Sitcoms are a highwire act

....but they're getting too safe, says Blake Anderson

The sitcom is one of the hardest things to write. If a musician writes an awful song, it’s over in three minutes. If a playwright produces a bad play, they are not forced to endure message boards being filled with comments suggesting that watching their piece of theatre is akin to having rusty nails jammed in each orifice. While listening to N-Dubz.

A good sitcom needs everything to be absolutely spot on; the situation, the characterisation and casting of the main protagonist and the supporting cast as well as a ready succession of perfectly honed one-liners, scenarios and plotlines. With so much to get right, it’s a wonder that any decent sitcoms get made at all. And when nothing goes right, we end up with Big Top.

Incidentally that will be my last judgment on a sitcom, as people will have very differing views on most modern sitcoms and my opinion on individual shows is not important to my argument.

A good sitcom character is like a tightrope walker on the thinnest of wires, wobbling all the way. Just when they think they’ve made it safely across, they come tumbling off. Our enjoyment comes from watching them fall, just when they thought they were out of harm’s way. The viewer does not have to worry about them falling too far, but the protagonist feels acute and agonising pain and humilation. And, away from the metaphor, they have fallen is a result of their own greed, lust or arrogance.

However, the first problem with a lot of modern sitcoms is that the safety net is too high up, which means that the protagonist is not given far enough to fall. The missteps come, the loss of balance arrives but the tumble is just a couple of feet. The reason is that today, we don’t like to see people get hurt. The quickness of people to take offence and our increased sensitivity to our perilous existence has led to a reticence to see people come to any kind of harm. We laugh at the acts on Britain’s Got Talent but we are unwilling to see people plunging into the depths of existential despair.

An ex-girlfriend of mine said that she couldn’t watch episodes of Alan Partridge as she found it too painful. But this pain is precisely the genesis of good comedy, the anguish of a character being trapped through their own pettiness or getting their comeuppance through being needlessly stupid. Alan Partridge is an example of a great sitcom character, a man who persistently falls and blunders because he doesn’t realise how grievously he is transgressing and how often he is ostracising himself from the people around him.

Conversely, a lot of the characters in modern sitcoms don’t really suffer at all. They endure embarrassment, awkwardness and discomfort but no real long-lasting pain. This is fine for them but doesn’t provide much in the way of entertainment. The comedy viewer is a savage viewer, but cruel only up to a point. We want to see people crash and burn. We want to see bullies stumble and we want to see the proud made look like fools. But we don’t want them to suffer to the extent that we end up having to empathise for their plight. This is the compromise that a good sitcom needs to strike.

The second problem with modern sitcoms is a product of postmodernism. A lot of the characters in modern sitcoms are acutely aware of their situation and indeed the formula that they are working through. Examples include the straight-to-camera pieces performed in Miranda, and the interior monologues and voiceovers of Peep Show and The Inbetweeners respectively. Perhaps this is a concession to the modern viewer who is au fait with the premise and the structure of a sitcom.

However, I believe that it is another phenomenon of a modern society in which everyone horrendously self-conscious. A result is that people are very keen to protect themselves from looking stupid and to insulate themselves from any kind of mockery.

To go back to the tightrope analogy, many of the people up on the high-wire are too self-conscious to provide an engaging spectacle. To watch a modern sitcom is to see a tightrope walker commenting on his or her progress, implicitly saying in their acting, ‘Oh my god, this is a tightrope. I am literally on a tightrope. So I’m probably going to fall. Yes, here I go, I’m falling, How awkward is this? I am literally falling. Into a net.’ Which results in a lack of interest as there is no implicit danger in the action.

A lot of modern sitcoms have a distinct lack of sincerity and an unwillingness to let their characters be buffoons, idiots and downright awful people. Instead we have to spend time with those that are twee, dull or simply caricatures – we don’t care if these people fall.

Not everything has to be bleak, a continual spiral into a darkness. All I’m saying is that as adults, we deserve comedy that is daring, with characters that are both simultaneously engaging yet revolting, people that we can’t help but watch and implore to slip up.

Published: 21 Apr 2011

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