Are British Sitcoms Really Better Than American Sitcoms?

This head-wrecking debate all started with ‘New Girl’, the latest batch of American comedy to fill our screens…

Brian Charity


Here’s a game. Who wrote the classic British sitcom The Office? And who wrote the classic American sitcom Friends?

Answers at the end please. Now let us begin.

Cup of tea. Check. Raining outside. A lot. Check. Feet up. Check. ‘Insert pet’ fed. Check. Put on the tele to watch something before you start your homework/drinking/both. Check.

What is on? Check now. How often can you put on the television and stumble across the middle of an episode of The Office, and just watch on until the end? Rarely. What about good old-fashioned British comedy like Rising Damp or Dad’s Army? Never. But what about Friends? Or Glee? Or The Big Bang Theory? Or How I Met Your Mother? Always. The difference? American.

From the outset I am a huge comedy fan of work from both sides of the Atlantic. I was brought up on Monty Python and Blazing Saddles. My first tape was Mr. Bean. I’ve seen every episode of Fawlty Towers and Friends. I own box sets of American and British sitcoms. And I’m stuck. Why can’t British sitcoms do what American sitcoms do? Why can’t you flick on an episode of Alan Partridge, having missed the first ten minutes of it, and just keep watching it? Why do I have to watch all of Father Ted (Irish, I know), instead of missing the start of it and just joining in somewhere around ‘Feck’ and ‘Arse’?

Whenever I flick on E4 and I’ve missed the start of The Big Bang Theory (usually a set up and some mild innuendo), I don’t turn off the television and wait patiently until E4 +1 comes on to find out the Leonard has a date and Raj has made some sort of wanking joke. If I flick onto Friends, I don’t sit and try to work out what happened in the episode before, or which one this series was. I don’t care that Bruce Willis is stuck in the middle of a plot that I haven’t seen the full three-act progression. It’s the guy from Die Hard! And he is a love machine!

Yet if I find out there is a double bill of Extras coming on, (fingers crossed it is the Les Dennis one), then I will be in front of the television five minutes before it begins, remote in hand, feet up, twitter at the ready. Does this make it better? Or worse?

That I could sit through six episodes of Kings and Queens and not have a notion what happened in the first one suggests that it doesn’t grab your attention. And arguably that would be correct. I don’t remember the jokes. I vaguely remember the plot. But the fat guy fell down and that’s funny. Fat people falling is always funny. And I think he fell in the third episode. Or was it the fourth? What does it matter? It’s late and I’ve had a good time.

If I were to do the same with Extras, I would know the plots, the set ups, the jokes, everything. It is as if British sitcoms stay with you longer. The characters sit in your heads longer. You will always remember what makes British sitcom characters special; Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Alan Partridge, Father Ted, Bernard Black… all of these people are fools. Clowns. Embarrassments. Failures. We don’t know anyone like them but we don’t have to. They are memorable.

Play-along-at-home-time. What is the distinguishing trait of the six characters in Friends? And why are they different to British characters? Answer? We know them. Why? BECAUSE THEY ARE REAL PEOPLE. Secret is out. Friends is based on you and me. Everyone at some point has said “He’s like the Ross in our group,” or “she’s so Rachel”. (Alas, as I have very few friends, I am both Ross and Rachel.) Sex and the City took the unnerving sight of a gossiping gaggle of girls and put individuals into it. Everyone is like one of the Sex and the City girls. (I’d be the ginger one if you’re asking.) HIMYM has got the exact same idea. Who is the ‘playa’ in your group? You are Barney. Who is in the relationship? Marshall and Lily. Who is the Canadian news reporter?… You get the picture.

This is the strength/weakness of the American sitcom. Rarely do you get a sitcom from that side of the world where it is solely about one character and one character only. Ensemble casts rule the waves. What’s that I hear you ask? Curb Your Enthusiasm is about one character, isn’t it? Correct. It is. And it is incredibly funny? Damn straight. But doesn’t it seem a bit… I don’t know… British?

There is a gigantic difference between the creation of American and British television. Quite often, American television has a whole team of writers who can create a system, colour it in and give it a title. Episode one, two, three, four… done and dusted. Every episode of Friends is the exact same in terms of plot and story (believe me, I have worked it out.) Sex and the City mirrors each that came before and sure as hell will be pretty similar to the next one. They shake it up by throwing tits in at different stages. The Simpsons is notorious for starting an episode with something, then totally shifting it about three minutes in. Thus creating an episode. Every episode. And how many episodes does SATC, Friends and The Simpsons total? 3 million… ish…

The UK has a different view to writing. Rather than the actors being key to the show, the writers are key. It is their baby, their beautifully crafted machine that churns out very poignant and timeless and sweet and thoughtful episodes. If you get a series which is more than 12 episodes it is a rarity. Six episode series, seven with a Christmas special.

This head-wrecking debate all started with ‘New Girl’, the latest batch of American comedy to fill our screens. It is good, albeit not too bright (notably neither are the characters, who’d like that?!) The girl is all kooky and weird (like most… all girls). The guys consist of a sports guy, a desperately-in-love-with-your-ex guy and a guy who wants sex all the time. Fit yourself into one of those three. I dare you. It is not big, nor is it clever. I heard someone describe it as Bridget Jones mixed with Friends. That is all it is. It is Friends, but from a woman’s perspective. A woman who is accepted for being who she is. Ain’t that what we all want? *Clicks fingers*

If ‘New Girl’ was written by a British woman for a British audience, it’d be the same, right? A kooky, clumsy girl who likes to sing and does funny dancing… Miranda… Very different. Very… British.

And that question I asked you at the start. Let’s see your answers.

The Office was written by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais. Give yourself a tick.

Friends was written by 40 different people. Put an ‘x’ beside that one.

So which is better? I don’t think I’ve answered it. Because I don’t know. But there has to be a right answer, a winner. There always has to be a happy ending. That’s what sitcoms have taught me.