Television comment: Fewer gags, but more laughs
Sunday 21 September 1997
One part of their explanation was a variant on the popular "the BBC is run by accountants and consultants" theme. Last week's row at the BBC over news organisation is the kind of event that seems to lend support to this view. So, "the creative leaders have been marginalised," they said, "the power creative staff once had has been usurped by legions of lawyers, accountants, business-affairs executives and policy-unit apparatchiks". Who "take us all for granted: the creative talent, writers and producers who actually make television. They prefer to concentrate their cash, care and chauffeur-driven cars for the front-of-camera talent - soap stars, celebrity chefs and Hale and Pace."
So the money-grubbing, ratings- fixated Beeb execs denude writers of the dosh they need, pouring it instead into seminars and stars. As a consequence the creative blood is thinned, the hits of tomorrow are no longer commissioned today. For this position to be reversed writers and creators must be paid a lot more money.
But American TV is not run by creative altruists. The networks there are far more ruthless than poor old Auntie about what gets on air, about ratings, and about the bottom line. For shows that work there is an enormous amount of money available, very risky ideas are extremely unlikely to be made. And anyway, it isn't true that money doesn't go into TV comedy in Britain. I do not know the details of the BBC's deal with the production company, Alomo, that makes Birds of a Feather, but I have a strong feeling that those who run Alomo are considerably wealthier than the executives who commission them. And the big contrast in TV today is between those (like Marks and Gran) who work in areas like comedy - where talent is always scarce and where they can name their price - and poor old two-a-penny journalists, who fall farther and farther behind in the pay stakes.
It is certainly the case, though, that US television can pay. On Seinfeld the four stars have each recently negotiated fees of $600,000 - per episode. US networked comedy is far better funded. The States is a much bigger place, and advertisers pay vast amounts for slots in high-rated comedies. In the case of Seinfeld we are talking over a billion dollars per season. No one in Britain will ever match this level of funding.
But there are other things the Yanks do to help themselves; one of the most important is the length of the runs. In nine years 150 Seinfelds have been made, with around 15 to 17 per season (BBC2 viewers are currently halfway through, watching the shows made in 1993). In Britain Fawlty Towers famously made only 12 episodes in two seasons, and became the mark of a kind of hair-shirted self-restraint in British TV comedy. Consequently money for comedies in Britain is scattered around on many short runs, rather than a few long ones. It makes a huge difference.
But this is only part of the story. Last week BBC1 showed three original British sitcoms - two of them (A Prince Among Men and Bloomin' Marvellous) first-run. In the 11.15pm slot on Tuesday, BBC2 brought back its US double bill of Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show. By comparing these four shows, might we learn something about the relative strengths and weaknesses of British and American sitcom writing?
First listen to American critic Geoffrey O'Brien, writing in The New York Review of Books on 14 August. He talks of the formulaic US sitcoms of his youth where "the plots tended to revolve around failed practical jokes, embarrassing household mishaps, doomed get-rich-quick schemes, ceaseless unsuccessful attempts to get the better of one's next-door neighbour, misinterpreted phone calls ... A secretary would mix up the dunning letters and the party invitations, or uproariously blow off her boss's toupee by turning up the air-conditioner full blast."
If that sounds horribly familiar, it should. This is still the stuff of the British prime-time sitcom. The secretary stunt - or a version of it - actually featured in A Prince Among Men in its first week. In other words the sit for our com is often tired and ancient.
And so are the scripts. In comedy shows gags are important. Obviously. In the British pair they are produced relentlessly, and telegraphed at the audience, their cadence almost always the same:
Character 1: "Blah, blah, blah."
Character 2: "Blah, blah, blah, blah."
Character 1: "PUNCHLINE!!!!!"
And there are far too many of them. The average US sitcom length is just under 21 minutes; the British equivalent is 28. So the Americans need fewer gags per show.
This may partly explain why an awful lot of our jokes are so bad. Bloomin' Marvellous, for instance, relies mostly on the type of ritual banter that passes for humorous conversation between embarrassed (male) strangers at Rotarian dinners, or else in poor Best Man speeches. As in: "Mind you, she's been married to my dad for 40 years." "One of them needs a medal." (Laughter). Or (of a mother-in-law said to be in a good mood): "Is she? I'd hate to see her upset then."
Or consider this. Egotistical ex-footballer Gary Prince's business manager is a public-school toff called Mark Fitzherbert. So Prince, played by the estimable Chris Barrie, quips that: "People wouldn't know if it was your name or what you got up to!" Now, I genuinely first heard that joke in a kids' playground in 1965. So what on earth was it doing here?
It gets worse. The gormless secretary, Sonya, has been savaged by an Alsatian. Her female colleague says: "I think we should talk about the dog, Mr Prince." "That's not kind," replies Prince, indignantly. "I've seen some dogs in my time, but Sonya is not one of them." As it happens we know that Prince does in fact regard Sonya as a dog; so the character has already been violated for the sake of the limpest of trompe d'oreille jokes. Was this written because the writers are underpaid?
And why are our sitcoms so toothless compared with the best American ones? In Seinfeld, Jerry asks Elaine (like Seinfeld, a Jew) whether she has ever seen an uncircumcised member. What was it like? he says nervously. "It had no faith, no personality. Like a Martian. But, hey, that's me!" she reassures him. Meanwhile, in Bloomin' Marvellous, Jack is simply amazed that he "did it twice" and got Liz pregnant. "Not me, I'm too old!" he exclaims. And that's it.
Or again, in a genuinely funny sequence in Prince Among Men, Prince - pressing his remote - seems to hang the Alsatian by its lead from the garage door. But no, the dog is not hanged; we are too soft-hearted for that and it is later seen on top of the door, having somehow escaped. Which is dramatically disappointing and a comic dead-end. But in Seinfeld - where the sidekick George is absurdly pleased at having found a parking space close to the hospital - a patient appears on the roof, then plunges 13 floors on to George's car, wrecking it and killing himself. This leads to at least three more (good) jokes, threaded through the show.
Finally, let us compare characters. The Brits inhabit a world of moon- faced innocence. In Bloomin' Marvellous, Jack must tell his mother that Liz is pregnant. "She'll know that we've been sleeping together," he quavers. "Everyone will know that we've been having sex." Now, this man is a 39- year-old PhD - the line cannot be delivered flat and allow him to retain any credibility. Perhaps if it were the beginning of a funny monologue about knowing, but not admitting, that others have sex lives ...? But no. We are expected to believe Jack is horrified that others will realise he's been having sex. He is, therefore, a cretin. And cretins make decent walk-ons, but they have no wisdom, and there must be truth in amongst the laughs.
Imagine Larry Sanders worrying about people knowing that he's had sex. No, Marks and Gran, the problem is not cash. The problem is really good, imaginative, daring, witty writing. We simply aren't that good at it.
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