Top 15 TV Sitcom Cliches
February 13, 2012 | Lists
Like on-shore relationships with people who work on ships, sitcoms require a minimal time commitment and can be forgotten about for months with little need to refamiliarize once things start up again. Given the current generation with minds warped by social media, sitcoms will soon be about the longest forms of entertainment people will be able to tolerate without requiring medication to refrain from tweeting.
In addition to their brevity, most of them are familiar and in a way almost comforting because it’s a genre that rehashes standard plot devices and pat situations. These have run throughout the history of the genre, from the dark days of shows like Growing Pains to far more entertaining fare like Californication.
The reason for this is debatable. Maybe writers know what works and use it. Or perhaps they watch so much TV throughout the years that they would be horrified to realize that the latest episode of the cutting edge cable show they’re working on was inspired by a childhood viewing of Mama’s Family. Or maybe it’s just laziness and the desire for doughnuts. Regardless there are countless sitcom cliches. Here are 15 of the most common:
1. Relative Drops From The Sky
A sibling or other close relation who has never been mentioned in any context previously comes by for either a single appearance or several. You would have thought that since we’re in on the particulars of these people’s lives they would have mentioned crazy twin sister Sandy the nude potter, but for some reason they’re totally forgotten about until they show up. They usually have a major personality clash with the show regular, but eventually make up and put family issues behind them. [Examples: Sam's brother on Cheers, Daphne's brother on Fraser, Phoebe's brother on Friends].
An international musical superstar will appear in a cameo and up giving a private performance that a millionaire would pay top dollar for to people who earn less than their roadies. Countless examples of this phenomenon. A few of the more inexplicable: Chrissie Hynde on Friends, Tony Bennett on Cybill, Rudy’s friend Kenny jamming with BB King on The Cosby Show
A variation: A character claims to know somebody famous. Nobody believes them. Then, wouldn’t you know it, the actual celebrity turns up within the last five minutes of the show. The friends gape in amazement and the character who made the assertion redeemed. Cut to credits. [Example: Wade Boggs on Cheers]
3. Nothing Nice to Say
Character berates another who he/she thinks is absent. With the insults in full swing, the person being dissed appears and stands behind the insulter. The insults will eventually peter off as the insulter senses the increasingly tense body language of the people he’s talking to and says, “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he? Or the insulter will just go on and on oblivious to body language as everyone else makes throat-cutting motions.
A variation of this often occurs at a cocktail party. A character will badmouth another, usually a coworker, saying things like, “That person is a stuck up phony. He’s only interested in himself.” The individual being discussed will walk over to the pair and the person who had been doing the insulting will change course. “I was just saying to Bill what a great manager you are!” The insulter will then walk away saying, “Whew, that was a close one!”
This might be the granddaddy of all sitcom cliches. Either a character is (a) pretending to be gay, (b) mistaken for being gay or (c) gay and someone on the show is oblivious and perhaps pursues that person to fruitless ends. Of course, a scenario most famously played out in Three’s Company (left), where the male protagonist pretended he was gay so he could get cheaper rent.
5. Can’t Trust Anybody
A character is entrusted with something and destroys or loses, be it a vase, painting, favorite shirt, pet or is given house-sitting duties and makes a mess of the place. Instead of taking responsibility, the character tries unsuccessfully to hide what he’s done or replace it.
This happens very rarely with a child, but was part of an episode of Andy Richter Controls the Universe.
6. I Was Young Once Too
A teenager breaks the house rules and either sneaks out past curfew or defies a specific ban by parents to see a concert, party downtown with derelicts, go to the big city for a debauch, etc. The next day or often later that night if they’re brought back by the police or drunk, Dad will give the time-honored speech saying that he was “young and wild once and he understands”, but that it’s important to lay down the law.
7. Just Be You, Dude
A gormless guy with no game who repeatedly strikes out with women is told by a friend, “Be yourself! If someone can’t see how good a person you are deep down, they aren’t worth knowing anyway.”
Flash forward: Girl pictures guy with gray hair and a cane and is horrified at growing old together. Flash back: Vintage clothes and hair, obvious soundtrack of the times played for cheap laughs. [Examples: How I Met your Mother, Cheers, Golden Girls - the latter obviously not a flash forward].
9. Something Familiar About That Person
An oblivious character fails to clue in that another person either looks, speaks or acts like them. Bonus points if they’re dating.
Freudian Frasier variation: When Frasier was dating a woman who he later realizes looks like his mom.
10. Bling for a Day
Character with a crappy job and eking out a subsistence living is visited by someone he wants to impress, possibly a potential girlfriend or parents whose high expectations he failed to meet and who he’s been lying to ever since. He makes convoluted arrangements to acquire for show for the day a really great job or great apartment, but his cover is eventually blown. He inevitably gets the “Be yourself!” speech from a caring friend.
11. Multiplying Teen Syndrome
Female teens in sitcoms often find themselves involved in some kind of plot related to pregnancy. A mother will inevitably say, “Sally, you can always come to me or your dad for advice, you know that,” at least 30 times on television. Or it could be a misunderstanding. “I’m not pregnant mom! It’s Cecilia. I was just covering for her.”
Another standby is the kid having to look after a fake baby (doll, bag of flour or an egg) as part of school project.
The parents of protagonists show up. They’re over-the-top characters in some way completely different to their children so as to make it almost unbelievable that they raised them. The parents will usually be quirky and abrasive and quite often drink and will often either be squares — the dad a hard-nosed military guy — or crazed hippies.
13. Bar From Another Universe
Totally unrealistic bar scenes are common in almost all sitcoms. A common standby in these are bikers, who will look like they could chew threw steel chains but who will blow your mind once you get to know them — they’re really friendly and cool, or maybe aren’t bikers at all, just eccentrically dressed gardeners. Or they’re intimidating and give the wimp protagonist trouble. Logical leap as to why bikers and most of these guys would ever cross paths.
14. Take it From Me, Kid
A randy old guy, often a neighbor, regularly dispenses “back in my day” advice and tries to offer tips on how to handle women that are met with eye-rolling. He’s chastised by his wife for being a less than credible Lothario.
15. Men of Few Words, Lots of Work
A portrayal common among working class guys of all types — slovenly plumber, cable repairman, roofer, short order cook, flooring guy… He’ll be a deadpan guy who disperses advice in terse sound bites, often while chewing gum.