Tele­vi­sion comedy

The best humor ALWAYS comes first from char­acter: fully developed char­ac­ters with very specific, hope­fully quirky traits. Secondly, comedy grows out of the conflict of the situ­ation. Some of the best comedy writers write their scenes without any comedy, then they do a rewrite to find where in the char­acter and conflict the humor can be mined”

Fred Rubin, Comedy Writing

We know comedy on tele­vi­sion embraces the same variety and range of styles and genres as film or theatre; meaning that, at some time or another, every type of comedic fare has been served up on the small screen. But, when we think about tele­vi­sion comedy, we think most commonly of the series and serial format; of stories and situ­ations that repeat them­selves, often holding up a mirror to our own lives. This is what tv does best in the comedy field.

Para­dox­ic­ally the medium of tele­vi­sion is both conser­vative and enorm­ously responsive to changes in public taste. This explains why it can serve up the bland and formu­laic along­side the ground­breaking, why Terry and June could peace­fully coexist with Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

If comedy serves in any way as a baro­meter of public taste or the limits of public toler­ance towards certain taboo subjects; sexu­ality and reli­gion being prime areas of explor­a­tion; then it is still on tele­vi­sion that we can most accur­ately assess where those bound­aries are currently set – but perhaps for not very much longer.

Tele­vi­sion comedy, like all tele­vi­sion program­ming, is evolving with the huge wave of material served up by the digital revolu­tion. Niche comedy reflects the break up of our soci­eties into a so-called ‘global village’ culture where the choice of programs on offer seem infinite. Do Amer­icans, Italians, Russians and Inuit indians all find the same things funny? Perhaps not but there are certain constants and certain strains of comedy that do trans­late cultur­ally. Here, I’ve tried to identify them using largely British examples with one or two Amer­ican ones thrown in.

This sketch from the series A Kick Up The 80’s neatly skewers the type of British sitcom cliches we grew used to and which are still around though some­times in different forms.

Useful reading

A short extract from Ronald Wolfe’s book “Writing Comedy” on the subject of Sitcom Writing (PDF)

The Family

Like radio before it, tele­vi­sion brought enter­tain­ment into the domestic space. And while one task the new medium set itself was bringing the outside world into our homes, its posi­tion in the corner of our living rooms meant it was perfectly placed to act as a mirror to our domestic lives.

Throughout its more than fifty-year history, TV sitcom has offered us a bewil­dering variety of families, reflecting the chan­ging shape of the family. Sitcoms have given us families both middle– and working-class (and, occa­sion­ally, aris­to­cratic), extended families, nuclear families, child­less families, single-parent families, families that are broken and families that ought to be – and found some­thing to laugh about in all of them. On the way they have shown us some­thing about society’s – and our own – atti­tudes to the great but always fraught insti­tu­tion of the family.”

Mark Duguid BFI

The tele­vi­sion sit-com, like the tv soap, spins its material from the fabric of everyday life, even if that material is often grot­esquely exag­ger­ated, so its no surprise that the family, in some form or another, should be the focus of a lot tv comedy.

In these examples we can see it both in an undi­luted form as well as cross­bred with other genres: fantasy and the ‘crim­inal family’. None of this is in any way new of course (think of Bewitched in the 60’s, Going Straight in the 70’s, and Only Fools & Horses) and it demon­strates how a family setting can be used in widely different contexts and comedy styles.


Outnumbered 2007

Family sitcom chil­dren have proved to be a gener­ally irrit­ating breed, either cloying tykes or annoying ankle­biters. The secret of Outnumbered is to have taken those irrit­ating qual­ities and actively celeb­rated them.

There’s no doubt who are the stars of this show and that is an acknow­ledge­ment of who genu­inely wheels the power in most middle class house­holds these days.

Outnumbered is the comedy of recog­ni­tion – but only if your chil­dren are called Griselda and Toby and you live in a well to do suburb. Having said that, the great achieve­ment of the show (see docu­mentary below) is to have finally created some­thing that has these recog­nis­able qual­ities when nobody had done it before.

Weeds 2005

From the ironic rendering of the folk classic “Little Boxes” over the titles onwards you know you’re not in familiar ‘family comedy’ territory with this story of a widow who takes up drug dealing to pay her mort­gage and keep her lifestyle.

Weeds is the fore-runner of series like Breaking Bad and The Big C. With large dollops of black comedy and char­ac­ters that are anti-stereotypical, it works to actively under­mine many of the cosy assump­tions of previous US family sitcoms. Thus a ‘telling a child the facts of life’ scene is given a modern spin as a master­class on male masturb­a­tion techniques.

So Haunt Me 1992

Injecting the puddingey body of a family sitcom with some fantasy DNA has been a favourite trick ever since Bewitched. (Good­night Sweet­heart is a more recent exmple) Here we have a typical middle class family moving into a house haunted by an old jewish woman.

It could be awful, and some of the ‘jewish humour’ is of the hoary old music-hall variety, but it has a saving charm and just enough origin­ality. The wife and mother of the family, for example, is the prac­tical DIY person while the husband is frac­tious and voluble.

The Work­place

After the family home, the work­place offers an ideal setting for situ­ation comedy, Not only does it offer an almost infinite variety, it’s an easy and natural way to bring a bunch of char­ac­ters together on a regular basis and explore their interactions.

Free Agents 2009

Sitcoms about people working in the media are a popular sub-genre of this category and Free Agents is defin­itely post modern in its styling both because of its refer­ences and the high scato­lo­gical content. Stephen Mangan is a typical metro­pol­itan male with a disastrous love life and a flat that’s been flooded with raw sewage.

As in other examples, the work­place is not so much a setting as a chance to explore a whole range of modern neur­oses, proving that the bound­aries between one type of sit-com and another are fluid at best.

The IT Crowd 2006

What could be a conven­tional sitcom about nerds serving corporate needs becomes another deli­ri­ously surreal product of the imagin­a­tion of Graham Linehan.

The world he creates is one of bizarre coin­cid­ences and grot­esque char­ac­ters but it’s still a recog­nis­able one and peopled by the same egot­ists and fantas­ists you find in any office.

Black Books 2000

Dylan Moran plays a misan­thropic and alco­holic book­shop owner who wouldn’t be out of place in a J.P. Donleavy novel. The humour is as surreal as the shows of his fellow Irishman, Linehan, (who co-wrote this) and he’s given great support by Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig.

In this extract from a typical episode, Bailey ‘discovers’ a hidden talent for playing the piano and, through a bizarre series of circum­stances, ends up having to hide inside the piano and play it using spoons. The all-too-brief series run featured many such deli­ri­ously funny incid­ents – who can forget Tamsin Grieg orgas­ming to the Weather Report or Johnny Vegas as a land­lord with walls that liter­ally moved?

Night­in­gales 1990

David Threl­fall, Robert Lindsay, and James Ellis play unlikely night­watchmen in this Verity Lambert commis­sioned series that is remark­able if only for the fact that it would never get produced these days.

The humour is far too eclectic for a start. In this typical episode, the boys have invited The Pope and Harold Pinter to their Christmas bash but instead get a preg­nant woman (Lia Williams) turning up who is called “Mary” and is behaving suspi­ciously like an allegory.

Chalk 1997

Although super­fi­cially this sitcom about a naive young teacher (Nicola Walker) being initi­ated into the profes­sion resembles many others of the same kind, it has a manic energy and surreal flavour that distin­guishes it.

Partly this is due to the perform­ances. David Bamber is partic­u­larly good as the head­master who tells one student: “Make a plas­ti­cine model of God. And make sure you get it right!” The kids them­selves are ciphers but this isn’t trying to be Grange Hill, it focuses mainly on the daily grind of teaching and the madness that inspires,

Taxi 1983

From the same stable that would later give us Cheers and Frasier, Taxi was a work­place comedy that launched the careers of many well-known actors:  Danny De Vito, Andy Kaufman, Chris­topher Lloyd, to name a few.

All these series derived a lot of their comedy from punc­turing the egos and preten­sions of their char­ac­ters but one episode, in partic­ular, sticks out for the way it skewered wannabe actor, Bobby, as his fragile ambi­tions are put through the wringer by an older woman who happens to be a powerful actor’s agent.


Sex and romance

It’s become clear that the rom-com has moved mediums — the rom-sitcom, perhaps — making the film rom-com an arti­fact of the past.This is happening mainly because of money: The movie busi­ness has changed so that investing in the middle­weight, middlebrow, reas­on­ably performing film isn’t worth it anymore.

Tele­vi­sion, mean­while, has exploded: More and more networks are willing to take a chance on niche ideas. The problem here is that tele­vi­sion isn’t film. Tele­vi­sion tells a seri­al­ized, open-ended story, and film is a closed-loop. Ninety minutes is one thing: Nine seasons is quite another.

The reason that tele­vi­sion so often leans on the family or the work­place for comedy or drama is because those two settings are rich with oppor­tun­ities for continued storytelling on the basic, prac­tical level. Love stories are often incid­ental to tele­vi­sion; they’re rarely all of a show.

At the same time, there’s some­thing exciting about taking the story of a rela­tion­ship to tele­vi­sion. The toughest part of the romantic-comedy formula isn’t actu­ally the romance — it’s the comedy. Rela­tion­ships are hard work. Film makes it easier to make that story feel light and breezy and funny; tele­vi­sion, with its focus on the daily grind, makes it harder to escape the diffi­culty of attrac­tion, coup­ling, and marriage.

A lot of prestige dramas have taken advantage of the oppor­tunity to cover years in their storytelling to get into the psycho­lo­gical reality of long relationships,It’s hard to imagine any of the new shows will solve this delicate, weird problem overnight—but you know, it would be lovely if they could”.

Adapted from Sonia Saraiya, The rise of the rom-sitcom

Love Soup 2005

This distinctive series started life as a rom-com dealing with a couple of thirty-somethings living parallel lives unaware of each other whom the audi­ence assumed would ‘meet cute’ at some stage. It never happened. Instead, it developed into a ‘single girl’ comedy focusing on Tamsin Grieg who rather improb­ably worked in a store selling perfume.

Its distinc­tion derived from its view­point which was often left-field and original. It frequently put its finger on aspects of modern life in a funny or telling way. In this episode a very camp man turns out not to be gay at all and also (but not, alas, included in this clip) a supposed air-head model type makes a surprising polit­ical gesture at a marketing junket.

According to Bex 2005

Bex is a sparky, down to earth singleton trying to navigate the perils of modern romance in a quest to find Mr Right. Natur­ally, the men she meets are mostly hope­less cases, bores, lechers and imbe­ciles, but she persists optimistically.

Jessica Stevenson provides the neces­sary charisma to lift this above the run of the mill in a well-known tv sub-genre. (Think of Feli­city Kendall in Solo) In this episode her rouguish dad crashes a speed dating session with more success than her.

Manchild 2002

This is really a soci­olo­gical study of a certain type of male in his late 40s or 50s desper­ately trying to cling on to his youth and, as such, is often wickedly funny.

To its credit, it also doesn’t ignore the hollow­ness and melan­choly that goes with this condi­tion. Nigel Havers, boyishly good looking, is a repres­ent­ative of the type: despised by his son and pitied by his ex-wife as he rides his meno­pausal motor­bike into his sunset years


This label covers those diffi­cult to describe comedies that are rooted in well-known genres or seek to invent their own. Histor­ical periods, literary clas­sics, movie genres and even tv genres (think of ‘AlloAllo) have all been plundered for source material.

Some­times pastiche, some­times unabashed piss-take, the distin­guishing char­ac­ter­istic is glee­ful­ness. These do not try to be “tales of every day folk”, they are about pure story-telling.

Hippies 1999

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Black Adder 1982

Sed ut perspi­ciatis unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accus­an­tium doloremque laud­antium, totam rem aperiam, eaque ipsa quae ab illo inventore veri­tatis et quasi archi­tecto beatae vitae dicta sunt explicabo. Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem quia voluptas sit asper­natur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt.

Believe Nothing 2002

Sed ut perspi­ciatis unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accus­an­tium doloremque laud­antium, totam rem aperiam, eaque ipsa quae ab illo inventore veri­tatis et quasi archi­tecto beatae vitae dicta sunt explicabo. Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem quia voluptas sit asper­natur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt.

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