Do Great Sitcoms Need to Do Drama?

A few weeks ago I watched Michael Scott throw his self-bought “World’s Best Boss” mug in the garbage, and as he replaced the mug with his new “World’s Best Boss” Dundee, I thought to myself “Jeez, this is a great show. [Sniffle].”

There are two important things to note here. Firstly, the [sniffle] was not just in my thoughts: I was crying. All Michael Scott ever wanted was to be good at his job, to be a good boss, and to watch him finally, humbly set that trophy on his desk simply broke me down. In that moment Michael Scott was more than just a character completing his arc on a show, he was my friend, my good friend who I had stuck with for years, and I was really truly proud of him.

The second of two things to note is that the nostalgia and pride and sadness I felt in that moment led me to make the claim “this is a great show.” I stand by that claim — I love The Office to death — but what is interesting to me is that the show is a sitcom, and yet the moment that led me to make the conclusion “this is a great show” was not a joke, but rather an honest and touching moment.

Is that what makes a great show?  The capacity for both humor and earnestness?  Alas, that is the question!

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that a great sitcom is indeed defined by the capacity for both humor and earnestness. It makes sense, sort of. Emotional moments are what give sitcom characters the sincere, human cores that enable themselves and their respective shows to grow, change and stay compelling through numerous seasons. By quietly throwing his mug away, Michael Scott reveals (again) that he is not just a one dimensional that’s-what-she-said dispenser, but rather a real, grounded guy who just wants his employees to love him. The former personality might be entertaining for ten or fifteen episodes, but the latter can keep us coming back for seven seasons.

We watch situational comedies mainly to laugh, yes, but at the same time many great sitcoms are defined as such by their rawer, more poignant moments. Cheers, for example, usually consisted of insults and jokes and “Norm!”s and a sprinkling of sexual tension, but it was Sam Malone’s “have a good life” to Diane that really cemented the show as something special. The reason we feel comfortable laughing with a character like Sam is because he is presented as a real person who we can know and understand, because we can relate to the pain he feels when he watches the woman he’s come to love over the course of five seasons disappear up the stairs for the last time.

Even animated sitcoms like The Simpsons and Futurama have proven that they can achieve deep levels of relatability even in the most foreign of premises. In the last three minutes of “Jurassic Bark,” Futurama became something other than just a witty, cleverly animated interpretation of the year 3000; it became the tragic story of a regular guy who will never realize that the dog he left behind never stopped waiting for him to come home.

But is it true? Does Diane have to leave for Cheers to be great?  Is The Office so beloved because of the one night when a wet-eyed Jim told Pam he loved her in a parking lot? Would Futurama have less of a devoted and obsessed fan base without the last two minutes of “Jurassic Bark?”

In short, no. Well, maybe. This is the trouble with answering in short, damnit!

Historically, the earliest sitcoms were vaudevillian acts tapered to radio and television, and were rarely serious. Instead, shows like The Abbot and Costello Show simply provided audience with a half an hour of happy slapstick and snappy dialogue as short, jovial diversions from everyday life. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H* began to tackle serious emotional drama or political issues of the era, and since then shows of both natures have coexisted relatively peacefully.

Contemporary shows like 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Family Guy and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have proven that they amply capable of earning success with both critics and viewers without ever really needing to ‘stop laughing.’ Am I saying that these shows are less dynamic than shows like How I Met Your Mother, Community or Modern Family, which are more prone to incorporating drama and heart? Of course not. What I’m saying is the fact that the four more lighthearted shows mentioned above have lasted for a combined 34 seasons and counting suggests that seriousness is not the only method of achieving the strong character development necessary to facilitate a great sitcom.

So then, how has a show as silly as, say, 30 Rock, crafted strong enough characters to sustain appeal for 5+ seasons without ever ‘going serious?’ Liz Lemon has become one of the most widely relatable characters on television and the saddest thing she’s ever done is admit to frenching a dog at a party to impress a 12 year old. But that’s exactly where 30 Rock succeeds — it is able to tackle Liz Lemon’s loneliness and lack of personal skills, both of which are legitimate and serious issues that other shows might deal with in a dramatic way, through jokes, without ever stopping to get angry or self-pitying or sentimental. While some shows like to reveal the humanity of their characters through tense, dramatic scenes, others prefer simply to deliver personal, honest pieces of humanity more subconsciously via snappy, one liners like “Lovers… oh, that word bums me out unless it’s between meat and pizza.” We don’t even realize that we’ve learned something more about the desperation of Liz Lemon’s love life because we’re too busy laughing.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Curb Your Enthusiasm appeal directly to our ids — the characters are often doing asshole-ish things (like actually calling out the owner of a mixed nuts company for skewing the cashew raisin ratio, for example) that we’ve all considered but never acted on. While Larry David himself is not as reasonable or believable of an overall character as The Office’s Michael Scott, his logic with regards to any given specific situation is often understandable and accessible, making Larry relatable on a piecewise level. That is to say, we relate to the parts, but not to the whole. Larry exists merely in the present, on a moment to moment level, with no real capability for reflection on past mistakes. While that makes him unsympathetic on the whole, we are still invested in him as a character because his specific, oft-loathsome behaviors and pickiness about the cashew/raisin balance are both hilarious, and, deep down, understandable.

Even Seinfeld, often held as the greatest sitcom ever, stayed away from the heavy stuff. What’s more, the fact that it avoided sobriety altogether, that it was ultimately “a show about nothing,” is often cited as the very reason why it is such a ‘perfect sitcom.’ Most of everyday life is menial, and it was this day to day aspect of life that Seinfeld was able to capture and harness so effectively.

So perhaps there is no real difference between the ‘silly’ sitcoms and the ‘sometimes-has-drama’ sitcoms. Neither is better or truer or more real. They are both just means to the same end — to show you something that is in some way familiar; to make you laugh, and think, and maybe feel. Because ultimately, every ridiculous sitcom storyline, every wacky joke, boils down to an accessible set of character motivations. Sometimes these dramatic motivations are relatively straightforward — Marshall’s friends trying to help him cope with the death of his father is the story of friends helping one another to get through tough times. Sometimes the dramatic motivations are more obscured with layers of humor — Jack Donaghy ‘Reaganing’ for a day is the story of a man trying his absolute hardest to accomplish a lifelong dream and become a little more like his idol. Both stories have stakes, both of them have emotions on the line; they are simply shown through different lenses of perception.

There is no universal criterion for a great sitcom. Different people have different life experiences, and thus relate to different things.  Ultimately, if a sitcom is able to reach out and connect with you in a positive way, and can also make you laugh, you’ll probably enjoy it. Otherwise, you won’t. Really, at the end of the day, the only thing that we can all agree on is that yes, it was really, really sad when Seymour died on Futurama. But other than that, total matter of opinion. Right.

Adam Wagner is a writer living in New York.

Do Great Sitcoms Need to Do Drama?