Textual Analysis of Sit-com

How do the following help to construct or reinforce our ideas of gender?


Camerawork: TV sit-coms have short shooting schedules, small budgets and a limited, repeatable set. Live mixes often are put together with exterior footage, significant close-ups and reaction shots. There is a tendency to conventional framing of shots, mostly mid-shots and medium close-ups plus continuity editing creates a ‘transparent’ style, thus the audience are allowed to understand the action without the process of construction being too obvious. (This is the notion of ‘realism.’)

How are particular angles used to show e.g. Jim Royle as a slob – by using a low angle-shot to emphasise his size and sloth, whereas Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show has many close ups to show the audience his mugging to camera! Look at who gets in the shots with these characters and where they are positioned or how. What does this suggest to the audience?

Another way the camera is used is to generate comedy – in Only Fools the bar shot… we see him fall through the bar but only hear him hit the ground because the camera, in a two-shot focuses on Trigger’s face who doesn’t even notice his friend’s misfortune.

Malcolm in the Middle adopts a more filmic style and uses the piece to camera, video diary like for effect.


Editing: How and why are different shots juxtaposed with one another? Studio based sit-coms favour simple cuts to maintain continuity editing rules. But cuts in general are used to: control time / distribute narrative information / privilege or marginalise characters / create comedy from the actions or dialogue on screen. Thus: Cut is used to suggest some sort of relationship between juxtaposed shots; Dissovle is used to suggest a strong relationship between juxtaposed shots particularly those separated in space or time; Wipe is often used to suggest a transition from one sequence or section to another.

Watch short extracts with the sound down to see how visual meaning is built up, count the number of edits and cameras used.


Mise en scene: including such aspects as: sets and location, costume and make up, props, lighting, use of colour.

Sets often appear cheap to film, but they communicate specific ideas about the characters who live there. (Monica‘s alphabetical labelling of everything on her shelves in the kitchen area / Frasier‘s minimalist apartment but his dad’s chair stands out like a sore thumb!)

Costume and make-up – what do the characters wear? (Patsy in AB Fab is always overdressed, hugely made-up and ends up looking like a pantomime dame! / George in Drop the Dead Donkey wears a cardigan – loser!)

Props – look to see what characters hold in their hands, or what they are physically seen to do. (Will does the cooking in Will and Grace / Mary-Ann in Cybill has drink in her hand!)

Lighting – look at how hybrid sit-coms adopt the style of lighting for the genre. (Red Dwarf, often quite dark in corridors, red flashing lights in emergencies / Ambient or natural lighting played a huge role in M*A*S*H, because high key lighting wouldn’t have been realistic.)

The use of colour is perhaps most obvious in Blackadder Goes Forth where the iconography is from the First World War trenches and the low key lighting when they go over the top creates a threatening battlefield – definitely not for laughs.


Sound: The dialogue is uninterrupted as far as possible despite ‘ambient’ sounds to ensure the viewer gets the joke. Is there a laughter track? Or is the programme filmed in front of a live audience? Why? Why is laughter put on the sound track? To guide the reactions of the home audience, to provide a community response, laughter is easier when experienced as a group, it also masks the processes of construction such as cuts and edits, preserving the ‘transparency.’


Intertextuality: To make reference to other TV programmes, films, literature etc gives the audience a sense of shared culture. They gain pleasure from identifying the references and in particular if those references are subverted or adapted. Think here of The Simpsons and their fondness for allusions to other programmes or films and in using it to make an entire programme out of. (The Young Ones were asked to represent Scumbag College on University Challenge.)


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