Falling at the first

Chris Hallam on sitcoms' opening episodes

Father Ted was oddly flat. Men Behaving Badly didn’t feature any men behaving particularly badly. Friends was just confusing.

Make no mistake. Writing the first episode of a new sitcom is not easy. Even the greatest comedy series have often started from woefully unfunny or unpromising opening episodes.

Part of the problem is that the best sitcom humour derives from a certain familiarity with the situation and characters. We all know that Captain Mainwaring is pompous, that Baldrick’s cunning plans never work and that Rodney is a ‘plonker’. But at the start of Episode One – or at least when we first saw these series – we didn’t know these things.

Viewing a few first episodes of sitcoms past is certainly informative. Even when it is good, it’s usual to see a few things that were later discarded. Early Dad’s Army episodes often feature mocked up newsreel sequences featuring the characters. The device didn’t work very well even before the move into colour made such scenes obsolete anyway.

Similarly, early episodes of Yes Minister often used unconvincing fake TV broadcasts within the show charting Jim Hacker’s rise. This soon went as did a whole extra character, Hacker’s political adviser Frank Weisel (Neil Fitzwiliam). Watching now, he now seems out of place alongside the more familiar trio of Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorrne and Derek Fowlds and even looks more obviously stuck in the Seventies than the other characters. Yet Weisel’s inclusion wasn’t an error: he neatly illustrates how Hacker increasingly falls under the spell not of him but of the civil service, now he has ascended to ministerial power.

Some shows take more than a series, not just the first episode, to get into their stride. The first series of Blackadder is generally far worse than anything that followed. Rowan Atkinson plays the first Blackadder, as more of an idiotic medieval version of Mr Bean than the cunning sarcastic schemer he would become from the second series onwards. Worse still, Baldrick is actually clever in the first series. His cunning plans actually work!

Men Behaving Badly got off to an odd start too. Not only was it in an earlier timeslot on ITV, but there was no Neil Morrissey at all. Harry Enfield played Dermot, an old Uni friend of Martin Clunes’ Gary. The tone was distinctly more highbrow than the later series (and more like Simon Nye’s original book) with Gary refusing to have a TV and appreciating classical music. The men didn’t even behave particularly badly. The mood changed with Neil Morrissey’s arrival replacing Enfield, the series ultimately embracing 90s lad culture.

Other comedies struggle to set up sometimes complex scenarios: in short, the sit undermines the com. 30 Rock writer and star Tina Fey summarises the situation in her book Bossypants: ‘You have to introduce all the characters without it feeling like a series of introductions. You have to tell a story that’s not only funny and compelling but also dramatises your main characters’ point of view and what the series [is] about”.

Oddly, the first episode of Father Ted remains surprisingly unfunny and flat (with the exception of Father Dougal’s inspired “spider baby” fantasy) despite wisely jettisoning a complex set up – Ted’s enforced exile to the island after an embezzlement scandal – to the back story. The first episode of Spaced, in contrast, works brilliantly despite a very ambitious set-up: Tim and Daisy meet randomly and decide to pretend to be a married couple to secure a flat. It’s actually one of its best episodes.

Perhaps there are no rules. The first I’m Alan Partridge is also perhaps one of the best. Partridge was not a new character but his new life as a divorcee living in a Travel Tavern was. There is actually no mention at all of who the new character of Lynn, Alan’s PA, is supposed to be during the entire episode.

The first Black Books meanwhile fails to introduce all three characters to each other and thus doesn’t really work. Peep Show works well, although uniquely sees David Mitchell’s Mark homing in (unsuccessfully) on bitchy neighbour Toni, a task usually attempted by Robert Webb’s wannabe lothario, Jez.

The first Friends actually holds up pretty well now but the first time I saw it Ross, Chandler and Joey all just seemed to be the same character. I had the same experience adapting to the male characters on the more recent US sitcom New Girl.

Other comedies, Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses and The Office f all got into their stride right away, even though, ratings-wise Only Fools…took a while to get going.

Perhaps it’s best to treat episode one as if it’s part of a long running series? There’s no easy answer. It’s tough. These were after all, all the first episodes of only the successful shows. The task of launching a new sitcom has defeated many.

Published: 18 Apr 2012

Today's comedy-on demand picks

THE SIMPSONS TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I KNOW

Australian comic Yianni Agisilaou takes a romp through the glory days of the animated comedy. Previously performed at festivals, and now streamed via Zoom, the show asks whether an obsessive knowledge of the world's longest running cartoon embiggen one's understanding or is that unpossible?

Click for more suggestions
... including the latest Mark Thomas show and the next Marcel Lucont's Cabaret Domestique.

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.