Monday, 2 January 2006

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Who Killed The British Sitcom tried to look at the reasons why there aren't many sitcoms on nowadays. Clearly, this is pretty much because over the last ten or so years, far too many of them have failed. But why? The programme came up with a few suggestions, naming a 'suspect' for each. Such as:

Ben Elton, for (co-)creating a sitcom that was very popular with young people on BBC2. Ted Danson, for being in a sitcom that very very popular by minority channel standards, on a fledgling Channel Four. Caroline Aherne, for making a popular crossover hit that didn't have a studio audience*. John Major, for not stopping Luxembourg-based ASTRA putting out multi-channel television. And so on. Meh.

(*This is especailly bollocks, as despite the traditional studio-audience US sitcom being as popular as ever (Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, et al), most of the better recent US (network) sitcoms have ditched the audience - Malcolm In The Middle, Arrested Development, My Name Is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, despite it previously only being the domain of cable shows such as Larry Sanders. In case anyone might try and suggest this is due to stateside comedy producers wanting to replicate the likes of The Royale Family, we're saying it's more down to makers of live action sitcom noticing how well shows like The Simpsons can cram more jokes into their 22 minute running time by ditching the need to wait for the audience to finish laughing.)

Here's a list we've just thought up of actual reasons why there have been so few* popular mainstream sitcoms in the last decade.

(*One. And even that's just My Family.)

Trevor's World Of Sport. Audience not pictured.

1) Bad writing.

Key example: So What Now?. Letting clearly past-their-best writers such as Carla Lane churn out stuff like Screaming, expecting it to pick up viewing figures the sunny side of ten million on the back of one name in the credits alone, just wasn't on. The same goes for getting anyone to knock some words together for a new 'star-led' sitcom. The well-worn statement of all sitcoms needing more than one series to 'take' doesn't work if everyone can see it's a rushed, needless rehash of Some Mothers Do Have 'Em, bunged out because you've accidentally given Lee Evans a contact without bothered to work out what you want him to do. After all, anyone else remember Same World, Different Planet with any fondness? Or at all?

2) Hype.

Key example: Chalk. "Watch Chalk, everyone! It's the best things since Fawlty Towers!" crowed the BBC back in 1997. 10.05pm, Thursday 20th February 1997, and millions of people think to themselves, "Blimey, that was awful. I feel cheated. Hope the BBC haven't been so confident of it being a hit they've already commissioned a second series, because I'm not watching it again." Oops. Even 'The Office' didn't get hyped to bits until the second series was due. (Note: For all the hype, The Office didn't even make the BBC's list of top 20 sitcoms. Because it isn't THAT GOOD.) This often happens when there's a show coming up that is by the writer of another, already popular, show. "Roger, Roger! It's by John Sullivan! The pilot has Neil Morrissey in it! YOU MUST WATCH IT." Ew, mum, this sitcom's got Keith Allen in it.

3) Bad acting.

Key example: Baddiel's Syndrome. How many jokes in Open All Hours, Only Fools And Horses or even Hancock wouldn't come up to standard if they were merely writting down? "Women are from Venus, Men are from Peckham!!!!!1". Not that many, granted, but the weaker lines in each still work well, because they're played so well. Compare Leonard Rossiter stating how "I won't [have a nice day at the office]", with how appallingly the line would be delivered by Ardal O'Hanlan in Blessed. One is endearing, one is annoying. In our key example, you couldn't help but feel if the script was delivered by a cast who could act to save their sodding lives (and, say, bring in an American to play the part of the American character).

The Savages. Laughs not pictured.

4) One dimensional characters.

Key example: According To Bex. There's a man in the main character's workplace who makes anally rententive complaints in a nerdy voice. And that's it. There is a woman in the main character's workplace who makes bitchy comments about other people, and does nothing else. In especially bad examples of the sitcom, the main character is an everyman (or everywoman), while everyone else in the cast has one, singular, annoying characteristic. Main Character gets annoyed, target audience supposedly coo "I know just how Main Character feels!" in unison, and hey presto! A ten year stint on UK Gold beckons. Except: no. This sort of half-arsed characterisation is a world away from multi-layers creations like Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, George Costanze, Hank Kingsley, or latterly, Mark and Jeremy from Peep Show. (Note: This is also the real reason Trevor's World of Sport failed spectacularly, no matter how much Andy Hamilton tries to blame the BBC.) But it seems most comedy writers are too busy trying to think up a plotline based around predictive text messaging to bother with all that.

5) The main actors in successful sitcoms buggering off to be more famous elsewhere before a show can clock up a decent number of series', making it unsuitable for daily repeats on digital TV in the future.

Key examples: The High Life, Spaced. Doesn't happen often, but this does occur. Possibly due to a dearth of acting talent compared to the 1970s, or possibly due to back in the 'golden age' of comedy the likes of John Le Mesurier could go away, clock up a dozen film appearances, narrate Bod, and still be back in plenty of time to do a new series of Dad's Army, and now people have to bugger off to LA to get in the two-minute appearance in the new teen gross-out comedy film. Nowadays, Ardal O'Hanlan can go from the majestic Father Ted, to My Hero (whatever happened to that 'weak sitcoms don't get enough series to try and become popular' argument there?), to Blessed (the next step would presumably be a remake of So Haunt Me), because all the 'good' comedy actors are trying to get on film. Or, they're doing a drama for ITV.

Rhona. Second series not pictured.

Anyway, that's all we've got time for. We're now off to try and script a Seinfeld-knock off for Alan Carr, Zane Lowe and Gina Yashere. It can't fail!

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