Monday 31 May 2010

A Very Bad Week in British Comedy

This week is a very bad week for the British sitcom. It's probably not the first week of its kind. And won't be the last of its kind either, sadly. But I think I'm right in saying that on terrestrial TV there is not one single new episode of British scripted comedy. None. I'm pretty sure there's not even a repeat. There are a few panel games (sorry, but they just don't make me want to throw my hat in the air). And some original American stuff (My Name is Earl on Channel 4) but nothing British, narrative and scripted. The sad fact is that the 'death of the British sitcom' is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hopefully, I'll explain how below.

In the 70s and 80s, there were plenty of sitcoms on TV. In fact, there often two or three a night across the three or four channels. Yes, even ITV made audience comedy - some of them brilliant, like Rising Damp and The New Statesman. Plenty of these sitcoms were forgotten, but that's not to say there were not worth making. Brushstrokes is a largely forgotten sitcom and not hailed as a 'classic' but it ran for five years between 1986 and 1991, and they made 40 episodes. I remember enjoying it immensely. It wasn't ground-breaking. Just funny - but that doesn't seem to be enough at the moment. And yet ultimately, that's all the vast majority of the audience really want. It seems obvious to point it out, but the people at home don't really care whether or not their favourite show is lauded by critics or wins awards. They want good characters, good situations and good jokes. That's why they still happily watch My Family.

There are some obvious benefits to having lots of sitcoms on TV, even though most sitcoms aren't, in fact, much good. Even if they're well-written, they might be miscast. Even if they're well-cast, they might be poorly directed. I remember a highly respected colleague recalling the readthrough of Chalk, a sitcom about a deputy head teacher. He said the scripts were some of the funniest he'd ever read and it seemed like a hit, right up until the point they started making it and something went wrong. Failure rate is high - in sitcom and all other fields. Most new products launched don't last. (I've just tried Starbucks' new 'Seattle Latte'. I give it six months). Most films make a loss. There's no cast-iron guarantees in any business. As William Goldman points out, 'nobody knows anything'.

So if a TV network wants a hit, it'll have to commission ten sitcoms, because at best, five will be dire, three passable, one okay and one brilliant. And it's further complicated by the fact that one of those ones that started dire could turn into something decent, and the one that's brilliant could be deeply flawed, or the writers will insist on only doing two series, because Fawlty Towers did that or some such pompous reason.

Here is the big problem. Sitcom is very expensive. Commissioning ten of them is scary for any commissioner. But the problem is that if you only commission five, you might commission the wrong five. These days, it feels like they're only commissioning two or three and just hoping. What this does it put massive pressure on the few sitcoms that get through the system and make it onto the screen. As a result, new comedies are mercilessly reviewed and critics seem to delight in showing how much funnier they are than the show, and how basic the mistakes are making, not realising that often the people making the shows are very experienced and made creative decisions for a reason. And that sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn't. The line between 'ground-breaking' and 'fundamentally-flawed' is very fine.

The best any new show can hope for is to be quietly ignored while they work out what's going on and how to make it work. The writers of Peep Show managed to do with Old Guys, which could well turn out to be a huge hit. Outnumbered was overlooked until Series 2 when it was decided that is was a heart-warming, genre-breaking smash hit.

The other problem with having fewer sitcoms is that the mistakes generate success. The BBC has spent the last ten years making numerous documentaries about how funny it used to be and how comedy was made in the 'good old days' - a system that has been replaced for no obvious creative reason. Dodgy, mythical nostalgia aside, if one watches this rash of documentaries, one will see how often decent actors were found even in poor or unsuccessful sitcoms, how writers, producers and directors learn from the process - and how a combination of a writer who is learning along with an actor who needs to be better cast can lead to a huge, popular hit.

Recently, I heard a documentary about Silicon Valley and how it keeps reinventing itself, building successful companies on the failures of others. It's often the same people, doing something similar but they've learned the hard way and now have a hit on their hands. It's the same with comedy. For it to succeed, it needs commitment, and understanding that failure is not just inevitable but often has some upsides - and is part of the process. To the outsider, the process will seem immensely wasteful. But given that the rewards of success are very high, it really isn't all that different to any other business.

And that is why this is a Very Bad Week for British Comedy. The less decent narrative comedy - and bad narrative comedy - there is, less there will be in the future. It does not bode well for us sitcom geeks.


  1. Is it statistically true that in the current broadcasting landscape, with infinitely more channels than 20 years ago, there are less comedies being shown? If so, I'd suggest the main reason is purely economic - commercial channels need ratings successes, driving advertising revenue.

    It's noticeable that ITV have significantly reduced their comedy output, and Five have come out of it altogether. In both cases their fingers were burnt too often from poor rating comedies. Both companies have seen overall advertising revenue reduce significantly over the past few years - so will understandably shy away from commissioning (relatively) expensive new shows that don't bring in the (targetted) audiences. It would be interesting to see the stats on the number of comedies shown by BBC (who don't have to chase the advertising money) compared to the past.

    However, it's not all doom and gloom...
    - Channel 4 still have their Comedy Lab and Comedy Showcase - both of which have led to full series
    - Both Sky Dave are starting to invest in new comedies (does Going Postal count as a new comedy shown last week?)
    - A number of sitcoms over the past few years have been given a second series despite a poorly received first series.

    Moving seamlessly from Economics to History...

    History is full of stories of sitcoms that struggled in the first series.

    Just last night I watched an old Blackadder restrospective - a sitcom that is now regularly considered one of the best British sitcoms ever. Its first series had a very poor reception (both critically and ratings-ingly). BBC initially didn't want to do a second series, but were eventually persuaded to give it a try.

    That first series was clearly a huge learning experience for the team - the changes in the characters (especially Blackadder himself), the writing, the locations and the tone from series one to two is incredible.

    And here endeth tonight's lecture...
    Tune in tomorrow for a viewpoint of this issue from Geographic and Home Economic perspectives

  2. I am from America and to be perfectly honest I find most comedies from my nation as 'put down' comedies.

    To me real successful comedies (American perspective only now), and by that I mean comedies such as 'Andy of Mayberry'(1960s), 'M*A*S*H' (1970s), 'Taxi/Cheers' (1980s),'Fraiser'(1990s), 'the Simpsons' (spans the decades because of Harry Shearer's brilliance!!!), work on several levels of relationships within differing situations.

    At least to me comedies today just work on the perspective of 'situation' with no real exploration of relationships or character building. Most American comedy is basically limited to 'put downs' within a certain situation. To me this is why comedies today seem so hollow and just an echo of the past glories that once filled our hearts with laughter and our heads with insights.

    When comedy is looked as only a product to be bought and sold and no one is willing to pay for comedy writers like the late Larry Gelbart, Roy Clarke, Paul Mendelson, James L. Brooks, Jay Tarses, the great Al Golden, and others then comedy as an art form suffers.

    If the viewer is only offered reality then it really isn't comedy on offer but tragedy. The investment of comedy lifts the soul and enhances the spirit. Comedy is so needed today.

    A successful comedy although is the toughest form of writing because you must be able to relate something profound while wrapping it around a chuckle or giggle. The comedies that are the best are the ones where one moment you find yourself laughing and the next you shed a tear...Basically you laugh until you cry. Today we just seem to cry out for comedies.

    BoomerBob from Texas