The BBC1 controller, Danny Cohen, was recently quoted as saying there were currently too many middle-class sitcoms on the BBC. This seems an asinine thing to say, and from someone so high up at the BBC it’s rather worrying. Admittedly, I suppose I would classify myself as middle-class, so perhaps I am biased in my opinion on this matter, however this title of “middle-class” seems to incorporate an extremely wide (and diverse) section of society that it’s almost rendered meaningless.
Surely the most fundamental issue where sitcoms are concerned is: is it funny? Is it sufficiently funny that there is an audience willing to watch it week-in, week-out? So what if currently there are more sitcoms on the BBC that are set amongst the middle-classes? This doesn’t mean that someone who is working-class (or upper-class for that matter) won’t be able to appreciate or understand the situations presented. Underneath all these labels we are all human, we all have a sense of humour. True, some people’s are clearly more deeply hidden than others, but humour is well-known for being subjective. As the clichéd saying goes, “you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all the time”.
This comment by Danny Cohen strikes me as coming from one of two possible perspectives. The first is that of a middle-class man who feels terrible guilt for his own privileged background, and to rectify this shame feels the need to make as many working-class-aimed programmes as possible; in this situation more working-class sitcoms with working-class heroes. The second is that of a working-class man with a chip on his shoulder about the BBC being painfully middle-class and needing a more diverse set of programmes to appeal to the varying sections of society, regardless of the quality.
Either way, this is not a good thing for sitcoms. As Heat magazine’s TV Editor, Boyd Hilton, mentions in this Guardian article, sitcom writers have enough problems getting their shows commissioned, without class-quotas being introduced, whether explicitly or implicitly. Speaking from my own viewing history, when I was younger I used to watch a lot of American sitcoms featuring black families such as Hanging with Mr Cooper, Sister Sister, Moesha and The Cosby Show. Now last time I checked, unlike Michael Jackson, I am unable to change the colour of my skin and I am painfully Caucasian. In fact I am often seen sporting corpse-chic, I’m that white. Think Nicole Kidman, just less skeletal and Botox-y. Oh yeah, and not female.
The fact that I am Caucasian, male and was, at the time, in my early teens, didn’t stop me from appreciating the hilarious goings on with people who were different to me. I can’t speak for anyone else, but things like class don’t factor in to whether I watch a comedy. As an atheist, I was still able to massively enjoy Dawn French’s vehicle “The Vicar of Dibley”. As a young, gay man I was still able to enjoy the hilarious goings on of a 20-something straight female in “Ally McBeal”. This idea that a sitcom will only be appreciated by viewers similar to the sitcom’s protagonist is utterly stupid and insulting to the viewer. Apart from anything else, it is highly selective to be picking on sitcoms for supposed bias when representing classes. Last time I checked all the main soaps (Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale), watched by millions every week and accounting for great swathes of the TV schedule, don’t have a large middle-class contingent in them; they’re almost entirely populated by working-class characters in a working-class set-up, but soaps have never been accused of class-bias. Funny that.