What makes a truly great sitcom?
This is a different question from what you need to make a good sitcom? Or what are the key ingredients? The answers to most questions like that is normally 'characters'. They are what draw you into a sitcom. The idea might grab your attention. The plots are need to feel fresh and original, sure, but they are only really the ways in which your characters express themselves. We've all read Story by McKee, or at least we feel like we have. But story and character are not enough.
Three QuestionsWhen I talk to new writers these days, I ask three questions. Why you? Why this? And why now? The first two questions are about why you, the writer, feel qualified to write about this idea. Do you have experience or passion? What have you insight do you have into this world of techies or surgeons or millennials? And can you execute a script accordingly? But that 'why now' question is easily missed. And I think it's the secret sauce here.
We all know the secret of comedy is timing. But it's not just the timing of the joke, but the timing of the show. When does it comes out? Is it riding a wave, or predicting the future in a believable or satirical way? Shows like The Day Today felt like the creators had seen the future, or at least where we were headed. It was like now only more so. This was the direction of travel of news. And they weren't far wrong. It felt perfectly of the moment. It was a truly great show, but not a sitcom.
The New Statesman is an example of a sitcom that was truly of the moment, satirically pushing Thatcherism to it's ultimate conclusion via the grotesquely evil and wonderfully name Alan B'Stard.
But timing is difficult. I never quite understood why Nathan Barley felt like it had missed the boat. The man behind (and in front) of The Day Today, along with the consistently brilliant Charlie Brooker, served up a sitcom that felt like its moment had already passed. It came out in 2005. It felt like we had all noticed this mad world of new media was filled with lightweights and airheads. The dotcom bubble had burst a few years earlier. I was rather puzzled when I watched the show, expecting something more prophetic. If the show had launched in 1998, it would have been truly ahead of the curve.
That said, I rewatched some episodes recently and found it funny, as it was a time capsule in it's own way. It's so entrenched in a time and place that 15-20 years on you don't worry about five years this way or that way. (The Goldbergs certainly don't!) You just remember a decade and think "yep. That's how it was. Or at least how it seemed".
It's one reasons why the BBC should make more historical comedies. They don't date. We still love Blackadder. Dad's Army still dominates the BBC2 comedy ratings. Maybe we should all take another look at Let Them Eat Cake.
Being TimelySo there's something timely about a show that makes it great. The Thick of It was a very timely show. There was a freshness to it which showed how we did politics then (and now). It was well written and craft, with brilliant monstrous characters along with some jaw-dropping lines. One or two clips still give me a rush, like the time Malcom Tucker pushes back at the Goulding Inquiry and refuses to accept that he is the bad guy. And his scene with Olly, trying to talk about Star Wars, is just amazing (see below). It's a great show. I watched every episode. It has all of the key ingredients. Including timing. It was timely. It was of the moment.
Timely is good. The only thing that could be better is being timeless.
Being TimelessStep forward my favourite sitcom of all time, Yes Prime Minster. It's the Rolls Royce of sitcoms. Not only is it engineering perfection, but it feels like it's never out of date. Each episode is about an issue of contemporary life or public policy which is then examined from both sides in a measured and considerate way, by two wonderful characters played by brilliant actors who's lines are not only perfection but very very funny. It's up there with the very best of Oscar Wilde and GK Chesterton. It's stuff people will still be quoting in a hundred years time. It's timeless. And truly great.
Being Timely and TimelessOf course, some shows aren't just timely or timeless. Somehow, they are both. And maybe that's why the platinum-sitcom in the UK remains Only Fools and Horses. It was, in its pomp, the ultimate sitcom in reflecting its time. Del Boy's journey from scrapping market trader to wannabe yuppie was exactly of it's time. Even Rodney's journey from trading sidekick to computer programmer said something about the times. But the whole show was about a family scrapping to survive. What could be more universal and timeless about that? Which is why it's back again in the West End. People can't get enough of it. Because it's truly great.