This week I have been thinking about all sorts of telly. Comedy in particular, which is a pretty all encompassing description when you think about it. What is it? In Shakespearian parlance it meant a play that ended in a marriage. It could be farce. It could be sketches. It’s very often character driven. It’s so many things. On reflection I prefer a sit com to dramas. I sat through the much lauded Doctor Foster because Hubby wanted me to watch with him but it just was so …well…miserable. Suranne Jones stropping around just didn’t do it for me (a little bit controversial there). I tried The Night Manager because, well, Hugh Laurie and just the other day, Undercover because well, Adrian Lester. But I know I won’t stay the course. Heck I couldn’t even invest in Downton Abbey. I’m saving my concentration for Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic, 9pm 25th April).
Is it because I am part of the MTV generation (when MTV still showed music videos and not just endless reruns of Teen Mom) ? Cutting our attention spans to three minutes of Dire Straits or Bananarama ? But the thing is, I do prefer a sit com to a TV drama. That 20 or 30 minutes of writing and directing where invariably, everything is OK at the end. Continuing story arcs that can last for years and characters you often really care about. Give me that any day.
I watch a lot of US sitcoms . C4 and E4 are my default channels (like BBC3 I’m probably not their demographic but, hey). Me and the US sit com go back a long way. I think it started with MASH when I was very young and allowed to stay up late because I was a nightmare getting to sleep and Dad was all, “Just come downstairs and watch BBC2”.
Then there was Rhoda. And Soap. And Taxi. The 80s saw Teen Susie pretending she was Shelley Long in Cheers. Which of course is the show that gave us in my opinion, the King of Sitcoms: Frasier.
I’ve watched so many US sitcoms over the years I can practically (and maybe I should, for fun) make a family tree of all the people in them (like Rock Family Trees with John Peel, anyone remember that? ). I know much of it inside out. The sound of the laughter tracks drives Hubby crazy. But there is a comfort value in good old syndication (only achieved I believe, and I stand to be corrected) after the show reaches 100 episodes. Rules of Engagement struggled to reach that and faced cancellation a few times (more of that show later).
Watch enough US sitcoms from the last 20 years and you’ll see the same character actors . Again it’s comforting. The guy who was Rachel’s date in Season 2 of Friends was Raymond’s dorky friend in Everybody Loves Raymond and then Marshall’s shouty boss in How I Met Your Mother. The girl who was Audrey’s useless PA in Rules of Engagement was the clerk who who couldn’t allow Lily & Marshall to marry in How I Met Your Mother and Raj’s escapee girlfriend in The Big Bang Theory.
It’s a week in which the Grim Reaper on his 2016 spree took Doris Roberts from us. For nine years she played Marie in Everybody Loves Raymond and she was fabulous; a masterclass in comic timing and delivery.
It’s got me to thinking about the difference between US and UK sitcoms. I have two recent favourite sitcoms ( I don’t really like the term). One is Citizen Khan and the other is Peter Kay’s Car Share. What Adil Ray does with his alter ego is a lovely thing in my opinion. In the world we live in with all its problems, he’s presenting an ordinary Muslim family to the world that is absolutely what any family can relate to. Even my 16 year old son leaves his Boy Cave to watch it with us. It has heart. When Mr Khan sold his beloved car to help out his family we cared.
I loved the simplicity of Car Share. That’s all of us, trudging to work day in day out and putting one foot in front of the other and having those moments with colleagues that just lift you. And of course, the music. Again: from the heart.
That’s where My Family, despite the amazing talents of Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker, failed. It was an attempt at the panel based comedy writing that made the US sit com so successful. And yes, it lasted a few years. But was it ever actually very funny? Did we ever really care about the… errr … can’t even remember the family surname. I don’t think we did.
It had no heart. You can’t always just play it for laughs; it needs more. That’s where Only Fools & Horses and John Sullivan got it right. That’s where I believe the US sit com differs. It’s more like what we consider a soap (sorry continuing drama) in 22 episode seasons (if they make it!). Don’t get me wrong; Fawlty Towers only had 12 episodes and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sometimes less is more and that which is distilled is more potent. But look at Friends or King Of Sitcoms Frasier. We invested in these characters. Over a decade. Grew up with them. Cared about them. Were sad to see them leave.
That said the new E4 sit coms are fairly disappointing. Brooklyn 99 , Jane the Virgin, The Goldbergs, I have found them all wanting. I need a new How I Met Your Mother to invest in. That time of growing up together. And finding The One.
In other news I watched the first episode of I Want My Wife Back which was quite frankly hugely depressing. Are sitcoms meant to feel that way? Ben Miller’s a great sketch comedian but I don’t ‘get’ him as a leading man.
In summary, when you have a sitcom – what I think you need is a continuing drama with a comedic twist. How many times was Frasier hoist on his own petard? And it always worked. And the characters cared about each other, so in tum we cared about them. Soap with a smile.