Tropes are narrative devices so familiar to us as viewers that we do not have to work to understand them. They are useful to writers and producers who must work within tight constraints and still capture the viewer’s imagination. There is, for example, very little room in the pilot of a 22-minute sitcom to create vivid characters, so writers cherry-pick them from the form’s reliable roster.
One situational trope that’s often revisited is a character misinterpreting an overheard phone call and then embarrassing him or herself. This happened recently in an episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, where the titular character gets a phone call from her crush confessing his love. When she tells him she loves him back, it turns out it was just a butt dial during a particularly exhilarating game of Xbox Live.
In this list we have excluded such situational tropes, not because they aren’t interesting but because there is a rich enough history of them to merit their own list. We have focused on character tropes, or characters you might meet every new fall lineup and which viewers can identify and digest just as easily as they can tell a sitcom by its upbeat theme song.
10. The Drinkin’ Mama
From Clare Dunphy on Modern Family to Linda Belcher on Bob’s Burgers, it seems America’s televised mothers are always half in the bag. If Malcolm in the Middle had not been so pathologically PG, mother Malcolm would definitely have been sipping white wine, too. Amy Schumer even spoofed this trope in her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, where in a season three take on Friday Night Lights, “Football Town Nights,” her caring-mother character appears with increasingly absurd glasses of wine.
Perhaps this trope rings true to viewers who have seen next-door moms sipping from Dixie cups, or perhaps people just think that the sight of high-strung moms cutting loose is eternally funny, but either way this character constantly comes up on TV sitcoms.
9. Spitfire Oldies
Grandparents, according to television, are full of life and spunk, never tired and sick like grandparents in real life. They sit back in rocking chairs and make scathing remarks notwithstanding the political correctness of whatever generation they witness. Everyone remembers Mona, from Who’s The Boss?, who is both feisty and sexually active despite her age.
This character also occurs, of course, in the show Golden Girls, amongst most of the women but especially Sophia, the mother of Dorothy (Bea Arthur), who suffered a stroke and therefore makes constant brazen remarks.
Other examples of this character include both Pops and Ruby from Black-ish, Pierce from Community, and Albert from The Goldbergs.
8. Sassy Twins
Sassy twins are a sitcom staple. They come up often, and it seems like people never get sick of them. The primary example of this trope is the most infamous set of separated twins: Tia and Tamara Mowry from Sister, Sister. Together, they would crack jokes and fool people and generally do whatever twins on television do.
Another similar set of twins is Zack and Cody, played by Dylan and Cole Sprouse, on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. They were the bane of Mr. Moseby’s existence. Other examples of these difficult duos include Uncle Jesse’s sons from Full House, Jack and Diane from Black-ish, and, to some extent, Hallie and Annie from Parent Trap.
7. Mouthy Kids
This is another trope similar to the sassy twins and perhaps more familiar: it is that of the mouthy, precocious kid. This character may only be nine years old (or something), but is already intuitive enough to call parents or other figures of authority out on all of their hypocrisy.
The preeminent example of this character is the eternally despicable Stephanie Tanner, played by Jodie Sweetin. Her “hilarious” motto, “how rude!,” is a perfect example of what the mouthy, precocious kid would say. Other examples of this character include Alex Dunphy, from Modern Family, and Maebe from Arrested Development.
6. The Shallow Hot Girl
The shallow hot girl is another character that makes regular appearances in sitcoms. This girl is always very concerned with her looks and, not only that, she is also confident they are present. She never doubts her attractiveness, and will often refer to it to the bemusement of her surrounding characters.
Think about how many times you have seen the following: the shallow hot girl says something like, “I don’t need to be smart, I’m pretty!” and one of the other characters looks at her with mouth agape. Even if you cannot necessarily remember an example, it is something that is familiar to most sitcom viewers. Examples of this character include Haley Dunphy from Modern Family, Jackie from That 70s Show, Zoey from Black-ish, Karen from Will & Grace, and, at a glance, Rachel from Friends.
5. The Idiot Savant
Whether the central group of a sitcom be a family or a group of friends, one of the characters is always a kook. This person behaves unpredictably and generally has weak social skills, but, at some point or another, reveals him or herself to be more gifted than anyone.
The preeminent example of this character is Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld. In one episode, he tells George Costanza’s big-nosed girlfriend that she needs rhinoplasty. Despite his exampled lack of grace, he goes to L.A. and becomes an overnight celebrity, acts as a muse for Calvin Klein, and writes a coffee table book about coffee tables that goes to the top of the bestseller list.
Other examples of this character include Friends’ Phoebe Buffay, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, and Full House’s Kimmy Gibbler.
4. Hapless Dads
Another trope most obvious in Modern Family and The Simpsons is that of the hapless or goofy dad. In Modern Family, this is the character of Phil Dunphy, who gets tongue-tied around his sexy step-mother-in-law Gloria, portrayed by Sofia Vergara, and, in the pilot episode – before the writers had had a chance to refine him – says that he’s a cool dad because he knows all the dance moves to High School Musical.
In The Simpsons, it is Simpson patriarch Homer, whose catchphrase “D’oh!” is perhaps the most concise imaginable articulation of screwing up. These dads, although boneheaded, are always loving and so we as viewers forgive them for their flaws.
Other examples of this trope include Victor Baxter from That’s So Raven and Danny Tanner from Full House.
3. Womanizer Buddy
Another trope that’s relatively new is that of the womanizing best friend. Generally not the central focus of the sitcom – how can the delayed consummation narrative possibly exist with a guy who is a) afraid of commitment b) shallow c) not traditionally heroic? – these supporting characters, almost always male except for Samantha from Sex and the City, function as wild cards that get conservative characters into exciting situations while sleeping with a plethora of hotties in the process.
Examples of the womanizer buddy include the obvious: Joey from Friends and Barney from How I Met Your Mother, but also Luke from Scrotal Recall and Jack from Will & Grace (curveball!).
2. Loveable Scamp Sons
Ever since Dennis the Menace, reputed TV show from the 1950s, first aired, sons of TV families have been troublemakers, rabble-rousers, shite disturbers, or whatever other compound describes young men who live to challenge societal norms.
The most notorious, and certainly the most merchandised of these, is The Simpsons’ Bart Simpson. The eternal fourth grader can be seen every week spray painting explicit pictures of his school principal, calling Moe’s Tavern to ask for a list of fake names so extensive that it could be from the Pentateuch, or skateboating away yelling: “Eat my shorts!” (one of TV’s best catchphrases, according to TV Guide.)
Aside from Bart Simpson, the character appears in Modern Family as Luke Dunphy, who has not aged as adorably, and in Matt McGuire on the then-hit kids show Lizzie McGuire, among others.
1. Bruiser With A Soft Center
This character also appears all the time in sitcoms. It is the person who seems really tough on the outside, but inside is actually very friendly.
One example of this, rounding out Modern Family’s literal total reliance on tropes is Jay Pritchett, who, although gruff, is actually a big ole softie, as seen by his total weakness for his French bulldog Stella, and his occasional shows of affection for his step-son, Manny.
Other examples of this character include Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Rosa and Captain Holt, and Max Blum from Happy Endings.