It’s a peculiar state of affairs when the most noteworthy thing about a new Channel 4 comedy is considered to be that it takes place largely on one set and is performed in front of a studio audience. This is apparently now sufficient grounds for the Guardian to describe it as ‘mainstream-ish’ and ‘a guilty pleasure’.
This all stems from the current bout of hand-wringing about the death of the British sitcom. It strikes me that if we were going to wring our hands about this then we should have wrung them about six or seven years ago. There are lots of good British sitcoms around these days, provided that your definition of ‘sitcom’ isn’t stupidly narrow. A ‘sitcom’ is a ‘situation comedy’, the term distinguishing it from the sketch show and the stand-up/revue-type show as a comedy which also works as a single piece of drama, rather than being a string of jokes.
‘The Office’ may have a pseudo-realistic style but it is a sitcom. ‘Nathan Barley’ is a sitcom. ‘The Thick of It’ is a sitcom. ‘Help’ and ‘Green Wing’ blur the line between sketch show and sitcom, but they are more the latter than the former. It slightly amazes me that anybody would claim that they weren’t sitcoms: it’s a matter of style, not genre. Even when single-set sitcoms were the norm, there were always bits that needed to be shot out of sequence in different locations and it’s not that much of a leap to doing the whole thing like that.
The non-studio technique has many benefits. ‘Arrested Development’ generates jokes with its editing and framing of shots that would be impossible in the studio. The claustrophobia which is an integral part of ‘Peep Show’ could never be re-created on the pseudo-theatrical single set. However, all this means is a greater range of styles available to prospective sitcom writers. Isn’t it possible that this has been a period of experimentation, and that the in-studio and non-studio styles can now co-exist? They already do, really, it’s just that the non-studio stuff has been talked about more.
You may recall that the title of this article implied that I would actually review ‘The IT Crowd’ at some point, so here goes: it’s really funny. It must be peculiar for writer/director Graham Linehan to have his new show viewed as a reaction to other new comedy shows, because it’s exactly what he’s been doing since launching ‘Father Ted’ with Arthur Matthews back in 1994: he finds three funny actors and gives them a good script. This is actually all you need: pick up the forthcoming ‘Nightingales’ DVD to see how far you can strip it back if the actors and script are good enough.
Linehan did it again in 2000 with ‘Black Books’, which was one of the few good shows during the aforementioned bleak period, and ‘The IT Crowd’ uses a similar slovernly Irish bloke/oddball geekish bloke/scatty woman dynamic, transplanted to the IT department of an undefined company. As Linehan points out, there are distinct benefits to performing a sitcom in front of an audience: it sharpens up the performers and gives them something to feed off. It’s difficult to get subtlety into performances in front of a crowd, but Linehan doesn’t really deal in subtlety: his strengths are surrealism and overplaying obvious jokes to the point where they become funny again.
Sometimes it doesn’t work – the second episode of ‘The IT Crowd’ collapses a bit at the end with characters running around maniacally to little plot or comedic purpose, but most of the time it works as pure comedy, with no consideration given to developing the characters are realistic people (Linehan’s joy in contrivance, whilst one of the things I love about his work, means that I don’t think he will ever fully appeal to a mainstream audience).
Of course, I could be proved wrong if nobody else likes it and it’s a flop, but if that’s the case then we as a nation don’t deserve good sitcoms. Especially with emerging comedy genius Richard Ayoade in the cast.