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Brit sitcoms

Nicola Mostyn goes in search of a decent UK sitcom

Published on February 16th 2009.


Brit sitcoms

Reports of a new UK comedy series are always received with mixed feelings. It could be another I.T crowd, one yelps with excitement. But, hell’s teeth, it might be another My Family. Or, worse, another series of My Family.

Still, it’s only fair to greet with an open mind Channel 4’s new six part comedy series Free Agents (Friday, 10pm), starring Stephen Mangan (Green Wing), Sharon Horgan (from the slightly twisted, underrated sitcom Pulling) and Anthony Head (coffee ads, Buffy) as talent agents in London.

Alex (Mangan) has just left his wife and kids, spends his nights sleeping in his office and bursts into tears every time he has sex. Colleague Helen has huge pictures of her dead fiancée all over her house and is being hounded by a soggy, pathetic Alex, who wants to shag her and then possibly fall in love. Their boss Stephen (Head) is a puerile, swaggering dickhead who makes his employees detail their previous evening’s sex sessions during the morning meeting.

So far, so typical in a talent agents’ office – or so we assume since this new six part comedy was written by Chris Niel, an ex talent agent. And divorcee.

As aforementioned, good, laugh-out-loud British comedies are hard to find. Sadly, we probably shouldn’t stop the search here. Free Agents is entertaining enough. There are some interesting, quirky moment (such as Helen forcing Stephen to say, “Hello Mr Magpie and how’s your fucking friend?” because she’s become deeply superstitious since her partner’s premature death). The acting, of course, is great and the premise – a group of employees working for demanding, ego-centric industry types while their own lives collapse around them - should provide a decent mine of comedy. But so far, it’s more of an “ahumm” sort of affair than a “Haw haw haw” kind of deal. Which is ok. But not what I was looking for.

If most UK comedy series are disappointing, I wonder if this isn’t because UK writers, instead of making their characters extremely funny, make them too true to life, meaning the show has to depend too heavily on physical comedy or “hilarious” misunderstandings, for its laughs - I’m thinking Duty Free here – or instead pursue the sort of subtle, intelligent, sophisticated humour that you’d have to use a magnifying glass to find.

The Americans do it better. Will & Grace, for instance, gets around the humour problem by making two of its four main characters: bitchy gay guys, one a drunken, soulless lush and the last a trauma-prone fag hag. In the hyper-real world of gay Manhattan, all of them can deliver snappy one liners and remain totally believable.

Seinfeld got around the issue by making its titular character a stand up comedian. It’s his job to be funny. And if he’s funny, he’s likely to have funny friends. Which means that instead of the old sitcom style of having one of the characters saying insulting or sarcastic remarks and have the others rolling their eyes, the cast of Seinfeld get to revel in their own clever-cleverness, meaning we can, too.

Not Going Out (BBC 1, 9.30pm, Friday) has borrowed the latter technique to great effect. Now in its third series, the show replaces New York for London, and treads the same ‘two guys and a girl’ format as Seinfeld, featuring as its focal point cheeky northern stand up comedian Lee Mack as cheeky northern slacker Lee. Not such a stretch.

Stand up Tim Vine plays his stuffy, middle class best friend Tim and Sally Bretton plays Lucy, Tim’s sister, Lee’s landlady and sort-of love interest. Continuing the Seinfeld analogy, there‘s even a Kramer-esque character in the form of kooky cleaner Barbara played by comedienne Miranda Hart. Although she’s a bit shit.

But the gags are great, there’s fantastic chemistry between the cast (particularly Lee and Tim) and the emphasis on cliched stereotypes and the ludicrous plot lines just go to prove that you can make great comedy out of those old traditional sitcom staples if your writing is sharp enough.

In episode one of series three, Lee thought he’d got Lucy pregnant after having a wank in her bathwater. In episode two, Tim and Lee got excited when two lesbians moved into their building. It’s not Proust, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s clever, daft, fun, and makes you laugh out loud. And I do like my sitcoms to have as much emphasis on the com as they do on the sit.

However, if you prefer more of the “sit”, then tune into BBC 3 and check out the supernatural comedy drama Being Human (Monday, 10.30pm). Tweaking the ‘two guys and a girl’ template, the show features a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost flat-sharing in Bristol, and balances brilliantly written, intelligent plots with really funny dialogue. Big sigh of relief. British comedy is alive and kicking and biting, after all.

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12 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

stejaskiFebruary 16th 2009.

Are you suggesting that only gay men would enjoy Will and Grace, Frasier and The Golden Girls? My bet is that you're a humourless breeder. Why you felt the need to bring my sexuality into is slightly confusing. How very dare you.As I said humour is a personal thing, and although a couple on your list were amusing the rest are self indulgent smug drivel. But only in my opinion. There are huge list of (mainly ITV shows) that I could counter with that are disasterously unfunny, and though Im not here to defend US television- Scrubs? Curb? Earl? There's three.

JonathanFebruary 16th 2009.

Then there's the sorry state of documentary. Channels four and five, and BBC One with the atrocious Coast, borrowing from the States, now have half hour programmes in which they endlessly repeat the same facts over and over again. "So in that time the coastal erosion divided communtities and changed the landscape. Here we have Dr Mister to discuss this. So Dr did coastal erosion divide communtities and change the landscape?" "Yes dreary presenter I can categorically state coastal erosion divided communtities and changed the landscape." And that goes on and on forever. Thanks for old Attenborough who in his latest Darwin programme obviously told the eleven year producer where to go.

LouFebruary 16th 2009.

I haven't seen a great Brittish comedy in ages. Coupling was the last one I truey loved, and that was years ago. That said, the only US one I currently enjoy is Big bang theory. A prdeictable formula - but by far the best of a bad bunch.I think the US imparticular is guilty of dragging things on for way too long. Many sit coms could have been at least three series shorter.

stejaskiFebruary 16th 2009.

Fair dos-I see your point about W&G, and there were only two funny characters on that-and it wasn't Will or Grace.

AndyFebruary 16th 2009.

The Death of the Great British Sitcom is surely exaggerated. We may not be currently blessed with a laughter factory working overtime but recent history and beyond suggests the next great gagglefest is just around the corner. I'm thinking Spaced, Green Wing, Black Books, Extras, heck, even dinnerladies.But here's a Q. Anyone remember Fairly Secret Army, a kind of Reggie Perrin spin off. Now why is that not on Gold/Dave/Blighty or any of the other retro feast channels?

DescartesFebruary 16th 2009.

The last really good British sitcom was The Green Room, little known and undervalued - absolute genius that was, so it's good to see one the crew on board here, Head likewise is a great actor, one only hopes the script is well written and not Americanised dross.

stejaski(a moron)February 16th 2009.

I buy Heat too. But only for Torso of the Week.

AndyFebruary 16th 2009.

"Humourless breeder" was a great riposte I have to say :-)Thick of It. How did I forget that? Marvellous.

DrakeFebruary 16th 2009.

Simply I've never met a straight man that liked Will and Grace. Okay, first two series of Earl, indeed (though you'd have to be very strange to like the third, and that would be nothing to do with sexuality), first two of Scrubs. US sitcoms go on far far too long though.

stejaskiFebruary 16th 2009.

Will and Grace not funny? It just proves how subjective perceptions of humour are-people finding Seinfeld and My family funny and Will and Grace unfunny proves that. I would agree, exceptions like The Royle Family and Nighty Night aside, American comedy (that we get to see here at least) has beaten home produced for quality and production values for years. The greatest US export (non animated!)ever-Frasier (followed by the Golden Girls-BRING IT BACK LIVINGTV!!)

Steve InsideJobFebruary 16th 2009.

Will and Grace is funny ? It appeals to the sort of morons who buy Heat magazine. Curb your Enthusiasm is the only decent US sitcom.Peep Show is the greatest sitcom of all time.

emma graceFebruary 16th 2009.

Agreed stejaski...I've never had the patience for it. FAR too American for me!

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