Making the audience laugh loudly and frequently should be the principle objective of any comedic work, right? Yet in the decade or so since The (UK) Office we have seen a fundamental change in the nature of sitcoms and how many people judge them. These days a sitcom is as likely to contain dramatic scenes and plots as it is comedic ones, with reviewers often viewing this as a positive.
Take The Strange Calls. Reviewing it in The Australian, Graham Blundell described it as “affecting in its low-key, oddly earnest way; not laugh out loud funny but endearingly funny.” In a similar vein, Dan Barrett writing on the Televised Revolution blog said: “The Strange Calls is a fun series. While not laugh out loud funny, the show is a charming smile inducing half hour that will do well in building a loyal audience.” While neither reviewer was raving about the series (and why would they) the lack of “laugh out loud funny” wasn’t viewed as a negative either.
Both reviewers went on to discuss the director’s use of Coolum Beach as a location and the quality of the acting in far more detail than the quality of the comedy, reflecting the fact that high production values and a focus on realism are more likely to be the hallmarks of the contemporary sitcom than the laughs, and that many commentators don’t question this. Yet can anyone seriously imagine a TV reviewer calling a drama “not edge of your seat dramatic” and it not being taken as a negative? And why is it assumed that a comedy is still a good comedy when it’s not very funny?
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that comedy is harder to review than drama because everyone laughs at different things. Most people can agree that a TV drama works better if it has good production values (i.e. the sets look realistic, the camera work is smooth, the lighting allows you to see the actors at key moments, the editing doesn’t jar, the director’s brought it all together in a way that allows you to follow the storyline, etc., etc.), but as to what’s funny and what isn’t…some people laugh at surreal gags, some people prefer crude gags, some people want all comedy to be satirical, and someone somewhere found Live From Planet Earth hilarious – there’s no objective way to critique it.
Which kinda leads us to a situation where many reviewers end up writing about comedy as if it were drama (i.e. commenting on the realism and slickness of the production) and consequently turn their noses up at any comedy that is actively trying to be funny. Add to this the relatively recent trend for making comedy like you’d make a drama – i.e. with non-comedic scenes and plot lines – and you get less laughs in comedy and people accepting that.
Over the years we’ve questioned both the trend for making realistic sitcoms and the lack of criticism of this style of sitcom for the simple reason that we believe that comedy should be about laughs and that the introduction of dramatic elements and other flourishes of realism hasn’t improved sitcoms, yet ours seems to be an unfashionable viewpoint. We’re not saying that all traditional comedies (i.e. shows with laugh out loud jokes peppered throughout the dialogue, and over-the-top/unrealistic characters and performances) are great – they aren’t, see Housos – but they’re more likely to make you laugh out loud. Even in The (UK) Office it’s notable that the most memorable, loved and funny moments were the ones that were silly or un-naturalistic, scenes such as the stapler in jelly or David Brent’s dance.
We find ourselves agreeing with the following point made by Ben Pobjie in his review of The Strange Calls for Fairfax:
It’s all very well to have realistic depictions of suburban life and explorations of the difficulties of raising a family but sometimes you need grossly unrealistic depictions, and Crocker with a hose and an iPhone.
And this is true whether you agree with the rest of Pobjie’s review of The Strange Calls (he likes it) or not. Comedy is there to make the audience laugh and, generally speaking, comedy comes from hyper-realism or surrealism rather than realism. People may laugh because something is true, but they’re laughing at an exaggerated truth. A show with realistic characters and serious plots, such as the romantic subtext between Dan and Cora in A Moody Christmas, would be better off being a drama. Not that Dan and Cora’s yuletide flirting makes for very good drama so far, but the short comings of dramatic subplots in sitcoms could fill a blog on their own… and may very well do so in the very near future.
You’ve hit the nail on the head about realism. That is what made shows like the Simpsons and Seinfeld so great.
The other side of the equation that is sorely missing from modern Australian sitcom is the role of active characters. The best and funniest sitcoms of all time had characters who actively, deliberately, consciously created humour. Think of shows like MASH, Cheers, Simpsons, Seinfeld, Golden Girls, Vicar of Dibley, Blackadder, Yes Minister, etc – the characters were actively funny, and went out of their way to make both the audience and other characters laugh. The problem with too many passive characters (like Librarians, Lowdown, Laid) is that those characters, by virtue of their passivity, don’t get into the type of scrapes and hijinks which drive comedy. The absence of active characters gives comedy a “hair shirt” feel where everything is stodgy and bland, and therefore unfunny. In other words, modern Australian comedy.
Well, that’s my theory.
It’s sad when the most active-trying-to-be-funny Australian comedy show is “You’re Skitting Me” on ABC3. It’s terrible and aimed at kids, but at least it is trying.
Or maybe “Prank Patrol”, but that’s a localised version of a UK show iirc.