comedy is the term for a generic category coined by Horace Newcomb
in his TV: The Most Popular Art (1974). In U.S. television
the phrase provides a useful means of distinguishing between situation
comedy, and the more broad-based, "comedy." Domestic comedies are
identified by a character-based humor as opposed to that originating
in a series of confusions or complications. Within a domestic comedy,
qualities such as warmth, familial relationships, moral growth and
audience inclusiveness predominate. In each episode a character
experiences some sort of learning experience, often motivated by
some ethical trial or test. The humor emanates from the audience's
familiarity with the characters and their relationships with one
another, and the overwhelming harmony of each story encourages the
audience to problem-solve along with the characters.
domestic comedies were literally house-bound, and generally characterized
by their stereotypical nuclear family protagonists. Thus 1950's
programs like Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were considered seminal
examples. Young Beaver, Mary, or Ricky experienced some sort of
lightly-depicted minor dilemma (a lost sweater, making two dates
for the same night, lying to a pen pal) which Ward, Donna or Ozzie
then neatly dispatched of with some well-pointed words of advice.
The child learned the moral lesson, only to be confronted with a
new predicament the following week.
time, the definitions of domestic comedy have changed and expanded.
First, critical work has begun to explore whether many of these
domestic comedies were in fact comedies at all. Nina Leibman has
demonstrated in Living Room Lectures that despite the presence
of a laugh track, most of these programs contained more generic
similarity to domestic melodrama than any sort of comedic categories.
Programs such as Father Knows Best, with their hyperbolic
acting styles and crises, their reliance upon peripety and coincidence
in problem-solving, their thematic and structural dependency on
repetitive musical motifs, and their obsession with issues of gender
and generational conflict, convincingly associates them more with
their 1950's cinematic dramatic counterparts than with their television
situation comedy cousins.
Newcomb, Ella Taylor and others have demonstrated that domestic
comedies need not take place in a suburban home to claim membership
within the domestic comedy genre. Workplace domestic comedies such
as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Murphy Brown, and Ellen,
construct character-based comedies out of the ersatz familial relationships
of a group of friends or co-workers. As in their more literal family
forebears, these comedies place an emphasis on moral growth and
development, warmth, and viewer identification in a representational
(rather than presentational format).
blends and hybrids cause further evolution of the term. Some programs
such as The Brady Bunch, originated with a situation-type
premise: what happens when a widower with three sons marries a widow
with three daughters? Eventually, however (often within the first
three episodes), the situation no longer motivates the central narrative
and the individual episodes deal with topics that fall more neatly
into the domestic comedy camp. For The Brady Bunch, then, moral
imperatives provide the comedy when Greg tries smoking, Marcia is
caught lying about a special prom guest, and Jan's resentment of
her prettier, older sister motivates her to experiment with antisocial
behavior. Similarly, domestic comedies, such as The Dick van
Dyke Show, vacillate between outrageous acts of slapstick and
confusion (Laura dyes her hair blonde, Laura gets her toe stuck
in a bathtub faucet) to more poignant and morally complex episodes
(Richie adopts a duck, Buddy gets fired). A program such as this
(with stars who excel at physical comedy) might originate as a domestic
premise, but then, in light of van Dyke's prowess for farce, reconfigure
the narratives into situational exercises of complexity and confusion.
comedies of the 1970s sprang from two main sources. Norman Lear's
were true familial settings in which the ironic familial head, Archie
Bunker on All in the Family, George Jefferson on the Jeffersons,
Maude on the program which bears her name, proved both a verbal
provocateur and a victim while undergoing subtle moments of moral
growth. Grant Tinker's MTM productions was home to a plethora
of successful workplace domestic comedies such as The Mary Tyler
Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and Rhoda. Each of
these programs reconfigured domestic troubles into professional
ones and transformed business relationships into familial ones by
ascribing certain familial roles to the office workers--the cranky
boss becomes the father, the ditzy newsman becomes a wild brother,
the 1980s domestic comedies retreated into near extinction, emerging
in neoclassical incarnations such as Family Ties, and The
Cosby Show. Like the domestic comedies of the 1950s, these programs
seem closer to domestic melodrama, with a particular emphasis on
gender and class-based issues. The 1990s entries into the field
are a skewed blend of sitcom, domestic comedy and family melodrama.
Roseanne, and Grace Under Fire, for example, tackle
the topics of incest, spouse abuse, alcoholism, masturbation, and
unemployment within the hyperbolic representational stance of family
melodrama. Yet the sarcasm and sheer cynicism of the central characters
diffuse any seriousness associated with the problem, moving them
out of melodrama and back into the generic sphere of domestic comedy.
At the same time, the programs often insert situation comedy routines
(drunkenness, mistaken identity, extravagant production numbers)
right in the midst of a particularly bleak episode, rendering its
generic identity cloudy at best. Domestic comedies remain a staple
of series television, but, as with most television genres in an
advanced evolutionary phase, the category has been expanded upon
and complicated by its fusion with other generic elements.
The Donna Reed
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Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; All
in the Family; Amos
'n' Andy; Andy
Griffith Show; Benson;
Cosby Show; Dad's
Van Dyke Show;
Family Ties; Father
Knows Best; George
Burns and Gracie Allen Show; Goldbergs;
I Love Lucy;
and Allie; Laverne
and Shirley; Leave
it to Beaver; Life
Likely Lads; Married.With
Foot in the Grave; Only
Fools and Horse; Partridge
Mothers Do 'ave Em; Steptoe
and Son; That
Death Us Do Part; 227;