Friday, 16 April 2010

On Comedy: Can A "Political" Sitcom Work?

Welcome to the show folks...

Tonight, I'm going to step back from my usual ranting and raving about the movie business, and look at comedy. What works, what doesn't, and why they work or don't.

Recently I read that Arianna Huffington, gadfly pundit and founder of The Huffington Post, is producing a sitcom pilot about freshmen members of congress.

If it's picked up for a series, it will not last a season.

That's the fate of the majority of politically themed shows in American television, especially politically themed sitcoms. Only a handful lasted more than a season, and the most successful, NBC's
The West Wing, was a drama. Politically themed sitcoms like most of Norman Lear's failed attempts at a TV comeback rarely last more than a handful of episodes before oblivion.

So why do they fail?

In order to explain their failure I must use an example of what I consider a truly successful political sitcom, a show that not only deftly handled politics, but is still watchable today. I'm talking about the British show Yes Minister, and its sequel series Yes Prime Minister written by Sir Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.

The premise is deceptively simple. It begins with politician Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) being appointed to run the fictional Ministry of Administrative Affairs for the British government. Upon his appointment he engages in a war of wills with his Deputy Minister, a career bureaucrat named Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne). Hacker has ideas to change things, Appleby has a desire to maintain the status quo, and both are willing to do whatever it takes to get their way.

Now here is why the show worked and why American shows don't:

1. It dealt with politics, not issues. Most American attempts at political sitcoms dealt with issues that were specific to the time and place where the show was made. YM/YPM dealt with the absurdity of getting things done in government, the nitty gritty mechanics of politics. The issues really didn't matter, just the machinations the characters engaged in to get their way. I just recently started watching the reruns on my satellite dish, and for a show that ran 30-25 years ago, it's still very fresh and funny, and outside of name of the now defunct Soviet Union, still surprisingly relevant.

Watch most politically themed American shows, and they seem well, very dated, and become that way very quickly. I doubt even the long running drama
West Wing will be watched very much in reruns for very long.

Why do the creators stick to issues instead of politics? Because the people behind the show want the sort of short term relevance that'll get them awards, accolades, and invites to all the smart parties, instead of creating a true, evergreen, classic.

2. Characters. When the show first started Minister Hacker was naive, publicity hungry, and often easily played by the sharp Sir Humphrey. As the show progressed Hacker evolved into a shrewd politician, who learns from his mistakes and can if not best Sir Humphrey every time, at least do it some of the time, or in rare cases, finagle some sort of mutual victory.

Neither character is portrayed as being wrong or right, good or evil. They are both either trying to do what they think is best for the country, or at least doing what they can to personally survive or get ahead.

This is where shows with political setting fail in American comedy. There is an unstoppable impulse to brand one side right/good, and one side wrong/evil. Those who act as mouthpieces for the political beliefs of the folks running the show are portrayed as occasionally quirky, but always on the side of the angels. Those with whom the show-runners disagree politically on those pesky dated issues are portrayed in broad strokes as either clownishly idiotic, cynically hypocritical, or downright corrupt and evil.

These characters never change, they never learn, they never adapt. The only way the saintly political heroes can't win every time is if the show's runners decide they want to make a statement about how corrupt and evil "the system" really is.

That may make good political stance, but it doesn't make good sitcoms. In YM/YPM there are no total saints, and no total sinners, just human beings trying to do what they think is the best they can do in the situation.

3. Audience alienation. In America there are about 35-40% of voters who are the die-hard "base" of their political party of choice, and the rest are independents who wobble, but overall, tend to lean a little more to the center-right than Hollywood would like to admit. That means that any mainstream entertainment program that portrays one political party as intellectually or morally superior over the other, is guaranteed to piss off at least 50% of the viewing public at any given time.

This is especially strong when characters are held up for ridicule not because of what they do, but of what they believe. When a patriotic or religious character is made out to be an idiot or hypocrite at best, or a downright villain at worst, a lot of patriotic and religious people are going to tune to something else that feel doesn't insult them or their beliefs. Like cable TV, the internet, video games, or talk radio.

The beauty of YM/YPM was that you never learned what political party Hacker belonged to, because it wasn't important. He was a professional politician, Sir Humphrey was a professional bureaucrat, and that was all you really needed to know.

Toss in Jay and Lynn's intricate plotting, and cleverly constructed dialogue that makes sweet love to all facets of the English language, and you have a classic that can still be enjoyed decades after its initial run.

So, let's see if this new show is going to make it to air, and if it does, how long it will last.


  1. Nice article with very good insights on "Yes Minister". I don't think Brit TV is immune from partisan politics. Take, for example, "The New Statesman". One of my favorite shows even though it leans left. The show started off fairly even handed and then changed over time into a kind of anti-Thatcher anti-conservative screed - and may well have had a hand in her and the conservative's downfall.

    As for American TV, I think you're rather out of date. It was certainly true that when there were only 3 networks that shows tended to try and avoid political controversy, although shows like McGuiver and The Smother's Brothers were aimed solidly at the left. With the advent of cable the audience split and channels like HBO, Showtime, Comedy Channel and even the cartoon channels could go crazy taking on Reagan and Bush, while shows like "Law and Order" amoungst others have a serious left leaning POV.

  2. I was specifically talking about sitcoms set in overtly political situations. Like shows about Presidents or Senators. (Sketch comedy & stand-up bits are a totally different story & can survive on a smaller, more fractured audience than a mainstream sitcom which is the very specific genre I was discussing.)

    As for New Statesmen, it's a classic example of what I think was how to do it wrong. By targeting a specific party and specific issues, it started out well, but dated itself pretty badly really quickly. Telling you more about the attitudes of the people who make TV than what it's like to actually run a government.

    As for L&O's frequent political stances, that's a case of what's supposed to be a crime drama that's been stinking up their own ratings for the sake of getting Rene Balcer an invite to a bbq at Barbara Walters' summer place in the Hamptons, and is only surviving because NBC literally has nothing else. I used to be a huge L&O fan and watched it religiously, but its political stances made it so boring & predictable, I had to give it up. All you needed to see was a cross, or a flag to know who was guilty. Where's the drama when there's no mystery?

  3. Excellent! Well put! This article should be ensrhined in the library of congress! I couldn't put it any better myself (even though I tried to once).

    The formula for success is so simple, sometimes it boggles my mind how blind to it Hollywood can be.