Whatever happened to the British sitcom?

Jack Cooper says we're being outclassed by the Americans

Maybe I’m biased but I feel like I grew up through the golden age of the British sitcom. My teenage years spanned from the late Nineties into the mid-2000s. I’m Alan Partridge, The Office, The League of Gentlemen, 15 Stories High, Father Ted, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Spaced, The Royal Family.... I’m sure everyone reading this is aware of just how ripe that period was.

The classics didn’t escape my attention either; Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Only Fools And Horses... the list goes on.

Great Britain has always been pretty excellent at doing the sitcom. I repeatedly chain-watched many of these shows on DVD as I made my way through my inevitable teenage rebellion. George W Bush was in the White House and armed with heavy metal music, Michael Moore books and Bill Hick’s stand-up I uniquely and cleverly deduced that Americans were stupid. And by default of that, their comedy must be stupid too.

Much of what I saw proved this to be true. Broad, witless, predictable. Seemingly canned laughter that chortled far too hard and far too long for jokes that really didn’t deserve that level of enthusiastic response. American sitcoms were rubbish; The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld and The Simpsons being the rare exceptions to prove the rule. Americans couldn’t do sitcoms. Not like us.

How times have changed. At the wise old age of 24 I now realise that not all Americans are stupid, while the vast majority of sitcoms I consume these days are American. My current favourite British sitcoms, Peep Show and The Thick Of It, aren’t all that current, starting all the way back in 2003 and 2005 respectively.

No sitcom in Britain in the past five years has got anywhere near blowing me away, and across the board the quality seems to have dropped dramatically. Grandma’s House, Fresh Meat and Miranda are all good, but none of them are unmissable. In comparison, the other half of the special relationship have stepped up their game.

If you’re not watching shows like Parks And Recreation, Louie, Community, Eastbound and Down, Archer and Party Down (all of which have started since 2009)... you’re really missing out. And as sad as it is to say, they’re making our current roster look pretty pathetic in comparison.

But how did it all change so drastically? How did this new wave come about? Much has already been said of the impact, influence and aftermath of the British version of The Office. And while it’s undeniably true, especially stylistically, the real catalyst for the seismic shift in quality seems to be the wonderful Arrested Development which followed it.

Although cancelled (but about to make a comeback) the show eventually found a passionate audience on both sides of the Atlantic. With its brilliant performances, clever writing and layered recurring jokes that reward repeated viewing - Arrested Development raised the bar to a whole new level and quickly established itself as not only one of the greatest sitcoms of the 2000s,but arguably of all time.

Instead of being a random high on the American comedy timeline, Arrested Development inspired, challenged and liberated the rest of the US comedy scene to meet its standard. Everywhere you look in this new wave of American sitcoms you’ll find surprise, experimentation and risk-taking. They managed to be slick yet soulful, smart but not elitist, and, most importantly, hilarious.

After a so-so initial season Parks And Recreation has evolved into a cult classic, hitting a classic Simpsons-level balance of the heartfelt and hilarious and providing characters as loveable and legendary as the residents of Springfield.

Community is a playful pop-culture romp, hitting hard with the laughs per minute and has managed to destroy my enjoyment of Spaced, making it seem insipid and frail by comparison.

Louie is written, directed, produced and edited by its star and creator Louis CK. The complete lack of compromise has paid off spectacularly. HBO’s Eastbound And Down delivers the quality you’d expect from the network and is probably the first ever sitcom ‘epic’, telling a larger-than-life story with the production values and panache you’d except from a feature film.

Archer is the most exciting animated sitcom since South Park, with its relentless style and pace. You’ll find yourself almost having to split you ears as characters practically talk over each other in order to cram in as much funny as they possibly can. And finally there isn’t any award for ‘comedy editing’, but if there was It’s Always Sunny In Philladephia would clean up every time; you can’t watch the show without be acutely aware of how they’ve made the simple cut into a joke-telling artform.

For the sake of trying to keep this somewhat pithy I’ll begrudgingly skip over how equally fantastic and worthy of your time Party Down, the US version of The Office, 30 Rock and even the more traditional How I Met Your Mother are. The recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm was of the best yet and South Park – while very hit and miss – can still reduce me to tears of laughter even after 16 seasons.

Telling people about these shows inspires a passion and excitement that I simply can’t find about any British sitcom on television at the moment. It’s hard to feel the same way about Not Going Out or Twenty Twelve, and the success of Mrs Brown’s Boys suggest a frightening regression.

It also says a lot when we have to rely on an Australian lager brand to bring Partridge back to our screens and let Vic and Bob have free range to do whatever they want. We have slipped well and truly behind without even realising. We seem to be solely relying on the reserves of Armando Iannucci, Sam Bain and Jess Armstrong to provide our good sitcoms, despite the depths of talent we have.

You only have to spend half a day at the Edinburgh Fringe to become aware of the abundance of great performers and writers we have in this country right now, but where are they on our screens? Just to pluck one of many potential names out of the air, it’s absolutely baffles me that Colin Hoult, one of our strongest character actors, has been reduced to a small part in an episode of Life’s Too Short and a pilot episode for Dave.

The American shows seem to be finding and utilising new talent. In comparison, we seem far to hung up on sucking all the life out of the tried and tested. American networks are encouraging and supporting their creative people to do whatever they want, and its working. Can we really say the same of BBC or Channel 4 right now?

But what’s the answer or solution? First of all, the ‘offensiveness in comedy’ debate has started to bore the paint off my walls, but unfortunately we’re still living in the the fallout of not-so-recent comedy-based controversies. Our television makers have to start taking chances again.

But secondly, the quality of the US sitcoms I have mentioned owe part of their success to the way in which they are produced and written. Large pools of talent share writing responsibilities under the all powerful creators and producers, and performers are given free rein to improvise. Maybe an exciting future of British comedy could be achieved with a similar method?

Certainly our smaller budgets would need to be considered, but this should only force our hand to make us even more creative. Graham Lineham suggested letting other comedians write episodes of The IT Crowd, taking the strain and pressure off himself. It is such a shame this idea never came to fruition. Arguably it’s the fan boy in me, but the idea of a wide range of talent from the British comedy scene entering the world created by Lineham and putting their own stamp under his watchful eye could only be a good thing? It would certainly be more interesting than the stale predicament we find ourselves in right now.

I’m not claiming it’s the answer. All I know is that all I want on my tellyscreen is great comedy and I don’t actually care which country it comes from.

But for Britain, a nation with such a rich history of the sitcom and such deep pools of talent on the current scene, the past five years have not been as good as they should have been. It wouldn’t hurt to start paying attention to what the Americans are up to, and maybe even learn a few things from them. The teenage version of me would never have believed it, but we have fallen behind. Here’s hoping we sort it out soon.

Published: 30 Apr 2012

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