Wednesday 27 January 2016

When Is A Sitcom Not A Sitcom?

When Is A Sitcom Not A Sitcom? When it's a Movie.



At the moment, there's lots of press about the Dad's Army film, which I have not yet seen. I make no comment on that film in particular. The reviews already seem to be very mixed, but that doesn't mean a whole lot.

It is, however, worth thinking about why movies based on sitcoms tend not to work, or at least not satisfy. Clearly they can work, or at least be extremely profitable in the case of The Inbetweeners and Mrs Brown's Boys. But it's a tall order.

To help us think why, let us consider for a moment the Fiat Panda 4 x 4.

Yes. There is a variety of Fiat Panda which is designed to go off-road. See pic.

Yep. And off-road Fiat Panda.
Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that is literally insanity on wheels. The Fiat Panda is a small urban run-around car, perfect for parking in tight spaces and keeping the bills down. And if I'm driving one around Hounslow or Hampstead, I'm not thinking to myself, "I wonder how this thing would cope off road." Nor would I be wondering how to turn this dinky little thing into some kind of Landrover.

But someone did think that. And they worked for Fiat. And they created the Fiat Panda 4x4: The small urban runaround that can hack steep hills and muddy meadows.

I mention this because it reminds me of the sitcom/movie divide.

Sitcoms are not movies. Movies are not sitcoms.

And it's not entirely clear why you would want to turn a sitcom into a movie (eg. Porridge, Rising Damp, On The Buses, Inbetweeners, Bad Education, Alan Partridge with Ab Fab to come). Or a movie into a sitcom (see M*A*S*H, which was originally a book. Or The Odd Couple, which was originally a play).

Okay, I do know the real reason: money. A successful British sitcom makes you comfortably wealthy for a while, but not mega-rich. A runaway box-office smash like the Inbetweeners means that someone could probably buy a nice big house, the type with crunchy stones on the driveway. (That person may or may not be the writer of the movie, but that's a question for another time).

But here's problem: The sitcom and the movie are completely different beasts.

The sitcom is the dependable urban runaround: a recognisable world with regular characters who make the same mistakes every week and always end up back where they started, so you can do it again next week. And every week.

The movie is the weekend off-road adventure: a character leaves their familiar recognisable world to go on a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of discovery, in which they are fundamentally changed and nothing will ever be the same again.

Can you spot the differences is there?

The two do not go hand in hand. They can barely even touch each others' hands, so far apart are they. And it also explains why the standard sitcom movie is 'Our regular characters go on holiday and have an amazing adventure' like you get in The Inbetweeners or On the Buses or Bad Education, or there's a big event like a hostage situation, as in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

You get a similar dynamic with TV sitcom Christmas Specials, which try to scale up, so they normally take the characters away to another place where extraordinary things happen (only made for a quarter of the money and usually watched by more people).

This is also part of the discussion about why 'last ever episodes' are so tricky to get right. And why the last episode of Peep Show was, for me, bang on the money. And the last episode of Seinfeld, my favourite show of all time, was bafflingly misjudged. More on that another time.

I'm not saying the sitcom movie is doomed to failure. It can work. It can bring delight to an audience. (I enjoyed Alpha Papa, especially the second time) It can make money. I'm just saying that turning a sitcom into a movie is like turning a Fiat Panda into an off-road vehicle.

But you know what? It looks like Fiat pulled it off. Top Gear magazine gave this ludicrous machine eight out of ten. But even they acknowledge this success is a surprise.

For slightly more specific, practical of writing on sitcoms, rather than movies, get Writing That Sitcom for Kindle or the Kindle App. And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast.


  1. Great post, James.

    I think if you're going to do a film, then doing it 40 years later with a different cast is the way to go. It's got a far better chance of being its own thing then as opposed to a weirdly extended episode.

    Looking at the trailer, I suspect Dad's Army is trying to stick too closely to the series rather than taking the essence and making the movie version ... but I'll have to wait and see.

  2. This post is so good, it almost drowned out the haunting music that's on constant loop in my head...
    Rising Damp, the movie, theme
    Love these posts