To film or not to film?
There’s a great article by Andrew Collins in this week’s Radio Times defending studio recorded sitcoms such as “Mrs Brown’s Boys” and “Father Figure”, which get such a slating from the critics. Andrew’s argument is twofold. In spite of what studio sitcom-haters say, the laughter isn’t canned: it’s the genuine spontaneous response of the audience in the room. You can’t can it, you can’t fake it. And that to obtain these laughs regularly over thirty minutes takes a huge amount of work and talent. I’ve acted in a couple of studio sitcoms and I agree with Andrew. “Mrs Brown’s Boys” may not be subtle or sophisticated (and it’s not my taste) but it works as comedy. People love it. They laugh.
I’d like to take the argument further and say that there’s not the gulf between the two comedy genres which critics assume. Whether filmed on one camera or with three in a studio, the format of the half hour sitcom has stayed remarkably constant. Take “Friday Night Dinner”. Embarrassing, dysfunctional dad: well-intentioned prying mum trying to keep the family together: two squabbling and slightly rebellious offspring: eccentric neighbour. And their squabbles and misunderstandings. It sounds just like one of those dreaded, cheesy wobbly-wall sitcoms of the 1970s. Except it took the point of view of the boys, was about a Jewish family and, crucially, was filmed without a laugh track. It’s brilliant. But it’s not a million miles from the dreaded “Terry and June”. OK, ten thousand. But no more.
Grittier, more “real” subject matter? Emphasis on characters and not laboured setups and punch lines? Grappling with issues? These have been sitcom staples since the first disastrous tea with the vicar circa 1965. “Steptoe & Son” steered well clear of jokes, was downbeat to the point of being morose, and was all about social aspiration and the generation gap. “Porridge” didn’t shy from extortion and bullying in prison or sexual frustration, and had two of the most naturalistic sitcom performers ever in Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale. OK, it didn’t deal with forced male-on-male sex or heroin but I can’t think of any modern sitcoms that do, either.
People complain that the breaking of the fourth wall in “Mrs Brown’s Boys” destroys the purity of sitcom, but are somehow silent on the straight-to-camera rants of Jez and Mark in “Peep Show”. If Gerald Wright in “The Wright Way” had burst into song, critics would have had a hernia. But Bret and Jermaine’s music routines in “Flight of the Conchords” was part of its postmodern charm.
There’s a mismatch somewhere between what’s trendy and what isn’t. I’m looking forward to the day when no one really cares whether a sitcom has a studio audience or not, but laugh at it on its own merits. I doubt if it will be soon.