What is the difference between sitcom and comedy drama?
It’s a question that the BBC is making a bold attempt to answer. Head of Comedy Jon Petrie announced in May that the shows they are seeking mostly from new writers are self-contained narrative sitcoms.
They defined three categories where they’re asking for scripts: “broad”, “family” and “young.” Current examples of their definitions include Not Going Out and Bad Education (broad); Ghosts and Here We Go (family) and People Just Do Nothing and Man Like Mobeen (young).
These cover a huge range of topics but share one characteristic: none could be defined as comedy drama.
When BBC Writersroom begin their open call for comedy drama scripts on Wednesday 9 November, we’ll all have a clearer idea at least of what they won’t be wanting.
This has brought much-needed clarity to a subject that has been dealt with vaguely for a number of years. But we’re still not completely sure what’s required.
Sit Com Dram
What is meant by the phrase “comedy drama”? What do they want?
It’s a relatively new term, spawning the hideous portmanteau of “dramedy”. That’s at least better than the alternative coined by comedy writer Nev Fountain of “coma”.
The form is as old as theatre itself. The Greek writer Aristophanes was famous for his dramatic political stories but wasn’t afraid to throw in the odd fart joke to please his audience. 2,300 years on, the combination remains a winning one.
The Romans were equally inspired. Two thousand years ago Plautus and Terence were creating character types that remain familiar: horny adolescent, his dirty old man dad, arrogant boastful coward, parasite, fussy matron and sweet uncomplicated virgin. Which sounds like the cast list for every Carry On film.
Theatre and performance didn’t get much of a peek after the fall of the Roman Empire. From around 500 to 1000 AD theatre was looked down on by the church leaders. You didn’t want to get on the wrong side of them. I wonder if the phrase “dark” meaning “theatre with no show” originated from this period known as the Dark Ages.
The Definitive History Of Comedy Drama
The form developed in the second Christian Millennium. Chaucer, Commedia dell’Arte, Shakespeare, you probably know a lot of the rest.
Apologies for not dwelling on the history. I’m merely trying to point out that when commissioners say “we can’t honestly tell you exactly what comedy drama is,” you can look at what’s been going on for centuries and take a stab at coming up with something that may at least be on the right lines.
For the purposes of this BBC opportunity it makes more sense to begin with the TV era. This brings us back to the question at the start of this piece. To work out what a comedy drama TV script looks like, we’ll need to define it separately from sitcom.
Sitcom was a 20th century invention based on new technology. It began with radio but is now mostly defined by TV. The first sitcoms were made by BBC radio in the 1940s, but the form was brought to popularity by American TV, in particular the shows I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners.
It was us, with our Shakespeare and Chaucer and men with booming voices, who first added drama to the sitcom.
Wikipedia says the first TV comedy drama was a US military-themed show from 1969 called Hennessy but they’re wrong. Because everything we think we know about TV comedy drama is not based on facts but opinion. And in my opinion the first comedy drama to appear on TV was Steptoe and Son, by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, which began in 1962.
So much British and American comedy still has its roots in this show. It’s no coincidence that the newest BBC comedy writing award is called the Galton and Simpson Bursary. That appeared around three months into the pandemic and spoke to the origins of the relationship between the two men, who fell ill with TB soon after the end of the last war and met in a sanitorium where they were recovering.
Steptoe and Son for those who have never seen it is a sitcom set in the home of Albert and his son Harold, who work together as rag and bone men. They are permanently poor, trapped by poverty around the time that social mobility was beginning to have an impact on society. The working classes were moving up in the world, being educated, getting office jobs, studying, going out, having fun.
Not Harold and Albert though, they were trapped. Trapped by poverty sure, but also by the ties of family, by Albert’s selfish fear of life without his son. By Harold’s use of all of this as an excuse to stay trapped.
There’s so much in that last paragraph that resonates with our favourite shows across the decades – the “family as prison” of Frasier and Succession, the deluded self-improvement of Basil Fawlty and David Brent, the house-ruling dictatorships of Mrs Boswell and Alf Garnett.
And at the heart of the show: two people who can’t stand each other, trapped together in a room. When you put it like that, Steptoe and Son sounds like every gritty drama you’ve ever invested in. Except it’s a comedy show, packed with jokes and comic twists. And unlike drama, nothing changes. We come back the following week, and the next, and they’re still trapped partly by their circumstances but more by the comic flaws in their personalities.
Just as we can look at our love of mouthy stand-ups on panel shows and trace them back to Just A Minute (first aired on BBC Radio in 1967) we can see the origins of our favourite boxsets, must-see dramas and Netflix binges in the story of two West London rag and bone men.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s there was a TV show that brought comedy and drama in equal measure to millions of homes in the UK, twice a week and it was called Coronation Street. Some of our greatest TV writers began on the show. Jack Rosenthal in the 1960s (Barmitzvah Boy, London’s Burning), via Paul Abbott (Shameless, Clocking Off) and Kay Mellor (Band of Gold, Fat Friends, Playing The Field) to Frank Cottrell Boyce (Welcome To Sarajevo, Butterfly Kiss) Sally Wainwright (Last Tango In Halifax, Gentleman Jack) and dozens more.
Look at that incredible list of shows and writers, some of our greatest ever drama comedies.
Returning to 2022, what does a comedy drama script look like? Is it packed with gags, like Daniel Peak’s Code 404? Or drama laced with humour, like Lisa Holdsworth’s adaptation of the Herriot vet stories?
From August 19 I’ll be running a series of emails about what makes a comedy drama. Along the way I’ll be hearing the views of both of those writers.
I have no connection to the BBC Writersroom opportunity, you can find details at the end of this blog. But in this world of opinions and grey areas I’ve tried to find ways to help writers think about the best approach to writing a comedy drama script.
We’ll look at how to write your episodes, and how to leave the readers wanting more at the end.
And we’ll be investigating the contradiction at the heart of “dramedy”: in comedy, characters never learn from their mistakes; in drama, they do.
Write to me firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll sign you up for the emails. Look forward to hearing from you all.
Or am I…? (Editor’s note to Dave: Cliffhanger ending needs work).