Hybridity in TV Sitcom: The Case of Comedy Verité
Trisha Dunleavy / Victoria University of Wellington
In 2004, registering the arrival of a ‘new wave’ of situation-based comedies, indicative of which were BBC’s The Office (2001-3), ABC Australia’s Kath and Kim (2002-5) and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-), Brett Mills underlined that “something is happening in sitcom,” an assertion that ran counter to the predictions being issued by TV industry commentators that the live action sitcom – a primetime staple through more than 50 years of television – was dying.1 Later that year, Mills described The Office as ‘comedy verité,’ a label that acknowledged its hybrid innovation as a comedy that fused the conventions of traditional sitcom with those of ‘reality’ TV sub-genre, the docusoap.2 This column considers the hybrid nature of comedy verité and – arguing this label’s relevance to the increasing array of sitcoms that reference the concepts and aesthetics of ‘reality’ TV – the set of conventions that now constitute it.
Encouraged by the conspicuous success of the above innovators and by the continuing popularity and prevalence of ‘reality’ TV programming, new examples of hybrid sitcom – including Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-6), The Office (NBC, 2005-), Extras (BBC, 2005-7), Flight of the Conchords (HBO, 2007-) and Summer Heights High (ABC Australia, 2007) – have continued to appear and succeed. Although these examples different from each other in concept, narrative approach and visual style, the comedy verité label – which recognises their conceptual and aesthetic debt to ‘reality’ programming – is one that can both unite them as a sub-genre and distinguish them from the three other variants (multi-camera, single-camera and animated) of contemporary sitcom programming.
Instances of genre hybridisation in television have often been overstated, particularly where the flexibility and fluidity of TV genre – defined by John Fiske as “a shifting provisional set of characteristics which is modified as each new example is produced” – is being underestimated.3 Yet, if hybridisation is evident anywhere in television, it is in forms whose blend of conventions can be sourced to generic categories which have been historically distant from each other (such as comedy and documentary), as opposed to those (such as drama and comedy) which have been closely related. Comedy verité’s hybrid status is justified by its blending of conventions from sitcom and ‘reality’ docusoap, the latter being itself a blend of “observational documentary” and “character-driven drama” as Annette Hill has noted.4 This fusion of elements is apparent in the following six main conventions that characterise and distinguish comedy verité programmes:
- the use of a situational premise that reconciles the progressive potentials of ‘reality’ docusoap with the sitcom’s conventional stasis and entrapment;
- narration through ‘reality’ TV’s verité-styled aesthetics, specifically its ‘on-the-wing’ camerawork and direct address;
- characters who, exploiting the additional opportunities afforded by verité-styled aesthetics, acknowledge the camera and/or try to manipulate what is being recorded;
- the striking of a narrative balance, down to the structure of the individual episode, between the self-containment and circularity of sitcom and the seriality of most docusoap;
- a focus on the kind of flawed, incorrigible characters whose entertainment credentials were established by sitcom and adapted by ‘reality’ docusoap via the recruitment of suitable figures from real-life;
- a self-consciousness in comic performance which, encouraged by the verité-styled interplay between characters, the camera and sometimes including the programme-makers, increases the edgy discomfort of the resulting humour.
Conceptually, comedy verité marries the sitcom’s situational stasis with the usually progressive, real-life situations constructed in docusoaps. Proliferating on British TV in the 1990s, docusoaps have favoured institutional settings, although as evidenced by pioneering example, Sylvania Waters (BBC, 1993), family milieux have been equally appealing, albeit more contentious options. What characterised these programmes as docusoaps and not documentaries was that “rather than proposing an argument about the function or role” of the milieu at issue, as Ben Walters underlined, their focus was “strong characters who were entertaining in their own right.”5 Using situations that emulate those of docusoaps, verité comedies create a premise that is more overtly grounded in humour and brings sitcom’s potential for seasonal longevity. Whether workplace-oriented (like The Office and Summer Heights High) or primarily domestic (like Arrested Development and Kath and Kim), the comedy verité concept emulates that of the sitcom as an entrapment scenario in which characters – juxtaposed to foreground their conflicting personalities or ambitions – are inescapably ‘stuck’ together.6
As an aesthetic that informed both the ‘direct cinema’ and ‘cinema verité’ documentary movements emerging in the 1960s, verité’s aesthetic markers have included a handheld ‘on-the wing’ shooting style, actuality images and sounds, direct address to camera, and ‘loose’ editing, these indicating reduced subjectivity in documentation.7 As ‘reality’ TV developed in the 1980s, these aesthetics were adapted to the different purposes of light entertainment and programming geared to interrogate ‘the personal.’ As exemplified by The Office, Arrested Development and Summer Heights High, verité comedies use the above markers of a proximity to ‘the real’ in the highly constructed context of a fictional situation and a scripted narrative that is performed by actors. With their verité aesthetics helping to maximise self-consciousness in performance, these comedies gain potentials for humour that are unavailable to other live action sitcoms.8 Their characters ‘act up’ for the camera, try to manipulate what is being filmed, and offer additional self-revelation through ‘confessional’ interviews. Verité comedies produce their most cringe-inducing moments as a result of interventions of this type – a ‘classic’ being the jealousy-inspired, yet excruciating dance that David Brent performs for his colleagues just prior to his being sacked in Episode 5 of Season 2.
In narrative terms, verité comedies offer more structural flexibility than other live action sitcoms. Sitcoms have been distinguished within television narrative by their resolute stasis and circularity – things rarely change, if at all.9 Hence, sitcoms are conventionally structured as self-contained, circular stories, whereas in docusoaps the tendency is cumulative, serialised narrative. Verité comedies blend the docusoap’s seriality with the sitcom’s containment and circularity, featuring resolving, episode-specific stories or material but often framing this as cumulative developments in season-long story arcs. Yet narrative structures vary between different comedy verité examples, underlining their structural flexibility. Whilst the episodic tendency of Kath and Kim and Flight of the Conchords is consistent with that of conventional sitcoms, The Office and Summer Heights High blend ‘series’ with ‘serial’ features, using their ‘stories-of-the-week’ to inform and progress their serialised central narratives.
Characterisations in comedy verité combine the sitcom’s preference for flawed and incorrigible characters with the docusoap’s emphasis on opinionated, difficult, or deluded individuals plucked from real-life. Vital to the ability of docusoaps to generate very high ratings (as BBC’s Driving School did in 1997 and MTV’s The Hills has done more recently) has been their ‘creative casting’ of participants as ‘characters’ whose conflicting personalities are juxtaposed to heighten viewing pleasure in the resulting display of ‘naked’ emotion. Being scripted fiction rather than opportunistic faction, however, verité comedies maximise these character possibilities via their reliance on actors, well-rehearsed movements and scripted dialogue. As exemplified by The Office’s David Brent, Summer Heights High’s Mr. G, and Flight of the Conchords’ Murray Hewitt, comedy verité’s most legendary characters are aspiring but failing professionals. Their dreams of career success are thwarted as much by the gap between their over-inflated self-image and inadequate performance as by their persistent, sometimes spectacular, inability to see themselves as others do.
Although comedy verité is but one strand of the broader diversification of sitcom since 1990, its rising prominence is exemplified both by the enduring popularity of NBC’s version of The Office (2005-) and the international success – as finished programmes and/or format adaptations – of the other examples mentioned above. Exploiting the new outlets for humour facilitated by its hybridity, comedy verité has upgraded the live action sitcom for a popular culture now steeped in the aesthetics, concerns and even the jargon of ‘reality’ TV. Working alongside multi-camera, animated and single-camera form as a fourth variant of contemporary sitcom, comedy verité has also contributed to the necessary revitalisation of one of television’s oldest, most cherished genres.
1. NBC’s The Office
2. Kath and Kim
3. David Brent Dance
4. Greg Gregson
Please feel free to comment.
- Brett Mills (2004a) “New Jokes: Kath and Kim and Recent Global Sitcom: Something is Happening in Sitcom”, Metro, Issue 140, p.100. [↩]
- Brett Mills (2004b) “Comedy Verite: Contemporary Sitcom Form”, Screen, Vol. 45, No.1, pp.63–78. [↩]
- John Fiske (1987) Television Culture, London and New York: Routledge, p.111. [↩]
- Annette Hill (2005) Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television, London and New York: Routledge, p.27. [↩]
- Ben Walters (2005) The Office: A Critical Reading of the Series, London: British Film Institute, p.63. [↩]
- Mick Eaton (1981) ‘Television Situation Comedy’, in Tony Bennett et al (eds.) Popular Television and Film, London: British Film Institute, p.37. [↩]
- Brian Winston (1995) Claiming the Real: the Documentary Film Revisited, London: British Film Institute, p. 211. [↩]
- See Mills (2004b) pages 69 and 71. [↩]
- Eaton, ibid. p.33. [↩]
I like the point of how the serial sensibility of the comedy verite sitcom may be derived from docusoap influence…also the notion that reality TV has expanded the character types of the sitcom, and not just its visual style. I’d also like to offer for consideration my article, “Comedy Verite? The Observational Documentary Meets the Televisual Sitcom” in the fall 2007 Velvet Light Trap, which mostly considers comedy verite as an distinctive mode of producing live action sitcoms.
Great discussion! The television sitcom is certainly in a period of transition at the moment, under the influence of other changes in the television landscape such as reality television with its own roots in documentary practice. I have written about this also in an article in Continuum:Journal of Media and Cultural Studies (June 2008): Playing the television field: Kath and Kim and the changing face of TV comedy”. As well as drawing on Brett Mills’ attractive concept of comedy verite, I think it is important to situate the changes in sitcom within the field of television production more generally. In this way, John Corner’s (2002) argument for TV’s “postdocumentary” style is relevant also.
It is interesting to note how successful this genre of sitcom has become at the bottom of the world. How the traditional sitcoms served up from the UK and the US are popular on television but when it comes to emulation both Australia and New Zealand have been less successful. In New Zealand for instance Melody Rules (19930 was a spectacular bungle and Welcome to Paradise (2007) suggests we have learnt little. However as we have taken up the form of verite we have seen a growing asurance in the way we perceive and are willing to laugh at ourselves. Serial Killers 92003-4) seems to me to have taken up the form and over the past few years with such as Wayne Anderson has seen two series as has The Pretender.
It would also be interesting to try and define why this form has succeeded where a lot of other (carefully noting, not all) have failed.What is it about the sense of humour in this part of the world that embraces ourselves in this form but can still enjoy Raymond, Ross and Andy Millman. Allied to that is how the more ‘unreal’ single camera comedies such as Scrubs both transgress and embrace aspects of the form.
I find your argument about how comedies, such as “The Office” (2005- ), are merely a hybrid of older situational comedies and the docusoap to be very interesting. According to Graeme Turner’s article “Genre, Hybridity and Mutation” in the Television Genre Book, programs tend to retain some of the ideals of the genres that are combined. As you pointed out, comedy verité retains aspects from both sitcoms and the “reality” docusoaps, which is a great example of hybridity and mutation.
However, I find that things change over time with a series. In the American version of “The Office” for example, the show is more series than serial. As you point out, there is the overreaching season-long arch that occurs in these types of shows. However earlier episodes of “The Office” remain self-contained. The serial aspect of this is lost until the end of the season, where producers play catch up for the “big reveal”. Genre, even in hybrid, responds to its audience. It can be assumed that the audience response was more positive toward the serial format than the series format. It can also be assumed that viewer response to the docusoap genre has diminished in recent years since “The Office” plays out as sitcom, with the characters less aware that they are being filmed and even more outrageous episodic plots.
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Such an interesting article! I love how it compares and contrasts the traditional style of comedy with the new style. In class I was glad that we compared Ray Romano with Tim Allen’s style. Both entertain their audiences in different ways. Allen has an older style of comedy from the 90’s that still entertains audiences everywhere, while Romano a newer style of Allen’s comedy. Trisha Dunleavy points out that America is losing the traditional form of comedy. These days, it is hard to find shows that have good taste in jokes and material portrayed.
“With their verité aesthetics helping to maximise self-consciousness in performance, these comedies gain potentials for humour that are unavailable to other live action sitcoms”
– Trisha Dunleavy
Arrested Development is not like most sitcoms, in that it has a particular home movie feel to the footage. In this FlowTV article written by Trisha Dunleavy she talks about how the new age of documentaries merging with sitcoms has offered a new kind of television show to audiences, “Conceptually, comedy verité marries the sitcom’s situational stasis with the usually progressive, real-life situations constructed in docusoaps”
I agree with her article entirely based off of Arrested Development’s success. Even though the show was cancelled in 2006, there is enough of a viral following for Fox to begin negotiating a new series in 2012. These kind of television shows attract a different audience than live action sitcoms.
“Verité comedies blend the docusoap’s seriality with the sitcom’s containment and circularity, featuring resolving, episode-specific stories or material but often framing this as cumulative developments in season-long story arcs” – Trisha Dunleavy
This comment also gives me something to think about when related to Arrested Development. By using this certain kind of television structure the show was able to focus on the characters and their lives instead of having singular episodes where the characters don’t evolve, like Seinfeld. Although this isn’t necessarily an important factor for a sitcom, I think it allows audiences to become more attached to the characters and their lives and therefore the show. By using this structure more people could attach themselves to the Bluth family, because otherwise they wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
After reading this FlowTV article about hybridity in television I think it has helped support a new kind of sitcom that will continue to be created as time goes on. With shows like the Office and Arrested Development it is apparent that people can connect well with arched storylines. Creating static characters was interesting ten years ago, but now with all of the reality television and television dramas people want more than a simplistic character in funny situations, they want something they can connect to. This is exactly what shows like Arrested Development have started to do and I see it happening into the future.
I think that the television industry, much like the music industry is often captive to its own horse leading the cart mentality. Hybridity is in! The sitcom is dead! The fact is that a few shows gained in popularity, possibly due to this style of format that made it different from the norm, possibly due to it’s content and then the industry response to its success is to take that formula and duplicate it to excess, creating a new monotonous normative. The episodic resolving nature of the sitcom worked in television, where bing watching was not the norm, nor was it easy to get back to a missed episode that was necessary in epic format. Now that has changed, freeing up the industry to be more creative. This could be worth exploring, however the extent of creative growth for industry is to try another documentary style sitcom. Many people didn’t like the first to begin with! It would behoove producers to take a look at trends that are happening on tik-tok or Youtube. While there is a heap of content that is not worth attempting to reproduce that is strangely popular, it exemplifies the just how open the general public is to different ideas and styles. Rather than clinging to one as the latest trend (there are a million influencers jabbering on youtube while playing a video game that have gained in popularity, despite any real content, presentation style. It is truly confounding!), focus on the content of the material presented. I don’t think the world needs another “Office-style” TV show any more than it needs another “Nickelback” band. It sure doesn’t need another Youtube influencer rambling ad-nauseum about nothing, despite it’s popularity. Don’t be so quick to recognize a break in the mold and use it to create another mold! Take a cue from the music industry refusing to recognize the creative explosion coming from artists being freed to create music with no limits created by industry. Hire talented people to create new things and stop trying to duplicate success by diddo copy. I think we may be giving way too much credit to a documentary formatting, when after all we have been breaking the fourth wall since the beginning of the film industry.
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