the audience. With sitcoms, the comedy comes from narrative situations, whereas stand-up comedy sets up a more intimate relationship between audience and comedian, where they are relaying jokes directly to the listener (Mills 16). As the capabilities and ambition of comedy shows continues to increase, more and more shows are favoring multi-camera setups, foregoing a laugh track, and weaving in more dramatic elements in order to provide the show with more artistic merit (Gray 140). Despite these changes in trends, knowing these basic variants of television comedies helps to understand the differences between them, and why some of them may appeal to you more than others.
Bednarek, Monika. "The language of fictional television: A case study of the ‘dramedy’ Gilmore
Girls." English Text Construction 4.1 (2011): 54-84.
Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson, eds. Satire TV: Politics and comedy in the post-network era. NYU Press, 2009.
Mills, Brett. The sitcom. Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
Thompson, Ethan. "Comedy verite? The observational documentary meets the televisual sitcom." The velvet light trap 60.1 (2007): 63-72.