FeaturesJanuary 13, 2015

Lost at Sea: Why Sitcoms Continue to Divide America and Britain


United by history and language, but very much divided by humour, Elle Hunt says America and Britain reveal their national character through the dispositions of their sitcoms. //

It’s the last vestige of a once-great empire: the belief, persistent in the face of the fish-slipping sketch and Mrs. Brown’s Boys, The Benny Hill Show, or any other show in which a man in a dress is in and of itself a gag, that British comedy is smarter, darker, just better than that of America.

In a poptimist’s world where the line between high and low culture is redundant, in which no distance cannot be overcome by time and money or at least a half-decent internet connection, it’s hard to believe that such an attitude persists. Yet it does.

I grew up in England, but have lived in New Zealand for long enough that the only clue is my quasi-British accent – I’ve even managed to kick the tea habit. My Basil Fawlty-esque father, however, embodies that quintessential British paradox of being at once damning of the motherland while taking it as given that it is the greatest country in the world. It’s not even patriotism – that implies at least an element of cheerleading. To him, the United Kingdom is just manifestly superior, despite the ever-increasing list of things that are wrong with it.

My father also makes a point of not reading books by women and chalks up Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile’s crimes to their being “of a different time”, so I mean, I take it with a pinch of salt. But as with any problematic worldview you pick up from your parents, it took me years to shake his belief that British television – British anything, even food – was the best in the world.

At high school, eager to define myself but with no more meaningful a way of doing so than likes and dislikes, I flew my Union Jack high. In my Year Nine speech on the differences between British and American humour, I posited that the former was more edgy, biting, witty, nuanced. Aside from The Simpsons, I graciously allowed.

Like all teenage outcasts convinced they’re the first to discover Monty Python, I pointed to American sitcoms’ reliance on canned laughter as proof of their less discerning audiences, chuckling on cue like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the bell.

I was only familiar with pallid, inane shows like Spin City and Everybody Loves Raymond that seemed to play ad nauseam after school on TV2, and familiarity had bred contempt. It obviously took real taste to appreciate this:

With the wisdom that comes with a decade and a Media Studies degree, I know now that there is good art and bad art and that its country of origin is mostly besides the point. And that Dad isn’t right about everything. (That’s what you call $30,000 well spent!)

There are fewer and fewer cultural differences between the United States and the United Kingdom – but some remain.

It’s ignorant to say that British television is better than American, but it is different. Why would a remake of Broadchurch – with the same writer, director and star – be commissioned, if not for another audience? Peep Show, Parks and Recreation, The Inbetweeners, Sex and the City, Sherlock, The Thick of It, The Wire, Frasier – all are rooted resolutely on their respective sides of the Atlantic. Could whimsical detective drama Midsomer Murders, with its high teas, country manors and frankly unfeasible body count, translate to the States? Maybe, but it would look a lot more like Desperate Housewives.

The explanation that’s most often trotted out is that Americans don’t get irony, but it’s more that they don’t want it all the time. Which is, frankly, understandable. If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, much of British television is a bitter pill indeed. “[Irony] is like the kettle to us: it’s always on, whistling slyly in the corner of our daily interactions,” wrote Simon Pegg in The Guardian. “To Americans, however, it’s more like a nice teapot, something to be used when the occasion demands it.”

When, as a teen, I learned that my favourite-ever series was being adapted for the American market, I considered it a genuine affront to genius, and shook my head sadly at what a terrible, tasteless pastiche of the perfect original it would doubtless turn out to be. And when The Office US did make its debut, I felt validated: much of the pilot episode was lost in (oddly almost verbatim) translation from the British.

But it struck out on its own for its second season, finding its feet amongst its supporting cast and Steve Carrell’s larger-than-life Michael Scott, and became a masterful piece of television in its own right.

Comparing Scott with the original text, Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, is revealing about the different approaches of Americans and the British. Both are meddling middle managers from hell, self-absorbed past the point of delusion and goose-stepping far beyond the boundaries of appropriate office conduct.

But there’s a warmth, an affability, to Scott that there isn’t to Brent. He’s egotistical, offensive, irritating, but his intentions are good. Scott’s mortification at having called a gay staff member ‘faggy’ (“You don’t call retarded people retards, it’s bad taste. You call your friends retards when they’re acting retarded”) is heartfelt, if misplaced.

Scott and Brent are different sides of the same coin, but Brent runs harder and colder. He’ll fire an employee to save face, whereas Scott will step in to save the day, even if he never does let them forget about it. When Brent is redeemed, it’s at the last hurdle, in the final minutes of the second Christmas special. It’s all the more moving and memorable for its fleetingness – an unexpected and welcome moment of relief after 13 episodes of digging the hole ever deeper.

In British television comedy, warmth is a pay-off; in American, it’s a constant. Simon Pegg refers to its as America’s capacity for “emotional openness”, and it doesn’t travel well across the Atlantic.

Parks and Recreation’s celebration of being a good friend, a hard worker, a contributing citizen can err on the side of saccharine; the characters of Green Wing and Black Books, two comparable British workplace comedies, gleefully reject all responsibility.Though both look at life behind the scenes in showbiz, 30 Rock never plumbs the same dismal depths as Extras. Veep, though a spinoff of The Thick of It set in the States, lacks the original’s wild-eyed venom. (Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are notable exceptions.)

It makes sense. Overt displays of emotion make the British uncomfortable. We bury feeling under humour, irony, understatement, a man in a dress – anything to prevent our worst nightmare, ‘a scene’. In all eight seasons of Peep Show, a series about two cohabiting best friends, there are maybe three exchanges in which they admit to liking one another. In schoolyard comedy The Inbetweeners, there are even fewer.

One upshot of the wryly humorous, domestic bleakness of British television – labouring over the exact change at the corner shop, barbecuing and eating a love interest’s dog to get rid of the evidence of having run it over – is that it’s not as conducive to binge-watching. The hours pass slower at Wernham Hogg than they do at Dunder Mifflin. There are only two seasons of six episodes of Fawlty Towers and the UK Office: any more of Basil’s incident pits or David Brent’s fusing Flashdance with MC Hammer shit would be over-egging the pudding.

The US Office has nine seasons – including one and a half without Michael Scott. Friends, one of the first American sitcoms to crack Britain, has ten. British series tend to be written and developed by one or two people, then taken to production, before being released into the world as a perfect whole.

The American approach of developing a show over time with a large group of writers means subplots can be fleshed out, characters introduced, the flames of romance fanned or put out. For fans, there’s potential for return on your investment: Joey and Rachel got together because there was demand for it. You could imagine a stubborn British showrunner in the same position holding them apart just to be difficult.

That, in a way, sums up the difference between the two. The British find comedy, even comfort in the grim realities of the day-to-day – in the fact that at rock bottom, at least it can’t get any worse. In America, comedy can be a conduit for empathy, not just a cover for it. The UK Office makes me want to never work again, but Parks and Recreation makes me want to work harder, and maybe bake something to take into my colleagues.

They’re not worlds apart, but they’re maybe different worldviews. One certainly makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning and face the day; the other might take your best dress and a bigger fish than the other guy’s.

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