The tragedy of great sitcoms

by John Fleming

One night last year, I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy – four programmes – without a single smile. I think the main problem, especially with sitcoms, is that the writers think the object is to write funny lines for funny characters in inherently comic situations.

But the classic British sitcoms are almost all, at heart, tragedies. They are centred on unfunny characters in tragic situations.

From Hancock’s Half Hour through to One Foot in the Grave, the central sitcom characters are not funny people. And the situations are not funny.

The Tony Hancock character is a pompous, insecure, humourless and self-obsessed prat you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with. But the series are very funny.

The situation in Steptoe And Son is that both flawed characters are trapped by their suffocating relationship. The (again slightly pompous) son wants to escape to a wider, more exciting world but is trapped by a sad old father terrified of losing his son and being alone.

Till Death Us Do Part featured another suffocating relationship where a racial bigot, bitter at life in a modern world he hates and his long-suffering wife are trapped by poverty with their daughter and loud-mouthed, know-it-all son-in-law in a claustrophobic circle of constant arguments and ego-battles. It’s a near definitive situation of personal hell.

Fawlty Towers is set in a ghastly situation with terrible people you would hate, in reality, to be trapped with in a submarine.

In One Foot in the Grave, a bitter, grumpy old man and his wife are trapped in a childless and almost entirely loveless relationship but have been together so long they have no alternatives left. In one masterful episode, they are in bed in the dark throughout; the camera never leaves the room; it transpires at the end that they once had a child who died – hardly the stuff of cliché knockabout comedy.

Only Fools and Horses is slightly funnier in its situation and in the way it plays, but still features a rather sad and insecure loser at its heart in what, in reality, would be an unfunny situation.

Even The Office (much over-rated) has an unsympathetic and again very insecure central character you would hate to work for or with.

The American, partly Jewish vaudeville-based tradition of TV sitcoms is to have a high laugh-per-speech count written by large teams of gag writers.

The classic British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time are written by single writers or a pair of writers and, ignoring David Croft’s ensemble shows (almost a genre in their own right - 'Allo 'Allo, Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi!, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum et al), they tend to have what would in reality be unsympathetic central characters in tragic situations.

Ironically, the most consistently funny situation comedy currently screening on British television is neither a sitcom nor British. At the time of writing, episodes from three different series of the American show are being screened on three different British channels every week – by ITV1 before lunchtime on Saturdays, by ITV3 on Thursday evenings and it is stripped at breakfast time on Quest.

Monk is, in theory, a US detective/police procedural series about a sad and lonely former detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, without friends, unable to function in the everyday world and unable to get over the murder of his wife several years ago. Almost every episode has tear-jerking pathos and almost every episode is more genuinely funny than any number of current British sitcoms where the writers are wrongly attempting to put funny lines In The Mouth of inherently funny characters dropped into funny situations.

Although it is clearly NOT a comedy series – it is clearly a detective/mystery/police procedural series – over the years it ran (2002-2009) it won three Emmys and had 13 other nominations in the Comedy Series category.

If you want to know how to write a sitcom, watch Monk. 

Published: 25 Jan 2011

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