Sunday 4 September 2011

Sitcomminess - Second Hand Reality

Two wonderful things have happened. The first is that I am on holiday. And the second is that I have wi-fi where I'm staying. Holidays tend to exclude internet usage, which is annoying, but not this time. This is an expected bonus. Hence, this blog post on something that occurred to me the other day, that bothers me about sitcoms. It's 'sitcomminess'.

Sitcomminess is the thing that people who hate sitcoms hate most about sitcoms. It's that they're so darm, well, sitcommy. It's chance encounters, and wacky neighbours, and dinner parties that go wrong and have hilarious consequences. It's fake, false and phoney.

My argument against this is that the audience are smart, and realise it's a sitcom, and recognise that the show is a contrivance. Audience laughter is does not happen in everyday life, and real life sets are more realistic. The audience know it's not real. And they're fine with it. Critics usually seem not fine with it, or have to apologise for finding a sitcom with a laugh track funny (as most did with Miranda). But overall, the audience realises that a sitcom is not real. The only question is whether or not they buy into it, believe the characters, and want the hero to succeed.

The Realm of the Unreal
But sometimes, even for the most ardent sitcom fan, things can teeter over into the realm of the unreal. I was made aware of this phenomenon a few weeks ago. It reared its head the other day when I was watching a sitcom that is aimed at kids, and I couldn't work out why I didn't like it. Apart from not being a child, obviously. And I worked it out, I think. The show felt phoney: it was aping American culture and reference points in a way that didn't feel natural or honest. Overall, the show felt like it was written by someone who's main experience of life was American television. And therefore, I found myself watching a comedy based on other comedies - rather than reality. As a result, we're watching second-hand reality.

Second-hand reality can still be funny. You can get away with it sometimes. But you're jumping from joke to joke, and there's no reality/empathy to tide your through the bits where the jokes aren't sizzling which, in a 28 minute BBC episode, they won't and can't the whole time. Besides, you need light and shade. Yes, lots of jokes, funny scenes and set-pieces. But also quieter bits, reflection and moments of empathy and emotion which ideally resolve with a joke. Watch Only Fools and Horses. That's a masterclass in how much emotion and comedy you need. Apart from anything else, we won't buy a character if we don't emotionally care about him. So this really is vital.

How does this happen?
This is easily done. It crops up in scenes when you realise you are leaning too heavily on a trope that has no basis in real life. You can attach your character to a lie detector if you want, but don't spend long doing it, as the audience will stop believing it after a while. They've never seen one of those lie detectors before - because they don't really exist. Just on TV. Police line-ups are fine. They happen. But not lie detectors. You get the idea.

It comes about partly through lack of research, understanding or interest in the subject matter. The writing is cynical, as a result, and feels like it's been done by numbers. The only way to avoid this is to do the research, talk to people and listen to stories and experiences. I've been have had my eyes open very wide by some research I've been doing for a sitcom. What you find when you talk to people and read books is a treasure trove of stories that you just couldn't make up, that feel extreme but authentic and grounded in reality. This keeps sitcomminess at bay.

And so three rules of thumb, then:
1. Make sure your show is about something. It needs to be be based on a truth and have a central core to it. More on that here.

2. If you're starting out, I'd suggest avoiding film studies, media and writing courses. I've just met a 16-year-old girl who is about to do A-Levels in English, Film Studies and Sound Engineering (or something). Doing English is fine, but overall she'd be much better off doing two other A-Levels that are about something. And going off and doing stuff. And then making movies. Otherwise, her experience of everything will be through film. And the films she makes may well be derivative of other films. (She may of course go on to win an Oscar aged 23. But I doubt it.)

3. Be brutal on what you've written. If it feels tired and trope-like, delete it, change it, cut it, hide it and rewrite it. If it feels like it's been done before, it probably has. How could it be done differently? How could you create something new and fresh? Change the location, the setting, the motive... anything. Just avoid sitcommy, second hand reality.


  1. I'd like to see examples of what's "sitcommy". Do you mean exaggerated and cartoony worlds like The Young Ones, Blackadder, Father Ted, Family Guy?

  2. Sitcomminess not about being 'over the top' or unreal or cartoony. That can work really well, obviously - like Father Ted, or New Statesman or the Young Ones. Those shows had a freshness because they captured something and are 'about something'. Sitcomminess is about cliched stories and scenarios that are not grounded in reality.

  3. You make an incredibly valid point, but it seems ludicrous coming from someone who worked on Miranda. It may not be Americanised but it does steal liberally from a variety of UK sitcoms (plus her entire family set up is taken wholesale from Bridget Jones). And for pure "sitcomminess" one really can't ask for a more perfect example than Miranda. It also feels petty trashing a kids show to make your point when, as you say, you're not it's preferred demographic. What's the adult equivalent would you say?

  4. Surely each sitcom creates it's own reality? Things happen in Father Ted that wouldn't happen in "reality" but as long as they fit into "Father-Ted-Land" it's OK. Same with Only Fools. Things only seem wrong or "don't work" if they don't fit the world you've created. I would suggest that the key is not to make sure that everything you write is "grounded in reality" but simply to choose your own reality and make sure you stick to it.

  5. Hello, Anonymous. So I take it you're not a Miranda fan. It is a larger-than-life show that could look sitcommy if you don't relate to it, which you obviously don't. Sorry about that. It takes all sorts. Plenty of people don't like the show - and feel that Miranda is very truthful, albeit cartoony, portrayal of their life, or someone close to them. There is a core truth there that the audience buys into.

    I'm sorry if I sound petty trashing a kids show. Watching it just triggered this thought. I didn't name the show because I didn't feel it merited being singled out and wasn't attacking that show in particular.

    An adult show I stumbled across recently that felt sitcommy was Kelsey Grammer's Back To You, which seemed like it was scenario on which to hang some sassy dialogue that didn't quite fire. It wasn't over-the-top, but felt sitcommy, as if put together by some people who wanted to write a show, rather than born out of real human experience. It wasn't a surprise to see that it didn't get a second season.

    I think Dave Baird's right - sitcoms create their own worlds. At least they do when they work. When they don't, it feels contrived.

  6. I'm actually a fan of Miranda, which is why your post confused me. There's a ridiculous "sitcomminess" to the world which is v entertaining. It's why so many people tune in (to tune out, so to speak). There's not much truth in it however as it's so broadly drawn.

    Relatable comedy to me is stuff like Royle Family, Gavin & Stacey, The Office. But they're all single cam, which invariably makes them much closer to comedy drama than sitcom anyway.

    Other than a few remarkable stand outs (Friends, OFAH) I'm not sure there's been a relatable studio based sitcom for years.

  7. I agree with the majority of your last post, but would disagree with your comment on film studies and writing courses. Personally I think it is worthwhile studying a medium so that a writer knows how it is created, but also how to structure narrative and how things simply work, that way you can be aware of them when writing or you can choose to ignore them. Do you not agree that there are elements of writing that need to be taught to beginners?

  8. Ditto to the above! As someone who has mostly studied media I appreciate how easy it is to fall into the traps of TV/film tropes but as James W says, awareness is key. If you're a genuinely good writer you can hopefully use your skills to figure out how to avoid this -or, if you're a Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright type you could even use the tropes to your advantage and create something fresh and postmodern. Spaced was informed almost exclusively by iconic film references but this made it all the more endearing in a way.

    There is also nothing to say that media/film students can't draw from life experience elsewhere (part time jobs, family life, first aid course, community service etc). Unless they're total swots, I don't know.

  9. I'm glad that someone out on the internet is defending multi-cam. The hyper-focused bashing from people is getting really sad. It's even sadder when they cannot figure out when the laughter is "canned" or genuine, they're really just finding a reason to hate a show in that format without actually watching it.

    The worst is when the "laugh track" label gets applied to a sitcom like Night Court. Night Court was pure theatricality and had sort of an Off-Broadway atmosphere. The actors were hardcore with their craft and the audience was real. The set wasn't the usual sitcom set, it seemed more like an actual play stage. Too bad there were never enough sitcoms that followed NC's theatrical format or people wouldn't be bashing multi-cam as heavily as they do. I suspect that people who hate "sitcommy" shows also hate theater.