30 Jan 2014
basac's picture

Outumbered by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton is a show I have enjoyed immensely over recent years, it's a show that has allowed people to use the words 'BBC family sitcom' without offending the Gods of cool TV. With Modern Family in the US, new life has been brought into a genre that often felt like it hadn't moved on since the 1970s template Butterflies by Carla Lane.

Indeed, the phrase 'family sitcom' was often used as shorthand to describe everything that was wrong with British comedy. And it's easy to see why. My Family was a big hit with audiences for its first few series, but as programmes like Peep Show and The Office came to prominence, people found it harder to accept the artificial nature of the audience sitcom, and the fug of mawkishness that tends to surround any audience show featuring small children.

So Guy and Andy, two of the most experienced and brilliant comedy writers in the country, created a model that combined a non-audience realistic feeling show with the best aspects of the audience family sitcom.

Outnumbered, if you never saw it, took the classic family sitcom set-up - mum, dad, stroppy teenager, bonkers pre-teen and cute youngest - removed the studio audience, and  slightly improvised the script, so the kids didn't sound like they were spouting words from a page, but instead were talking like real people. 

(By the way, if you're hoping for a career as a comedy writer you should study Guy and Andy's record. Like many of the best writers they began by sending in sketches to topical radio shows. That was more than 40 years ago. Since then, together and apart they've written on and created some brilliant comedy shows, including Drop The Dead Donkey, Kit Curran Radio Show and Andy's series Bedtime. And like many top comedy writers, they have remained largely unknown outside of the business. If you know Andy at all it's probably through his acerbic contributions to News Quiz and Have I Got News For You.)

You'd think no one would ever want to make a family sitcom again in the old style, but the TV networks can't get enough of them. Sitcoms are nearly always about putting people together in a room who would rather be with anyone else, anywhere else. As James has pointed out on our podcast, when he watches two friends being horrible to each other in sitcoms he shouts at the telly 'leave, just leave, you'd never stand for that in real life.' But when the person being horrible is your son, or your wife, it's not so simple.

'Family sitcom' is such an all-encompassing phrase, especially if you consider that programmes as diverse as Steptoe and Son, The Royle Family, Frasier and even Fawlty Towers can be included.

Actually, you can look at many other sitcoms and think of them as part of the family family. Porridge is an obvious example, substituting the metaphorical prison of family life for a real one. And its not stretching the analogy too far to cast Mackay and Barrowclough as the harsh husband and his well-meaning wife, with Fletcher protecting Godber like an older brother shielding his innocent sibling.

If you're struggling to make your stories work, imagine your characters not necessarily as two workmates, or two friends sharing a flat, but as siblings, or mother and son, or husband and wife. Wasn't The Office one big unhappy family? Daddy Brent stomping around all over the place, mummy Tim clearing up after him?

Or with Seinfeld, you can imagine Jerry as the dad, a typical American sitcom dad, he puts food on the table, but is otherwise a loving observer of his family's foibles - George, the neurotic mum who tries everything and fails - while wacky son Kramer is always getting into scrapes and daughter Elaine keeps falling for the wrong guys.

In fact there’s a whole range of American sitcoms that you wouldn’t think of as family, but which conform to many of the genre’s forms. The great M*A*S*H, like Porridge, has a group of people forced together who end up acting like classic sitcom family characters to maintain their sanity. This was followed by Cheers and Friends, which offered a refuge from the traditional idea of what a family is, by creating families of their own.

Recently, when I've been trying to develop new sitcoms, I've started to imagine, for the purposes of character and story development, that every sitcom is a family sitcom. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's a great way of helping to define your stories, as well as giving your characters reasons to push against each other.

For instance, imagine your new sitcom is about a boss and their immediate subordinate: are they in a parent-child type relationship? Or are they like a husband and wife? Are the people close to them closer to one or the other of the main characters? Is one of them always trying to prove themselves to the other? However you answer those questions will help to give some direction to your story.

The BBC often say they’re looking for audience sitcoms featuring ‘the monster’, the big character around whom everyone and everything revolves. Instead of tutting and sighing at this complete abdication of originality – well you can do that too, just don’t dwell – why not accept this requirement and try something different within it? Maybe look at that monster as a spoilt child? That immediately gives you two characters around it, one who indulges and the other who tries to fight it. Already you’ve got something that might potentially be interesting.

It may not provide comedy gold every time, but it helps when you're working out how your characters and stories interact. Indeed you may not even end up with a family sitcom, but hopefully the relationships between the main characters will have an added authenticity for being rooted in familiar relationships.