As How I Met Your Mother ends, here’s a scientific look at what makes a great sitcom

How I Met Your Mother concludes this evening. Maybe 2-3 years ago, I would have called it my favorite show on television. Now it’s still in the discussion there, but because I cut cable this past summer and didn’t always want to sit down to watch the final season at the exact time it aired (CBS shows aren’t often on Roku), I missed some of Season 9. That’s OK, because it seemed a little erratic: a whole season predicated on one weekend? That said, the entire show got 200 episodes out of essentially a single premise: a dad telling his kids how he met their mother. (Again, though, you could argue the show is really about Ted Mosby’s journey to be ready to be in a significant relationship, and how your friends play into that along the way.)

HIMYM is the sixth-longest currently-running show on TV (that distinction ends in about 24 hours), and everything it’s behind is pretty much an hour-long drama with the exception of Two and a Half Men. You can argue that HIMYM deserves to be credited above Two and a Half Men, though, because the latter show had an insane casting change at one point, and HIMYM has been steadily consistent for basically a decade (the first season and the 8th season averaged basically the same number of viewers). Brief interlude: six of the 10 longest-running live-action shows on TV presently are on CBS. Interesting, no?

For years, people argued that the sitcom was the backbone of American television; in recent years that probably became the hour-long drama, in part because of the rise of the anti-hero. But still, sitcoms are important to our national pop culture discussion — and as a darling (for the most part) long-running one concludes, it begs the question: what actually makes a good sitcom?

Obviously this is very contextual. I’ll get more into that in a second, but let’s start with the basics. I watch a ton of “cancelled after eight episodes” crap on Hulu and Netflix — for example, I’ve recently watched a bunch of Man Up and Perfect Couples — and honestly, some of those shows are funny (Perfect Couples had some really good episodes). But so many sitcoms don’t last more than 10 episodes, so essentially that’s the first criteria: duration of run. You need to be on the air for a certain amount of time for people to understand you and have some context around you; Happy Endings probably just cleared that bar of 40-50 or so episodes as a baseline. Now obviously, “duration of run” will be tied in large part (in entirety) to ratings, so the ratings have to be there. So if the end goals are “be on the air for a while” and “have good ratings,” how do you do that?

It does all begin with writing, but shows like Freaks and Geeks and SportsNight (the latter more a sitcom than the former) were well-written and are now in that “cult” category of online postings. So while writing is key, I’d argue that the bigger key is having a group of individuals that closely approximates a family even if they’re not a family. Consider some of the best sitcoms of all-time: in the golden age you had things like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in the intermediate period you had Cheers and Frasier and Home Improvement, and in the recent period you had Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and HIMYM. Those are all about families or groups of friends/co-workers that approximate a family. 30 Rock is the same way, as are countless other examples (er, Friends is a big one I missed here). I think the group dynamic is important as sitcoms are built out.

Here’s a much deeper look at the allure of the sitcom:

Like us, the characters we see on the screen are busy suffering and enjoying, and they often have trouble hiding the way they feel. They are self-involved and full of irrational fears and desires, and they get carried away by foolish emotions, often failing to consult their own capacity for insight until late in the story.

Like us, they go out into the world wearing masks and they help other people maintain their own masks. But, at the same time, much of their identity is based on their ability to pull off the masks of themselves and others, in put-downs, gossip and confrontations, and, somewhat more reverently, in confessions and moments of truth. Like us, they are manipulators of information who “spin” whatever story they are telling in an effort to influence other people.

And, like us, the characters are surrounded by circles of associates, not merely by practical necessity or circumstance, but because their narcissistic goals and desires can only be achieved through other people. In their lives, as depicted on the screen, narcissism and sociality aren’t two poles of the human condition. They are the same.

So: group dynamics and connection back to audience.

Going back to writing for a second, the other big bucket I’d say is lack of cliche. You want to believe that in your friend/office/family groups, you have interesting conversations about different, nuanced, quirky things. You don’t want to think that everything is a sex joke or a one-up shot. So often when you see negative reviews of a sitcom, it revolves around the presence of “cliche” or “tropes.” People seem to hate those; this is probably one reason why something like Frasier had strong ratings and also won awards. This is also a reason people cite The Big Bang Theory as a success; the dialogue is much different and (in some ways) more interesting than a standard sitcom. Then again, I also know a few of my friends who think Big Bang is horrifically unfunny.

There does need to be a central arc character, although this can shift throughout the evolution — for example, on Friends you could make a case that all of them, with the possible exception of Phoebe, were the main character at different points. There also needs to be “a quirky” character (on HIMYM, that’s predominantly Barney but can be Lily or anyone else; on Friends it was Joey; on Seinfeld it was Kramer, etc.) and there needs to be some context/content around a relationship between two of the main characters (Niles and Daphne on Frasier; Jerry and Elaine; everyone on Friends; Sheldon and Amy / Penny and Leonard on Big Bang, etc.)

So this seems like the list:

1. Good writing / lack of cliches and tropes

2. Large central base of characters that are or act like a family

3. Seem like the audience in some way

4. Different types of conversations

5. Central character

6. Quirky character

7. Previous or current romantic entanglement between two of the main characters

If you were to study the perceived list of “best sitcoms of all-time” or “highest-rated sitcoms of all-time,” you’d probably 6/7 or 7/7 from the above list in each case. HIMYM had all those aspects, for sure.

Is Friends with Better Lives going to have all this? It may, but to the level of HIMYM will be questionable. (I know networks want a strong lead-in on new shows so they often debut them after finales of other shows, but in my mind that’s kind of like naming a kid after someone that recently died; for the whole arc of kid/show, people are always thinking about what came before.)

Side and final note: I didn’t discuss animated shows as much above, although they do dominate the longest-running sitcom lists. The Simpsons is pretty much the best sitcom of all-time in my personal purview, and I’d say it hits every aspect above except possibly No. 7 — and even then, Homer and Marge’s relationship and stuff like Lisa-Millhouse, Lisa-Nelson, etc. keep that side up to code.

Ted Bauer