The semiotics of sitcom sofas (or How these iconic couches wormed their way into your memories)
The simplicity of a sitcom concept is part of what makes it successful. Every week (or several times a night once it’s all online) you get a repetition on a theme. This is what makes them so addictive. Like humour itself, a good sitcom is a killer mix of familiarity and surprise.
But the thing about simplicity is that it’s very hard to pull off with success. It’s much harder work to get repeat laughs out of a group of ordinary people in an ordinary room than it is to get thrills from a bunch of supervillains blowing things up. And the Sisyphean structure of the weekly reboot, where everything returns more or less to how it was before the capers of the previous episode, has tremendous literary potential. It’s no wonder folks write endless academic papers on the unlikely subject of the sitcom.
The art of being invisible
Anyway, onto the sofas, right? If you never noticed just how iconic those background furniture items are in their respective sitcoms, it’s due to that same expert simplicity that sitcom authors apply to every element of their show. But take a look at the poster of 49 sitcom couches and armchairs below. Notice how they instantly conjure images of their respective occupants in your mind’s eye?
“My philosophy is that you should never be aware of the sets,” says Seinfeld’s production designer Thomas “Tho” Azzari. “You want to make sure they’re appropriate, but you don’t want to take anything away from what’s going on. That’s why Jerry’s apartment is grey… The colour is the actors.”
Sitcom designers do their best to make their show an extension of your front room. A place to feel comfortable in your surroundings so you can concentrate on the people around you. But it has to feel familiar without being overbearing.
Azzari goes on to reflect on how he and director Tom Cherones reassured show creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David that they need focus only on the scripts. The designer was given autonomy over the sets. While a lesser designer would’ve taken this opportunity to stamp their identity all over the show, Azzari found a blend that was both blandly ‘normcore’ (as it would come to be known) and instantly recognisable.
Of course, being subtle and iconic at the same time is not only paradox a sitcom couch has to surmount. It also needs to reflect both the characters with whom it is associated, and the show as a whole.
When you compare the blocky ordinariness of furniture in the Seinfeld universe with the flamboyance of the Friends set, the difference between the shows jumps out at you: Seinfeld was a show about dead-end normies for freaky people, and Friends was a show about aspirational oddballs for normies. (Okay, so Seinfeld’s Kramer was a little outlandish, but let’s not forget he started out as a rather grubby and aggressive dude-next-door before evolving into the eccentric style icon we know and love).
More than just a pretty picture
The realm of animation is not immune to sofa semiotics. The artists at The Simpsons and particularly Rick and Morty could draw anything they wanted, beholden to their own imagination rather than a props and set budget.
But over three decades, the Simpsons’ creators have restrained their wild ideas for alternative sofa universes to the show’s famous opening ‘couch gags.’ This show, more than any other in recent memory, has become a part of the collective living room of western audiences. It is essential that its couch should be like ours: unpretentious, unchanging, well-loved.
Rick and Morty is another show that relies on the disconnect between the banality of the setting and the events that take place there. The couch in the Smith household is what might be described as a shade of radioactive teal; it’s a plausible family-sofa colour while also signifying (or at least signalling) the bizarro universe of perverted aliens and alternative universes that lurk beneath the surface. As creators of a cult sci-fi show, the artists know there’s no point in designing that couch to be a fixture of the average family’s TV room – it looks pretty good on a laptop screen, though.
You don’t just watch a sitcom to laugh. Most of us don’t watch them for academic research. We watch them to relax. We watch them for insights into everyday absurdity. We watch them to feel at home – but also to escape our own mundane existence. So sit back, relax, and sink into the world of sitcom sofas.
John writes on behalf of NeoMam Studios. A filmmaker and writer specializing in cinema, digital media, and pets, his passions include art-house movies and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.