When giving the inaugural Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture, the writer and performer Ben Elton said that the live action Sit-Com could be dead.
Some saw this as sour grapes as Elton’s last two traditional sit-coms ‘Blessed’ and ‘The Wright Way’ were both panned and never made it past the first season, and although he has bounced back somewhat with the historical farce ‘Upstart Crow’ his reputation took a real battering, especially in the wake of the mauling ‘The Wright Way’ received.
Elton did defend ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ which gets a critical panning but pulls in huge viewing figures. Although it is hardly a typical sit-com, along with the more middle class ‘miranda’ it’s a stand up doing their act with some characters and plot around them.
The question is what is a sit-com really?
Situation comedy is a comedy set in a situation, normally the situation is somewhat odd and a lot of the comedy is derived from that. Mostly people, and Elton included, think of ‘Dad’s Army’ as a classic sit-com. In that the situation is WW2. They are in the home guard because the country is at war. ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ and ‘allo `allo’ also use the war as their backdrop.
However most sit-coms have a smaller situation. ‘The Good Life’ has one couple becoming self sufficient in suburbia, while their middle class neighbours look on as crops replace the lawn and goats, pigs and chickens are delivered. ‘Porridge’ follows the life of men in prison while ‘The Brittas Empire’ followed an overbearing man running a leisure centre.
Of course after ‘Seinfeld’ the move was to make shows about nothing. Not have the situation just get the comedy from everyday life. Which is half right, except that British comedies dumped the situation decades before Jerry and Larry did.
There is no overarching situation for ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ basically it’s three retirees filling time in a Yorkshire village. The Ronnie Barker vehicle ‘Open All Hours’ is set in a corner shop. In effect that is it’s situation but it is more a location, and then there is the most popular British sit-com of all time ‘Only Fools and Horses’.
Only there isn’t really a situation in ‘Only Fools…’ it’s about two brothers trying get by in South London. An exaggerated but recognisable South London, but really there isn’t an over arching situation.
Sit-Coms have also grown up, many these days have as much drama as comedy. A trend started in the 90s and that continues today. ‘Only Fools…’ is a good example of this change as it evolved into more of a drama rooted comedy during it’s long run. Ironically this shift in tone started with the episode ‘Yuppie Love’ in 1989 which also contains the most slapstick moment of the entire series when lead character Del Boy falls through an open bar hatch.
Elton also stated that the early 80s anarchic comedy ‘The Young Ones’ wouldn’t get made today. Of course it wouldn’t, groundbreaking as it was in 1982 it hasn’t aged well and seemed dated by the early 90s. It was aimed at a youth that no longer exists. Today young writers and performers eschew the violence and swearing for character driven comedy. It’s not that ‘The Young Ones’ would be made today, it’s that today people are making something unrecognisably different.
There is also this notion that there was a golden age of sit-coms, there wasn’t as with all golden ages it never existed. The 70s may have given us ‘The Good Life’ but it also gave us ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and while the 80s gave us ‘Only Fools and Horses’ it also gave us ‘The Mistress’.
Recently tv channel GOLD have been celebrating the work of Sir David Jason, star of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ and co star of ‘Open All Hours’. They have been showing some of his earlier shows. ‘A Sharp Intake of Breath’ and ‘Lucky Feller’ are more typical of the chaff of the late 70s sit-com so called golden age.
‘Lucky Feller’ follows the youngest son of a single parent family. Always called Shorty, his girlfriend is madly in love with his taller, older, better looking, brother. It generally puts it’s characters in silly situations and ended after one series.
‘A Sharp Intake of Breath’ is more traditional at first glance. It follows a married couple struggling to get by. It also has a cast of actors who have all gone on to bigger and better things. Alongside Sir David is Jacquline Clark who arguably at the time was the better known of the two main stars, while in supporting roles are Richard Wilson, who would go on to star as Victor Meldrew in ‘One foot in the Grave’ and Alun Armstrong now better known for his drama work, most recently ‘New Tricks’
The thing is with ‘A Sharp Intake of Breath’ that while Jason and Clark’s characters were omnipresent, Wilson and Armstrong played different characters each episode depending on what the plot demanded. It was confusing and somewhat odd. There was no real structure to the series at all. It was more like half hour long sketches with no real pay off. That it lasted two series, and that Wilson was able to find a different hairpiece for each show, is a miracle.
The sit-com isn’t dying, it’s just changing. Ten years ago no one would have said that South American style telenovelas like ‘Doctor Foster’ would be dominating British TV. For the sit-com to compete it must evolve.