The Sitcom Auteur
This is a late-night post, and will likely be fairly rambling, but I wanted to get thoughts down before I forget them in a baby haze.
In watching C4’s 30 Greatest Comedy Shows, which I caught half of the other day and the end of tonight, I noticed that of the top five shows, three were by Graham Linehan. The importance of these particular shows — Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and Black Books — and their place in the overall comedic output of the UK in the contemporary era is something to give thought to. But there’s something particularly interesting about the fact that one person would be at the centre of all of these shows.
Thinking about it, the idea of a sitcom auteur is something new. While there were common personnel in previous sitcom eras, there were very few creatives who could be given auteur status. Norman Lear stands out as the exception to the rule, although given the amount of adaptations he produced, it’s difficult to really give him that title. True, he made the formats his own, and without his creative influence they wouldn’t have been embraced by the American market, but can he be considered an auteur for translation? Probably not.
What’s more, even the other prolific sitcom creators of the ’70s and ’80s — the MTM team, the Charles brothers — only have recognition for their creative roles in retrospect. While the ‘from the creators of’ tagline has been used in new show promotion for some time, the identity of those creators is often unknown. The audience primarily knows the how, not the creator.
However, in the contemporary era, this seems to have changed. Whether this is the result of more powerful individual creative voices and styles, a different type of over-saturated celebrity culture, or something else is something to consider another time. What’s important to note is the number of sitcom auteurs that are becoming known in their own right, whether they are performers within the programmes or not.
For example, Ricky Gervais is very much an identifiable auteur. His creation of The Office gave him much-deserved attention, and this was carried on to all of his other projects. However, the auteur title can also be given to Stephen Merchant. While Gervais is the more commonly recognized, most likely because of his on-camera roles, Merchant is also given the appropriate credit for his creation of The Office and Extras, in particular. This has now been carried over to giving him recognition for his Gervais-free project, Hello Ladies.
Another obvious sitcom auteur is Larry David. In terms of American sitcom, David challenges Lear in defining the style and voice of a generation of sitcom. Though often given the explanatory tag of ‘the co-creator of Seinfeld’, David’s role as auteur is inarguable. His style of comedy is highly identifiable across projects, and his attachment to a show gives the audience an idea of what they can expect.
The same can be said of Linehan’s work to an extent. Audiences know the type of comedy they will get in a Linehan sitcom, and his involvement is a draw in an of itself. His personal presence, whether on Twitter or as a voice of sitcom/television comedy on various popular documentary shows, has also helped reinforce his auteur status.
The idea of a sitcom auteur, if not a new development, is something that has grown to a new level in the contemporary era. While earlier sitcoms were identified by the other shows their creators had created, the sitcoms of the auteur era are identified by their creators directly. The sitcom audience has been able to look beyond the star to see the creator, something that reinforces the filmic quality of the post-1990 genre.