In search of the great British sitcom

Or: why the US outwrites us.
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The Independent Culture
IT'S A fair bet that Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal - creators of the wonderfully original The Royale Family - will stop after just one or two more six-part series. Good sitcom writers, from John Cleese to Jennifer Saunders, give up after a few series because they know such high-quality writing is unsustainable. So how come the Americans appear to produce a never-ending flow of high-quality, high-production-value TV?

There are those who say we see only the best American shows. But leaving aside Friends, Frasier, Larry Sanders, Seinfeld, Roseanne and Cheers at their best, even medium-quality US sitcoms leave the British standing. And forget about serial drama - NYPD Blue, Thirtysomething, ER, St Elsewhere, Chicago Hope, My So-Called Life, LA Law. Our Own? This Life. No contest. The US has quality writing in depth. Why?

It's about status. There's an old Hollywood story about the starlet on the make who was so stupid that she slept with the writer. These days, any actress aiming to get on should turn herself into Heidi Fleiss for TV scribblers: writers are recognised as the founding stone of any well- constructed drama or sitcom.

American writers are often far more erudite than their increasingly dumbed- down British counterparts. (Friends, for example, is dubbed "the fraternity house", because of Ivy Leaguers writing for it.) Then there are the serious issues addressed subtly in US TV. In Roseanne alone, child abuse, gay rights, racial intolerance, unemployment and the disintegration of families were meat and potatoes to its writers, while Jesse, a new sitcom from the Friends stable (coming to Britain next year), has Christina Applegate (from Married With Children) upsetting the religious Right in her eponymous role as a single mom. What do we get? Lads on the piss; lads on the pull; birds putting on make-up.

So where are our good writers? Not writing sitcoms, that's for sure. Most good British writers (and there are plenty of them) are either in the theatre or soaps, where we outrun the Americans by a country mile.

American TV is awash with money from commercials, and can afford to commission pilot-after-pilot of sitcoms and serials, many of which are never green- lighted. Executives are ruthless; series are pulled after just a few episodes if they don't get the ratings. But if a project works, the rewards are enormous; the latest season of ER was just sold to the NBC network by Warner Bros for half a billion dollars.

That kind of money supports the "table-writing" approach. On a show such as Friends, as many as 12 writers are credited. That means that individuals or writing teams will work on particular storylines, a character or pairing of characters and, most importantly, the "arc" of the show with its overall theme, development, storylines, new characters and the season cliffhanger.

"Ah," say British producers, "if only we could afford to employ 12 writers..." But I have yet to meet the writer who puts in the 16-hour days American producers often expect from their staff. This is partly due to a different work ethic in Britain, and partly due to intellectual laziness: but yes, it's mostly money - the average fee for a sitcom episode is a few thousand pounds (as opposed to tens of thousand of dollars).

But money doesn't necessarily buy quality. As Marta Kauffman, one of Friends creators, says: "We produce a lot of crap over here, too. Ever seen Costello?" - an appallingly unfunny sitcom that lasted three weeks. Her co-producer David Crane said: "We work really, really hard. Writers are here until two, three, four o'clock in the morning, several nights a week, to make OK jokes even better."

Not everyone subscribed to the joint-effort theory. Ask J. Michael Staczynski, sole creator of sci-fi series Babylon 5 (more popular here than in the US). "Back in the golden days of TV, there would be one voice on a show. TV is at its worst when done by committee. It needs a singular vision."

But even joint efforts have their singular vision: the runner's. The runner has overall command (answerable to the executive producers) of that week's episode. He or she is a writer with experience on the show who weaves together the various writing strands and offers a throughline. In effect, the quality controller. The job is unknown on British sitcoms.

All too often our sitcoms and drama appeared to be commissioned, written and acted by people on different continents. Good American TV is always produced by teamwork and producers value quality writing and the actors' contribution. As Dedee Pfeiffer said of her role in For Your Love: "There are times this stuff is so real, so close to home, I feel I am morphing into my character on set."