U.S. Television Sitcoms that Sum up a Decade
Television is an important part of American popular culture. But did you know that even silly TV shows are closely related to politics?
SLAM! The front door bursts open. A goofy neighbor stumbles inside and trips over a table. As he falls, he knocks over a lamp and somehow ends up wearing its lampshade as a hat. A pre-recorded audience laughs in the background as the screen fades to black, followed by a commercial for deodorant. Most Americans would instantly recognize this as part of a television sitcom.
Sitcom is an abbreviation of the phrase “situation comedy,” and they have existed since the first home televisions. As a visitor to the United States, watching sitcoms will help you learn about American culture. You might also be surprised to learn that silly old TV shows can also teach you about American politics and the societal climate of the time: the production of every show reflects behind-the-scenes decisions about who to cast and who not to cast. Moreover, when shows are celebrated as revolutionary, it is often because they cast a spotlight on issues not previously openly discussed in popular culture. So put down the remote, and don’t even think about changing the channel: we’re going on a trip through television history.
In the 1950s, television sets were a novelty - bulky boxes that cost a lot of money. How many screens do you have in your home right now? A few cell phones? A laptop? A Nintendo Switch? Halfway though the last century, a home would be lucky to have one screen, and that was the family TV. The numbers of screens in the 50s were low, but so were the viewing options. Are you paralyzed by indecision when you open Netflix? Does the sheer number of options on Prime Video give you pause? This wasn’t the case at the turn of the century, when three major networks provided the majority of TV programming.
Nevertheless, owning a television was a point of pride: after dinner, the entire family would gather to watch it. The 50s were, for many Americans, an opportunity to break from the difficult years past. After the horrors of World War II, and as the U.S. ended their involvement in the Korean War, the country settled into suburban life. TV sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver portrayed idealistic middle class life, with a “traditional” family unit of a mom, a dad, and two mischievous, yet wholesome, kids.
Behind the scenes, things were very different for Americans of color. Increasingly popular shows and movies centered around the “Old American West” a century prior depicted Native Americans in an absurdly racist manner. (The USA is just now starting to address this legacy, as evidenced by many sports teams removing offensive mascots depicting Native Americans.) Black Americans didn’t have it much better, and it would be many years until nuanced Black characters started appearing on television.
I Love Lucy made small steps towards progress. Star Lucille Ball was a strong-willed, female protagonist, in contrast to the submissive expectations of wives of the time. Lucy’s on-screen husband was played by real-life spouse Desi Arnaz. The show was therefore also notable for showing a white-hispanic couple in a time when some U.S. states had laws against interracial marriage.
The following decade was infamous in American culture. The 1960s are most commonly associated with the “hippie” movement, which espoused peace, love, equality, appreciation for nature, and communal living.
The 60s in America were a time of youth rebellion against traditional culture. Young people supported music, movies, fashion, and literature that challenged the status quo. While television sitcoms remained largely for white middle class consumption, some shows flirted with hippie ideals. The Beverly Hillbillies lampooned the concept of social class by juxtaposing a rural Appalachian family against the rich Beverly Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. Conversely, Green Acres portrayed a rich Manhattan couple who voluntarily gave up their lavish urban lifestyle for a simpler farm life, surrounded by nature.
It wasn’t until the following decade that American sitcoms really embraced 60s counterculture. As the 1970s began, the U.S. was entangled in the incredibly-unpopular Vietnam War. Historians often say that this was a turning point in the American public’s distrust of politicians: intrepid TV news reporters uncovered government cover-ups, lies, and misinformation meant to persuade Americans that they were winning the war.
While news programs led the charge against the status quo, sitcoms weren’t far behind. M*A*S*H was set during the Korean War of the 50s, but served as a metaphor for the Vietnam War. The underlying message was that war is pointless and horrible, with life-and-death decisions arbitrarily made by clueless politicians thousands of miles from the battlefield. (Of course, there was a bit of humor mixed in as well 😉)
Sadly, the political unrest of the 70s extended beyond the Vietnam War. The decade produced several sitcoms that dealt with serious topics affecting the nation, such as racism and the struggle of the working class. All in the Family‘s main character, Archie Bunker, was a prejudiced, white, blue-collar worker with conservative opinions on race and politics. The show frequently lampoons the hypocrisy of Archie’s views, which are often contrasted with those of his hippie kids and Black coworkers. In fact, one of these Black coworkers got his own spin-off show: The Jeffersons, a sitcom that, along with its contemporary Good Times, dealt with how working class Black families navigate social class in America.
Schemes to get rich are common sitcom tropes. After the political instability of the 70s, Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign won by focusing on the country’s economic prosperity, with the slogan “it’s morning in America.” In this way, the sitcoms of the 80s were more comparable to those of the 50s than the intermediate decades: they showed an America embracing frivolity and conservative values. Family Ties, for example, was a kind of inverse All in the Family. It showed a traditional family of a mom, a dad, and two kids. The catch? The parents were aging hippies and the kids were conservative, reflecting a booming American economy and young peoples’ desire to get rich.
But not every 80s sitcom reflected conservative values. The Golden Girls discussed gay marriage, AIDS, women’s sexuality, death, and immigration, among other topics considered controversial at the time. Family Matters began as a window into the life of a liberal, working class Chicago family that happened to be Black (before minor character Steve Urkel became the show’s breakout star, anyway). And The Cosby Show, along with spin-off A Different World, brought a new perspective to Black Americans’ portrayal in the media: upwardly-mobile human beings who weren’t defined by race.
Similarly, the Banks family in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air lived up to their moneyed name. Thematically, Fresh Prince showed a rich Black family in a ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood. While race was occasionally discussed, the show served more as a vehicle for charismatic star Will Smith. It had something else going for it too: the early 90s marked the beginning of mainstream white appropriation of hip hop culture, in which Smith got his start, that continues to this day. (Most white American millennials know every word to the Fresh Prince theme song.)
Introducing white kids to music that bewildered their parents wasn’t the only subversive act of 90s sitcoms. The Simpsons, South Park, and - at the end of the decade - Family Guy pushed the boundaries of cartoon vulgarity. Murphy Brown showed the life of an unmarried working mother (for which it was condemned by U.S. President George H.W. Bush). Ellen‘s main character (played by Ellen DeGeneres) came out as a lesbian. After the relative calm of the 80s, TV shows in the 90s waged a culture war.
However, some of the decade’s best remembered shows were apolitical. Friends and Seinfeld - both revolving around pals in 90s New York City - had no agenda. The tone of these shows was so relaxed that they’ve been called “hangout sitcoms” about - you guessed it - a group of friends hanging out.
This trend continued into the new millennium, with hangout shows like Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother becoming popular. At the same time, other shows embraced the legacy of Seinfeld, with its callbacks, wordplay, and surreal approach to humor.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring one of Seinfeld‘s co-creators, also popularized one of the biggest revolutions in the history of sitcoms: ditching the studio audience “laugh track.” Since the early days of television, an audience would gather in front of a set and watch sitcoms being taped, and their laughter would be added as an audio track in television broadcasts of that episode.
In the early 2000s, this started to change. More natural dialogue and less obvious joke setups supported a shift away from pre-recorded laugh tracks; at this point it’s difficult to name a modern sitcom that does use one. 30 Rock, Community, The Office, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family were among the first major sitcoms to abandon the laugh track.
Losing the laugh tracks led to more realism in sitcoms, and a greater balance between comedy and drama. Many shows walk a fine line between both, and are consequently called “dramedies.” Orange Is the New Black cracks jokes in a prison. Black-ish (and its spin-offs Grown-ish and Mixed-ish) address serious issues such as racism in between one-liners. Dramedies certainly existed before the ’10s, but the decade gave them a range of subject matter not previously seen.
Diversity on television has come a long way since I Love Lucy. And it’s hard to discern which comes first - does culture dictate what television shows resonate? Or do the shows themselves influence culture? The likely answer is both. Americans, notoriously television-obsessed, forever see their culture through a screen. That screen may now be on a phone, instead of an enormous box in a living room. Nevertheless, to know Americans, one must try to appreciate their popular culture.
Want to take a deeper dive into American culture? Check out a blog on lesser-known holiday Juneteeth, learn how to differentiate between the Imperial and Metric systems, or peruse American culture more generally.
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