Sitcoms: It's beyond the cringe, and back to the bellylaugh

Comedy is re-emerging from the dark side, as TV turns back to big-gag slapstick in front of studio audiences

Matt Chorley
Sunday 06 November 2011 01:00 GMT

The nights are drawing in, the global economy teeters, everyone's got a cold. No wonder we need a good old-fashioned laugh. And after a decade of dark comedic cruelty which began with The Office and took in Nighty Night, Human Remains, The Smoking Room and Psychoville, big gags are back.

Gone are the awkward silences and jokes without punchlines. Now commissioners from the BBC to Dave are bringing in a new era of sitcoms, including Miranda and Mrs Brown's Boys, that are filmed – as they used to be – in front of a live studio audience.

"Comedy is cyclical, and darker, crueller comedy isn't currently finding its place," Kristian Smith, a BBC comedy commissioner, told a Manchester conference, this week. "There does seem to be an appetite for proper laugh-out-loud comedy."

There is an argument that with the nation gripped by economic worries, what viewers want is escapism and nostalgia. The digital channel Dave has commissioned a full series of Red Dwarf, the intergalactic sitcom which ran for a decade until 1999 on BBC2. Steve North, the channel's head, said: "We are at a place at the moment where the more straightforward gag-filled comedy is more prevalent. Slapstick is coming back."

Last month the BBC commissioned Citizen Khan, about a self-appointed Muslim community leader, after a Salford showcase in which comedy writers pitched studio-based sitcoms.

Steve Bennet, who runs the Chortle comedy website, said: "Everyone is looking for the next Miranda. It's possibly more a demonstration of crowd psychology than economic cycles."

Henry Normal, managing director of Baby Cow productions which he set up with Steve Coogan, told the Cofilmic event in Manchester: "There was a style that started with People Like Us and The Royle Family that was a sort of post-punk movement, trying to get away from 'Ooh, the vicar's come round and my trousers have fallen down' approach. It tried to do something a little too different. Sometimes you'd take jokes out and say 'that's too comedy'.

"But it led to too many people trying to do conversations in rooms, and it became quite drab. At the moment it's the audience sitcom that's 'in'." Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who stage a comeback this week with their new show, Life's Too Short, chronicling the life of dwarf actor Warwick Davies, deny inventing the genre of the downbeat mockumentary with The Office. In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, Gervais said: "We didn't invent the fake documentary – Spinal Tap did that. I suppose if The Office did have one thing that was different, it was that it was such a slave to realism."

One stalwart of low-key sitcom, The Royle Family, was due to return next month for a Christmas special. But its creators Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash failed to deliver the script on time and the BBC has pulled it.

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The Office

The buttock-clenching portrayal of chilled showman David Brent, a manager at Wernham Hogg paper, spawned countless poor imitators.


This chillingly dark serial from The League of Gentlemen team was critically acclaimed, then canned this year after ratings halved to 660,000.

Nighty Night

A husband with cancer, a friend in a wheelchair, and an infatuation with a womanising doctor made Julia Davis's cult hit one of the darkest.

Absolutely Fabulous

It's 20 years since Patsy, Edina and Saffron first bickered on TV. Now they're back, and even less steady on their feet. Break out the Bolly, darling!


A third series is planned, after she pulled in four million viewers with her one-liners, double-takes to camera ... and quite a lot of falling over.

Mrs Brown's Boys

Part panto, part foul-mouthed drag act, the Brown family's dysfunctionality has delighted viewers on both sides of the Irish Sea, much to the critics' dismay.

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