Dramedy, also called seriocomedy or black comedy, combines humor with dramatic, often grim, elements. Its purpose is to make fun of serious situations and explore taboo issues. Good writing and conflict give the shows dramatic tension, which is relieved by comedic moments.
In the 1970s, half-hour shows began to move away from slapstick and silly comedy to addressing more serious situations in “special” episodes. Hour-long shows, which were typically dramatic, started incorporating some comic relief with amusing subplots. Many medical and police shows alternated tense rescues and calls with funny scenes involving the protagonists’ coworkers and personal lives. The term dramedy was created to define the blurred genre of these programs.
Later shows like portrayed characters struggling with personal issues, trying to maintain their integrity. Witty humor to keep the characters grounded when danger was prevalent was a common tactic. Some primetime dramedies are soap operas, featuring outlandish situations and characters getting in serious trouble, and cliffhangers to build tension are common.
Ramping up conflict in each episode keeps the viewer on edge. If the tension gets too high, a switch to the humorous subplot offers relief and makes the audience wonder what will happen next. A dramedy typically has ongoing story arcs that persist throughout the season, which may or may not be resolved until the finale. Sometimes the laugh track will be removed to emphasize the more dramatic elements, even if the show itself is mainly humorous. The writing must be exemplary in order to handle the often shocking nature of the situations.
The use of humor in a dramedy allows the writers to explore social issues and problems that are either taboo or at least controversial. For example, the 1970s show All in the Family confronted the audience with prejudice and racism through the main character, Archie Bunker, and his rigid views of Jews, blacks, and homosexuality. It was also the first program to air the sound of a flushing toilet, an appliance previously ignored on television to the point of being invisible.
Another example of a dramedy was the sitcom M*A*S*H. Set during the Korean war in a mobile surgical unit, the show combined the horrors of war and death with the downtime antics of bored doctors and nurses. M*A*S*H ran for eleven years, nearly four times longer than the real Korean war. Serious episodes without a laugh track mixed with highly amusing ones involving practical jokes. Nearly 106 million households tuned in to the final episode, making it one of the most watched programs in television history.