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The medium, the message

James Cary


What's the difference between a sitcom and a movie? It sounds like a set-up to a joke where the answer is an amount of money, or an abstract noun. Something clever and unexpected. Well, as someone who works in sitcom, here are some more factual answers.

Movies are designed to be an event. You're expecting people to leave their homes and go to the cinema to watch them. That means that once you have them in their seat, you can take your time to establish your story and character. You've got at least ten minutes to set the scene, have your hero drive home from work, stop to pick up some shopping, play ball with their kids and fix dinner before crazy uncle Steve arrives. Or a letter is opened that changes everything. You've got time to establish the key characters and that's even before you discover why the hero has to drive across the US in a forklift truck or propose to 50 people in two days to inherit a fortune - and in the process find true love and forfeit the huge amount of money that they'll end up getting on some kind of technicality.

In a sitcom, you've got 28 and a half minutes if you're on the BBC. That's 21 minutes if you're on CBS or NBC. You need to establish your characters and plots fast so you can escalate, complicate, entwine and resolve them with a large public event when the hero makes a fool of themselves and saves the day in a way they hadn't intended before the credits roll. They've not come to the cinema to see your show. If they're bored, they'll change channels. Get on with it.

But there's one key difference between sitcoms and movies. In sitcoms, nobody changes. The characters never learn. Week after week, our favourite characters make the wrong choice, do the wrong thing in a way that we can predict - although it's up to the writers to make the consequences of that both unpredictable and hilarious.

On the surface, Fawlty Towers appears to be about a beanpole who is a ball of rage. In fact, Fawlty deserves his problems because he's a snob. He wants to be running a classy hotel and is appalled at the poor quality of the guests so he feels he can be rude to them and dismissive oftheir complaints. Which makes it a bad hotel. In sitcoms people don't change and don't learn and pay dearly for it. T

he lore surrounding Seinfeld (one of the greatest TV shows of all time, surely) gives the impression that the creators came up with the idea that there should be 'no hugging and no learning'. But in any sitcom, the characters will fail to learn. Or there's just nothing to see. If Basil Fawlty learnt his lesson and suddenly became at peace with himself, the world and Sybil and Manuel, there'd be no tension, and no show. In Seinfeld, though, you didn't even get that moment when the characters have a chance to learn or are self-reflective like they are in Frasier or Friends.

In movies, however, people do change. They go on a journey, starting in one place, thinking one thing, and ending up in another place, thinking another. Or come home and it's where they were always meant to be but didn't realise it.

It occurred to me recently that the rich young ruler who seeks out Jesus in Mark Chapter 10 has to make a decision about the medium of the story he's found himself in. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. In so doing, he shows himself to be self-delusional, like most sitcom characters. When Jesus asks him if he's kept the commandments and not murdered, committed adultery, stolen, lied, swindled or dishonoured his parents, the man replies that he's been a good boy. Yeah, right.

But Jesus knows his real problem. This guy loves money. So he tells him to get rid of it all. That's his weakness and the cause of his worries about his place in eternity. Get rid of the money and you can have it all. The man's response would determine whether he was in a movie or sitcom. Would he change and be a different person, or would he continue in his self-righteous delusion and addiction to money? Verse 22 is chilling. 'At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.'

This guy's in a television sitcom. He'd met the author of life, and walked away unchanged doomed to repeat his mistakes week after week. Put like this, it isn't funny, but tragic. But it's a choice we all face. I'd rather see the movie.