Don't blame the audience

Dave Cohen argues that the solution to bad audience sitcoms is – more audience sitcoms

No TV show provokes more intensity of passion than an audience sitcom. A disliked drama may be ‘dull’ or ‘boring’, a failing reality programme will just be ignored, and of course no one expects the reminiscences of Z-list celebrity Spangles and Spandau Ballet fans to do more than fill the space between the ads.

But an unloved sitcom, especially one filmed in front of an audience, is loathed with venom. We don’t just hate it, we are personally affronted. What did those fools think they were doing? Didn’t anyone spot those scripts were not funny? Didn’t the actors realise they were performing a pile of cak? And what were those idiots in the audience laughing at? You just robbed me of thirty minutes of my life you bastards.

The BBC hasn’t done itself any favours recently by distancing itself from the universally lambasted Big Top, and by moving the slightly less pilloried Persuasionists to a late-night slot. And no doubt some journalist, somewhere soon, will be proclaiming (again) that the audience sitcom is dead.

It’s true that recently the audience sitcom has been in decline. We’re used to TV looking ‘real’. Without the constraints of a studio and a live audience, programmes like Peep Show and Outnumbered, usually using just one or two cameras, can be filmed anywhere at a fraction of the price. Shows recorded in a studio can only have two or three locations. And if you’re bored by a non-audience sitcom, at least you’re not getting annoyed at the intrusive braying morons with a sense-of-humour by-pass cackling insanely at something you aren’t enjoying.

Another reason audience sitcoms are no longer so popular is that their staple comic premise, the British class system, has been hijacked by the panel show. When the late Harry Thompson left Radio 4’s News Quiz to create Have I Got News For You, he made a conscious decision to put class at its heart. He knew that sticking Paul Merton in a room with Angus Deayton, week in week out, would generate conflict – and one of the great joys of the early shows was watching the uneducated working class oik putting the smart-suited well-educated posh bloke in his place.

The formula worked so well that Thompson brought it to his next panel game, They Think It’s All Over, the sport show remembered fondly for the brilliant banter between cockney geezer Lee Hurst and Little Lord Fauntleroy lookalike David Gower. More recently QI has attempted something similar, placing Essex lad Alan Davies next to Stephen Fry, the people’s polymath. It could be difficult to create a class-based show nowadays like Dad’s Army, or Steptoe, or (Whatever Happened To) The Likely Lads, without feeling it was lagging behind the panel shows.

The biggest problem with audience sitcom is that there aren’t enough of them being made. Audience sitcoms are like Hollywood movies – very expensive to make, and extremely difficult to pull off. It’s accepted that nine out of ten films produced will tank, flop or go straight to DVD.

One of the main reasons audience sitcoms are so hard to make is because even when everything goes according to plan, there’s no guarantee that the finished product will impress the viewers. ITV tried (again), and have given up (again) after one or two failures. Sky may try again soon, but last time they also gave up after two shows failed to break out. That leaves the BBC – broke, unloved, and battered by every Big Top flop.

One correspondent here thought Persuasionists and Big Top failed because ‘the scripts weren’t good enough.’ This, of course, is a subjective comment, easy to make with hindsight. But a brilliant script on its own will not necessarily guarantee a hit show – and we all know stand-ups whose sheer strength of performance can more than make up for weaker material.

Also brilliant scripts can be pulped into blandness by committee. Who knows how good Steptoe would have been if Galton & Simpson, instead of being left alone to write their comedy gold, had been subjected to the rigorous note-giving from actors, lawyers, accountants, taste guidelines officers, lighting designers and sandwich sellers that today’s writers have to face?

Another correspondent on these pages cited two shows he’d attended as warm-up man, that weren’t as funny on TV as he’d remembered them on the night. This was not, as he surmised, the result of faulty editing, but because, as with stand-up, it’s very unusual for the magic created in the room on the night to translate to the small screen.

You only have to look at some of the biggest live stars in the comedy world to see this. Performers who can bring live audiences in their tens of thousands to their knees with laughter, don’t have the same effect on TV.

This is probably where most audience sitcoms fail. I’ve written for a number of audience sitcoms, one I worked on a few years ago never failed to storm on the night, the cast nailing every gag. I’d sit down to watch the finished episode full of expectation – only to be disappointed by its failure to live up to the superior live experience.

(By the way, there’s an often repeated myth, mainly from TV critics, that laughter is ‘added’ to a sitcom to make it seem funnier. The truth is that laughter is more often subtracted. A massive, long laugh, something you’ll have seen many times at live gigs, can’t be kept in a finished show. It may have been the funniest moment of the night in the room, but on screen that’s just dead time, and it has to be hacked away.)

So why should the TV companies make more rather than less? Because it takes only one hit to massively boost the station that makes it. In the 1990s the entire American TV schedule was built around four big hits, three of which were audience based – Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Friends and Frasier.

I’m starting to see two big changes that could potentially bring in a new golden era of sitcom. Having said stand-up rarely works on TV, because the magic of the gig on the night rarely translates, one man is changing that. Michael McIntyre is not only capable of tearing up the room on the night, he’s learned how to communicate that energy into the pointing TV cameras. Oh yes he has, whatever you think of him and his act. So move on, McIntyre bashers, and live with it. With Lee Mack’s sitcom back next autumn, we should finally see that transformation of stand-ups into audience sitcom stars that’s been promised for two decades.

Meanwhile, there’s a small revolution stirring on the London circuit. Over the last couple of years, a number of live sitcom shows have emerged and their popularity is increasing. Not without reason, Sitcom Trials, Sitcommission and the less competitive but equally empowering Sitcom Saturday are attracting a new generation of writers and performers who can learn their craft away from the spotlight, much as stand-ups have been doing at clubs since the early 80s. Instead of failing on high profile TV shows, many of those writers can flop and learn on the cheap – and I reckon within five years at least one of them will devise a hit.

Only question is, will there still be a BBC to make it?...

Published: 12 Feb 2010

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