Bonnie Greer; Is British TV Really the Funniest in the World?

By Greer, Bonnie | The Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 30, 2001 | Go to article overview

Bonnie Greer; Is British TV Really the Funniest in the World?


Greer, Bonnie, The Mail on Sunday (London, England)


Byline: BONNIE GREER

New episodes of sex in the city and Frasier begin on Channel 4 next month, leading to the inevitable arguments about whether American sitcoms are now much funnier than their British counterparts.

It is generally conceded that American sitcoms are better these days, but why? For a start, they are usually written by teams of writers. British series, on the other hand, are usually the brainchild of one or perhaps two people. To prepare to write an episode of Frasier, for instance, up to ten writers sit around a table and trade jokes. Because the characters are already firmly established in the public's mind via earlier series, all the writers have to do is put them into challenging situations.

The point is that the characters' lives are stable, steady and sure and then suddenly life, in the form of Niles in Frasier -?or Mr Big in Sex and the City -?disrupts the general order.

These programmes are successful largely because most people see their own lives in a similar way. We are essentially conservative and focused on our little worlds and then, suddenly, things happen to us. Our job is to sort out those things so that we can go back to our routine.

American sitcoms mirror this. That's why there are, for example, no ethnic minorities in Sex and the City. In Carrie's world they don't exist. The status quo rules, whether it is for a single girl in Manhattan, or a neurotic psychiatrist in Seattle. Each character has a point on the compass to which they return, until next week.

British sitcoms are trickier, more complex than America's. It is not the situations, but the people who are unpredictable. People happen to things, to the status quo. On this side of the pond, life is portrayed as being rather drab and dreary. It's the characters who are crazy - note Kathy Burke in Gimme, Gimme, Gimme and David Jason in Only Fools and Horses. Life does not go back to normal, it is continuously shaken up.

And so, the sun rises every day, the birds sing, the postman delivers the post and then along comes Jim Royle. In British sitcoms, the characters battle to hold on to their individuality in the face of routine. American writers just don't understand this set-up. To many of us, British sitcoms seem to be mired in class. We don't see ourselves as being class-based any more - we're more aspirational and fluid.

In British sitcoms people are laughed at instead of laughed along with - look at poor Victor Meldrew. Plus no one is as glossy as they are on American television, and judging from the success of Frasier and Sex and the City, many of us want glossy.

Yet the Holy Grail for most American television networks is still Fawlty Towers. No series can touch it. Absolutely Fabulous failed in America because the producers tried to make it politically correct. Men Behaving Badly followed suit because audiences thought it was gross. On the other side of the coin, the British version of Sex in the City, the terrible Babes in the Wood, fared equally dismally.

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