Thursday 4 March 2010

Not Liking Audience Comedy

Liam Mullan doesn't like studio audience comedy. He explains why over on Chortle here. He is, of course, perfectly entitled to his opinion - which is, I would argue, based on preference, not argument. I don't propose to take issue with everything he says, but one sentence strikes me as interesting and revealing. He says:

I previously wrote a piece for Chortle that after Seinfeld the three-wall/three-camera sitcom had been essentially perfected as an art form, at least in the American tradition...

There is no doubt that comedy is an art, and that situation comedy is an art form - albeit a bizarrely contrived one, but then it's not much more artificial than the theatre or an exhibition of sculpture. The contrivance is part of it. We all know that life isn't like that, and that most of us live in more realistic homes. But what interested me the most is that Mr Mullan seems to think that once someone's cracked it we all applaud, give up, go home and try something else. I'm relieved that painters didn't hang up their palette's when Van Gogh cranked out his set of Sunflowers. It's good that playwrights didn't stop scribbling once they'd seen Hamlet - and I'm glad that Shakespeare kept bashing on too, even though Timon of Athens isn't wonderful and King Lear has a very dodgy ending.

Comedy is an art - but no art is definitive, surely? Some is iconic, certainly. I agree that Seinfeld is almost perfect, and I cherish my boxed sets. But that encourages me to keep going with audience sitcom, not give up. When I flick on the TV first thing, and Frasier is on Channel 4, part of me has a pang of 'I'll never do anything that good' but the other part of me says 'Have you really tried?' Now I know Mr Mullan is not saying that there is no point in trying in so many words. He says:

That does not mean I believe it has been mastered in the UK or that it’s a genre no longer capable of offering high-quality entertainment.

But Mr Mullan seems to suggest the quest for the next studio sitcom hit will be a fruitless one (and the title of the piece, probably added by someone else, would suggest this genre has died anyway). And yet, the viewers at home are rather hoping that people like me - if not actually me specifically - will keep trying because audiences like studio sitcom. It's something that young comedians, some commissioners and a number of producers and critics find hard to accept. They like a highly condensed comedy format in which characters try and fail in an amusing way but things draw neatly to a conclusion after about 28 minutes. In fact, they like Everybody Loves Raymond (210 episodes) more than Arrested Development (53 Episodes) - which hardly seems fair, since Raymond is a fine family comedy show but Arrested Development is almost divinely inspired.

The reality is that millions of people like to watch funny people doing funny things in funny looking rooms whilst hearing a studio audience laughing like drains. And they get very cross when it's done badly because they care.

Mr Mullan dislikes this genre, as is his right, just as I dislike opera. We both wished this weren't so. Opera seems to be a wonderful thing if you're really into - people singing for hours with a vast live orchestra in massive costumes and ludicrous sets. Brilliant. What's not to like? But it just doesn't push my buttons. Shame. But to declare the genre died some years ago and that we didn't notice? Odd. Likewise, Father Ted is not the end. It's a high-water mark certainly, and sometimes the tide gets close and one day a wave will come along and be even higher. If I haven't written it, then I at least hope to be alive to see it and we can all laugh together. (Too schmaltzy? Maybe. What the heck. I like audience comedy.)


  1. Hi there, this is the guilty party. A friend pointed me towards your blog and I must admit to being flattered that you have felt the need to post a rebuttal. Just thought I'd defend myself on a few counts:

    - The Seinfeld as perfect studio sitcom is something I still basically stand by - although maybe the term "purest" would have been more fitting to my point. I just can't see it being improved upon because it stripped it down to its rawest elements and to take any further out would make it no longer a traditional sitcom. It can be reinvented and subverted still.

    Also you claim that my point is we should no longer bother trying making any more studio sitcoms yet the next quote of mine you use includes me stating that I don't believe "it’s a genre no longer capable of offering high-quality entertainment"

    My point in the piece is not that continuing on would be fruitless the crux of my point is that we need to remember what made great studio audience sitcoms from the UK great. In my piece I wrote that I WANTED to love Miranda and was upset when I ultimately didn't.

    I love the great studio audience sitomcs - the Blackadders, Poriddges, Steptoes - and like yourself I'd love to be able to write one like those, but I can't deny my disillusion at not enjoying a British studio sitcom since Father Ted - and like I pointed out that's not really British.

    The final line in my original draft before it was edited by those in charge of chortle was that if Blackadder 2 to 4 came out today as a new sitcom it would still be as popular as it was when it made it's real debut in the 80s.

    I don't think Father Ted is the end - but I made a statement similar to that effect in essence to spark debate like this. I'm glad that I can provoke a spirited response and I hope you enjoyed my own.

  2. Hey, Liam,
    Thanks so much for getting involved and posting a rebuttal. I think you make some good points, and I guess we're not in any major disagreement. It may be more a question of outlook than anything else. I'm optimistic that audience comedy can be done - and has been since Father Ted (One Foot in Grave, Vicar of Dibley plus a few others). I may also be overcompensating for attacks on audience sitcom, to which I will always leap to a defence. TV critics lazily use it as a punchbag - when they neglect to mention that hours and hours of worthless, pointless drama are made every day... Anyway, nice to e-meet you and I'm sure our paths will cross in person before too long.