COMEDY, DOMESTIC SETTINGS

Domestic 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.

Originally, 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.

With 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.

Second, 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).

Generic 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.

Domestic 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, etc.

During 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.

-Nina C. Leibman


The Munsters


The Donna Reed Show


Kate and Allie


Home Improvement

 

FURTHER READING

Attallah, Paul. "Situation Comedy and 'The Beverly Hillbillies': The Unworthy Discourse." Montreal, Canada: McGill University Graduate Communication Program Working Papers, 1983.

Butsch, Richard. "Class and Gender in Four Decades of Television Situation Comedy: plus ca change...." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), December, 1992.

Einstein, Dan; Leibman, Nina; Vogt, Randall; Berry, Sarah, Lafferty, William. "Source Guide to TV Family Comedy, Drama and Serial Drama, 1946-1970." Camera Obscura: A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory (Berkeley, California), January, 1988.

Frazer, June M. and Timothy C. Frazer. "'Father Knows Best' and 'The Cosby Show': Nostalgia and the Sitcom Tradition," Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Winter, 1993 .

Freeman, Lewis. "Social Mobility in Television Comedies," Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia), December, 1992.

Gray, Frances B. Women and Laughter. Basingstoke, England: McMillan, 1994.

Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Haralovich, Mary Beth. "Sitcoms and Suburbs: Positioning the 1950s Homemaker." Quarterly Review of Film and Television (Los Angeles, California), May, 1989.

Horowitz, Susan. "Sitcom Domesticus: A Species Endangered by Social Change," Channels (New York), September/October, 1984.

Javna, John. The Best of TV Sitcoms: Burns and Allen to the Cosby Show, The Munsters to Mary Tyler Moore. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.

Jones, Gerard. Honey, I'm Home!: Sitcoms, Selling the American Dream. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.

Leibman, Nina. Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Lipsitz, George. "The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television." Camera Obscura (Berkeley, California), January, 1988.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston, Massachusetts: Unwin-Hyman, 1989.

_____________. Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.

Neale, Stephen and Frank Krutnik. Popular Film and Television Comedy. London; New York: Routledge, 1990.

Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Taylor, Ella. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1989.

 

See also Absolutely Fabulous; Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; All in the Family; Amos 'n' Andy; Andy Griffith Show; Benson; Beulah; Beverly Hillbillies; Bewitched; Brady Bunch; Cosby Show; Dad's Army; Dick Van Dyke Show; Family Ties; Father Knows Best; George Burns and Gracie Allen Show; Goldbergs; Golden Girls; Good Times; Green Acres; Happy Days; Hazel; Honeymooners; I Love Lucy; Jeffersons; Julia; Kate and Allie; Laverne and Shirley; Leave it to Beaver; Life of Riley; Likely Lads; Married.With Children; Maude; My Three Sons; Odd Couple; One Foot in the Grave; Only Fools and Horse; Partridge Family; Rising Damp; Roseanne; Sanford and Son; Seinfeld; Simpsons; Soap; Some Mothers Do 'ave Em; Steptoe and Son; That Girl; Three's Company; Till Death Us Do Part; 227; Wonder Years