Tuesday 12 October 2010

Panel Games and Sitcoms

It was Gore Vidal, apparently, who said ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’. One has to admire his honesty. He went even further. He also said ‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’

It’s hard to work in the comedy in Britain without feeling like things are a competition. In a sense they are. Comedy budgets are limited. I follow Chortle and all those news feeds as much as the next paranoid writer, and whenever I see a sitcom commissioned that is nothing to do with me (which is virtually all of them) part of me feels a pang of envy.

But it’s a rare feeling these days, since I often see a newsflash entitled ‘New show for [insert name of comedian here]’, click on the link and discover it’s another new panel game. My reaction in that situation is the opposite to the feeling above. I always think ‘Oh, what a shame. They should have given him a sitcom.’ The first time I experienced this feeling, it took me by surprise and I realised that my gut reaction to panel game is general disinterest.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this surprise (keeping up?). With the exception of Have I Got News For You?, I gave up watching panel games a few years ago. Even though QI regularly contains comedians I like very much, I’ll only watch it if it’s on. And nothing else gets a look in. Mock the Week, Eight out of Ten Cats, this new one with highly talented Rhod Gilbert, Genius with the lovely Dave Gorman and that one on Dave with Marcus Brigstocke, who's great – I just don’t watch these shows. Occasionally it feels like there’s no British comedy on, especially audience comedy with lots of jokes in. There is – they’re almost all panel games.

So, what’s wrong with panel games?

Nothing, really. They’re often very jolly. But to me they’re just strings of jokes. Jokes without context. Some would argue ‘Jokes? What’s not to like?’ Granted, some of my favourite comedians, like Milton Jones or Tim Vine, tell jokes without much in the way of context (that’s the impression that’s given. In fact, both Jones and Vine skillfully and subtley create the right atmosphere for their jokes – with stage presence, stage craft and other jokes).

It’s context and most of all character that makes jokes particularly funny. To take the most overplayed example, a man falling over is quite funny. Del Boy trying to look cool and yuppyish, standing next to Trigger, falling through the bar, is much funnier. Characters have stories and lives of their own. Every decent joke counts double or triple when a character says it – and even more so when they say it at a funny point in a funny story. The funniest moments of our lives are not telling to jokes to each other, but moments that we can’t describe to anyone else because ‘you had to be there’. Sitcoms, at their best, create those moments.

Panel games are like bags of chips – a guilty pleasure that satisfy a basic craving, but don’t really enrich your life like a nourishing meal.

So why are you bringing this up?
I mention this because I’ve been thinking about ‘jokey’ comedy at lot recently. I’ve been trying to write one. A few, in fact. But one in particular which is in the Black Books/Father Ted territory – a genre of sitcom which is immensely popular, partly because almost all of it seems to be written by Graham Linehan, who's toner cartridge I am not worthy to replace.

Certainly, Linehan’s work is very inspiring, but I arrived at the Father Ted party very late. I completely missed it when it arrived on our screens in 1995. I’m not sure why. It’s only in the last five years that I really caught up – and I’m still not sure I’ve seen every episode. Bizarrely, I did latch on to his much overlooked work on BBC2, Hippies with Simon Pegg (whatever happened to him?). When the series first aired, I wasn’t wild about it. But I watched some repeats a few years later and really enjoyed the show (especially the episode involving the court case).

But my original inspiration was an equally forgotten show from 1993 – Mr Don and Mr George, a show I have referred to in the past. It is full of superb jokes, clever routines and wonderful silliness. Even a few catchphrases. You can watch the whole lot on 4oD on Youtube. I thoroughly recommend it.

And yet, Mr Don and Mr George was not a success. It’s largely forgotten. (It has arguably done better than Linehan and Matthews’ first sitcom from the following year, Paris, starring Alexei Sayle and Neil Morrissey. As far as the internet is concerned, this show does not exist. I’d love to see it – and I’d love to know what Mr Linehan learned from the experience, given that it’s been hit after hit since then). But I have been thinking about why Mr Don and Mr George was not a success – and Father Ted was – so I can learn the right lesson from this.

I think the reason is this: Mr Don and Mr George had tons of wonderful jokes – like any old panel game – but we don’t quite care about the characters enough. It’s a weird relationship and the characters don’t really have any context, and so the jokes are floating in the air. Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that the characters sprung from a sketch show.

Whereas we believe in Father Ted and Father Dougal. We believed they existed and we wanted them to succeed, whereas I think we were just curious about Don and George. We also cared about Bernard Black (I still do). And we care about Moss – even though we know almost nothing about him.

The thing to learn, I think, is that it’s not just about the jokes (stupid). It’s about who says them, how and why and whether it matters.

What is frustrating is that at the moment, we have panel games on the one hand, and non-audience character comedies on the other. The former are stuffed with jokes and one-liners, the latter sparsely sprinkled with them.

It’s as if British writers are convinced that single-camera non-audience shouldn’t have jokes in them but be all character (Tina Fey would show that this isn’t the case) Roger and Val is obviously the most extreme example. Again, I stress that that many people liked Roger and Val. And lots of people say nice things about Him and Her, which is not to my taste. But I find it puzzling when one reads comments like those by Claire Webb in the Radio Times who says that Him and Her is ‘Masterfully scripted and short on laughs’ and ‘more Beckett play than the zany fare you might expect from a BBC3 sitcom’. Yes, she did say that the script was masterful. And didn't have enough laughs in it. And yes, she did use the word ‘zany’.

Him and Her and programmes like that are fine. But I like stuff in the middle – audience comedy with proper jokes in proper characterful context. But it seems like this stuff is very carefully rationed. Why? 6 Miranda’s a year and 6 IT Crowd's every 18 months is not enough for me. And QI and Mock the Week aren’t filling the gap.


  1. I used to rate Mock the Week up there with HIGNFY, but it's fallen victim to homogeny in its guest-booking like so many other panel shows. The bookers need to grow a pair and have at least one "stunt (almost sounds like cnut) guest" per show. Lets give the usual suspects a rest.

  2. I don't understand why so many sitcoms seem "joke averse" when shows like "Miranda", "Not Going Out" and "The IT Crowd" have all been so successful?

    It seems to me, as an unabashed joke writer, that jokes are seen as "old fashioned" and the com in a sitcom has to come from the characters or the sit rather than from well written and delivered lines.

  3. In a sitcom the comedy should always come from the situation Tony, hence the name. Jokes or great lines are embellishments.