Why American sitcoms are the best

Television

You can spot an American sitcom in the schedules by taking your Radio Times and standing it open 20 yards away. If the block-typed title is a single short word, then the programme is invariably a Yank chuckle vehicle. For, where we give our shows elaborate names such as Men Behaving Badly, Keeping Up Appearances and One Foot in the Grave, our transatlantic cousins market their programmes like soap powders or beers, using clear and simple brand-names: Ellen, Roseanne, Seinfeld, Cybill, Frazier, Friends, Soap, Cheers, to name but a few. Perhaps we could achieve greater international recognition for our comedies if we called them things like Lager, Hyacinth or Victor.

There is a reason for this titular brutality; it helps give the shows a clarity of focus which ours sometimes lack. The US comedy is invariably constructed around character, whereas the British is almost always the product of situation. Consider the programme proposal that must originally have been submitted for Goodnight Sweetheart, for instance (engaged salesman travels back in time to WW2, meets barmaid, leads double life), compared with that of Roseanne (the travails of a fat, astringent working-class mom). The writers of Roseanne have only to contend with what their eponymous heroine and her family might do or say - they can concentrate on in-character lines. Goodnight Sweetheart requires elaborate plot development - which means that all too often the comic writing itself takes second place.

Enough with the media studies lecture already! What about the shows? OK, OK. Let's start with the one that I have watched most often. Ellen (C4, Wednesday) - originally piloted as These Friends of Mine - demonstrates both the strength and weakness of the character approach. Ellen herself (played by stand-up comic Ellen Degeneres) is an early-thirties LA bookshop owner, whose chief characteristic is a lack of confidence in what she is, and an aspiration to be what she is not. So, in every show, she will decide to try and do something more organised, or pretentious, or arty than she can cope with; she'll make the attempt, fail (hilariously), try and cover up her failure (also hilariously), finally admit failure (poignantly), and be reassured that she is actually rather wonderful as she is (schmaltzily).

The trouble is that there are limits to what you can do with such a character, and the other people in Ellen's life are insufficiently developed or interesting to carry much of the comedy. She has a fat bloke (inadequate, heart of gold) and a thin woman (silly, heart of gold) and not much else. So, when one of her cameo women friends delivered what should have been a killer- line to a similarly cameo man-friend at a party - "Where is your date, or haven't you inflated her yet?" - it seemed like a gag from a different comedy. Great joke, no laughs. The right lines have to be in the right mouths.

There are no such problems in Cybill (C4, Friday), because there are no good jokes in the show. Cybill herself (40, much-divorced, rich, single parent) has only one characteristic - the desire to be young. This has led to a bottle-neck in the show, solved only by the creation of an ultra- trendy teenage daughter, Zoe, whose cool language ("caring as in not, laughing as in about to be") is the one highlight of a dreary 23 minutes.

If Ellen and Cybill are both too limited and cosy, there are at least two US sitcoms which are much more uncomfortable and challenging. The Larry Sanders Show (BBC2, Monday, Wednesday, Friday) stars Garry Shandling as an egotistical chat-show host; a slimy but sympathetic anti-hero. This week, having returned from a chalet in Montana after failing to commune with the woods and the lakes, Sanders was putting his team together again, and going back on air. The process offered real satirical insight into how celebrity works and what happens behind the glittering facade of studio sets - into the creepy slickness of the business itself.

But the show was also remarkable for a plot which could never have been conceived for a British show. By and large our attitude towards sex, as depicted on TV and in films, is still in the Carry On tradition of double entendres and falling trousers. The Americans are utterly different. Sanders is being plagued by a woman who claims she is pregnant with his child and her proof is that she can describe a large round birthmark, connected to two smaller ones, at the base of his penis. "Jesus, Larry!" says his manager. "She knows all about little Mickey!" Worse, it transpires that actually this woman has gained this knowledge from giving Sanders a "handjob in a parking lot". So, competition time: name one British sitcom character you can imagine being tossed off by a walk-on in a multi-storey.

Yes, male or female. For in Seinfeld (BBC2, Monday, Wednesday, Friday), one episode was entirely devoted to the question of men or women masturbating (without the word being used once). Jerry Seinfeld, his mates George (small, bald, unsuccessful), Kramer (an extraordinary cross between Eraserhead and Herman Munster) and sassy Elaine (pretty, bright, sparkling) had a contest to see which of them could go for longest without having recourse to self-love. "It's easier for women not to do it than for a man," Jerry tells Elaine. "It's part of our lifestyle." Meanwhile George's Jewish mother, who catches him at it, tells him that it's "too bad you can't do that for a living". Perhaps we could work something like this into Oh, Doctor Beeching? Or perhaps not.

And, once again, character is everything. Elaine's lines could only be spoken by Elaine, Kramer's by Kramer. And the equal existence of four pals allows four lots of funny lines and witticisms - all going with the grain.

This is a process taken to its most successful limit in Friends (C4, Friday), the cult du jour. In this age of anxiety, lost jobs and mobility, a guy or a gal needs something to hold on to. And it ain't your family - which is likely to be flawed, dysfunctional, adulterous, boring, or unhappy. What better than to construct a new family, made up of people just like you - same age, same problems, same interests? Friends are the family you'd choose, not the one into which you were born. "I'll be there for you," promises the title song. It's just what we all want.

These friends are special. They're not yuppies, as many assume from a first, short glance at the show. They are all unsuccessful in love as well as in work. They have dead-end jobs, or are striving to get ahead. But it's their behaviour, their mistakes, that make them fail - not their abilities and certainly not their looks. So there is every point in mentally encouraging them to act in this way or kiss that guy. It could work (though if it did, and they got married and moved out, then the show would fold). So you become involved with them.

This is only the half of it. For the truly wonderful thing about Friends is the writing. Three times in Friday's double-length episode I experienced after-laugh (I laughed when the line was said, laughed again 30 seconds later, and again during the next scene). Take this, for example. Hippie- ish and other-worldly Phoebe has been persuaded by a sensitive New Hunk to play for his infant's group. Her songs are rather too honest ("Mum and Dad say she's moved to Peru / But the truth is she died, and one day you will do too") and the hunk suggests she sing more conventional ditties. "What do you want me to be? Like some great purple dinosaur?" she asks. "No," he replies, "I'm not saying you have to be Barney." "Who's Barney?"

Meanwhile palaeontologist and innocent-abroad Ross has gone in search of his talented monkey Marcel. A zoo has told him that Marcel is dead, but a rat-faced zoo-keeper puts him straight. "The zoo! Do you believe everything the zoo tells you?" asks rat-face. "But that's the only thing the zoo's ever told me," replies Ross.

True, Friends is showing signs of packing in too many "guest stars" (Julia Roberts and Jean-Claude Van Damme this week), and is slightly prone to insider references. But sometimes even these work, as when Ross asks a film director: "How big a star is Marcel?" "In human terms?" the man replies. "Cybill Shepherd."

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