While I am a fan of Alan Carr’s stand-up work, it was a relief to hear that he had shelved plans to write and star in his own sitcom. It was due to centre on a professional dog walker but he abandoned it after discovering that Getting On duo Vicki Pepperdine and Joanna Scanlan had got to the idea first with Puppy Love, their new series for BBC4.
But perhaps it was also because Carr saw the car crash that is Jason Byrne’s Father Figure, currently languishing in late-night obscurity on BBC1, and decided he didn’t want to join him on the long list of talented stand-ups – Sue Perkins, Daniel Sloss, Chris Addison, Harry Enfield and Rhona Cameron, to name but a few – who have fallen on their faces with self-penned sitcoms.
Creating quality comedy in whatever form is not easy. And while writing stand-up material and writing a sitcom are not mutually exclusive skills, sitcoms require more than gags – elements such dialogue, multi-strand storylines, exposition and narrative. Meanwhile, for some comics, subsuming their onstage persona into an ensemble piece can prove impossible.
It’s also more difficult for a solo writer; there’s a reason why sitcoms in the United States have 10 or more writers and many of the best British sitcoms have been written by duos, such as Galton and Simpson or Clement and La Frenais (John Sullivan’s Only Fools and Horses is a rare exception).
Even Seinfeld, the ne plus ultra of the “stand-up sitcom”, never relied solely on Jerry Seinfeld, either as writer or performer. The other characters were often given lead storylines and their interactions created much of the show’s funniest comedy.
Comics’ egos may be blamed for the worst failures in this area but ultimately it’s television executives who inflict these sub-standard shows on us. It’s lazy, reductive commissioning – instead of developing new talent, too often they think “X is famous and will therefore attract an audience, so let’s give them a sitcom and maybe viewers won’t notice they can’t act and, apart from the odd funny one-liner, can’t write either”.
There are exceptions. Take Man Down, written by and starring 2010 Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee Greg Davies, which starts on 18 October on Channel 4 and is, I can reveal, laugh-out-loud funny. However, it’s no coincidence that Davies’s stand-up routine relies on great storytelling rather than gags, and it really shows.