Yesterday I gave a paper at the Midlands 3 Cities Film and Television Research Seminar at De Montfort University. The DMU Cinema and Television History Research Centre are inviting a representative from each of the Midlands 3 Cities universities, and I was representing Screen Cultures at Birmingham City University.
I presented the paper “What makes a sitcom “good”? Evaluation criteria and viewer identities in online audience responses”, which shared findings from a broader, ongoing study into screen comedy and online audiences. We had a really enjoyable discussion afterwards. I got some great suggestions for interesting case studies and data collection strategies, and some robust questioning that served as an important reminder that, for many researchers who aren´t familiar with the field of online audience research, it can seem like a pretty strange approach.
Most of the time I don´t know anything about the audience members I am researching. I don´t know if they are male or female, how old they are, what their education is, where they live, what kinds of films and TV shows they watch, how they watch them, and so on. And so I analyse their online contributions as discourse that is situated within specific online cultures. Or as utterances that are made within specific contexts and that contribute to different dialogues, if we think in Bakhtinian terms. My analysis considers how they construct screen comedy, how they articulate comedy viewer identities, and what that might have to do with the characteristics and conventions of the online spaces they are published in.
One of the issues I discussed in my paper was a debate around BBC sitcom Gavin and Stacey on one of the message boards on a website dedicated to British comedy. Several of the most prolific contributors on this thread self-identified as aspiring comedy writers, and they were particularly interested in discussing the script. This set the agenda for much of the debate, where several posters questioned whether Gavin and Stacey really had enough jokes to be called a sitcom and some suggested that it was actually a poorly written comedy drama. The show´s supporters, on the other hand, maintained that this sitcom just made use of more subtle humour, created through characters and comic situations, rather than punch line jokes. They stressed the show´s underlying tone of humour, praised its combination of comedy and drama, and described it as warm and charming. Some positioned Gavin and Stacey within a trend where some contemporary sitcoms have moved away from traditional jokes and gags, a development that was welcomed by some posters and lamented by others.
I think this debate demonstrates that the ongoing move away from circular narratives, the multi-camera shooting style and punch-line jokes means that some shows challenge audience expectations of what sitcoms are like. And while labels such as “sitcom”, “narrative comedy” or “comedy drama” may not matter much to many viewers, the shifting genre boundaries do present a challenge to those who wish to write sitcoms, who might be left unsure of what comedy commissioners and audiences are looking for.
Inger-Lise Kalviknes Bore is Award Leader on the MA Screen Studies. She welcomes applications from candidates wishing to do PhD research on comedy or screen audiences.