Inside story: The rebirth of the sitcom

From Armando Iannucci to Greg Dyke, commentators are mourning the decline of situation comedy. But, says Alan Yentob, the genre is evolving into something new.
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The Independent Online

1. THE LAST SURVIVOR

My Family

My Family is that rare specimen, a studio-bound pre-watershed sitcom in the heart of the mainstream schedule. Think Butterflies, The Good Life. The protagonists are middle-class professionals, married, with children. This is what people imagine the quintessential BBC sitcom is like (although in fact the tradition is more blue collar - Steptoe and Son, The Liver Birds). As close as British television has got to volume production. British sitcoms are boutique (six episodes and a maximum of three series). My Family has broken the mould, with US-style writing teams and longer runs. The showrunner is Fred Barron, who has experience on Seinfeld and Larry Sanders. Slickly written, beautifully performed by Zoë Wanamaker, Robert Lindsay and the show's "discovery" Kris Marshall. It uses five cameras, a studio audience, lots of gags and elements of farce. The laughter is not "canned" but fizzes from a live audience. Other crucial ingredients for BBC1 are that it is light not dark, and warm not cool. Consequently, it's loved by the audience. Critics are reliably sniffy, but controllers are deeply grateful; we'll take as many as you can make, please. Audience figures? As good as they get these days.

2. SITCOM MY ARSE

The Royle Family

Brilliant, of course. But anyone who tells you they knew it would be a hit is lying (including the commissioners). No audience laughter, no TV studio, one camera not five, 16mm film, definitely not video tape. Its pedigree is Till Death Us Do Part - but this is essence of sitcom, distilled to its purest form, more Play for Today than Comedy Playhouse. They're watching TV from their sofa, we're watching them, watching TV, from our sofa. No one moves; nothing happens - not so much Waiting for Godot as waiting for Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Working class, sofa-bound; couch potatoes and proud of it. Radical, revolutionary even, but warm-hearted and affectionate. After the usual arguments between channel controllers, this show transferred successfully from BBC2 to BBC1. Everyone loved it. As with many of the best things - particularly British TV comedies - it had a short but brilliant life. Our principle is "kill it before it starts to die". The Americans don't buy this philosophy. As a consequence there are hundreds of episodes of Friends, Frasier, Cheers - I could go on but hey, that's life.

3. THE SITCOM STRIKES BACK

The Office

"Drama is real life with the boring bits taken out. Well, we kept them in, but made a feature of them" - Ricky Gervais.

While docusoaps and reality TV were busy killing off the sitcom, the sitcom struck back by masquerading as a docusoap. In fact, it took some people (more than will admit it) quite a long time to catch on. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are not in denial; they're happy to be part of the sitcom tradition. David Brent sits comfortably with Tony Hancock, Captain Mainwaring and Basil Fawlty - dysfunctional, deluded, self-aggrandising. The difference is that they all wanted social advancement. But for David Brent, fame is the spur. The first British sitcom of the celebrity age, or rather the age of the nonentity as celebrity. Naturalism, long pauses, documentary techniques, including furtive looks at the camera; David Brent will do anything to catch its eye. And, of course, the office clock is ticking. Life is passing them by. Tim waits for Dawn, David waits for respect. It's a long, existential wait. But you know all this. Five stars!

4. A LEAP IN THE DARK

Green Wing

Not so much a sitcom, not quite a medical drama, not even a sketch show: a barmy hybrid, free-form and surreal. Visually and comically inventive, with liberal use of slo-mo and high-speed "ramping", to speed up and slow down the characters' actions. Its origins are the sketch show: the producer Victoria Pile created Smack the Pony. And the one-hour show (yes, one hour!) evolved and continues to evolve series by series. After the scripts are written, everyone from editor to actor is improvising. Randomness is at its heart. Scary, but it works.

5. SEE ME, HEAR ME, TOUCH ME

Peep Show

The sitcom where the characters' unspoken thoughts get spoken. A Likely Lads for the Me generation. The two Mes are twentysomething flatmates Jeremy "the sexer" (his words) and Mark, a man-boy desperate for love. Played by comedy duo Robert Webb and David Mitchell, and written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, this is the first POV sitcom, where the viewer experiences the action from the characters' points of view. A miniature camera is physically attached to the actors' heads, and in voice-over we hear their deepest, darkest thoughts. The comedians' favourite. Took time to catch on, now in its third series.

6. HONEY I SHRUNK THE SITCOM

Help

Two men in a room, and a small room at that. Doesn't sound promising, does it? But remember, size doesn't matter: Marion and Geoff was one man in a small car. It's set in a psychotherapist's consulting room; Chris Langham plays the shrink, and Paul Whitehouse is everyone else. It's funny and sad and mad.

Both actors give brilliant comic performances, and Paul Whitehouse's range is breathtaking. It's sometimes hard to believe that these characters are inhabited by the same actor. Don't miss Johnny the wife-beater or Monty the Jewish cab-driver. It's written by Chris and Paul, and the staggering prosthetic make-up is by Neil Gorton and Vanessa White.

7. BASTARD SON OF YES, MINISTER

The Thick of It

So true to life that politicians think it's a documentary. Its style is fly on the wall; what used to be called vérité. It's fast, chaotic and horribly authentic. It's government spinning out of control, busking it and screwing everything up. If you don't like bad language, don't switch on. It's grown-up TV but featuring adults behaving like children, and they never learn. Sired by Armando Iannucci - track record the envy of everyone (producer of I'm Alan Partridge, Knowing Me, Knowing You, The Day Today). Brilliant central performances all round, and Chris Langham as the minister is outstanding. Every episode they make the same mistakes and it's funny every time. Not only do the politicians and their advisers make it up as they go along; so too do the actors - the show is heavily improvised. Up to 90 minutes of material is edited into a half-hour episode (classic sitcom length), and the compression gives an uncanny sense of life rushing by, and people overtaken by events. Delicious.

8. BACK TO THE FUTURE

The IT Crowd

Just when you might think the traditional studio sitcom is "like, so last-century", along comes Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted and Black Books. He's a real believer; so much so that he chooses not only to write but also to direct his latest show in the unfashionable environment of a TV studio with invited audience. And surprise, surprise; it's on Channel 4 and produced by The Office's Ash Atalla (see interview, page 12). This show may be about the world of information technology and computer geeks, but it's squarely aimed at a family audience: "No jokes that children won't understand," Graham says. We shall see if his aim is true.

THE LAST LAUGH

So that's where we are now. Despite the whispering campaign, reports of the death of the sitcom have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, there's a dearth of big-hitting shows in the prime-time schedules. But there's a lot of talent and ideas out there - and very little cynicism. The seeds have been sown. We need to nurture them.

Alan Yentob is creative director of the BBC. He presents 'Imagine... a funny thing happened on the way to the studio' on BBC1, 10.35pm tomorrow

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