Last week, a little bundle of joy in the form of Night Court: Season Three arrived on my doorstep via Amazon.com. I’m probably the only twenty-something in the world who spends her Saturday nights watching Judge Harry Stone and Co. take on the ‘80s, but I just can’t help myself, I love those wacky courtroom antics. Season three, in particular, brought the cast one step closer to completion with the return of Markie Post as Legal Aid lawyer Christine Sullivan (and her Amazing Mullet!) Night Court may not be the pinnacle of situation comedy, but it sure entertains in a way rarely found in modern times.
After Friends went off the air in 2004, the sitcom format was a bloated corpse on the river of television. Raised in the glow of Thursday’s ‘Must See TV,’ with hours spent learning at the feet of the masters on TVLand – I Love Lucy, Laverne and Shirley, MASH – I was a sitcom snob, convinced we would never recover those glory days. Even the eighties had better programming, if you enjoy a certain level of cheesiness, which I absolutely do.
The sitcom was dead. Every half-hour comedy that stepped into the light post-millennium was either a mindless zombie (Two and a Half Men) or cut off at the knees before it could do too much damage to the American psyche (Life on a Stick).
So when I read that NBC gave an early renewal to Community, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock, it occurred to me that sitcoms actually make up a decent percentage of my current viewing habits. Stealthily, almost silently, the sitcom has risen from the grave like a vampire to reclaim its position as a television staple and sink its teeth into some unsuspecting victims, including myself. But how did that happen?
In today’s nightmarish world, audiences are desperate for a laugh, sure, but the swell in ‘dramedies’ over the last several years severely reduced space for the old 30-minute creatures of the night. Dramedies are more economical – the werewolves of the television world. They’re motile, adapt and change to suit their environment, and can go it alone. Sitcoms are forced to travel in pairs, always looking for the perfect mate.
So what’s the deep, dark secret for a successful sitcom? Heart. As Community creator Dan Harmon commented at this year’s Paley Fest, “sitcoms have become cynical,” and the TV-watching public is tired of it. The sitcoms that are succeeding are the ones that find comedy in the situation, instead of forcing a laugh from an awkward moment. They also respect the history of the genre, referencing the classics with love rather than scorn. It’s not very hard to seduce the key 18-49 demographic – appeal to our misplaced nostalgia with a Breakfast Club allusion and we’re yours.
As outrageous as they might be at times, these sitcoms touch on something real, something identifiable. They’re realizing characters on screen that remind us of people we know in real life, it’s humanity through a comedy filter. Television that loves television.
I feel comfortable with these reminders of bygone days. There’s something reassuring about their old-fashioned values. Though others of their ilk have been around the block before, these newcomers are reaching out to new audiences, seeking fresh blood. I’m at home with the geeks of The Big Bang Theory. I am Liz Lemon, without the career and cast of wacky co-workers. I have a soft spot for hopeless romantic Ted Moseby, even if he is taking forever to find the mother of his future children.
But mostly these sitcoms have captured my attention because I love to laugh, and after a dry spell, half-hour comedy is funny again. The sitcom is hard to kill; like most things it’ll wax and wane in popularity, but it’s never really gone – just lying in wait, ready to strike again.