November 15, 2013 6:10 pm

Making sense of humour in sitcoms

‘Where British comedy is baggy and berserk US comedy is pitch-perfect, risk-averse and cute’

If you’re lucky enough to be retired, or unlucky enough to be ill, you will know that a day has many more hours in it than you thought possible. There is a belt of time that is little seen, or even talked about, by most of the working population. Stretching from about 10am to 3pm is the ritual that used to be known, more than a little disparagingly, as daytime television.

There was good reason for the condescension. Traditionally, the middle of the day has not portrayed the medium in its best light. The surreal combination of pettily prized quiz shows, foreign soaps and 1970s cop dramas may have become cultish viewing for student stoners but made little impact on more discriminating critics.

But that has all changed now. Television has exploded into a multitude of serious providers, and they compete to fill their schedules with quality programming at all hours of the day. On a recent week off, I was bewitched by the British TV channel E4 and its daytime offerings, which consisted of a seemingly endless loop of three US sitcoms: The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and Rules of Engagement.

The shows were not well-known to me but they are now. I watched them in a seamless rush and, after several hours of viewing, decided they were basically the same show. The same sharply observed jokes, the same expert acting, the same relentless inoffensiveness. Where British comedy is baggy and berserk, with results that range from the horrible to the inspired, US comedy is pitch-perfect, risk-averse and cute.

You have to go back to All in the Family’s Archie Bunker, a genuinely odious counterpart to Till Death Us Do Part’s Alf Garnett, to find a major American comedic figure who couldn’t care less whether he was loved or loathed. Compare and contrast with the two versions of The Office, in which Steve Carell’s Michael Scott gets nowhere near the obnoxiousness of Ricky Gervais’s David Brent.

Watching Big Bang, Mother and Rules for hours on end during my feverish week was to fall into a kind of trance. There was a musical shape in the delivery of the jokes, each exchange metronomically calibrated for maximum effect. The jokes are mostly funny and some, about two or three per episode, are very funny.

There is almost always a moment of slapstick, and almost always a “high” culture reference that will be understood by a small minority of viewers to make them feel less guilty about watching popular TV. The US sitcom is democracy in action, catering for all tastes, inclusive of all creeds and colours, and never more than five seconds away from a warm moment.

None of these sitcoms is pioneering in the way that Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm played with the very form of TV comedy. They represent the mainstream of situation comedy: the situation never fails to feel contrived, the comedy never fails to exploit its improbabilities with a deft touch. Arguments are played out for effect, friendships are threatened and repaired in the space of minutes.

And yet they should not be dismissed as superficial. The best sitcoms, however trivial they may seem, often hint at broader truths about the societies from which they come. Will and Grace, which ran for eight years around the turn of the millennium, was said to have done more to change attitudes towards homosexuality in the US than any other single piece of art or entertainment. Comedy can be a Trojan horse, distracting with laughs even as it embeds previously unpalatable ideas into its audience.

. . .

Watching my daily troika of sitcoms, I was struck by the casual portrayal of social interactions that would have been considered taboo a couple of decades ago. While all three shows centre on groups of friends who gather in cafés, bars and well-kept apartments, the fluidity of their relationships is constantly surprising.

In some ways these are the themes of Shakespeare: love triangles, petty jealousies, betrayals, heartbreak. But they are dealt with lightly here, and with a cheerful sense of experimentation. Nowhere is it considered shocking that a woman should have as diverse a sex life as a man. The concept of the family unit, far from sacrosanct, is happily ridiculed.

In Big Bang, we are asked to laugh at all those brilliantly honed minds that have changed our lives through science but that are comically incapable of surrendering themselves to feeling. Where is Captain Kirk when you need him?

A visiting alien, or the Supreme Leader of Iran for that matter, could do much worse than join me on the sofa for an hour or two each day to understand the complex dynamics, mired in complication but ever hopeful of satisfying resolution, of American society. To find the comedy in any given situation is among the noblest of human attributes, and is only to be encouraged.

peter.aspden@ft.com, @peteraspden

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