Cross-posted on Extra Criticum.
Recently, Drew has introduced me to Friends, a show I never watched when it was on the air. I have to say, one of the things that most impresses me about the show as we work our way through full-season DVDs is the universality of it. It's basically about relationships. And the way they got to that, of course, (big surprise!) is by creating very specific characters and sticking to their truth. The show gets its laughs from the specificity of what we know about these six individuals and the jokes are not riffing on pop culture. I have a feeling its shelf life will be very long indeed.
I agree, though I'm not sure that I'd pick Friends as the best example. (Roland, a good friend of mine, has not wasted spent enough time watching sitcoms to be able to pick out the best ones.) The idea of universal themes and specific characters reminds me of All in the Family, which recently marked its 40th anniversary. Matt Zoller Seitz and Jaime Weinman recently wrote about how well the series has held up despite its topical references, thanks to rich characterization and identifiable themes, but I want to single out Jean Stapleton's characterization of Edith Bunker as a key factor.
In his comment above, Roland cites "relationships," and the relationship between Archie and Edith Bunker is what made All in the Family soar. Intolerant, reactionary Archie is one of TV's most compelling figures, but what gives him depth and poignancy is his love for Edith (which supports the idea that his intolerance is based on a mistaken belief that he's doing what's right for his family rather than his just being a selfish prick) and the idea that Edith sees something good in him.
In the first episode of All in the Family, Edith isn't terribly different than Else. Here is a clip from the original, unaired pilot of the show, which has a different supporting cast but the same script used in the version that eventually aired. Archie and his son-in-law argue while Edith rolls her eyes and occasionally gets a shot in at Archie:
Fortunately, Stapleton and the writers seem to have immediately grasped the greater possibilities of her character. And the central conflict of the show changed from the sometimes tiresome fights between conservative Archie and liberal Mike to the long-running philosphical debate between the suspicious, fearful Archie and open-hearted, optimistic Edith. Here (and below) is an early example of Stapleton holding her own against O'Connor, in an episode about pitting honest Edith against cynical Archie (and note how welcome it is when Edith butts into an argument between Archie and Mike):
As the show progressed, Edith made got better at shaming Archie into (sometimes) doing the right thing, and her victories felt authentic because of the chemistry between Stapleton and O'Connor. In "Alone at Last," she gets an apology out of Archie (go to the 7:00 mark here), and in one of the last episodes, "Cousin Liz," she prevents Archie from taking a small inheritance away from a dead relative's lesbian partner just by saying she knows he could never be "that mean." Edith's slow struggle to pull Archie ever farther from his comfort zone of bitterness became the theme of the series.
I'm not saying that a comedy series must have this kind of relationship to still be enjoyable years later (Monty Python is still funny), but it's one way to overcome the concern that topical jokes will make the show indecipherable to future generations.