Essential background notes for sit-com


30 mins; studio based – same i.e. repeatable sets; private spaces; communal ones; conflicts; use of stereotyping; repeated actions, motifs, catchphrases, costumes etc.;



Most jokes function through familiar techniques –

  1. Setting up a supposedly normal situation then disrupting viewers expectations – Del at the bar;
  2. Building humour around the shared prejudices of the listeners / viewers by using stereotypes of the ‘outsider’ – Manuel in Fawlty Towers;
  3. Confronting taboo subjects in challenging or irreverent ways – Will and Jack being gay.



  • The audience shares a sense of what is normal but normal is merely what the dominant ideas and values of our society are – i.e. white, middle-class, male views!!
  • They are reassuring experiences in which ‘our’ values are reinforced.


UK versus US sitcom:

    US built around funny women particularly following in the footsteps of Lucille Ball in ‘I Love Lucy‘; UK’s are built around frustrated males who constantly aspire to be or do better but consistently fail. Our tradition started with Tony Hancock in ‘Hancock’s Half Hour.‘ Our funny women remained as support. Wives were long-suffering and had to put up with the childish behaviour of their overblown and overgrown kid of a husband. Even Dorothy and Debs in MBB!

    US written by teams of writers, UK usually by individuals or pairs. Mostly male writers too for they were writing for male characters. Women here appeared as simple stereotypes in classic roles such as the wife, mother, angel, harlot e.g. Victor Meldrew’s long-suffering wife in One Foot In The Grave, Yvette and Rene’s wife in ‘Allo ‘Allo, the mother in Carla Lane’s ‘Bread‘, June in ‘Terry and June‘, Hattie Jacques’s character to her ‘brother’ played by Eric Sykes.


Carla Lane was the first serious sit-com writer to write good female parts.

Examples of persisting stereotypes:

Long suffering wife / girlfriend


Frustrated spinster

Miss Jones, Grace, Will

Ditzy (blonde)

Karen! Phoebe

Semi-senile mother

Rene’s mother-in-law

Philandering husband / boyfriend

Rene, Gary

Nymphomaniac / slut

Patsy, Lilo Lill (Bread)

Mouthy (shopgirl)

Janice (Friends)


Hyacinth, Mrs Slocombe

Pompous buffoon

Captain Mainwaring

Lads about town

Gary, Tony

Henpecked husband / son

Jerry Leadbetter

Accident prone gormless bloke

Frank Spencer, Joey

Surrealistically thick oaf

Father Dougal; Owen (Vicar of Dibley)

The fat one

Jim Royle, Roseanne

The British Policeman


The Italian Waiter


The super snob

Margot, Karen, Hyacinth, Mary-Anne (Cybill)

Etc, etc



Most characters start out life as stereotypes but given enough time writers can fill out the characters and confound the first view.

Though they rarely make huge changes, never learn and never evolve they nevertheless seem quite realistic.


In the UK many revolve around the undermining or subversion of masculine representations. We are able to laugh at characters who express a range of extreme views or prejudices e.g. Alf Garnet or David Brent, Rigsby or Alan Partridge. Yet sometimes these characters tread a fine line such that some of the audience instead of accepting the received ‘reading’ of condemning their views ends up sympathising with them.

Steptoe and Son‘ changed the format and expectations of sit-com by having as much drama and pathos as comedy. Instead of comedians his show had two well-respected actors; this led to a strand of thoughtful comedies like ‘Butterflies.’ Where there are a lot of major characters stereotypes are easier for the writers to deal with.


What do these male characters have in common?

They cannot talk sensibly / or sympathetically to other characters e.g. Alan Partridge in the clip we saw of him at the funeral of the previous commissioning editor of the radio station where he wants his old job back. David Brent and the interview clip where he employs the girl regardless of her qualifications or interest in the job. Victor Meldrew always finding fault.

Sometimes they are unable to dress appropriately e.g. Patsy in Ab Fab (she is the token male!)

Tony and Gary while not being as extreme as some of their predecessors are still exaggerated versions of masculine representations.


Remember all the characters are constructions – not real! Built out of technical aspects that all programme makers use. This means:

Narrative position


If you wish for example to refer to Homer Simpson as constructed as stupid or lazy, it is better still to discuss how this fits in to the programme’s and (the audience’s) view of gender.


Humour plays a great part in determining how we understand the values of the text.

Comedy is also used to privilege some characters while distancing others.



A case study of Men Behaving Badly

The opening sequence tells a lot about the gulf between the genders.

Locations, behaviour, even the language they use and much of the humour comes from the incompatibility of the two sets of representations.

  • Location reminiscent of student flat – immaturity
  • Newspapers – The Sun, The Independent
  • Taboo behaviour – breasts, farts
  • Editing / mise en scene – divides down gender lines
  • Casting – Clunes, childlike; Quentin, maternal, wise; Tony, childish; Debs, sexy, intelligent.


The comedy in this series derives from the tension between male and female, between expectation and reality. However hard the girls try their men are unteachable oafs.


(Ab Fab by contrast relies on the mixing of gender representations, subverting our expectations in order to create comedy out of masculinised women and feminised men.) MBB works hard to preserve the gender differences. When Dorothy visits Gary’s pub in order to teach him a lesson for his snobbish behaviour, she attempts to show him what living with a man is like – at first he enjoys it until the bar man takes exception and bans them both!! The disruption in this episode is in Dorothy’s behaviour, it is resolved when they are barred but we know that equilibrium will be restored and he will be back in the pub next episode and the gap between the genders will remain as wide as before to ensure the continuation of comedy for the rest of the series.


Specific notes: when Gary farts he is shown in a shot on his own but when Dorothy does it she is in a two shot with Gary and we can see the reaction immediately. Separation of m+ f can’t be bridged or the comedy is lost.

Gary is exaggerated – a juvenilised male. Dorothy is the ‘normal’ viewpoint here –maternal and cuddly and disapproving!


Ab Fab

The living room has extravagant works of art, reveals consumption of alcohol and drugs, devotion to fashion and the uninhibited lifestyle that characterises Patsy and Edina’s behaviour.

Set up to be aesthetically pleasing, rather than functional, good to look at rather than to use.

The inversion of the dominant view of women and their homes is sustained through the inversion of Eddie’s role as a mother. Saffy the daughter is in fact the mother in this household as she has to look after her unruly parent and the kitchen is her domain not her mother’s.


Ab Fab also turns the role of men upside down. Neither Patsy nor Edina are dependent on men or relationships for their emotional well-being. Though there is no male to serve as a foil for the women, the environment is often constructed as hostile to men. Patsy is in fact the sit-com’s token male. Her excessive appetites for alcohol and men, her jealous guarding of her relationship with Eddie, her bouffant hair, exaggerated make-up and extravagant designer dresses, along with the way she is lit, strongly suggests another archetype of mixed gender qualities – the drag queen and as such she is very popular with the gay community.


Useful supplementary sources of information:

Also research the individual programme, many of them have their own web-site!



Why do you think older comedies like Dad’s Army, ‘Allo ‘Allo, M*A*S*H and The Good Life are so popular with today’s audience?

Has the genre really changed?


Helpful hints for the exam

Write the names of the two episodes you are using at the top of your essays.

Also write:

  • Date or title of episode
  • Names of director, producer, writer, main actor’s names and if known previous roles.
  • Production company and other progs made by them
  • Channel of broadcast and time in schedule, original or subsequent
  • Names of critical writers you mention

Don’t use slang

Sustain the comparison of your two episodes across the essay – this is more effective than writing about one then the other.


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