The situation comedy remains a magnificent staple of US television schedules. As the major networks wring their hands each season, desperate to unearth the next Friends, Frasier or Will and Grace, a stand-out gem usually floats to the top as the flotsam and jetsam of mediocrity that surrounds it drifts away. And, if a Cheers or a My Name is Earl, does materialize, the TV bosses have a hub on which to build an evening’s viewing over many months, many years even, and most crucially, an ongoing revenue stream.
In the UK however, while we encounter the American hits en masse, and never too long after their Stateside runs, things are rather different. Home grown sitcoms, once key bricks in the architecture of British television, have been in virtual freefall. Original and successful creations for mainstream audiences have proved almost impossible to unearth. Of late, only BBC1’s My Family, built upon the US principle of team-writing and hatched by a former Seinfield exec named Fred Barron, has generated significant viewing figures.
As reality TV — whether of the notional docu-drama form like Wife Swap or Airport or the obviously constructed Big Brother or Shipwrecked — expands exponentially to fill the schedules of both our public broadcasters and our independent networks (ITV, Channels 4 and 5) the hit-and-miss business of commissioning sitcoms, expensive and highly risky, has slipped well down the list of priorities. But there are a few left-field productions — never likely to draw a mass viewer base, but guaranteed to attract a cultish crowd — that still rise to the surface. Some productions have established themselves as Brit-com classics, like The League of Gentlemen with its bucolic surrealism, Spaced‘s dope-tined tomfoolery, Father Ted‘s irreverent lampoon of the priesthood and Black Books’ delicious absurdity. And then, of course, there is The Office.
As far as UK exports go, The Office is a stunning one-off, stand-alone triumph. In the past, of course, British born creations such as Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part spawned US winners Sanford and Son and All in the Family. In more recent times, versions of raunchier, contemporary comedies — Men Behaving Badly and Coupling — have been tried out in American incarnations and flunked the test. But Ricky Gervais’ minimalist portrait of the mundane white collar life has become not only a Golden Globe smash in its own right, but also fathered a mirror-image US edition along the way.
This sitcom, penned by Gervais and writing partner Stephen Merchant, borrows from the voguish techniques of reality television, lampooning its faux intimacy via fly-on-the-wall filming angles. But it remains fairly traditional in format, adopting the usual structure in which a group of characters, each quirkily painted, play out their hopes and fears within a confined, physical setting (in this case a suite of rooms that serves as the branch office of a paper supplier).
But it left me wondering if this formula with its somewhat claustrophobic setting — it could be a home (Roseanne), a café (Friends), a bar (Cheers) — is the only location ingredient required to spark a lightning chain of one-liners and laughs. Sometimes, it seems, the action takes place against the backdrop of a very specific geography, which can contribute to the feel and the atmosphere of the work in question.
For American audiences brought up on Frasier (placed very firmly in Seattle) or Cheers (a Bostonian barrel of laughs) or Curb Your Enthusiasm (played out against the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles), there is a natural understanding that those cities come with a certain set of presumptions. Seattle is a growing high-tech community at the frontier of a new mythical West; Boston is old money and deep history mixed with Irish Catholic bonhomie; LA is the plastic and impersonal playpen of the entertainment industry. Even sitcoms set in New York but patently filmed in Hollywood owe something to the Big Apple’s energy and panache.
Yet many British sitcoms play similar games, if on a rather less global, indeed more parochial, basis. For The Office, Gervais picked Slough (a west of London commuter town renowned for its grey, suburban dullness) with some deliberation. To have planted this mini-masterpiece in the capital would have immediately suggested a kind of cosmopolitan cachet, and lessened the sense of desperation fostered by the series and its cast. In that sleepy corridor once famously blitzed, at least in verse, by the English poet John Betjeman, “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough / It isn’t fit for humans now”, the ennui was surely intensified.
We can mention others, too. Fawlty Towers, John Cleese’s dazzling post-Monty Python vehicle, would never have become such an instantly recognisable farce if it had not been set in Torquay, a famed West Country town on the Devon coast, a cipher for senior citizens snoozing on long promenades, a metaphor for the final, fading rays of life, perhaps. Less familiar, but highly commendable set-pieces — The Royle Family, a working class clan from the heart of Manchester, and I’m Alan Partridge, the bathos-soaked saga of the failing local radio DJ transplanted to the rustic wilds of Norfolk — functioned brilliantly, too, as much for reasons of location as characterisation or dialogue.
Quite how these geographical nuances work as we watch these comic plays, I’m not sure, but I guess that the sense of place establishes for us, more quickly, an understanding of who or what these individuals, interacting in their domestic kitchens or neighbourhood saloons, may be, what opportunities may lie ahead, what dead-ends all too speedily beckon. These fictional individuals become not merely everyman (or everywoman) but residents of a pulsating urban centre, connoting excitement or possibility, townsfolk of a Mid-West outpost or villagers at the very outer edges of metropolitan England, hinting at the notion that there may be no escape. Comedy, like life, does not happen in a vacuum, and those sitcoms which ally themselves with an identifiable place allow us to immerse ourselves more fully and more quickly in the fantasy, frissons and frolics that the best of the sitcoms, American or British, offer us.