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The rocky road to sitcom stardom

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After the panning of stand up Jason Byrne’s sitcom Father Figure came a piece in The Independent on Sunday last weekend drawing attention to the paucity of decent stand up-driven sitcoms. It’s certainly true that stand ups don’t have a formidable track record in the UK in terms of crossing over from one form to the other.

Stand ups who ‘flopped’ with sitcoms include those mentioned in the piece (Sue Perkins, Daniel Sloss, Chris Addison, Harry Enfield and Rhona Cameron) but also Frank Skinner, Eddie Izzard and Lee Evans – and there must be plenty more I have forgotten in the ‘canon’.

But has it all been one-way traffic?

Whether you judge the issue from the point of view of critical or popular success there are exceptions including the mainstream successes of stand up Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys and Lee Mack’s Not Going Out (though he’s the sole writer on it). Meanwhile, among those that enjoyed praise and tried something different are 15 Storeys High (Sean Lock), Lead Balloon (Jack Dee) Phoenix Nights (Peter Kay and Dave Spikey) and Black Books (Dylan Moran and Bill Bailey).

So is there a pattern after all? Perhaps not, and perhaps stand ups and sitcoms are not such a dubious mix. After all, consider too that some of the best sitcoms were written by a stand up – Ben Elton – and some of the worst ones were arguably written by Ben too.

Whatever the variance in quality and popularity, the future will only see more stand ups with sitcom vehicles: Greg Davies’ quirky Man Down is imminent, Davies’ co-star and fellow stand up Roisin Conaty has a sitcom pilot coming. Meanwhile, the likes of Micky Flanagan and Rhod Gilbert are surely due for a sitcom outing one day?

One way to guarantee that future outings might have a higher rate of success is for TV execs to try and coax stand ups away from having to write everything themselves. The benefits are obvious if you look to the American experience where team-written sitcoms have produced mega vehicles for stand ups Seinfeld and Roseanne Barr.

We might expect our stand ups to maintain their singular state of mind for their live tours, but no one would blame them if they cultivated a team of writers around them – if this luxury was afforded them and if the script process suggested it was needed.