Friday 5 April 2013

Why is Britain So Bad at Standup Sitcoms?

Let's talk about this article on the Guardian TV & Radio blog for a moment, shall we? Critics criticise comedians and sitcoms, so I guess it's only fair for us who write comedy and sitcoms to scrutinise what they've written. Moreover, the author of the piece, says "Now I've thought about this carefully and I'm happy to be corrected..." and I hope at least one of those is true.

But first a quotation from an excellent article in Grantland about the world's supposedly most hated bands, Nickelback and Creed. The writer of that article is trying to understand why people hate them so much . here is my favourite paragraph about Chad Kroeger, the lead singer of Nickelback:
"It's hard to get inside the existential paradox of Kroeger's life on tour: Every day, he gives interviews to journalists and radio DJs who directly ask him why no one likes his band. Every night, he plays music to thousands of enraptured superfans, many of whom love him with a ferocity that's probably unhealthy. Every concert ends with a standing ovation; if he feels motivated, he spends the remainder of the night partying with forgettable strangers who will remember him for the rest of their lives. Eventually, Kroeger falls asleep. And then he wakes up in a beautiful hotel room, only to read new articles about how everyone in North America hates his band."
So let us return to the article in the esteemed and much loved Guardian. The headline reads: "As Lee Mack returns for a sixth series of Not Going Out, Leo Benedictus asks if a British standup comedian has ever made a really good sitcom." This would seem to be a bit of a Kroeger problem. A more honest headline would be: "As Lee Mack returns for a sixth series of his BBC1 Sitcom Not Going Out, Leo Benedictus asks why Lee Mack has failed to write a successful sitcom." It's rather puzzling. Many sitcoms don't make it past the first series. Many give up after two. This is series coming is number six. That's quite a lot, isn't it?

The writer shows his hand, of course, when he writes "Lee Mack returns to BBC1 with a sixth series of Not Going Out, which – let's give it time – may yet show that the first five were just a lengthy warm-up." It seems the problem is that the writer doesn't like Not Going Out. Aaah, now that's a different thing from it being unsuccessful. I don't like Holby. It's a drama. I do not find it terribly dramatic. But my mum does. And I can see that it's a successful show. Not Going Out isn't quite Steptoe or Hancock, but it's doing okay.

The rest of the article continues to make this error, confusing personal taste with objective success. What are the British shows fronted by a stand-up comedian? Lead Balloon is cited as being 'an interesting but rather dreary simulacrum'. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds bad. But Lead Balloon was quite good, wasn't it? And some critics liked it too. Even AA Gill and he detests the very act of laughter. And there's Grandma's House - which has done okay too, hasn't it? Some liked it. Some didn't. Got some awards for some of the performances.

He also claims that Dinnerladies and Ideal were down there with Lab Rats in being unsuccessful self-penned vehicles for comedians. Hand on heart, I've never seen Dinnerladies (pronounced 'dinnerladies') but I've just looked it up on wikipedia. It says that "series 2 peaked with "Minnellium", which aired on 31 December 1999 and reached 15.33 million viewers." You know, I'd settle for those viewing figures. I also never watched Ideal. But it did SEVEN series. And, ahem, it actually isn't penned by Johnny Vegas, but by Grahan Duff. So it doesn't really count anyway, does it? That information was also easily available from Wikipedia.

And then there's Phoenix Nights, an excellent show that I loved written by Dave Spikey and Peter Kay - both stand-up comedians and the latter being one of the most successful stand-up comedians of recent times. Surely that would qualify? Nope. Peter Kay isn't really a proper stand-up comedian, apparently. Our correspondent has "always found Peter Kay to be stronger on parochial fondness than he is on jokes." So even the classification of being 'a stand-up comedian' thing is a matter of taste to then.

But this article isn't really going to get bogged down in categories. After all, in the opening paragraph, Sue Perkins, of Heading Out, is effectively cited as a stand-up comedian - when she isn't really, is she? She was part of a double act. (*sigh* fondly remembers Light Lunch) But Sue Perkins is no more a standup comedian than Miranda Hart, who's show is, I would argue, successful. (But them, I'm obviously biased.) And yet Miranda is curiously left out of the article altogether. And there was a very successful stage/comedy show that isn't quite stand-up either, but has run in theatres all over the country but a man pretending to Mrs Brown. That show's doing quite well now too and even won a BAFTA - although, as with all comedy, it is not to everyone's taste.

Moreover, the TV shows our correspondent likes, being The Royle Family and Alan Partidge, have strong central performances from Caroline Ahearne and Steve Coogan respectively who cut their teeth on the stand-up circuit. This is all very confusing.

So when the author of the piece writes "Now I've thought about this carefully and I'm happy to be corrected", I would argue that he hasn't thought about this all that carefully. And hope this correction brings the happiness that has been promised.


  1. I think it's fair to say that very few stand-up penned sitcoms have won favour with the critics, but then haven't sit-coms generally suffered with the boom of TV stand-up and panel shows? If you were a successful stand-up, why would you risk a sit-com when stand-up is finally acceptable on its own terms?

    You're right to point out Phoenix Nights as an exception. 15 Storeys High would be another one - little-watched but critically acclaimed.

  2. I don't think the writer of the article would disagree that these sitcoms were successful. But he isn't talking about ratings in the article, he's talking about the fact they aren't any good.

    And he defines 'good' with the American model of putting a stand up persona in a sitcom setting, taking

    "established standup comedians and making inventive, sharp, unusual and consistently funny fictions from their lives"

  3. Hello, Anonymous, It seems that he is arguing that these sitcoms were unsuccessful. That's the problem. He's talking about whether he liked them or not - and confused this with success in an extremely unhelpful way. The irony is that he may actually have a case - but he hasn't made it at all.

  4. I think what's happened is that he finally watched Louie, then thought about Seinfeld and then tried to shoehorn his thinking of whether as a good a British version could be made into said article.

  5. Mistaking personal preference with making a critique of something is all too common. Maybe because hyperbole sells more newspapers than reasoned thought. I am surprised that you haven't seen dinnerladies. I recommend you seek it out. Well worth the tenner. The reason it didn't get past 2 series is because it was written that way. You couldn't write a 3rd if you tried.

  6. I wish you hadn't written a response to that article. I hadn't seen it and this just brought my attention to it and made me annoyed at such a ridiculously ill-conceived and vaguely argued opinion.

    Not sure about the comparison to Nickelback or Creed though. Both of those bands may be popular, but mostly among people with only a cursory interest in music. To people who love music and immerse themselves in it, their blandness is grating when there are countless other bands who are more talented and deserving of success. But that's the way of the music industry.

    Now take the examples from the article, he doesn't list a bunch of bland shows that a lot of people happen to watch just because it's on. He lists a bunch of shows that people who actively enjoy comedy or television in general really like, even if you adjust for diversity in personal taste.

    He can't have been talking about the popularity or success of a sitcom either, as the line "undistinguished – if sometimes popular – sitcoms on their CVs" shows. I'm not even sure he knows what he was talking about at all, it smacks of a piece cobbled together just before a deadline.

  7. Sean's Show was great - and was actually based on Sean Hughes' standup material.

    Daniel Sloss had a good pilot, also based around his standup routine, but doesn't seem to have been given a series.

  8. Simon Pegg was on the stand-up circuit before Spaced. Whatever happened to him?...oh hang on...

  9. I think probably if all the actors were also stand-ups the sitcom would be even better.

  10. Jack Whitehall is a stand up who also co-wrote and starred in the excellent sitcom Bad Education

  11. People keep bringing up examples like Bad Education with Jack Whitehall (thanks, Anonymous) - and of course Getting On with Jo Brand - Highly acclaimed, award-winning comedy co-written by a stand-up comedian....

  12. Without going into whether comics are better or worse than comic actors, the phenomenon of someone saying 'how awful have these last 7 series been?' without it feeling perverse or contradictory, is v much a British thing.

    Because the BBC uses commissioning rounds, panels, boards, cat entrails and black masses to do precisely what popular opinion would do in, say, the US, we end up with an awful lot of long-running effulgent whose 'success' is a product of being recommissioned in spite of its audience. I'm thinking 2 Pints, for example. Never met a single fan, tho the BBC website claimed there were millions (and when something has that much exposure it will invariably pick up a fair few).

    I was never convinced that My Family was such a hit with the population either; I think people watched it because that's what the Corporation put in front of them at teatime... but then perhaps I'm overly cynical. But the paradox of a state corporation as powerful as the BBC is that, when whatever it deigns to show us is seen by millions of people, statistics alone suggest that some of them will like it just as some East Germans liked driving a Trabant. But just as there remains a certain gulf between what is 'good' and what is 'succesful'. there is a bigger one between what is 'popular' and what is doled out to us, regardless of whether we want it.

    1. BARB. Look it up. It's a heck of a lot more scientific than the US Nielsen system, particularly with their 'sweeps weeks', to which the networks react by cramming all their shows with guest stars in the hope of pulling viewers in for that week.

      Even allowing for homes where the set is constantly tuned to BBC One, the listed programmes were regularly ahead of the average viewing for their timeslots, and competing programmes scheduled against them on other channels. You can decry the taste of the British public, but you are not entitled to your own facts: these programmes were recommissioned because they were popular, and the talent wanted to keep doing them.

  13. I think the problem with this sort of critique is based on a massive inferiority complex with the US. A few years back there was a general agreement (ie The Guardian and Time Out) that all British sitcoms were rubbish and all US ones were great. That opinion was never true then and Leo Benedictus's opinion is also wrong. The systems producing the shows are different. The network demands are different. The system of writing shows are different. Funnily enough the types of shows one gets are different. In the end Benedictus's argument just rehashes the US great, UK crap argument.

  14. "He's talking about whether he liked them or not - and confused this with success in an extremely unhelpful way."

    To me it seems that he's quite clear and open that he's talking about quality not success. He doesn't mention that it's his subjective judgement of quality, but surely that goes without saying.

    From the article "decent" and "undistinguished - if sometimes popular", "golden age artistically" strongly suggests this reading.

  15. Jason Cook, who wrote Hebburn, has been a superb stand-up comic for years and years.

    Hebburn is also entirely brilliant.