What ruined the sitcom?

Single-camera shoots and mockumentaries, argues Marc Blake

Here we go again with two new sitcoms. Friday Night Dinner is all steadicam, awkward close-ups and Slasher-style point-of-view shots to catch the embarrassment. Then there’s Twenty Twelve – roving camera, supercilious narrative voiceover and faux ‘diary’ pieces to camera. A couple of months ago, the same devices were used by vanity projects The Trip and Episodes.

We cannot deny these are superbly cast and with the careful positioning of the digital camera we catch every nuance of script, each verbal and/or visual tic and all those behavioral ‘tells’ that indicate to the viewer that a joke has happened. But are we laughing? I don’t think so.

Sitcom has its roots in theatre, in proscenium arch and fourth wall, in the staginess of the comic milking the crowd for laughs. Also in the British social realist cinema of early Ken Loach or Mike Leigh who paraded working and lower-middle-class mores to an audience who had never seen them portrayed on TV before.

The first live multi-camera studio sitcom was I Love Lucy, which ran for nearly 200 episodes from 1951 to 1957 and is still in syndication. We adopted the form for Hancock and Steptoe & Son and soon the four camera, limited sets, studio-bound sitcom became the norm.

External scenes were shot on film and, due to cost, kept to a minimum (the Northern back-to-backs of The Likely Lads were shot in Shepherds Bush). This remained standard until the advent of the digital camera in the 1990s. First popularized by reality TV, producers soon realized the benefits of being able to shoot away from the confines of the studio. The Office was one of the first sitcoms to use this to its fullest advantage, and there is no questioning the genius of Merchant and Gervais’s creation. But it has opened the floodgates. How amusing to ape those morons on reality TV, to laugh at us media types, to stand back and expect the audience to ‘get’ the comedy as it splutters from the screen.

Trouble is they aren’t funny. Not because they rely upon clichés, nor is it the fault of the excellent casting or strong writing – it’s the form itself. Single camera allows you to shoot for as long as you like and, given good lighting and sound crews, wherever you like. It’s all done in the edit, as opposed to a studio bound sitcom such as Miranda, wherein Miranda Hart has to actually write jokes and deliver them to an audience. In addition to this, in her fabulous Joyce Grenfell meets Frankie Howerd asides, she talks directly to us the audience at home as if we are part of it.

Other comics have transferred successfully from the live circuit to sitcom. Tim Vine and Lee Mack know how to play the crowd in Not Going Out and bring us into the world of the sitcom instead of leaving us peering over the fence. Admittedly for every IT Crowd and Black Books there is a Gimme, Gimme, Gimme or a Mrs. Brown where it all collapses into shameless mugging, but at least they are trying to entertain. Would the autism spectrum comedy shtick of the Russells (Brand, Kane, Howard) work in this way? Is it not just a smidge too removed and acutely self-conscious? Isn’t it the case that, as with the digitally shot mock-sitcoms, we are being invited to revel in a modern version of the Victorian freak show?

Not to say that there haven’t been great sitcoms shot in this way - the aforementioned Office, People Like Us, with wonderful bumbling Chris Langham as mediator, and Peep Show, unique in its use of head-cams to get us inside the twisted minds of Mark and Jeremy. In the US there is Curb Your Enthusiasm (not a patch on its predecessor, the studio-set Seinfeld) 30 Rock and Scrubs. These shows work because of high productions values and because the creators must take note of the audience buying the sponsors’ product and so funding the show.

As for the rest, the problem is we are too distanced from the comedy, and often it’s hard to spot if it is even there at all. There is no testbed. You write, re-write and polish a script, workshop and ‘improvise’ it with the cast and then go out and shoot until you ‘feel’ it is right: After that it’s all down to the edit.

This is a solipsistic way of making TV comedy. How can a comic actor know he is delivering what is asked of him if his only yardstick of achievement is ‘Cut – OK, lets move on’? Are these shows even shown to a live audience (the dreaded focus-group)? Are they then retooled? Reshot? Rewritten? It appears that producers assume we will find the comedy, as we gape open-mouthed at Coogan and Brydon riffing endlessly on in expensive cars and restaurants.

The live comedian’s job is to make the audience laugh. By sheer force of will he must create a physical reaction. This means jokes and timing and pacing and the experience of working a crowd. Why should sitcom be excused its obligations?

It is not ‘dumbing up’ to treat the viewer as if he is too stupid to get it. ‘You had to be there’ is a catch-all flimsy excuse. I say that Yes Minister is far superior to the smug The Thick Of It and the Royle Family is better than Friday Night Dinner because even though both are shot with single camera, the former was made entirely on a stage set. Great sitcom brings us in to the world of the Home Guard, the Peckham trader or the cantankerous old git and makes us sympathise with their plight, en masse, in a studio and then at home.

Shooting endlessly, mocking telly and expecting the audience to ‘get it’ bleeds out all the empathy we might have had for the characters. Spinal Tap remains the gold standard, but mockumentary and digitally-shot sitcom has become just as much of a cliché as Terry Scott was seen to be. Sadly, the joke is on us. This is comedy played for the associates of the production team and for those ‘in the know’ but not for us, the audience. No wonder we aren’t watching.

  • Marc Blake’s How Not To Write Sitcom is published by A&C Black next month.Click here to preorder.

Published: 17 Mar 2011

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.