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TV: Brit sitcoms

Not Going Out...Free Agents... and the brilliant Being Human. Nicola Mostyn goes in search of a decent laugh on the box

Published on February 17th 2009.


TV: Brit sitcoms

REPORTS of a new UK comedy series are always received with mixed feelings. It could be another IT crowd, one yelps with excitement. But, hell’s teeth, it might be another copy of My Family. Or, worse, a new series of My Family.

Still, it’s only fair to greet with an open mind Channel 4’s new six part comedy series Free Agents (Friday, 10pm), starring Stephen Mangan (Green Wing), Sharon Horgan (from the slightly twisted, underrated sitcom Pulling) and Anthony Head (coffee ads, Buffy) as talent agents in London.

Alex (Mangan) has just left his wife and kids, spends his nights sleeping in his office and bursts into tears every time he has sex. Colleague Helen has huge pictures of her dead fiancée all over her house and is being hounded by a soggy, pathetic Alex, who wants to shag her and then possibly fall in love. Their boss Stephen (Head) is a puerile, swaggering dickhead who makes his employees detail their previous evening’s sex sessions during the morning meeting.

So far, so typical in a talent agents’ office – or so we assume since this new six part comedy was written by Chris Niel, an ex -talent agent. And divorcee.

As already mentioned, good, laugh-out-loud British comedies are hard to find. Sadly, we probably shouldn’t stop the search here. Free Agents is entertaining enough. There are some interesting moments (such as Helen forcing Stephen to say, “Hello Mr Magpie and how’s your fucking friend?” because she’s become deeply superstitious since her partner’s premature death). The acting, of course, is great and the premise – a group of employees working for demanding, ego-centric industry types while their own lives collapse around them - should provide a decent mine of comedy. But so far, it’s more of an “ahumm” sort of affair than a “Haw haw haw” kind of deal. Which is ok. But not what I was looking for.

If most UK comedy series are disappointing, I wonder if this isn’t because UK writers, instead of making their characters extremely funny, make them too true to life, meaning the show has to depend too heavily on physical

comedy or “hilarious” misunderstandings, for its laughs - I’m thinking Duty Free here – or instead pursue the sort of subtle, intelligent, sophisticated humour that you’d have to use a magnifying glass to find.

The Americans do it better. Will & Grace, for instance, gets around the humour problem by making two of its four main characters: bitchy gay guys, one a drunken, soulless lush and the last a trauma-prone fag hag. In the hyper-real world of gay Manhattan, all of them can deliver snappy one liners and remain totally believable.

Seinfeld got around the issue by making its titular character a stand up comedian. It’s his job to be funny. And if he’s funny, he’s likely to have funny friends. Which means that instead of the old sitcom style of having one of the characters saying insulting or sarcastic remarks and have the others rolling their eyes, the cast of Seinfeld got to revel in their own clever-cleverness, meaning we could too.

Not Going Out (BBC 1, 9.30pm, Friday) has borrowed the latter technique to great effect. Now in its third series, the show replaces New York for London, and treads the same ‘two guys and a girl’ format as Seinfeld, featuring as its focal point cheeky northern stand-up comedian Lee Mack as cheeky northern slacker Lee. Not such a stretch.

Another stand-up, Tim Vine, plays his stuffy, middle-class best friend, Tim, and Sally Bretton plays Lucy, Tim’s sister, Lee’s landlady and sort-of love interest. Continuing the Seinfeld analogy, there‘s even a Kramer-esque character in the form of kooky cleaner Barbara played by comedienne Miranda Hart. Although she’s a bit shit.

But the gags are great, there’s fantastic chemistry between the cast (particularly Lee and Tim) and the emphasis on cliched stereotypes and the ludicrous plot lines just go to prove that you can make great comedy out of those old traditional sitcom staples if your writing is sharp enough.

And I do like my sitcoms to have as much emphasis on the com as they do on the sit.

However, if you prefer more of the “sit”, then tune into BBC 3 and check out the supernatural comedy drama Being Human (Monday, 10.30pm). Tweaking the ‘two guys and a girl’ template, the show features a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost flat-sharing in Bristol, and balances brilliantly written, intelligent plots with really funny dialogue.

Big sigh of relief. British comedy is alive and kicking - and biting - after all.

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20 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Trick or teethFebruary 17th 2009.

Being Human is ] good. That Irish bloke who plays the vampire - Mitchell- can come and give me a good suck any time. It will be reciprocated.

AA GrillFebruary 17th 2009.

Surely Casualty is a sick-com?

DigFebruary 17th 2009.

Professor Chucklebutty on Question Time, now there's a thought. I have a friend who works for the BBC, at least he did last time we spoke. If you promise to talk exactly how you write then I'll put a word in for you. I owe you an apology Prof, I'm Green Flag Grill. I'm as guilty as you.

Green around the GrillFebruary 17th 2009.

Who's not Professor Chucklebutty?

Professor ChucklebuttyFebruary 17th 2009.

For me the best sit-com around is still the BBCs Casualty. Week after week of hilarious mishaps at home, work or out an about. All pouring into the emergency room moaning and groaning like a Victor Mildew choir, of course some of them end up with both feet in the grave. I recently saw some episodes on HBO in the states where they have put in the laughter track and some of the subtlety was lost. The star is of course Charlie Drake, who seemed to disappear after his leading role along side Bob Hopkins in the Gangster film The Long Girl Friday, with Helen Mirror. Helen of course gave a wonderful comedy performance as Mrs Merton in Elizabeth, and for once didn't expose her bussoms apart from when old Archbishop Runcie popped round. I doubt we shall see her popping out or up in casualty though, not unless Linda La Plank writes a few episodes.

Eli PledgeFebruary 17th 2009.

Bring back 'Nearest and Dearest'!

pantieFebruary 17th 2009.

Not Going out doesn't feel like a real sitcom- seems like a vehicle for Lee Mack to deliver his stand-up. Frank Skinner did the same with his sitcom which was awful. You can't beat Frasier for great characterisation and hence Good sitcom mixed in with pathos.

Professor ChucklebuttyFebruary 17th 2009.

I remember her, she was in the Spewits Of Southampton. Didn't she play the part of Emetic-May Clampett?and after one particularly large helping of Ham Hocks and Grits, she filled the cement pond all by herself?Anyway, I think it's you that's confused, the sick comedy you are thinking of is probably Arthur Worsley's Ventriloquist Medical Drama - General Hoskital. It ran for years, Lord Charles was in it with Ray Allan as the incompetent proctologist. Dr Silly Arse. Clearly this is not your area, stick to writing about what you know, chops and sausages.

professor ChucklebuttyFebruary 17th 2009.

I knew it wasn't AA Gills, I bet it was arch rival RAC Grills. The real Grills wouldn't rant on here, he'd have to put the chicken leg down for a minute. And anyway I happen to know that Grills knows his popular culture. When he's not burying his face in the Adelphi Brie and biscuits Bucket, he is flat out on the sofa with a box of pringles picking the creme brulee out of his hair watching Bravo or Dave. The imposter gave himse;f away when he called me Chuck. Only twoo people call me that, Cilla, the cheeky mare, and Nelson Mandela. Actually Mandela called me a complete Chuck Wit. I was very flattered. It was just after I arranged for Titchmarsh to sneak round and dig up his garden. He was so overcome with gratitude he didn't want me to see him cry and flung saucepans at me to make me leave before I could see the tears. I remember I shouted, Oy Nellie, you're in the African National Congress not the PAN African Congress, and then a skillet caught me on the temple and I had to be airlifted to Pretoria General. What a man. And what a shot!

AnonymousFebruary 17th 2009.

Funny!

AA GrillFebruary 17th 2009.

I suspect, Chuck, you may be getting confused with the famously peevish Hollywood comedy actress, Beverley Hill-Bilious.

murphFebruary 17th 2009.

Not going out is the first 'Laugh out loud' comedy - English or US I have seen in years. Absolutely bloody brilliantly hilarious. I need to find the first two series now!

Green Flag GrillFebruary 17th 2009.

Somebody pretending to be AA Grill eh? That's terrible isn't it? Who in their right mind would pretend to be somebody they're not Professor Chucklebutty?

Disco DuckFebruary 17th 2009.

Smashing idea Duffy. We could rename it The Wankers, in honour of you.

EditorialFebruary 17th 2009.

Hey, who's pretending to be AA Grill on here? No more of it or you will be removed!

duffy taylorFebruary 17th 2009.

Bring back the Wackers. Brilliant 70s comedy with Ken Jones about thick scousers with dirty habits living on the dole.It would be just as funny today.

Lucky GrillsFebruary 17th 2009.

Are yer sure it wasn't Bluey Hills?

Professor ChucklebuttyFebruary 17th 2009.

A&E Grill, no, no ! You are thinking of the ITV cop show, The Billious or Juliet Barfo. You are probably to young to remember one of the earliest comedy cops, "Dixon Has Gone Green" Heavin' all, he'd say at the start of every episode. He was a rubbish copper. While he was standing there, the BBC nicked his Police Box for William Hartnell who of course was the first Dr Finlay. That was filmed at Shepards Bush until they moved production to Scotland and Partick Thistle took over the role.

Benny HillFebruary 17th 2009.

I watched Being Human last night and although I thought it was utterly superb, I thought of it more as a drama with funny bits. Very inventive. Situation comedy has moved on a lot since the days of Bottle Boys, but that's no excuse for finding Will and Grace funny.

Professor ChucklebuttyFebruary 17th 2009.

I agree with Green Frog Grills, about these loons pretending to be somebody else. There is some bloke on You Tubes using my name and this woman called Gladys, although she may be my cousin. But what really annoys me is when people mistake somebody else for me and they are the ones who get to sit next to Dimbleby on Question Time. I have a question for him, where are his eyebrows? It's always happening. Somebody nicks my place. We all know who I mean, the Director of Liberty no less, an otherwise admirable person, but ready to jump in there and take my appearance fee just because of the semi literate booking agent at the BBC can't get the names right and keeps booking Shami Chakrabarti instead of me. Come on Missus, you've had loads of goes. You are very good but people want cheering up and a few songs. It'd be a different programme if I was there, going at Anne Widdicombe with me tickling stick. It's me Dimbleby keeps asking for. That Kirsty Walkman is after me too for Newsnight Review. I could have an intellectual wrestle on the sofa with the one who wrote the book claiming Enoch Powell was really a woman, the narky Aussie, Professor Germoline Greer. You know her, she used to live with John McCriricks until he left her for Edwina Curry. I'd be invited back every week. I could do what's happening in Emmerdale this week and Review The Dandy. What are they waiting for?

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