Misery Loves Comedy, But Has It Killed the Traditional Sitcom?


In 2010, comic Lee Mack said the greatest threat to comedy is realism, with its gloomy edginess: “Since The Office, everyone has this idea that comedy is only good if it reflects the way people really speak. But that’s nonsense.” (“Portrait of the Artist: Lee Mack, Comedian”, by Laura Barnett, Guardian. 29 November)

The comment was perhaps a defense of his own television series, Not Going Out. It’s set in a hip, spacious London flat (with its front door permanently left wide open) which Mack’s character, Lee, shared first with his best friend’s American ex-girlfriend, Kate (Megan Dodds) and then with his best friend’s posh younger sister, Lucy (Sally Bretton), both of whom he lusts after. His best friend Tim (Tim Vine), also posh, is a child-like prude whose girlfriend Daisy (Katy Wix), initially went out with Lee after meeting him at speed dating. Serving as Lee’s agony aunt is Barbara the cleaner (Miranda Hart), who seems to be ever present despite the fact that she never really cleans and continuously does damage to the property.

In reality, Lee and Tim’s differences and potentially explosive incestuous connections (they originally met at a party where Lee slept with and possibly impregnated Tim’s girlfriend) might be slightly problematic. Lee’s financial situation could also cause some difficulties: in Series 1, he occasionally worked temporary, short-term jobs (like writing jokes for Christmas crackers); in Series 2, he drove an ice cream van, but after that, his job (or lack of) isn’t really mentioned. This financial insecurity is not consistently troubling in the world of Not Going Out: despite living in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, Lee’s poverty seems to bother him most when he can’t afford to buy fireworks to impress Lucy.

The premise of each episode could be described as unrealistic or — perhaps more fairly — absurdly unrealistic. The lads’ adventures include having to buy £8000 worth of cocaine to return to a drug dealing butcher whose coat Tim accidentally wears home from a club; taking roles in a porn movie being filmed in Lee’s home (because the original shooting location upstairs was flooded); and breaking into and burgling a neighbour’s flat in an attempt to retrieve a toothbrush with Lee’s name on it.

Over the series, Lee pretends to be gay to get Arsenal tickets, poses as an art critic to outshine Lucy’s boyfriend and then as a doctor in an attempt to x-ray a baby he thinks has swallowed a mini football and, after winning an essay contest about disability in the workplace, tries to convince a journalist that he’s blind, Tim’s wheelchair-bound, Daisy’s an amnesiac, and Lucy has Tourette’s. I can only speak for myself, of course, but rarely do these things happen in my own real life (and certainly if they did, there would be consequences).

Clearly Not Going Out lacks the realism of The Office. The characters are pretty satisfied with their lives, and the plot lines definitely do not reflect the way life really is.

However, this does not stop it from being funny. While the story arcs are sometimes patchy, the writers more than make up for it with their top notch one-liners. “More gags per minute than any other sitcom” is a claim that pops up in many of the show’s reviews. The incredible quick fire delivery is not surprising, considering both Mack’s and Vine’s standup careers (in fact, in 2004, Vine broke the Guinness World Record by telling 499 jokes in an hour), and the interplay between the two usually makes for the most enjoyable moments. For example, in one episode, there are at least ten solid jokes in a two-minute scene between Lee and Tim — particularly impressive given it’s a scene about the death of Tim’s nan.

While the two male stars earn most of the live audience’s laughs, the women also hold their own. Particularly strong is Katy Wix, who manages to portray the IQ-deficient Daisy in such a charming way. When she explains “I know your dad’s not the real Father Christmas, Lee, I’m not an idiot — that would make you Jesus,” it’s comedy gold. Miranda Hart was a welcome addition — her telling Lucy to “fuck off” when she asked Barbara to work on Christmas was also timed to perfection — and she was missed when she left after Series 3.

Hart’s own television show, Miranda, is comparable to Not Going Out in terms of its improbable stories and character dynamics. This lack of realism has led to both comedies being praised as Old-School sitcoms. Interestingly, they both embrace another Old-School tradition: class divisions. Though Hart argues that her show is “universal” and shies away from labels, her character on Miranda is decidedly middle class, a prudish ex-boarding school girl (with classmates called “Milly, Tilly, Bella, Bunty, Hooty, Pussy and Podge”) whose mother, when she finds out Miranda’s going to Henley Regatta, offers her “Mummy’s Social Lessons,” which include limiting the conversation to “the fall in house prices, the problem of finding reliable workmen and gardening” and interrupting anyone who starts to share an emotion.

On Not Going Out, much of the humour is centred on class difference: Lee’s Northern working class ignorance and Tim’s (and Lucy’s) Southern middle class sophistication, poking fun at every stereotype. Tim recalls his teenage rebellion, being caught “smoking a panatella under the lavender gazebo,” while Lee’s childhood, with an absentee father whose favourite saying was “Get me twenty Silk Cut and if they ask, say you’ve got dwarfism,” serves as perpetual evidence that it’s still grim up north. Most of the teasing is light-hearted, but there is an awkward moment when Tim tells Barbara he’d never chat her up because she’s “the help” Both shows may be willing to discard reality when it comes to developing and resolving plot, but neither is willing to ignore this very real British subject. This apparently is not a problem for viewers. Hart and her show scored a hat trick at the 2010 British Comedy Awards (Best New British TV Comedy, Best TV Comedy Actress and the People’s Choice Award for the Queen of Comedy), and she won Best TV Comedy Actress again in 2011.

Since Not Going Out first appeared in 2006, its viewing figures continually rose, peaking at 35 percent of the entire UK population watching television. It won a Royal Television Society Award and the Gold Rose D’or. Despite these achievements, the BBC cancelled Not Going Out in 2009. Fans responded by signing a petition stating: “Lee Mack is a comic writing genius and this show should be going down in history as a cult classic, and shouldn’t be axed when viewing is on a high.” According to The Stage in April 2009, a BBC spokeswoman’s response to the petition was: “We recognise that Not Going Out has a loyal fan base, and appreciate that the decision not to recommission the series for BBC1 will come as a disappointment. However, it is felt that the show has run its course on the channel and of late has not been performing as well as hoped.”

Two years later, though, the BBC changed its mind and commissioned two additional series of the show; Series 5 is expected to be broadcast in 2012. The show has clearly successfully re-broken sitcom ground.

Obviously, Lee Mack was right to say that it’s nonsense that comedy must be realistic. He should be proud that Not Going Out sets a new high standard for today’s traditional-style sitcom (thankfully replacing the rarely funny unrealism of My Family). However, he was wrong to say realism is the greatest threat to comedy. The realism of shows like The Office and The Royle Family did not keep them from being good comedies nor did they forever change what defines a successful sitcom. A true comedy connoisseur will recognise the differences between the two approaches, without diminishing the value of either.