UK comedy writer Ben Elton has made a staunch defence of the studio sitcom, blaming critics for snobbery and warning “we are in danger of losing something of real value in our culture.”
Giving the inaugural BBC Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture, Elton argued if they are not given a chance beyond a first series they will die out.
“All that [effort] makes these shows very, very expensive. An expense that frankly is easy to duck if you’re just going to get slagged off for doing it anyway,” he said.
“While there’s nothing we can do about shrinking budgets, fractured audiences and TV companies turning their precious facilities into prime real estate, it might help if commentator, critic and columnist alike stopped treating studio sitcoms with such thoughtless contempt.”
He highlighted classics such as Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Only Fools & Horses and Absolutely Fabulous.
“They are part of what it means to be British. And yet … the form is routinely dismissed and often despised.
“It really is a sort of snobbery and I say that reluctantly … but I make the charge none the less because I think we are discussing nothing less than a prejudice against joy. Corrosive, destructive and coloured I’m afraid by that ancient British cultural cancer – class.”
He cited the popularity of Mrs Brown’s Boys with audiences if not critics as evidence of this divide saying: “Mrs Brown is quality comedy, not to everyone’s taste of course but what work of art of any value could possibly be to everyone’s taste? It’s an exuberant, superbly executed celebration of what for want of a better word you might call ‘big comedy.'”
“A highly talented cast led by an inspired comic star giving an adoring audience a weekly object lesson in big, broad, farcical nonsense. What’s not to respect? But the show is afforded very little. Studio-based sitcom rarely is, at least not in its own day. Oh, it gets respected later, after everyone’s dead, we all know Dad’s Army is a classic now. But when it started the best it got was at best a grudging smile and at worst and angry snarl.”
He said another key difference between studio sitcoms and single camera shows, which tend to get more acclaim, is that “when a scene is recorded on a single camera it is made in pieces, covering first one character and then another. The characters in a multi-camera studio sitcom are really talking to each other in real time… In the live studio recording, you are seeing the actors natural timing, in a filmic sitcom you are seeing the editor’s interpretation of it. One style is captured fleetingly on the night, the other is assembled painstakingly in an edit suite.”
“I’d plea that when we write about comedy, be it in a newspaper or in a tweet, we shouldn’t leap to judgment. I don’t think any comedy should be judged on its first outing, particularly a sitcom which by its nature is designed for the long haul.”