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Underestimating Your Audience

Posted 4th February 2012

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So, the BBC have announced Laugh Track, a talent contest to find “the next big Studio Sitcom”. OK, so maybe I’m not so keen on the contest side of things – and alarm bells ring in my head when I read things like “we’re looking for writers that reflect modern Britain” – but hey, it’s still pleasing to see the BBC obviously care about audience sitcom, after some wobbly moments a few years ago. And to go with it, we have this blog post, giving some “handy” hints on how to write your script.

Let’s swiftly move past some of the questionable things in that article – a “comedy sitcom”, eh? – and get to the key section:

“In non-studio comedy series you can do strange, subtle, unusual things – think The Office, Peep Show, The Thick of It, Flight of the Conchords. In studio sitcoms, you have to make the people in the room laugh – out loud, and preferably as often as possible.”

So hey there, all you potential new audience sitcom writers: don’t try and do strange, subtle, or unusual things. That would be madness. After all, One Foot in the Grave, Father Ted, or The Young Ones were never strange. Dad’s Army, Ever Decreasing Circles, or Steptoe and Son were never subtle. And The Brittas Empire, Absolutely Fabulous, or Red Dwarf were never unusual.

Forget that The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin was deeply unnerving in its intricate depiction of a man going through a nervous breakdown. Don’t worry your pretty little head that 2point4 children masqueraded as a normal family sitcom, but was stranger than it appeared. And Yes Minister never made subtle points taking apart the entirety of British politics – that’s clearly your imagination. And none of these programmes made an audience laugh, obviously.

I have complained that audience sitcom has lacked ambition recently when it comes to the production. It has been quite reasonably been pointed out that sometimes this is simply due to generally lower programme budgets these days. But this is far worse: this is an official BBC talent contest which is limiting ideas of what audience sitcom can do – to a new generation of writers. It’s fair enough to, say, give useful guidance as to what is possible production-wise. But why is non-audience sitcom allowed to do strange things, but audience sitcom suddenly not? At what point did audience sitcom lose the right to do them? At what point was it denied the right to subtlety, for crying out loud?

Sometimes, me whinging about random people on the internet is just that – whinging about random people on the internet, who are of little importance in the grand scheme of things. But the paragraph quoted above is everything that’s wrong with people’s attitudes towards audience sitcom… from a place which controls a large percentage of the comedy budget in the UK.

Worrying, isn’t it?

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Nick on 6 February 2012 @ 8pm

> At what point was it denied the right to subtlety, for crying out loud?

It seems like too many people misremember audience sitcoms as all being like the one in the Scrubs episode “My Life in Four Cameras”: “They’re only good for catchphrases, constant one-liners and schmaltzy endings; anything more ambitious is off-limits and best left to the single-camera big boys that don’t have tracks telling you when to laugh.”

Phil on 16 February 2012 @ 11pm

It’s interesting that the commenter above me used the phrase “too many people misremember audience sitcoms,” as though it’s a thing of the past. No reflection on the commenter, of course, but it’s interesting that the cultural vernacular does sort of drift into the past when discussing them.

Anyway to piggyback his example, I don’t know if you saw the 30 Rock episode they did with an audience (or if you’ve ever seen 30 Rock period) but there were some notable changes to their approach that, if anything, support the misconception you’re debunking above.

I’d never argue that 30 Rock is a subtle show overall, but it’s certainly capable of remarkably clever subtlety, and the way they handled their jokes in the audience episode really undercut that, suggesting that there was no home for subtlety and it had to be a wall to wall chucklefest instead.

My two examples are of two recurring characters that were brought back for that episode. One of them, Drew I think his name is, has the fairly subtle recurring joke of being really bad at everything he does, but still receiving praise for it because he’s so attractive. In this particular episode, they just had him wrestle with an out of control implant hand and poke himself in the eyes, for some fucking reason.

The other character is the glorious creation of Dr. Spaceman, whose normal schtick consists of his dishing out supremely dangerous and / or asinine advice to his patients, who accept it and take it on board because he’s a doctor, seemingly paying very little attention to the actual words he’s speaking and deferring, instead, to his dubious “authority.” In this particular episode they had him come out and sing sex songs with a poor singing voice.

No audience = cleverly conceived characters behaving in genuinely interesting ways
Audience = pratfalls and sex songs

As much as I’d love to agree with you wholeheartedly above, I can’t, because it almost feels like the folks making sitcoms are working constantly to prove you wrong.