24.01.2015 by Andrew Nixon
Sitcom Sofas - Six clever ways that TV uses couches for comedy
The sofa, as television producers have long known, is the perfect sitcom prop. It can form the centre of a studio stage, or symbolise family values, or create a mirror image of the viewer at home. In some sitcoms, the sofa is so important that it is a star in its own right. Here, in our complete guide to sitcom sofas, are six different ways that TV shows have made clever use of couches to make us laugh…
1. The sofa as a stage prop (The Cosby Show, Miranda)
A typical sitcom living room bears only a passing resemblance to a real-life one. In real homes, sofas are usually pushed up against a wall, whereas in sitcoms they are placed in the middle of the (unfeasibly large) room, open to the ‘third-wall’ of the studio audience. The sofa then forms the front centre spot of a ‘stage’ in which there is plenty of space for characters to come and go, and to sit to talk in various combinations.
The couch in The Cosby Show is the perfect example of the ‘middle-class’ sitcom sofa. It is the centre of the family home and acts as a consultation couch, where Mr and Mrs Cosby (a doctor and a lawyer) can dispense their wisdom and solve the latest family problems. Then when everyone gathers to watch TV together we can see what a wholesome American family they are.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most obviously theatrical use of the sofa as a stage prop is the BBC sitcom Miranda. The sofa is placed right at the front of the set, from where Miranda can deliver straight-to-camera asides inaudible to the rest of the characters. And if characters are talking to each other on the sofa, then anyone at the back of the room is somehow unable to hear them – a classic theatre device.
2. The sofa as an excuse for idleness (The Royle Family, Rosanne, Married…With Children)
The handy thing about sofas for comedy scriptwriters is that characters can slouch on them and just talk, without needing an excuse to do anything else. When slumped on a couch you can talk to each other, or shout at the television, or just muse aloud.
At the other end of the social scale to The Cosby Show is The Royle Family, where rather than being a symbol of middle-class family wholesomeness, the sofa represents northern working-class Britain. The Royle’s cramped front room is more realistic than the usual gigantic sitcomland room, and the vast majority of the scenes involve the characters squeezed together, talking idly while watching the telly.
There is a clear hierarchy in the rigid seating arrangements: Jim lords it from his own armchair; Barbara, Denise and Dave squash on the tatty old sofa (in that order); while youngest family member Anthony is relegated to the chair by the door. In these familiar positions the Royles carryon their banal conversations, and their life on the furniture represents both the repetitiveness of their existence but also their family warmth and closeness.
Similarly tatty sofas do the same job in American blue-collar sitcoms like Roseanne [above] and especially Married…With Children.
3. The sofa as a reflection of the audience (Beavis and Butthead)
Sofas in sitcoms like The Royle Family allow for a pleasingly intimate symmetry, where we the viewers sit on our sofas watching the characters on their sofas talking directly to us. This has been taken to its logical conclusion with the comedy reality show Gogglebox, in which we quite simply watch people watching TV.
Our television and the characters’ televisions are like windows into each others’ rooms. Or are they mirrors? The sitcom most notable for plainly satirising its own audience is Beavis and Butthead, which aired on MTV in the 1990s and showed two teenage boys (MTV’s target audience) watching MTV music videos and making inane comments about them – usually ‘This sucks!’
The boys’ battered pink sofa is as revolting as they are. Beavis and Butthead is a show for horrible adolescents watching MTV about horrible adolescents watching MTV. In its own way, it is genius.
4. The sofa as a status symbol (Frasier, Modern Family)
Snobbery and social pretension are limitless sources of comedy, and furniture plays its part. A fine example is Martin’s chair in Frasier – the unwelcome guest that won’t seem to go away.
A shabby, garish La-Z-Boy recliner, Martin insisted on bringing it with him when he moved into his son’s well-appointed apartment, where it remains for the entire duration of the long-running show, despite several attempts to get rid of it.
Clashing horribly with Frasier’s sophisticated interior and swish sofa, it is the perfect symbol of the culture clash between the uppity Crane boys and their down-to-earth father, which makes for a great deal of the laughs in Frasier.
Along similar social status lines, there’s also a glorious episode (‘Strangers in the Night’ - Season 6) of the hit US comedy Modern Family in which Mitch and Cam buy a very expensive new white sofa about which they are inordinately precious (‘we’re allowed to have one nice thing!’).
Through a series of unfortunate events they must then try to prevent a somewhat unhinged lady guest from (a) sitting on it at all, then (b) drinking a glass of red wine on it while making wild hand gestures, and finally (c) sleeping on it in a gunky green beauty mask – with, needless to say, farcical results.
5. The sofa as a cultural icon (Friends)
The large orange mohair couch in Friends is surely the most recognisable sitcom sofa of them all – and certainly the most zeitgeist-y. Somehow the five Friends always manage to secure it in the Central Perk coffee shop, no matter how full the place is (that itself became a running gag in the show, particularly in the episode The One with the Bullies where two meanies ‘steal’ their beloved seats).
Whereas most sitcoms feature misfits and cranks as comedy characters, the Friends, though each with their foibles, were all fundamentally decent, nice people – and instead of hanging around in a bar (as in Cheers), they drank coffee together on a big sofa.
It surely can’t be entirely a coincidence that the explosion of coffee shops with comfy chairs began at the height of Friends’ popularity. In fact, there are Central Perk replicas all over the world, complete with orange sofas, including in Dubai, Beijing and two in Liverpool.
6. The sofa as a gag in its own right (The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory)
In The Big Bang Theory, the sofa is actually a gag in itself, as uber-nerd Sheldon clings to his special ‘spot’ on the left hand side of the sofa much as a shipwrecked man might cling to a life raft.
It is for Sheldon the “single point of consistency in an ever-changing world”– not only he is quite unable to sit anywhere else, but nobody else is allowed to sit in it. Like the Central Perk sofa which is jealously guarded by the Friends, Sheldon’s Spot is in, quote, “a state of eternal dibs".
However, for sheer quantity of sofa gags, surely nothing will ever top The Simpsons. Here is every Simpsons intro sofa gag in one video...