Overview of the British Sitcom, 1000 word essay

Discuss how the contemporary ‘British Sitcom’ makes reference to and challenges conventions of the genre.


The ‘British sitcom’ can be seen as a TV genre with a specific set of conventions, which are made reference to, or challenged, by different examples of the genre.  The term comes from the words ‘situation comedy’ suggesting that it is funny, and that it is set in a specific ‘situation’, usually a familiar setting such as a family home, or a workplace. It also draws on other conventions of ‘comedy’ such as generally having a happy ending. Classic examples of British Sitcoms would include programmes form the 1980s such as Only Fools and Horses and 1990s such as Absolutely Fabulous. In this essay, I will consider My Family as a classic sitcom, which follows most sitcom conventions and then look at The Office, Peep Show and The Mighty Boosh as more contemporary examples, which challenges genre conventions and change some of the ways we come to think of the genre as a whole.


My Family is shot mainly in a studio, using continuity editing to create a sense of ‘realism’. It uses an ‘everyday’ family, who can be seen to represent a traditional British 2.4 children household. All of the characters can be seen as stereotypes. The father can be seen to represent conventional masculinity and is the butt of many jokes, mainly when this masculinity is challenged, for example when his teenage daughter challenges his authority by setting up a dog walking business and getting him to give her the money she loses. It follows a conventional narrative trajectory, which is that it starts in equilibrium (the happy family), there is some disruption, and then it returns to equilibrium, re-affirming the family unit. In the episode we watched, the disruption is caused when it is suggested the mother is having an affair, in the end however, it turns out she isn’t, all of the lose ends are tied up and it reaches a sense of narrative closure.  This sense of a happy family, which undergoes some trouble, but then is restored as a happy family is a common feature of many sitcom narratives, including, for example, The Simpsons.


The Office is an interesting example of a more contemporary sitcom as it takes some conventional elements such as the traditional setting of the workplace, and the sense of realism. However, it hybridizes these conventions with elements from other genres such as the fly-on-the-wall documentary. It does this partly through the use of hand-held cameras and rough editing, which create a sense of ‘documentary realism’ rather than the narrative realism of conventional continuity editing. It also has moments when the characters address the camera directly. Again this is not a convention of the sitcom but is taken from documentary conventions, leading to the creation of a hybrid genre. In terms of narrative and characterization, it does however follow many conventions of the sitcom. Stereotypes of ‘’the ambitious bossy middle manager’, ‘the nice guy’ and the ‘guy who sucks up to the boss’ are used, but it could also be argued that they are exaggerated to such an extent to draw attention to themselves as stereotypes. This is particularly true of Ricky Gervais’ portrayal of David Brent, who exaggerates the character so much that it can be seen as a satire not only on the middle manager, but also on the stereotype of the middle manager. The use of a famous comedian suggests a further hybridization with other comedy conventions, those of stand-up or the sketch show for example, which allow Gervais to perform as an ‘auteur’, providing another element of difference to the conventional sitcom. The narrative trajectory follows the conventional expectations of sitcom. We expect that eventually the ‘nice girl’ will get together with ‘the nice guy’ and get rid of her boyfriend, who is represented in a negative way. This leads, eventually, in the final episode, to the narrative closure we expect, with the characters we have the most empathy for.


The Office is very self-aware as a sitcom. It could be argued that it has been so popular because it represents a situation and characters that so many people can identify with. It could seen as a parody not only of the sitcom but also the fly on the wall documentary, as it suggests that what is being filmed is actually really boring. A lot of the humour comes from the pure banality of the situation, the awkward pauses between the characters having mundane conversations for example, and it could be seen to represent a new strand of ‘documentary realist sitcom’, hybridising elements of the conventional sitcom with conventions of other genres. A development of this could be Peep Show, which takes the realist camera techniques to extremes by using many point-of-view shots and interior monologues, which in themselves cause much humour. The close-up point of view shots of kissing for example are strangely abstract and challenge usual sitcom conventions. Both Peep Show and The Office use more experimental camera techniques, along with more contemporary themes, in order to create a more contemporary feel, and appeal to a new younger audience. They do this through mixing conventions of traditional sitcoms with elements of other genres.


The Office or Peep Show can be interestingly compared with other recent sitcoms such as The Mighty Boosh, which instead of taking the realist convention of the sitcom to an extreme ‘hyper-realism’, takes the opposite approach and takes a realist settting (working in a zoo) but takes this off in multiple surreal dimensions. This happens mainly through surreal narrative developments, Naboo losing his Shamanic powers and going off on his flying carpets to meet the other shamans and get them back for example. The Mighty Boosh creates humour from the fact that highly surreal elements, such as living with a monkey and a shaman, are presented in a highly realistic way, as if that was the norm, as in the conventional sitcom. It also allows for a lot of improvisational banter between the two main characters.


To summarise, genre conventions are something that constantly evolve and change. Contemporary British Sitcoms can be seen to currently follow either the trend of ‘hyper-realism’ suggested by The Office, or the trend of ‘hyper-surrealism’ suggested by The Mighty Boosh. Both strands however, can be seen as developments of the classic British Sitcom.