Monday 12 July 2010

Missing the Point of IT

Comedy is huge business - and it always surprises me there isn't more of it on television. There is so little comedy now that every new episode of a show is hyped and picked over to an extraordinary degree.

And then newspapers runs bizarrely pointless pieces like this one in the Guardian. I don't know if it appeared in the print issue (I do hope they didn't waste their ink).

The IT Crowd
has NOTHING to do with IT. It has no more to do with IT, than Black Books had to do with books. Bernard's bookshop in Black Books simply couldn't exist - and doesn't really exist. The show is using a bookshop as a backdrop for beautiful and daft character comedy. Clearly, there are one or two bad old bookshops kicking around that are on the brink of bankruptcy, but to ask whether Black Books resembles a real book shop is to miss the point of the show. (I'm not sure what the point of Black Books is. I loved it and dearly wished there could be more episodes. They'd done all the hard work of setting up a show!)

Moss and Roy hardly ever do any IT work in The IT Crowd - and certainly most of it can't be done from the office they inhabit. In this latest series, they haven't ventured up to the office floor to fix anything (it's quite fun when they do that, since they're so out of place). Moreover, nor should they really do any real work either. Computers are boring on television because ultimately, computers are boring in real life. People are interesting.

I faced this problem writing Hut 33 for Radio 4 (which is not in the same league as IT Crowd, I hasten to add). The show is about codebreaking in Bletchley Park in World War Two. Stories about codes, mathematics and war were few and far between because they are such cold subjects, especially on the radio. Hut 33 is a class-warfare comedy. Archie is the rising socialist whose time is coming. Charles is the falling imperialist whose time is passing. Everyone else is stuck in the crossfire. As a result, Hut 33 is about as true to life in the huts as Allo Allo was to life in Occupied France. Just as the IT Crowd is as true to life as Black Books and Father Ted.

It's worth thinking this through if you're trying to write a new sitcom. The 'sit' of a show should not be where the comedy comes from. The 'sit' will give you a canvas on which to paint. It'll give you a stage which you can fill with walking, talking, thinking, shouting, crying characters. Your setting needs only be real enough to convince us that the characters are real. And if it's a studio show, the audience do know the situation isn't real anyway. They are not stupid or totally gullible. Sitcoms are preposterously contrived (something TV critics cannot get their heads around). But the audience will cheerfully suspend their disbelief if you, the writer of the sitcom, are able to help us forget the set and the 'sit' and give us a greater truth. And a good laugh.


  1. A lot of people seem to miss the point like this - when Father Ted started showing, there were a slew of silly articles about whether it was anti-Catholic or showed disrespect to priests.

    But there are comedies which do try to make a point about their subject matter. I haven't seen it yet, but is Rev one of them?

  2. I wrote up my own thoughts about what the "sit" bit in a sitcom is a few months back.

    I think there's a danger of confusing situation with setting, and it's an easy trap to fall in to.