OK, something a little silly.
I suspect there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to sitcom writing. There are so many different ways of doing it. The establishment of conflict is perhaps the most important thing, provided that the laughs come first. There are, instead, a huge number of Things That Work: the recurring gag, the catchphrase, or the unusually named pitbull cameo (the establishment of a particularly funny, frequently gimmick-laden character who appears for only a short space of time in each episode, steals whatever scene they’re in, and promptly disappears – cf. Inspector Crabtree in ‘Allo ‘Allo). Indeed, unusual names for such idioms is the order of the day, frequently deriving their origin from the shows that were known to pioneer them. The Very Special Episode is one such example. Hey, even the terminology for a show that’s gone down the pan is named after a specific incident in one specific instalment of an otherwise much-loved institution.
I dearly, dearly wanted to come up with something special for the trope I demonstrate in this video, but I couldn’t come up with one. Instead, you will have to cope with the utter banality that is ‘the joy of repetition’. I make no apologies. It was getting late and I wanted to get the thing finished; it had taken far too long as it is.
When I was in my late teens / early twenties everyone was crazy for a man named Alan Partridge. He’s still very popular. Partridge’s appeal lies in his incredible lack of tact and generally disgraceful conduct with people he knows intimately and the complete strangers with whom he interacts. He is sneaky and uncannily self-aware, but is very good at getting himself off the hook, or so he thinks. He is the master of the awkward moment (he interrupts a grieving widow at a funeral so he can take a call from an electrical store) and the politically incorrect retort (when talking about the Irish potato famine, he reflects that “at the end of the day, you will pay the price for being a fussy eater”).
But one of the most famous scenes in the history of the show comes when Partridge greets a new-found friend (who turns out to be a lecherous swinger) by shouting his name across a car park. For thirty seconds. It’s not clever, or well-written, but by God is it funny, for no reason other than that it is utterly absurd.
A few years after Partridge swept across our screens for the first time, comedian Dylan Moran teamed with Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig (with the writing skills of Father Ted creator Graham Lineham) to bring us Black Books, the tale of a sociopathic alcoholic bookshop owner, his hippyish assistant and the dysfunctional girl next door. Black Books started well and then swiftly jumped the shark once Lineham departed, but the early episodes are awash with absurd dialogue and ludicrous situations – Manny hides inside a piano, playing it with spoons so that the tone-deaf Bernard can impress his girlfriend; Fran masturbates to The Shipping Forecast only to have it interrupted by a book reading from Joe Pasquale; Bernard turns the bookshop into a restaurant, drinks as much red wine as he can so that they can use the empty bottles as candle holders, and shoves pieces of the oven into a pie that poisons his guests. And that’s before we get to the tower of soup.
But one of the funniest – and most memorable – scenes in the show was in an early episode that features Manny wearing a head massager and shouting ‘Bernard!’. For thirty-four seconds. It’s not clever, or well-written, but again it’s funny, even without the punch line.
And then there’s The Big Bang Theory.
I blogged about this just the other day – chiefly concerning Thomas’s uncanny resemblance to Sheldon – but certainly TBBT is built on recurring gags. If you produce twenty-four episodes a year, you have to repeat yourself a little, so Raj’s inability to talk in a room while Penny is around (at least for the first two and a half series, which is how far we’ve got) is almost as common a theme as Sheldon and Leonard’s verbal tennis over the contents of the evening’s takeaway, or Sheldon’s bewildered astonishment whenever anyone takes ‘his’ seat.
But the most common recurring gag in TBBT is the door-knocking: it’s always three groups of three, and it’s always funny – particularly so when they subvert it, as you can see in a couple of the examples here. It encapsulates Sheldon and his relationship with the characters around him – and, in turn, their own relationship with him. It has its own poster. It’s something I do whenever I want to lightly annoy Emily without making her cross. She even laughed the first time.
But let me confess something. If I’m honest, I put this together for my brother, who loves all three shows. I’ve gone on about characterisation and pacing and repeated gags, but that’s just commentary. I have no real point to make – the ‘sitcom tropes’ I spoke of are really just an afterthought. In my head, the segue from Bill Bailey into Jim Parsons into Steve Coogan worked rather nicely – and it even worked on screen, once I’d tightened up the editing. So this is a moment of unabashed silliness from yours truly; a deeply personal dip into nostalgia and shared nights over a couple of beers with my younger sibling. Still, I may do a part two.