Speaking of sitcoms: I was thinking about stock sitcom plots the other day. (Actually I was thinking about the stock plots that either originated on The Dick Van Dyke Show or were, as TVTropes would say, codified there. Western dream sequences, pool-hustler episodes, and accidental-hypnosis episodes didn’t start with that show, but the sitcoms that followed sometimes seemed to be aping TDVDs with their versions of those stories.) And one thing I started thinking about was that while most standby plots never really go away (wedding after wedding after wedding…) there are some stock plots that are very big for years, even decades, and then vanish.
Think of the boxing episode. Up until sometime in the ’90s, getting a character into the boxing ring was almost guaranteed if a sitcom ran long enough. Boxing fits into a sitcom for many reasons: it allows characters to fight without rousing the TV violence police; it looks good in the promos; it pulls in male viewers; and there are tons of boxing gags that go back to the silent days. But mostly, if a sitcom wants to do a sports-themed episode, boxing is just about the easiest sport to do on a soundstage. All you need is a ring; you don’t even need to show the fans if you make the “arena” dark enough. So everybody did a boxing episode. TVTropes lists a bunch of them. You’ll notice that when sitcoms do a boxing episode, it’s usually about the lead character having to get into the ring with a big tough guy for some contrived reason or another; when dramas do it, the boxer is usually a guest character, and often a murder victim.
So you’ll notice that on that list, most of the sitcom examples are from before 1997 or so. Then in recent years, most shows have stopped doing it. Not all; kids’ sitcoms (always willing to raid the old stock stories) have done their versions, and Mr. D is apparently about to do one. But boxing episodes certainly are not the towering force they once were, whereas bowling episodes are still going strong. What happened? A friend suggested it’s because boxing got less popular, but that hasn’t stopped mystery shows from presenting us with dead boxers. It might just be that with sitcoms more free to go out of the studio, there are other sports they can do for their obligatory sports episode. And also, back when more people had military experience, more people had personal experience with boxing – it’s not as easy to identify with as it once was.
What are some other stock sitcom plots that were huge for a long time, and then vanished? I’m sure there are others, but stock plots are hard to kill. Even changes in technology have not completely wiped out the “I sent someone a message and I have to get it back before they read it” plot.