What is it about certain sitcoms that seem to become such a habit for viewers and network suits that they hang on longer than they should? We’ve seen our share of sitcoms over the years that lasted at least several years longer than would have been done today where there’s slightly more astuteness to leaving while ahead. Then again, perhaps network execs still haven’t learned such a lesson completely. Some sitcoms that ended after long runs seemed to go on because they were more akin to a comfortable pair of shoes than truly innovative and funny as they were in the beginning.
It’s possible “Two and a Half Men” is about to join the pantheon of this concept that reaches back 40 years in sitcom history.
Earliest Example: “Happy Days”
Anyone who grew up with “Happy Days” on TV knows that it was arguably the epitome of that comfortable old shoes analogy. By the latter half of its decade-long run, America was used to watching that “Happy Days”/”Laverne & Shirley” double bill every week as a form of comfort zone rather than seeking belly laughs as they did in the beginning. In the 1970s, it seems audiences placed more emotional ties in with sitcoms that they’d seen through important segments of their lives. It perhaps explains the longevity of “All in the Family”, then long-running “Cheers” into the 1980s and ’90s.
The fact that those three decades had such fast changes likely brought a sense of perspective and time to those sitcoms matching real life. By the time sitcoms of the 1990s and 2000s began (and ultimately lagged), it seems the emotional connections to sitcoms diminished somewhat in intensity. If a sitcom wasn’t still consistently funny, it wasn’t about to last as long if surviving based on pure Americana. Or did “The Office” challenge that assumption?
Even Rolling Stone thought “The Office” ran several years too long from what it should have. Considering the British equivalent was only half as long tells you a lot about how the British know when to leave when it’s truly time. The American “The Office” created an innovative look and feel to the sitcom you’re still seeing copied today in the format with no live audience. “Parks and Recreation”, plus other filmed sitcoms with no laugh track, use the shaky camera documentary style “The Office” started. There’s also the straight-faced and ironic dialogue that created a different feel in how comedy in a sitcom is performed.
But by the last few years, the show was playing up the personal stories, most of which were getting a little tiresome. When a pivotal cast member leaves (as in Steve Carrell), the lessons are never learned about bringing in a replacement to keep the funny coming. This isn’t to say Will Ferrell didn’t bring it, albeit only briefly for one season.
“How I Met Your Mother”
While an excellent case, how this show managed to stretch a thin concept for nine seasons is something those who didn’t pay attention every year will have to go back and study in the syndicated reruns. And with the show already running in syndication, it’s a chance for all aspiring TV writers to figure out what really makes a sitcom run for a long time when it really shouldn’t.
You could say that “HIMYM” took the “Friends” concept (another sitcom that ran five years too long) and proved how a group of friends meeting together every day is one of the most comfortable sitcom concepts ever concocted. Just about every long-running sitcom has a similar idea in different variations. With each character distinct, it gives the audience a feeling of meeting up with your own friends every week, regardless of how funny they really are.
Most people probably won’t admit that the last few seasons of “HIMYM” didn’t necessarily bowl you over with laughter. It’s also the same with the finale that irked more people than any sitcom finale in history.
Regardless, it also brought some emotion at the end that was reminiscent in how people felt when sitcoms of old ended. We may still be placing emotional ties to sitcoms when they hit a nerve. It’s probably good news for network execs after worrying constantly every day whether their popular sitcoms can stay consistently funny.
In the case of “Two and a Half Men” now ending, it may have been viewer habit playing out as the writing suffered. Audiences may ultimately be patient and give a sitcom several years to improve from where it was before they abandon the show completely.