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Archive for September 11th, 2017

by Dennis Polifroni

If one were to think of television’s classic sitcoms as a series of bricks being laid to build a house, then the history of the sitcom can be broken down into three stages of construction.

PART 1: SETTINGS AND THEMES

FOUNDATION:

The sitcoms of late 40’s and the whole of the 1950’s would be seen as the FOUNDATION.  These shows, coming to the new medium without rules for creation and production, walking blindly into the abyss, learning from mistakes and embracing what worked, created what many in the profession call “Standards”. Shows like I LOVE LUCY, SGT BILKO and THE HONEYMOONERS experimented, and made standard, the concepts of things like the three-camera set-up (so as not to miss any of the action should a camera konk out, and to offer the editor different angles to choose from for any scene), dramatic editing (often resorting to close-ups to gauge the reaction of a punch-line on the faces of the cast), and three-act stories that quickly set up the joke in the first, executed it in the second, and reflected on the punch-line  in the third and final.

ARCHITECTURAL REVISION/REFINEMENT:

The 1960’s can be seen as ARCHITECTURAL REVISION/REFINEMENT.

The sitcoms of this period added gloss, and also realism, to the set-standards.  Here, in this period of only ten years, American and British television, learning from the lessons of the FOUNDATION period, tightened the material so it wasn’t as free-wheeling, sloppy and, as often the case in the 50’s, ad-libbed.  Gone was the shaky ground that the likes of Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball and Phil Silvers often had to navigate to keep the audience from realizing that there was a problem with a line of writing or that a technical screw-up was occurring as filming took place.  Emphasis on an episode’s continuity, keeping a smooth flow to the ideas that were being splayed across the screen, was also of key importance in this period and informed all television that followed in its wake.

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