Two wonderful things have happened. The first is that I am on holiday. And the second is that I have wi-fi where I'm staying. Holidays tend to exclude internet usage, which is annoying, but not this time. This is an expected bonus. Hence, this blog post on something that occurred to me the other day, that bothers me about sitcoms. It's 'sitcomminess'.
Sitcomminess is the thing that people who hate sitcoms hate most about sitcoms. It's that they're so darm, well, sitcommy. It's chance encounters, and wacky neighbours, and dinner parties that go wrong and have hilarious consequences. It's fake, false and phoney.
My argument against this is that the audience are smart, and realise it's a sitcom, and recognise that the show is a contrivance. Audience laughter is does not happen in everyday life, and real life sets are more realistic. The audience know it's not real. And they're fine with it. Critics usually seem not fine with it, or have to apologise for finding a sitcom with a laugh track funny (as most did with Miranda). But overall, the audience realises that a sitcom is not real. The only question is whether or not they buy into it, believe the characters, and want the hero to succeed.
The Realm of the Unreal
But sometimes, even for the most ardent sitcom fan, things can teeter over into the realm of the unreal. I was made aware of this phenomenon a few weeks ago. It reared its head the other day when I was watching a sitcom that is aimed at kids, and I couldn't work out why I didn't like it. Apart from not being a child, obviously. And I worked it out, I think. The show felt phoney: it was aping American culture and reference points in a way that didn't feel natural or honest. Overall, the show felt like it was written by someone who's main experience of life was American television. And therefore, I found myself watching a comedy based on other comedies - rather than reality. As a result, we're watching second-hand reality.
Second-hand reality can still be funny. You can get away with it sometimes. But you're jumping from joke to joke, and there's no reality/empathy to tide your through the bits where the jokes aren't sizzling which, in a 28 minute BBC episode, they won't and can't the whole time. Besides, you need light and shade. Yes, lots of jokes, funny scenes and set-pieces. But also quieter bits, reflection and moments of empathy and emotion which ideally resolve with a joke. Watch Only Fools and Horses. That's a masterclass in how much emotion and comedy you need. Apart from anything else, we won't buy a character if we don't emotionally care about him. So this really is vital.
How does this happen?
This is easily done. It crops up in scenes when you realise you are leaning too heavily on a trope that has no basis in real life. You can attach your character to a lie detector if you want, but don't spend long doing it, as the audience will stop believing it after a while. They've never seen one of those lie detectors before - because they don't really exist. Just on TV. Police line-ups are fine. They happen. But not lie detectors. You get the idea.
It comes about partly through lack of research, understanding or interest in the subject matter. The writing is cynical, as a result, and feels like it's been done by numbers. The only way to avoid this is to do the research, talk to people and listen to stories and experiences. I've been have had my eyes open very wide by some research I've been doing for a sitcom. What you find when you talk to people and read books is a treasure trove of stories that you just couldn't make up, that feel extreme but authentic and grounded in reality. This keeps sitcomminess at bay.
And so three rules of thumb, then:
1. Make sure your show is about something. It needs to be be based on a truth and have a central core to it. More on that here.
2. If you're starting out, I'd suggest avoiding film studies, media and writing courses. I've just met a 16-year-old girl who is about to do A-Levels in English, Film Studies and Sound Engineering (or something). Doing English is fine, but overall she'd be much better off doing two other A-Levels that are about something. And going off and doing stuff. And then making movies. Otherwise, her experience of everything will be through film. And the films she makes may well be derivative of other films. (She may of course go on to win an Oscar aged 23. But I doubt it.)
3. Be brutal on what you've written. If it feels tired and trope-like, delete it, change it, cut it, hide it and rewrite it. If it feels like it's been done before, it probably has. How could it be done differently? How could you create something new and fresh? Change the location, the setting, the motive... anything. Just avoid sitcommy, second hand reality.