The return of the sitcom

Thanks to the awkward realism of The Office, the traditional sitcom has spent the last decade firmly out of fashion. But as the success of Miranda proves, a show filmed in front of a live audience can still have the last laugh. By Tim Walker

When the second series of the much-lauded, much-derided Miranda came to our screens last year, it came as part of BBC2's clutch of "precision-engineered" new comedies. There was Rev, Tom Hollander's wonderful comic turn as an inner-city vicar; Grandma's House, in which Simon Amstell played "himself" putting up with his neurotic family; The Trip, in which Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan played "themselves" putting up with each other; Vexed, a dramedy about cops; and Whites, a comedy about chefs.

They were all, as has been noted elsewhere and at length, middle-class sitcoms. But Miranda was unique among them: when its creator and star, Miranda Hart, claimed the British Comedy Award for Best New British TV Comedy last month, hers became the first studio audience sitcom to win said award since the last century. Once, so-called "multi-camera" sitcoms, filmed before an audience on a familiar set, were the only type of British sitcoms. Nowadays on BBC2 – formerly the home of Fawlty Towers, Open All Hours and Yes Minister – only Miranda flies the channel's flag for studio audience sitcoms.

The most talked-about comedy of 2009 was the semi-improvised Outnumbered. Before that, it was Gavin & Stacey, Peep Show, The Thick of It – all "single-camera" sitcoms, made on location without so much as a laughter track, let alone an audience. You have to go back to 1999 to find another multi-camera sitcom, Victoria Wood's dinnerladies, winning the Best New Comedy award. Since then, traditional sitcoms have largely been scorned and used as punchlines by unkind critics: According to Bex, anyone? They are cheaper than single-camera shows, and they look it.

The unfashionable elephant in the room is the bafflingly successful My Family – unloved by reviewers, but enjoyed by enough viewers to sustain it for 10 series. Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps trundles on, too, regardless of reviewers' ridicule. Otherwise, the multi-camera sitcom has lain almost dormant for a decade. In 2002, the Best New Comedy award was won by The Kumars at No 42, which featured a studio audience, but only as part of its non-traditional, talk-show concept. Its forerunner was Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, who eventually forwent his live audience. Coogan's latest run with the character is a hit internet series, apparently filmed on a webcam.

The traditional sitcoms of the Sixties and Seventies that inspired Hart were tightly scripted and conventionally shot, featuring the same characters in the same rooms each week. Miranda is full of catchphrases, slapstick and "hard" jokes in search of an immediate laugh. Its titular heroine runs a joke shop, and the comedy is the comedy of hand buzzers and whoopee cushions. Part of its alleged brilliance is surely its knowing awfulness. People hate it because it's kitsch, and people love it because... it's kitsch.

"I wanted to do a sitcom that combined light entertainment," Hart has explained. "I want to do looks to camera. I want a studio audience. And I want each episode to end with a musical number." The musical numbers didn't make it, but what did is an outmoded closing-credits sequence, in which the actors wave cheerily to the audience.

The very first sitcoms were, in fact, single-camera shows with a laughter track, which guaranteed their writers and performers laughs, even if the jokes were rubbish. Introducing an audience was the innovation of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, whose I Love Lucy was first broadcast in 1951, using three cameras and a live studio crowd. The idea was a hangover from the age of radio, when the live audience was asked to contribute to the world of the show with its laughter.

The British made the genre their own during the 1960s and 1970s, epitomised by David Croft, whose creations included Dad's Army, Are You Being Served? and Hi-de-Hi! A 2004 poll by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to find "Britain's Best Sitcom" produced a list almost entirely populated by such old-fashioned fare. At the top was Only Fools and Horses, and you have to read as far as number 19 before coming across The Royle Family, the first show on the list without a studio audience.

Mark Freeland is the head of comedy production at the BBC. "During the 1980s and 1990s," he says, "you had a stream of very good sitcoms: Ab Fab, Men Behaving Badly, Red Dwarf. The turning point was I'm Alan Partridge, when they came up with the hybrid format of filming with an audience, but putting four walls up. They shot single-camera in a cube, but with the audience watching on monitors. It teetered between the two formats, and it put a question mark under traditional sitcom.

"Then in 2001, The Office came along, and that defined comedy for five years. The sound of the photocopier replaced the sound of the laughter track. It had a huge effect on comedy practitioners. New comedies became single-camera-obsessed. It looked as if that was what the audience wanted, and it's difficult in any genre not to chase the last success."

Lee Mack, writer and star of BBC1's Not Going Out, recently complained that the greatest threat to comedy was realism. "Since The Office," he said, "everyone has this idea that comedy is only good if it reflects the way people really speak. But that's nonsense – and it's a problem that's unique to comedy. If you went to a Picasso exhibition and said, 'I love this painting of a horse,' and someone chirped up, 'It doesn't look anything like a horse – it's not real,' they'd be seen as a real heathen."

Forget about class for a moment. Does the BBC have a pro-realism prejudice? Not Going Out, a multi-camera comedy, is now on its fourth series, but Mack has a right to feel persecuted. Despite its healthy ratings, his show was slated for cancellation in 2009, and saved only when fans submitted a petition on its behalf. The Office set a benchmark for realism in comedy, and in his next sitcom, Extras, Ricky Gervais explicitly mocked the old-style studio comedy with "When the Whistle Blows", a parodic show-within-a-show. Many argue that the multi-camera format is defunct – beloved, like Italian opera, by a few connoisseurs, but essentially a heritage activity.

The tyranny of realism enraged Graham Linehan, one of the men behind Father Ted, whose most recent show, The IT Crowd, broke the rule that critics despise studio audience sitcoms. In 2006, when The IT Crowd was first broadcast, he told an interviewer: "I find all the post-Office shows that are shot with a shaky camera really dreary, with the exception of Peep Show. This is very much a reaction against all of those. But everyone seemed surprised that I wanted to do it this way. Let me put it like this: The Office was a non-traditional sitcom because it had to be. If you'd put those actors in front of a studio audience, it would have dropped dead: they wouldn't have been able to hear it, as it was so naturalistically done. On the other hand, if you had shot Father Ted very naturalistically, it would have been a disaster. It's a question of things suiting the format."

For both performers and writers, the multi-camera comedy can be the greater challenge: it forces them to make an audience laugh there and then, sharpening both the jokes and their delivery. Without the format, for example, Happy Days would never have been the hit we recall so fondly. Originally shot as a single-camera sitcom, its network, ABC, planned to cancel the show after two seasons. Then they tested it in front of a live audience. Suddenly, viewers could hear the teenage girls in the crowd scream like Beatles fans every time Fonzie walked in; Happy Days survived for 10 years. Moreover, fans suspect the moment it started to decline was a sequence shot on location, far from the studio audience, in which a waterskiing Fonz famously "jumped the shark".

In the US today, the studio audience sitcom remains in ruder health than here, thanks in large part to Chuck Lorre, producer of the country's two top-rated sitcoms: Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. "It's a very intimate genre," Lorre told The New Yorker, explaining his love of the traditional sitcom. "There's no music. There's no camera magic. There are no editing tricks. It's not a visual medium. It's about people and words."

For at least its first two seasons, The Big Bang Theory was considered first-rate by critics. Even Two and a Half Men originally earned credit for the mild edginess of its set-up: Charlie Sheen playing a washed-up, sex-crazed former star called Charlie. That was until Sheen's off-screen antics became too edgy for even the most hardened critic to stomach. Neither show, however, has the resilience of the great US sitcoms of the 1990s – Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld – all of which were filmed before audiences. It's six years since a studio audience comedy, Everybody Loves Raymond, won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

And while the multi-camera sitcom may still dominate the genre in North America, sitcoms in general have plummeted in popularity. Twenty years ago, eight of the top 10 most-watched programmes in the US were studio audience sitcoms. By 2006, just one sitcom made the top 20 – and, gallingly for its detractors, it was Two and a Half Men.

Jaime Weinman is a critic and blogger for the Canadian magazine Maclean's. "In the last decade, the live studio audience sitcom in the US went through a bad patch," he explains, "while the single-camera shows went through a good patch. Arrested Development, while it wasn't a commercial hit, was a big influence. Then The Office and My Name is Earl and a handful of good single-camera shows all came along at once. The fact that the best shows on TV were single-camera created a leap of logic whereby it seemed there was something necessarily better about the form, so right now most fashionable and successful writers prefer to work without a live audience, because they like the lack of limitations on where they can go and what they can do."

During the 1990s, the big television networks relied on the multi-camera's sitcom monopoly: the shows were cheap to make (until their stars started demanding huge salaries, at least) and they sold well in syndication. It was left to independent production companies such as HBO to experiment with single-camera sitcoms such as The Larry Sanders Show. Now, however, the networks' cash-cows are not comedies, but glossy dramas and reality television talent shows.

HBO still makes great single-camera sitcoms, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. The networks, in search of hits, have followed suit, with The Office (the US version), Community, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock, to name a few. But does that mean the multi-camera comedy was just a passing phase? Not at all, Weinman argues. "When Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld first pitched Seinfeld to NBC, they pitched it as a mockumentary about Jerry's adventures. But the network said, 'No you're doing it on three cameras, in front of an audience.' So they accepted that, but they did it their own way. They broke the rules and changed people's idea of what you could do with that format. All that has to happen now is for some network to force some writer to produce a sitcom for a studio audience. He won't know the old tricks that people are tired of, so he'll come up with new ones."

Modern Family, Parks and Recreation and The Office are all mockumentaries, a trend that will surely go out of fashion soon – or, like Fonzie, jump the shark. When it does, Miranda and her wacky chums may just be there to fill the breach. The BBC's next big comedy launch, Freeland explains, is Mrs Brown's Boys, "a full-on studio audience sitcom starring Brendan O'Carroll as a kind of Irish Mrs Merton. In the first episode, Brendan/Mrs Brown forgot his handbag after a scene change, and he/she got up and walked across two sets to retrieve it. We've kept that in – just to nudge the form forward a bit."

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