I was raised on situation comedies. As soon as I graduated from Sesame Street, my formative years were spent watching the great sitcoms of the 70s, usually with my dad. My role model for life as an independent career woman was Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show; my ideal dream guy was Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H. And my political views were the opposite of whatever Archie Bunker thought. (All of which explains quite a lot about me).
The last sitcom of that era I can remember getting avidly involved in was Cheers, but that got interrupted by me going away to college, where I didn’t have a TV in my dorm room. By the time I finished college and got my own place, Shelly Long had left the show and been replaced by Kirstey Alley, and it just wasn’t the same. I found I didn’t really care what was on TV and didn’ t have one in my apartment until about 1992. I thought I’d outgrown situation comedies and my tastes had become more refined and sophisticated — till I got into Mad About You, and then Friends debuted in 1994.
Mad About You is not as remembered as it should be these days, and Friends is reviled largely because of the ridiculousness it slid into as a result of being on the air too long. They were both very, very funny, well-written shows in their prime, and for a long time they were the last sitcoms I watched. Their declining years, in both cases, left me with more bad memories than good, and I realized that I was tired, at last, of sitcoms.
The obtrusive laugh tracks telling you which jokes you should respond to, the contrived situations, the jokes with their obvious set-ups and punchlines — there just wasn’t a sitcom from the late nineties onward that I found funny anymore. In the last few years almost all the TV I’ve watched has been on DVD, and most of it has been sci-fi or drama series — all the recent Star Trek series revisited through the magic of DVD, Battlestar Galactica, Rome, House — not a lot of common threads there except that all were well-written, innovative shows and none of them were the situation comedies I cut my TV-watching teeth on.
The few half-hour comedies I have watched in the last couple of years have been very different in style from the traditional sitcom — the British imports The Office and Extras, and the U.S. comedies Arrested Development and Scrubs. All very quirky, two of them mock-documentaries and two of them with voice-over narration, lots of very subtle humour (as well as some very ridiculous over-the-top visual humour and fantasy sequences in the case of Scrubs), and not a laugh track to be found anywhere. To be honest, I’d actually forgotten networks were still making traditional sitcoms — it just seemed so retro.
Then The Big Bang Theory came into my life — first through a few friends mentioning it and saying they liked it (friends who shared my geeky tastes), then through a borrowed Season 1 DVD from my aunt and uncle. I loved the premise of the show and liked the characters, but the format just threw me. I sat through the first couple of episodes thinking, “Can I really watch this? Sure, the science nerd jokes are intelligent and funny but … the set-up is so obvious! The laugh track is so intrusive! In short, it’s such a … sitcom.”
I have to admit I have come to adore The Big Bang Theory even though I still find the format annoying. The characters and writing are great — I just wish there was an option on the DVD to turn off the canned-sounding laughter (apparently it’s a life studio audience, but it sounds canned and I hate TV telling me when I should laugh). I think I really have outgrown the sitcom format and prefer my comedy in a more sophisticated package — but BBT is proof that you can put some mighty good stuff in that tired old package, even in 2009.