The whole point of sitcoms is that they're harmless. They allow us to
escape into a simpler world where all your friends are witty and
attractive, all conflicts are solved within 22 minutes, and even a slob
like Al Bundy has a shot with Sofia Vergara.
Or least that's how sitcoms look from _our_ end -- from the perspective
of the characters, life must seem like a perpetual goddamn nightmare.
When you stop to think about it, living in a sitcom universe would be
ball-shatteringly horrifying, for more than one reason. Six of them, in
Nobody Ever Laughs
In sitcoms, even the guy who serves your coffee is a comedy genius.
Every third line is a punchline, and every routine task turns into
slapstick shenanigans. You can hear this reflected in the audience, who
are rarely able to contain themselves in the face of such hilarity.
It's a world full of laughter and fun!
Then The Horror Sets In ...
First, while we the viewers have the benefit of hearing the laugh track
or live studio audience, the people actually living in the sitcom do
not. They hear nothing but the endless silence of the void. You may
have seen this clip in which the audience is removed from The Big Bang
Theory. Without the canned guffaws, each quip is met with a dead
silence oozing with bitter contempt:
Nobody here finds anybody else funny. Rajesh spends the clip making
sexist demands at Penny, who is clearly not amused, and her justified
denial results in the comeback, "Looks like somebody's been taking
bitchy pills." Without the laughter you realize that's not a joke --
that's just being an asshole.
Even the friends from Friends -- ostensibly a show about six people who
enjoy hanging out with each other -- are revealed to be sad, miserable
dicks without the laugh track. Snide comments from Chandler result in
little more than mildly pained expressions and long pauses from Ross,
as he wonders whether to kill himself, Chandler, or both.
Everybody Loves Raymond, meanwhile, reveals an ever clearer murder-
suicide scenario in waiting:
Goofy ol' Raymond refuses to properly pack for a trip because that's "a
woman's job" -- but without the benefit of the unseen audience's
reaction, all we see is a genuinely frustrated and downtrodden wife,
furious at her husband's petty behavior. And so on -- from the heights
of Frasier to the depths of 2 Broke Girls and Two And A Half Men, every
"comedy" show is secretly a collection of awkward scenes featuring
hateful people who only ever laugh when they're being sarcastic (or
insane). If they didn't share those giant lavish apartments, there's no
way these people would put up with each other.
In the more modern style of single-camera style sitcoms (that is, the
ones without laugh tracks), the only difference is that there's no
soul-crushing pauses -- characters in Brooklyn Nine-Nine or 30 Rock
just humorlessly jump right to the next line, completely ignoring the
previous slapstick comedy beat or creative insult. You almost have to
admire the ones who continue to quip in such a world, knowing that
their wit will always be met with stone-faced indifference.
Your Baby Will Get Swapped At Some Point
With some exceptions, kids in sitcoms are much easier to deal with than
those in real life. They'll cry and poop themselves for a couple of
episodes, but before you know it, your baby will have grown into a
precocious child full of funny and adorable catch phrases. On top of
everything else, they're much cuter than your actual kids. What more
could you want?
Then The Horror Sets In ...
Such convenience comes with a dark price. Namely, somebody is making a
killing by trading out babies for older children of similar race and
eye color. Frequently in this universe, you may head over to your
friends' house to realize that their child looks a little different
than they did the day before -- because it's literally another kid.
When Will Smith's aunt and uncle in The Fresh Prince tired of having a
small version of baby Nicky, they apparently traded him in for a much
older model to start the next season. Only Jazz is brave enough to
mention anything, while Will just looks uneasy. A fourth wall-breaking
joke, or hints of something more sinister?
In Boy Meets World, Cory's little sister Morgan seems to disappear in
season two, only to re-emerge as a different, significantly older girl
a season later. When asked about her absence, she comments that it was
the "longest time out [she'd] ever had." Presumably, she was referring
to the dungeon basement where the Matthews picked her up when trading
in the younger, original daughter.
An even clearer example is in Full House, when Uncle Jesse's twins have
a sudden growth spurt while their cousin Michelle remains the same
size. Is she supposed to be a dwarf?
Modern Family provides more evidence of a vast baby-swapping conspiracy
when Cam and Mitchell celebrate their daughter's second birthday ...
only to mention that she's three a few months later. Clearly, they're
speeding up the rate of her birthdays so as to avoid arousing
suspicions when they inevitably switch her (which they did).
On the other hand, the baby swaps in Growing Pains and Family Ties are
so laughably obvious that they seem to imply this business isn't even
underground. Chrissy Seaver blossoms from basically a newborn child to
a 5-year-old girl in the space of one season ...
... while Andy Keaton goes from a bald baby to a young man with a
glorious mane of hair in the same time period.
At that point there's really no way to keep the swaps hidden, and the
only logical explanation is that _nobody gives a shit_. We can only
hope that those newborn children being dumped are treated well as they
themselves are "grown" for future trades.
Everyone Is A Compulsive Sex Addict
"Hot dates" are a pretty abundant resource in sitcom-land -- some of
these shows are just thinly disguised excuses to let their schlubby
stars make out with every working actress they have a crush on. Surely,
if we had access to that many beautiful, dateable people, the world
would have much less use for both porn and antidepressants.
Then The Horror Sets In ...
According to the National Center For Health Statistics, the average
woman has four sexual partners during her lifetime while the average
man has seven. Sitcom characters go through that before the mid-season
break. Despite being the most average of average guys, Jerry Seinfeld
dates (and presumably beds) 66 women in just nine seasons of Seinfeld
-- that's about one a month. There's no way he didn't spend his
refractory periods in a therapist's office, trying to wrap his head
around his advanced hypersexuality.
But it's not like the therapists themselves are immune to the howling
calls of their erections. Frasier's Frasier Crane sleeps with something
like 63 women -- and still often complains he just doesn't get enough
play with the ladies. Even regular schmuck Ted Mosby from How I Met
Your Mother mentions dating 30 women to his increasingly uncomfortable
children, going into great detail about relationships that went
nowhere. Apparently, all that strain broke more than just his penis.
Female sitcom characters are also well above the average: We've
mentioned how Phoebe from Friends had 32.5 sexual partners, while the
most promiscuous Golden Girl had a pelvis-destroying 165. Given the
fact that 110 million Americans have an STD at any given time, there's
no way Blanche didn't have to contend with some nasty-ass bugs.
You might say that we're slut-shaming here, and that there's nothing
wrong with slingin' some genitals around now and then. But these people
seem to live in a world in which anything less than a new sexual
conquest each month is a source of deep shame and anxiety. Workaholic
Liz Lemon dates at least 16 people over 30 Rock's run, and is treated
like a lifeless nerd. J.D. from Scrubs is derided because he's "only"
had sex with nine women, and goes on to sleep with six more. Do these
people have no other hobbies? Are they trying to fill the cold void
caused by their oddly humorless friends?
After all, it's not like they can go out and make new ones, since ...
You're Stuck With The Same Social Circle For Life
Characters in sitcoms are always surrounded by the people they love
most, and those people are _incredibly_ dedicated to being in each
other's lives. In the real world, many struggle with A) not having
enough time for friends or B) not having any friends in the first
place. That's never a problem in sitcoms -- why, they'll even go on
vacation with you!
Then The Horror Sets In ...
And they'll sign up to all your same classes! And they'll move across
the country to be with you! And they'll probably still be your only
friends 20 years later, on the reunion special! Yes, it's a living
We've talked about how bizarre it is that Zack Morris' junior high pals
(and principal) seemingly followed him from Indiana to California
between Good Morning, Miss Bliss and Saved By The Bell. Whenever Zack
travels anywhere, like Hawaii or Las Vegas, the entire gang is there.
When he goes to college, Screech and Slater tag along, followed by
Kelly, followed by visits from everyone else. At some point you have to
question whether you're in a circle of friends or an actual cult.
Meanwhile, in Boy Meets World, not only do Cory's friends decide to
become students at the exact same college as him, but so does their
longtime teacher, Mr. Feeny (who still keeps showing up in Girl Meets
World). It's freaky enough running into your teachers one time after
school, let alone every day for the rest of your life.
And it's not just teachers -- in this universe, authority figures in
general tend to be incredibly clingy. In shows like 30 Rock or Scrubs,
higher-ups regularly sidestep an institution's hierarchy to get
involved in the lives of one tiny group of workers. The Office is an
entire series about an overbearing boss forcing his employees to slowly
become his friends -- something that for about 90 percent of you would
literally cause you to quit the job.
This isn't just about having a loyal gang around you -- when your
entire world is limited to the same handful of people forever, nobody
has any chance to grow or reinvent themselves. No one is expanding
their horizons. Those kids you randomly got stuck in the same class
with in first grade? They're your permanent life partners, whether you
like it or not.
Unless, of course, they happen to randomly disappear ...
Someone's Clearly Murdering All The "Boring" People
If you pick 10 random people living in a sitcom, chances are that one
is a pilot, one has a death pact for some Nazi gold with some war
buddies, and five are secretly aliens. That's gotta be one of the best
things about the sitcom life: everyone is way cooler and more
interesting than anyone you'd ever meet in our dull shithole of a
Then The Horror Sets In ...
Yeah, because the boring people are apparently getting killed off by
some unseen force -- or getting shipped off to some kind of remote
labor camp by the government. There's no other explanation for it. The
sitcom universe is predicated around the notion that if you're not
interesting enough, you don't deserve to live, and no one is allowed to
mention you ever again.
Consider Chuck Cunningham from Happy Days:
After a season or two of rarely being seen or heard by his family,
Chuck went upstairs to get something from the attic, and was _never
seen or heard from again_. An entire human being, erased from existence
-- even his father had forgotten by the final episode, when he claims
he only has two kids. It's as if he'd committed some unspeakable crime
and in a way, he did: he was lame.
Similarly, in How I Met Your Mother, Ted had a sister who dropped off
the face of the Earth. Topanga in Boy Meets World also had an older
sibling who got unmade, with everyone acting like she never existed.
Family Matters had Judy, the youngest daughter of the Winslow family,
who survived three seasons before suddenly being no more. She was a
victim of Urkel's popularity, sure, but also of her own forgettable
personality. As a side note, she also has the weirdest career
progression in all of IMDb:
It's disturbing how casually family members (and the occasional gay
housekeeper) are removed and forgotten in this universe. Whether
there's a supernatural force behind it or this is just a case of people
being dicks, the implication is the same: Everyone who isn't rad as
hell lives in constant danger of being "disappeared." This might
explain the well-documented phenomenon where sitcom characters become
more and more cartoonish as the seasons go by. It's not simple
stupidity, it's desperate self-preservation.
This may also be why ...
Nothing Ever Changes, And Nobody Learns Anything
Sure, quiet family members and non-speaking children may vanish from
view, but in the sitcom universe, the things that _actually_ matter
never change. For us viewers, that's totally OK and even desirable. We
love knowing that in any given week all of our favorite characters will
be around, getting into misunderstandings and learning valuable
Then The Horror Sets In ...
And then learning them again, and again, and again, because these
people are stuck in some sort of purgatory where no one is allowed to
advance or mature in any way. For example, when Haley from Modern
Family finally manages to leave her hellishly formulaic home and head
for college, she's almost immediately expelled. When her sister Alex
attempts to do the same, she's struck down by mono and returns home for
several episodes, before deciding to take the semester off rather than
further risk God's wrath. Perhaps Ross from Friends didn't keep getting
married and divorced because he's incredibly inept at relationships.
Perhaps that's just his particular curse.
In Family Matters, Urkel manages to literally destroy the house in
certain episodes, and yet it's always repaired in virtually the very
next scene. Even when he jetpacks through the roof, the damage is never
mentioned again. It's unclear whether Urkel is attempting to kill
himself or is just acting as Satan's instrument of chaos, but either
way, Sitcom God ain't having it. The Winslows only get to escape this
realm when He's done with them. Until then, nothing anyone does
And it's not just that these characters can't further their life goals
or impact the physical world -- they can't even remember anything long
enough to influence emotional growth. In Arrested Development, Michael
Bluth realizes that he can't use his son and dead wife as excuses to
not date anybody new, and then does that exact thing two episodes
later. In Happy Days, the Fonz jumps his motorcycle over a bunch of
garbage cans on a dare, breaking his leg, and learns the difference
between courage and stupidity. Cut to a later episode:
He jumps over a bunch of live sharks and lands unscathed, birthing a TV
idiom. Not only does he forget the valuable lesson he'd learned
previously but he's rewarded for it, as if the sitcom universe itself
realized that it needed Fonzie to be dumb and impulsive in order to
thrive, spawn imitators, and ensure its continued existence for several
And so it goes for everyone: As long as a show runs, the sarcastic dick
will continue to be a stream of withering barbs, the stoner will keep
getting high, the woman in the unhappy marriage will keep complaining
about her fat, stupid husband, the selfish jerk will remain so despite
learning a powerful lesson in unselfishness once a month.
Such is life in a sitcom; everyone locked in the same circle of witty
but never-laughing friends, fearing their sudden disappearance and, all
the while, trying to soothe their misery by constantly fucking.
And the whole time, _none of them know they're being watched_.
: Jordan Breeding is a part-time writer, a full-time lover, and an all
: the time guitarist. Check out his band at http://www.skywardband.com
: or on Spotify here.