Sunday, 31 January 2010

Getting out at the Top

It is a curiously British thing to take a sledgehammer to your own success, but that is what is regularly done - and it is, of course, partly the fault of John Cleese.

In the good old days, when your sitcom was commissioned, you milked it for all it was worth - and no-one thought worse of you for so doing. They still do that in the USA. And it's fair enough. If you manage the Herculean task of not only getting your show on air, but getting it recommissioned, and then re-recommissioned, why on earth stop? The odds are that it won't happen again. Note that even the greatest scriptwriters have penned plenty of failures that had all the ingredients but never quite worked. The cake didn't rise. The magic dust blew away. You get idea.

Fawlty Towers, a show that was largely ignored and disliked at first, may have been one at the vanguard of this habit of stopping just when they'd cracked it. Naturally John Cleese and Connie Booth were perfectly at liberty to do whatever they liked with the masterful comedy, and many people admire their restraint in stopping when the show was still good.

But why wouldn't three more series have been good? Episode 13-30 of Fawtly Towers could have explored any number of subjects and themes. Let's face it - they had the audience in the palm of their hand. The characters could all have been sellotaped to a giant bomb and it still would have got huge laughs. Once the engine of a sitcom is running, it'll serve you well for many years to come (unlike the engine out my VW Golf which I was forced to sell last year. That's for another blog - and doesn't even have a humourous story that's usable for a sitcom episode one day).

The Young Ones cut things short early and killed off everyone. Blackadder only gave us four series before hanging up their cod-pieces. Ricky Gervais 'got out at the top' in his own words on both The Office and Extras. Likewise, Corden and Jones seem unwilling to write more episodes of Gavin and Stacey - a lovely, heartwarming comedy with characters I'm only just getting to know. Why stop? I'm sure they have their reasons. New projects often seem more exciting than old ones. Understandable.

But what are British writers in general worried about? Is it concerns about a backlash? It is worries about people thinking you're cashing in your success? The British, after all, are very suspicious of success and wealth.

In America, they celebrate success. This doesn't make American's better people, by any means. Nor does it make them worse - although it does at least mean they can be happy for other people, and therefore not feel the need to constantly self-deprecate, that charming quaint British custom. This, perhaps, explains why their sitcom hits run and run and run. Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld and dozens of shows we've never even heard of make 24 episodes or so at a time. A show could run for ten years. I, for one, am glad there a nearly 200 episodes of Seinfeld. The last series was particularly funny and inventive (except for the finale - eek).

Of course, getting a show to run more than even 12 episodes is really hard work. But is that the reason Brits don't want to continue once they've done 12 or 18? Who knows? All I do know is that getting a new series up and running, and then to have it taken to the nations hearts, is even more hard work than keeping an old show fresh. I'm heartened that the writers of Peep Show keep bashing on. The fans love it. They cast and writers enjoy making it. Why stop success?


  1. I realise that I have no real authority to challenge your views of sitcoms at all, as merely a casual watcher and listener of sitcoms, but I feel the need to at least air my opposing opinion.

    There's nothing that disheartens me more when a sitcom outlives its best work, as in most cases the quality of episodes take a great decline after their peak. You mentioned Frasier which is my personal favourite - but I rarely watch the episodes beyond series 7 as I feel the show looses its dynamic. The characters start to change and the situations either repeat themselves or become ridiculous. Surely the whole essence of a sitcom is for the "sit" to remain the same? Or am I just old fashioned?

    Scrubs was another sitcom that suffered by running for too long. Season 7, in particular, was dire. I am thoroughly enjoying How I Met Your Mother, but can feel it starting to go stale. I applaud those, like Cordon and Jones, who decide to cut their darlings to prevent them from suffering the same fate.

    However, to totally trample my comments: I adore Hut 33! Please never stop writing it... :)

  2. So, only about three or four British sitcoms actually stopped of their own accord "on top"? Not really a tradition or habit, as far as I can see.

  3. Hello, Sarah. Thank you for kind words about Hut 33. And I do agree with you about Scrubs, which feels more like soap than sitcom at the moment. I have drifted away from it in recent seasons.

    As regards Frasier, I'd just like to point that by season 7, Frasier had done over 130 episodes, which is way longer that almost any UK sitcom (eg. Last of the Summer Wine). So I take the point, but reckon that the Brits still have a long way to go on this one.

    Incidentally, Frasier is generally a thoroughly inspiring show to watch in the mornings on Channel 4. It really reminds you that intelligent, farcical, clever character comedy is possible and sustainable.

  4. To answer Smarter Than The Average, Spaced, Green Wing and Black Books are all sitcoms that have gone out whilst still on top form so there is probably enough evidence to suggest a bit of a trend.

    Personally I think the difference is in the number of writers, in the UK sitcoms tend to have one or two writers who may feel spent or bored after a couple of series, whereas in the US they have a huge number of writers working on each show so they can then stretch them out longer.

  5. Hi James - great blog: have bookmarked and will be following regularly!

  6. Without getting into specifics (such as Pegg et al expressing their desire to produce a 3rd series of Spaced),a handful of examples over a period of 30 years (if we use Fawlty Towers as a starting point) isn't really a trend. The Office, Extras and Blackadder came back for specials, too.

  7. Also, the reason US sitcoms tend to run longer is rather more prosaic - it's to do with the way television schedules have traditionally been divided into 22-24 week seasons (hence why they don't refer to programmes by 'series'), whereas in the UK they're divided into 6/13 week blocks.

  8. I understand the mechanics of TV schedules and all that - and I can see how that makes a difference. Moreover Americans have scales of productions and writing teams that allow for numerous episodes. But the British system has evolved separately for a reason.

    The thing I'm getting at - which I know will never convinced you Smarter than the Average - is that in Britain, writers feel that they can, and probably should, stop writing a show before it appears that they're doing it too much for the money, or before it appears they don't know when to stop. It's partly a subjective thing that I feel as a writer.

    I get the sense that in America, if a writer feels he's done enough work on a show, he leaves and the show continues - and that he would expect that to happen. If I had my own hit sitcom in the UK and decided to quit after for series, and the BBC or whoever said 'Okay, we'll take it from here with other writers', I'd be both surprised and offended. In the USA, it's the norm. It is a trend and a factor, albeit a small one, which just isn't the case in USA.

  9. Hi James

    I think your point to Mr. Smarter is connected to the fact that many UK sitcoms are authored versus the show runner/team writing experience in the US. Most US writers [of successful shows] do eventually leave their shows, but as writers only, and continue in a producing role, whereas over here it's all about the show's writer(s) carrying the baton or dying with the show.

    I've never quite understood the politics behind that. I write comedy yet am very aware there are much funnier writers out there; what a privilege it would be to have some of those great writers work on a show that I created leaving me free to work on other projects.

    Have a super weekend. Look forward to having a nose at your blog.

  10. Please please please carry on writing hut 33 i came across the show by accident but i think it is one of the best radio comedy show i have listen too over the last 30 years..

    If it was not for such strict nanny state rules about what is right and wrong to show it would make a good tv show as well..



  11. I don't know if i would agree with a team carrying on writing for my series, with me just having an 'executive producer' role. It would be like watching your beautiful baby - which you cherished and loved more than anything - grow up to be an ugly, (possibly criminal) idiot that you are ashamed to have in your family - but they still bear your surname.

    Actually, who am i kidding? I'd take the money and run!