Due to the need to retain the same situation over many episodes, in many sitcoms characters remained largely static. Events of individual episodes typically resolve themselves by the end, and are rarely mentioned in subsequent episodes. This episodic nature is mirrored in many dramas as well, but there are also many sitcoms that feature story arcs across many episodes, where the characters and situations slowly change over the course of their run.
Comedies from past civilizations, such as those of Aristophanes in Ancient Greece, Terence and Plautus in Ancient Rome, and numerous examples including Shakespeare, Moliere, the Commedia dell'Arte and the Punch and Judy shows from post-Renaissance Europe, are the ancestors of the modern sitcom. Some of the characters, pratfalls, routines and situations as preserved in eyewitness accounts and in the texts of the plays themselves, are remarkably similar to those in earlier modern sitcoms such as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners.
The Jack Benny Program was another important and formative sitcom. The radio version began in 1932 and lasted until 1955. A televised version of the show ran from 1950 to 1965. In total, the show was broadcast for a third of a century.
Fibber McGee and Molly was one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, airing on radio from 1935 to 1959. The show starred vaudevillians James "Jim" and Marian Driscoll Jordan and also had its roots in Chicago.
The television adaptation of Beulah in 1950 became the first TV sitcom with an African American in the lead.
An early innovator in the history of sitcoms is Desi Arnaz who is credited with the first successful use of the multiple-camera setup, where three cameras shoot the action on stage simultaneously and the best shots from each of the cameras are later edited together. I Love Lucy, the extremely popular show that Arnaz and his wife Lucille Ball created and starred in together, was also among the first to record all episodes on film, and he is thus also credited with foreseeing the viability of the rerun.
Eventually, sitcoms began to divide themselves into domestic comedies and workplace comedies. The earliest domestic comedies include The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Honeymooners, and Make Room for Daddy. The earliest workplace comedies include Our Miss Brooks and Mr. Peepers, both set in high schools, and The Phil Silvers Show, which was set on a US Army post.
By the mid-1960s, sitcom creators began adding more fantastical elements to live action sitcoms. Monsters and ghouls were featured as regular characters in The Munsters and The Addams Family created from a series of cartoon comics. Genies and witches featured in I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, respectively. Sherwood Schwartz created the somewhat implausible Gilligan's Island. Also popular were the spy and superhero parodies Get Smart and Batman. Many of these shows returned to the practice of the single camera filming style, which was more practical given the visual effects used in these shows. Overall, the late 1960s was a period of greater production values for sitcoms. This allowed for the careful creation of special effects and sharp editing, features which were not possible with the same finesse in a multi-camera production. Many of these programs were not filmed before live audiences, yet featured a laugh track.
Another trend beginning in the 1960s was the expansion of the domestic comedy beyond the nuclear family or married couple. The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons featured widowers and their children while shows like The Partridge Family concerned a widow and her children. One notable sitcom from this period is Sherwood Schwartz's The Brady Bunch, which centered on a blended family, perhaps the best-known domestic comedy in US television history.
The musical sitcom become an important and popular sub-genre of sitcoms in the mid 1960s through early 1970s with The Monkees, which played off of the success of The Beatles, and with The Partridge Family.
Also in the early 1970s, sitcoms began to address controversial issues in a serious way, and largely returned to the three-camera shoot before live audiences. Many programs began to be recorded to video, as opposed to film, during this time as well. About half of all television sitcoms on broadcast television airing between the mid-1970s and the late 1990s were shot on video. In the US Norman Lear is largely credited with the social issues development through his sitcoms All in the Family, based on Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part in the United Kingdom, and its spin-offs Maude, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, all in the US. Also in Britain was Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's Steptoe and Son, which also had a US remake in Sanford and Son.
In 1971 El Chavo del Ocho was released, in Mexico. Based around characters in a little neighborhood called "la vecindad" it was the most popular sitcom in Latin America and Spain of the period.
The topic of war was addressed in the popular and long-running sitcom M*A*S*H. The producers of M*A*S*H did not want a laugh track on the show, arguing that the show did not need one, but CBS disagreed. CBS compromised by permitting the producers of the show to omit recorded laughter from scenes that took place in the operating room, if they wished. When it was shown in the UK and Germany episodes were broadcast without the laugh track. Ross Bagdasarian also refused to use a laugh track in his production of The Alvin Show.
Also during this time, Bob Newhart adapted his deadpan club act for television in sitcom format, which was at once a throwback to the early vaudevillian origins of sitcoms and a harbinger of the 1980s - 1990s stand-up comedian sitcom trend.
In the mid-1970s, Garry Marshall had several huge hits in the US with his trio of sitcoms Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy. Nostalgia for the 50s was a major theme in both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.
Sex and titillation became a theme in the late 1970s with the UK sitcom Man About the House and its US remake Three's Company. Two soap opera parodies, Soap and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, are also notable shows from this period which pushed the envelope of what was acceptable in television sitcoms.
The 1980s saw the creation of a hybrid single camera half-hour drama / sitcom called a "dramedy". Examples include United States and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. These were largely unsuccessful, but hour-long comedy dramas would become popular in the 1990s.
Also in the 1980s, stand-up comic Bill Cosby starred in the tremendously successful sitcom The Cosby Show, which was the earliest of the current trend of successful sitcoms built around a stand-up comic's stage persona. Comedienne Roseanne Barr continued the trend in the late 1980s with her eponymous sitcom, as did Garry Shandling (It's Garry Shandling's Show and Larry Sanders). More recently, Jerry Seinfeld (Seinfeld) and Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) have also made the transition from the brick wall to the small screen with self-starring sitcoms.
By the mid-1980's, the growth of cable television, additional broadcast networks, and the success of first-run syndication meant that television audiences were fracturing. Programming could now be targeted at specific audiences rather than at a general audience, and this included sitcoms too. Children were one of these audiences, and among the sitcoms made specifically for children were Saved by the Bell and Clarissa Explains It All. In the United States, another important target audience is African-Americans. Sitcoms like Moesha were produced specifically for that market.
The early 1990s saw the rebirth of the animated sitcom, a trend which continues to this day. Most notable is The Simpsons, the longest-running sitcom in US history. Other successful sitcoms in this subgenre include South Park, Futurama, and Family Guy.
This era also saw a significant return to film origination. The main reason for this was that it was seen as "future proofing" productions against any new developments such as HDTV. Programs shot on standard definition videotape in general do not convert well to HDTV, while images on 35mm film can easily be re-scanned to any future format. As well as this, recent developments in film camera and post-processing technologies had eroded the advantages of using videotape. However conceiveably, it is possible that sitcoms could be shot on videotape and be broadcast in HD, due to the creation of High Definition-capable video camera systems that record on videotape or digital video, rather than simply upconverting standard definition videotape to HD. Only a few television series actually use digital video, but very few of these are sitcoms.
In the mid-1990s several sitcoms have reintroduced the ongoing story line. Friends, the second most popular U.S. sitcom of the 1990s-2000s (Behind Seinfeld) had an overall story arc similar to that of soap operas, in the tradition of earlier sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies and One Day At A Time. Friends also used other soap opera elements, such as regularly employing the device of an end-of-season cliffhanger and gradually developing the relationships of the characters over the course of the series. Frasier, Roseanne, Moesha, Seinfeld and The Nanny are also noted for their long-term story arcs.
The early 2000s saw a rebirth of the single camera shooting style for half-hour sitcoms, with shows such as Malcolm in the Middle, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and Scrubs. Unlike earlier single camera shows, these sitcoms do not use laugh tracks. Some shows that did use laugh tracks in the 2000's are "George Lopez" and "King of Queens" which are popular shows today. The British sitcom Green Wing, often featured scenes that were shot using a single steadycam, and which were later sped up or slowed down for comic effect.
Sitcoms made outside the US may run somewhat longer or shorter than 22 minutes. US commercial broadcasters have traditionally been very reluctant to run shows that run too short or too long. Thus, very few UK or British Commonwealth sitcoms run on US commercial television.
US sitcoms (like other American television series) typically have long season runs of 20 or more episodes due to the way they are produced. Canadian sitcoms typically only have season runs of 14 on average.
American sitcoms are often written by large teams of US resident script writers during round-table sessions, but some US sitcoms often do have episodes written by a guest writer. Most British sitcoms are written by one or two people, with four writers sometimes being the norm for some series in the recent past. These divergent writing styles result in vastly different kinds of sitcoms being written.
While there has been a significant number of Australian sitcoms throughout the history of Australian television, they have most commonly run for just a single season - usually 13 half-hour episodes. Many successful Australian sitcoms have been somewhat similar in style to UK comedies, and several closely followed the premise of earlier UK programs.
An early successful situation comedy was My Name's McGooley, What's Yours? (1967) about a working-class Sydney family. Other popular sitcoms of this general period included The Group, and Our Man in Canberra.
In the first half of the 1970s it was the popular soap operas Number 96 and The Box that provided the main forum for Australian-grown sitcom style comedy. These shows combined melodrama and sex with large amounts of comedy. In 1976 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced a sex-comedy television sitcom Alvin Purple, based on the hit feature film of the same name. Like the films that preceded it, the series of Alvin Purple featured Graeme Blundell in the title role.
By the late 1970s Australian versions of popular UK comedies were produced using key personnel from the original series working in Australia. These productions retained the title and key cast members of the original programs and operated within the same story world of the original even down to explaining how the characters came to leave their original UK locale and be temporarily resident of Australia. These comedies, Are You Being Served, Doctor in the House (as Doctor Down Under) and Father, Dear Father (as 'Father, Dear Father in Australia), transplanted key original cast members to Australia to situations markedly similar to those of the original series. During this same general period, one of the UK producers of these shows also launched The Tea Ladies in Australia. Also during the late 1970s Crawford Productions, best known for their successful police drama series, also created situation comedy series. These include The Bluestone Boys (1976) on Network Ten, and Bobby Dazzler (1977) on the Seven Network.
The late-1970s sketch comedy series The Naked Vicar Show spawned successful a sitcom spin off, Kingswood Country, in 1980. This series was immensely popular, running four years. Its situation was somewhat similar to the British comedy Till Death Us Do Part and its American cousin All in the Family.
In the early 1980s there were few Australian sitcoms, with soap operas being the more common genre produced in Australia. During this period however the Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced Mother and Son, which emerged as an enduring audience favourite. In the late 1980s and early 1990s several new Australian sitcoms achieved significant success including Frontline, Hey Dad...!, Acropolis Now, All Together Now which all had relatively long runs. The Adventures of Lano and Woodley ran for two seasons, in 1997 and 1999, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Other programs such as Hampton Court and My Two Wives were only moderate successes, lasting just one season. This period also saw many short-lived failures such as Late for School and Bingles.
In 2002 the successful sitcom Kath and Kim began its hit run.
Canadian sitcoms have generally fared poorly with both critics and audiences. One notorious example is The Trouble with Tracy, regarded by many Canadians as one of the worst TV shows ever made. Other Canadian sitcoms have included Snow Job, Check it Out!, Mosquito Lake and Not My Department all of which were mocked as being particularly unfunny. There have rarely been more than one or two Canadian sitcoms airing at any given time, although this has changed in recent years with the growth of original programming on cable television.
In Quebec sitcoms, the language spoken is always Quebec French.
Early sitcoms included Joe & Koro and Buck House. Later there was The Billy T James Show subsequently rerun in early 2004 as part of the first year's offering on Maori Television. The team of David McPhail and Jon Gadsby produced and/or starred in quite a number of sitcoms such as Letter to Blanchy with help from writer A K Grant.
The most popular and successful New Zealand produced sitcom to date has been Roger Hall's Gliding On, based on his hit stage play Glide Time. Another Hall play, Conjugal Rites was also made into a sitcom but by Granada in Britain. Flight of the conchords. In 1994, Melody Rules was produced and screened. Critically and commercially unsuccessful, it has become part of the lexicon within the television industry to describe an unsuccessful sitcom, for example, that show will be the next "Melody Rules". Another sitcom to have its roots in a stage play was Serial Killers (2003), about the scriptwriters of a medical soap opera.
Many British and American sitcoms are and have been popular in New Zealand, including many of those aforementioned in this article.
The United Kingdom has produced a wealth of sitcoms, many of which have been exported to other nations or adapted for other countries. There is often also a tendency towards black humor. A frequent theme in British sitcoms is that of people trapped in an unpleasant situation or, more often, in a dysfunctional relationship.
Political sitcom The Thick of It is currently going an American adaption, also under the same name. However, most British sitcoms usually fare better in their original forms. Re-makes of Red Dwarf, Men Behaving Badly, Coupling, and One Foot in the Grave (Cosby) fell victim to adaptations that largely removed the essence of the comedy and did not stand the test of time.
Possibly the best example of this was Fawlty Towers, in which there were three attempts to Americanize the show. The first attempt was a proposed series titled Chateau Snavely in 1978 but a pilot was never produced. The second attempt at Americanising Fawlty Towers was Amanda's, where the character of Basil became a woman played by Beatrice Arthur. This eliminated the roles of the hen-pecked lead and the dragon-like wife. Amanda's was picked up by ABC in 1983 but never attracted an audience and was cancelled soon after. The final attempt to remake Fawlty Towers was Payne, in which John Larroquette played the title role. It was seen on CBS in 1999, but like Amanda's it was soon dropped by the network.
The UK is home to the world's longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine. The show's pilot was broadcast in early 1973 with the first series starting that autumn. The series continues to this day with the show's 29th series, coming soon in 2008.
Recently, the BBC also created a poll of the Top 10 British Sitcoms: