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Our Favorite Comedies Are Chock Full of Social Calamities

Why social vulnerabilities form the basis of most television sitcom humor.

Key points

  • A plurality of the laughs inspired by sitcoms focus on the exchanges between various characters, typically the social conflicts and missteps.
  • Audiences respond with laughter when individuals lose status as a result of competition, poor coordination, miscommunication, and the like.
  • Laughter is often prompted by the collective actions of several characters, all of whom exhibit different types of vulnerability.

Take a moment to consider your favorite television comedies. What do they all share in common?

Characters. Plural.

Yes, individual cast members can have their shining moments. They’ll bring you to laughter with a display of physical, emotional, or cognitive vulnerability. But most of the time, they are interacting with others, being influenced by others, or hoping to influence others. The vulnerabilities they exhibit are often, to some degree, social in nature.

Even the three prior categories tend to have social consequences as well. A witnessed cognitive shortcoming, for example, may affect how someone is judged as a potential mate, which then translates into fewer reproductive opportunities.

Knowing that laughter is a vocal affirmation of mutual vulnerability, we would predict that efforts to intentionally solicit laughter, a.k.a. humor, should rely heavily on highlighting social failings or conflicts of one sort or another. These tend to be both numerous and varied. They deal with subjects ranging from fundamental drives to seek things like companionship, shared defense, and trading partners, to the social norms determined almost exclusively by cultural factors—for example, jewelry, hairstyles, and religious taboos.

In modern times, we most often find people gaining and losing status at home and work. So television comedies will gravitate to these two social environments. Some will focus on the dynamics of family and friends, with work-related storylines tending to be of secondary importance. Examples would be shows like Good Times, That 70s Show, All In The Family, The Cosby Show, Rosanne, Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends.

Some, by contrast, are set in workplace surroundings, with the interplay between coworkers and their supervisors as the source of equally consequential status shifts. These would be comedies like M.A.S.H., Cheers, The Office, Scrubs, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock. Of course, some present a mix of the two, including Frasier, Will and Grace, Arrested Development, and Seinfeld.

Both formats provide ample opportunity for social vulnerabilities to be highlighted. Individuals jockey for positions within their collective hierarchies. They form and break alliances, increase and subtract group members, establish and betray confidences, please or displease those in positions of authority, and seek out companionship in problematic ways.

Some are deceivers, some are gullible, some manipulate, and some are manipulated. Some characters follow rules where perhaps they shouldn’t, and others break them at the slightest provocation.

Conflicts seem to be around every corner. On the home front, they occur among siblings, between couples, and between children and parents. At work, colleagues vie for attention and respect. Bosses struggle with indifferent, incompetent, and disruptive employees. Characters are faced with one roadblock after another in their struggles for resources, love, and respect.

 RODNAE Productions from Pexels
Source: Source: RODNAE Productions from Pexels

It’s hard not to identify with their plight. The difficulties they encounter may be far more numerous than we in the real world normally experience, but not so different in kind. Who of us hasn’t failed to meet expectations on the job? Or butted heads with our children or spouse? Or been caught telling a lie or cheating a little when we thought we could get away with it? We flirt with the forbidden. We break with tradition and even ignore the law on occasion. Such actions are risky, sometimes quite counterproductive—but in the right context, rife with humorous possibilities.

As you watch your favorite comedies, take note of how social-based humor is employed to solicit laughter. How do characters seek to increase their status relative to others, and how do they fail in their attempts? Who’s gets revenge? Who gets caught? Who blurts out something they shouldn’t? In the end, everything tends to work out, making these setbacks vulnerabilities rather than serious deficiencies. If we can, we can sympathize with the character's plight. Chances are, we’ll offer up some lifting laughter.

Mixing and Matching

Like all categorization, separating various shortcomings into different types helps make better sense of highly complex interrelationships. However, we must keep in mind that physical, emotional, cognitive, and social vulnerabilities typically act in concert. They influence each other.

A cognitive failing, for example, will often lead to frustration and anger, which can make one less appealing to a potential employer. Over-attraction might inspire someone to impress someone by putting him- or herself into a dangerous physical situation, only to have the resulting anxiety impair decision-making skills. It may be the case, as well, that laughter will be prompted by the collective actions of several characters, all of whom exhibit different types of vulnerability.

What is certain is that some perceived imperfection or relative status shift is necessary before the desire to laugh, that familiar feeling of amusement, wells up from inside.

Here are two YouTube videos showcasing laughter brought about by social-based humor. In the Just For Laughs clip, the producers have manufactured an indiscretion that puts their targets in hot water with their partners. In the Friends clip, a clandestine romantic relationship between the two main characters creates a web of deceit that slowly falls apart. In each case, the status of those involved is slightly or temporarily diminished, and the audience responds quite generously.

© John Charles Simon