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."

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power