British comedy's not dead says Chris Hallam

I’ve heard many urban legends in my time. For many years, I genuinely believed one of The Golden Girls had, at one point, been a man. When I heard that the child actor who played Paul in The Wonder Years had grown up to be Marilyn Manson, I lapped that up too. I even accepted the more obviously dubious claim that the Eighties comedy film Three Men and a Baby featured a brief appearance by a ghost which could only be witnessed if you paused the video at a certain point.

It was a disappointment to learn that all of these stories were, in fact, untrue. Yet perhaps the most recurrent and persistent myth I’ve heard is an all too familiar one: that the British comedy scene is either dead or dying.

British comedy is as prone to peaks and troughs as anything else. In the Nineties, it became fashionable to draw unflattering comparisons between the British comedy scene and that of the US. With The Simpsons, Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld all in the ascendant, it was hard not to despair when looking at the British alternatives, particularly if it was The Vicar of Dibley. How could Britons compete, when we had far fewer writers available and, in stark contrast to the seemingly endless US ‘seasons’, could rarely produce more than six or seven episodes a year?

Others, rather than looking west, chose to look backward to some mythical golden age of sitcom past. This, was at least, easier to refute. Even ignoring the fact that the most commonly cited ‘classic’ sitcoms (Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, for example) were never all on at the same time, the nostalgic also tended to overlook all the unpalatable dross which was also broadcast in the name of sitcom which would never get close to the screen today.

Yet while nobody would mourn the passing of Robin Askwith’s Bottle Boys or anything with Jim Davidson in it, it was still tempting to think that sitcom’s time had passed. How could it survive when topics such as class, race or sexism had either become less relevant or acceptable?

In fact, the last decade and a half has seen comedy writers adapting superbly with the likes of I’m Alan Partridge, Father Ted, Spaced, The Office, The Mighty Boosh, Green Wing, Gavin and Stacey, The Thick Of It, The IT Crowd and Peep Show redefining the terms of sitcom. With many of these dispensing with laughter tracks and the creators tailoring their work to younger audiences, the British sitcom has proven remarkably resilient.

Looking elsewhere, the British comedy scene is still awash with talent even as the likes of Steve Coogan and Simon Pegg show signs of making it big in the US. The panel show is booming as a format, while there are certainly no shortage of options for anyone wanting a see a decent live act. Indeed, the warm critical reception for Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, compared with the disastrous one for Horne & Corden, suggests stand-up might be eclipsing the sketch show as a format.

It’s not all good. It could be argued that with BBC Three, the TV comedy scene is being overstretched. For every Little Britain or Gavin and Stacey, there is a Tittybangbang or a 3 Non Blondes. It’s also a sad truth that the even the best TV comedies such as Peep Show and the recent Free Agents are commanding small audiences and the short series/few writers set up is as true as ever.

But the picture, in general, is a healthy one. With a wealth of talent like David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Jimmy Carr, Tamsin Greig, Simon Pegg, Michael McIntyre and Russell Howard around (to name but a few), the prognosis for the British comedy scene can only be good.

Published: 31 Mar 2009

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