Who said the sitcom was dead?

Chris Hallam on a resilient beast

In the 1990s, one thing seemed clear: the British sitcom was dead. Numerous explanations were given for this. To many, it seemed that society had changed to such an extent that jokes about class, race and sexuality which had formed the backbone of sitcom humour past were now no longer acceptable.

In retrospect, it’s hard to see what the fuss was about. Thanks to One Foot In The Grave, Absolutely Fabulous, Father Ted, Men Behaving Badly, The Royle Family, I’m Alan Partridge and Spaced, the 1990s produced just as many classic sitcoms as any other decade. The charitable might want to add Bottom, Keeping Up Appearances, The Vicar of Dibley, The Detectives and Red Dwarf to this list.

But, as became clearer over the next decade, something had changed. Although it seems quite conventional now, Father Ted was groundbreaking at the time prompting the Beeb to launch several disastrous ‘zany’ imitators such as The Kennedys and Sunnyside Farm in response.

But it was I’m Alan Partridge, The Royle Family and Spaced which more accurately reflected the shape of things to come. All, except Partridge, sought to escape the restraints of the sitcom formula by dispensing with a laughter track. Both Partridge and The Royles were also filmed in a sort of faux documentary style later used in The Office, although unlike The Office, where characters occasionally spoke directly to camera neither pretended to actually be a documentary.  By the time the second series of I’m Alan Partridge came along in 2002, many viewers actually complained about the show’s laughter track apparently forgetting that the first series in 1997 had had one too.

Spaced, set an unhappy precedent, however. Great as it was, Spaced was never a huge ratings success and a remarkable number of people have neither seen nor heard of it today. Likewise, many of the last decade’s greatest sitcoms remain critically acclaimed but little-seen treats, often working more as a vehicle to success for their stars rather than a success themselves. You may well regard Free Agents, Pulling and 15 Storeys High as your favourite sitcoms of the decade and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. But if you can find three people in a room who have seen them all you’re doing well.

Even Peep Show which is about to start its seventh series, has never attracted big audiences. The BBC sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look, although generally inferior to Peep Show, would probably have never been made without it. But it’s this along with TV adverts and panel show appearances arising from Peep Show which have made Mitchell and Webb household names, not Peep Show itself.

There have been clear-cut successes though. The League of Gentlemen and its successor Psychoville attracted fanatical cult followings as did the more cheery The Mighty Boosh. Green Wing and Black Books both enjoyed brief success. Gavin And Stacey spectacularly broke out of the BBC3 ghetto into mainstream success although like Extras, Nighty Night and The Smoking Room before it, the quality somewhat diminished after the first series.

In 2010, the picture remains no less confusing.  Conventional sitcom My Family has continued throughout the last decade while Last Of The Summer Wine only staggered to a halt this year. Having achieved the rare feat of big screen success, The Thick of It continues its critically acclaimed run as a profane 21st Century version of Yes, Minister. Peep Show and The It Crowd both continue to prosper. Rev. and Whites both show promise from amongst this year’s new sitcom crop while Miranda Hart’s sitcom manages to be ultra-conventional and yet somehow still very charming and funny. Outnumbered, meanwhile, remains probably the most popular ongoing sitcom going.

Ultimately, the line between what is conventional and what is alternative has been blurred forever. Is Miranda more conventional than Outnumbered and is that more conventional than The It Crowd? Who can say? And, in some ways, who cares? They are all funny.

All that can be said with any certainty is that while we may not exactly be living through a golden age of sitcom, the situation comedy is clearly a far more resilient beast than was once supposed.

Published: 18 Nov 2010

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