“Hello, I’m Shouting at Telly, and I’m an American sitcom addict”. I know this is an unfashionable statement and really I should be binge watching box sets of Breaking Bad or Games of Thrones, but I don’t have the time. I did have the time, but I lost it when I stumbled across and old episode of Frasier and before you know it, there’s my morning gone. People (by that I mean old people) will tell you the heyday for British sitcoms was the 1970’s and 1980’s. They will reel off Porridge, Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army, conveniently forgetting On The Buses, Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language. In the mid to late 80’s Brits got bored of sitcoms and comedy dramas came into vogue. Auf Weidersen Pet was one of the first in 1983, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais who had previously written Porrige. The 30 minute sitcom gave way to the 60 minute comedy drama which could you make laugh and cry (two emotions for the price of one, bargain!). With a few exceptions mainstream British TV has never regained its appetite for sitcoms. ITV changes its opinion on sitcoms more often than the UK does on being part of the EU. ITV was until recently in, but appears to be leaving quickly again (let’s not mention The Job Lot or Vicious) and since the demise of My Family, BBC 1 waits until a sitcom proves itself on BBC 2 or BBC3 before snaffling it. (We discussed this in our review of BBC3 going online the other week and Tracey Ullman’s Show.)
The other major factor for their success was that in the 1970’s there were only 3 channels, so TV programme ratings were huge. Quantity was never a measure of quality though and given that we were all living through a 3-day working week, power cuts and recovering from injuries sustained from flares and platforms, any light relief was welcome. Also we could compare like for like with our American cousins. Today BBC 1, 2 and ITV have virtually no imported sitcoms, whereas in the 70’s we could enjoy M.A.S.H., Rhoda and Welcome Back, Kotter. (Ok that last one may have passed you by. It was on at teatime on ITV and was the first thing John Travolta appeared in. After Grease was a massive hit in 1978, ITV picked it up…just in time for it to be cancelled in 1979.)
We no longer live in a world of “broad”casting but “narrow”casting with many channels catering for specific genres and niches. You want to just watch drama, there is the drama channel; you just want to watch comedy, there is the comedy channel; you just want to watch Top Gear repeats, there is Dave. So now you have to search for your American imports. And I do. More than I really should.
American sitcoms are very different from British sitcoms. Ok they are usually 30 minutes long and find comedy in a situation; but the way they are made is very different. British sitcoms were traditionally written by partnerships (Clement and La Frenais; Cleese and Booth; Galton and Simpson) and when they ran out of ideas/got bored/were axed, they stopped writing. Americans have long been fans of team writing. A room of writers pitch ideas and a “show runner” (not to be confused with a “runner runner” who fetches teas, coffees and dry cleaning) crafts them into a script. It’s ironic that the largest capitalist country in the world has adopted a collective workers formula for creating its comedy output that Karl Marx would be a fan of; but hey, it works. What this system does generate is volume. People (still the same old people we mentioned before) go on about how only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers were created and they are all perfect. It’s their brevity that seems to make them so special. There are only 12 of them so we should cherish them more than if there were 20, 30 or 40 episodes. In America the magic number is 100 episodes (i.e 4 series of 22 episodes and then…er… 12 more) as this means that you can syndicate. This is a great Americanisation for “repeat endlessly”. 100 episodes divided by a 5 day week means that you can show one episode every day without repeating yourself for 20 weeks; or 2 eps every day for 10 weeks; or 4 eps a day for 5 weeks, or ….you get the idea.
Friends ran for 236 episodes; How I Met Your Mother 208; and The Big Bang Theory has clocked up 201 episodes to date. All very syndicatable (I don’t think that is a real word, but it really should be). On the quantity and quality argument, not all American sitcoms are great (even ITV2 gave up on Dads) but neither are British ones. We would never (I hope) export Jonny Vaughan’s ‘Orrible (Google it. It was bad) so equally we just see the crème de la crème of American sitcoms. And I like them.
Media people hunt in packs and if you watch enough of these you will notice the same names popping up, so watching the end titles first gives you an indication of whether you will like the show and where you have seen half of the cast before. So if you see a Chuck Lorre “Vanity board” (all of which you can see here) then you know it has come from the Roseanne, Mike and Molly, Two and Half Men, Big Bang stable; Dan Goor (not a real doctor) Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Doozer Productions, Scrubs and Undateable. Then there is the shadow cast over all American sitcoms by Saturday Night Live, the late night comedy show whose alumni are some of film and TV’s most popular (and profitable) performers. Will Ferrell; Amy Poehler and Tina Fey who wrote, along with a team, obviously, my personal; favourite, 30 Rock. (I might as well confess this now, no offence to the current Mrs Shouting at the Telly, but I think that Tina Fey is my ideal woman. Funny, clever and beautiful. She has however led me to having confused feelings towards Sarah Palin. That’s not to say that everything she does is perfect, as anyone who has seen Sisters will confirm.)
Some British comedians sneer at the likes of Big Bang, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and their ilk, but I think they are being unfair. Ok, so sometimes the situation part of the situation comedy goes awry in these shows (you can tell when a series is running out of steam when you find yourself thinking “that would NEVER happen”), but the comedy is relentless. American sitcoms work on an 8 gags per page formula. Some gags will work, others won’t, but with that volume and the right characters and actors, it should, and usually does work. Ok, this may be the McDonalds, fast food version of comedy but it’s what Americans do, and always have done, well. Groucho Marx was a genius of wise cracks and that comes through in the lines that Andy Samberg delivers in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So what if the action in Undateable mainly takes place in a bar, that never stopped Cheers from being great; and ok, if you know the character traits of the characters in Big Bang you can deduce the punch line from the setup, but at least the punch line is still funny, and no one seemed to complain that you could do exactly the same trick with the characters in the Fast Show. And that is why I will still unashamedly watch American sitcoms, because they make me laugh. A lot. Usually.