From Alex Griffiths:
In a recent article you wrote about the historic difference between British and American panel shows and I wanted to share my theory.
I think that there are two factors at play in the difference between British and American panel shows. 1. Market size, 2. Culture. 3. What is funny in US vs. UK.
1. Historically the small number of domestic television stations that the British television market could make profitable (until very recently 5 at most) meant that unlike in America there was limited choice and further the talent pool of people working on the programmes was also small and so the people making the programmes had both the ability due to being smaller to be relatively nimble to changes in culture and also had little choice but to watch the selection they were picking and so had an incentive to make the programming interesting to watch.
By contrast in America with its comparable size it was easier to fund lots of movies for different audiences but when it comes to television it was more difficult for major networks to necessarily change direction (a TV schedule is zero sum whereas you can simply add new films to a cinema selection) and additionally in American TV you could easily hate what you do and still watch something else on a different channel.
2. Combined with this is a different attitude towards comedy and television culture. In America TV seems to be more “working class” as a medium and aimed more at making people feel good- e.g Friends, Rosanne, Cheers, and even Frasier that most British of American TV is aimed at laughs as Frasier has already made it, whereas in the UK television has been more middle class orientated and about betterment and self improvement even if done with a comic twist. Almost every top British show ever made is about people trying to go upwards economically, politically or socially, e.g. Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses, Fawley Towers, Yes Minister, Porridge.
3. An example of the difference between British and American comedy which I found quite a good summary (I can’t remember who said it), imagines a comedy sketch where a musician is playing a guitar badly and a man comes up and smashes it over the musician’s head. The contention is that an American comic would want to be the one smashing the guitar whereas a British comic would want to be the one getting hit with the guitar. America, the ultimate immigrant nation goes for obvious and broad comedy so everyone can understand whereas the British, comparably more dominated by class distinctions and still a lot more culturally homogeneous, goes for the joke about subverting the norm which of necessity requires an understanding about norms in a society.
I just want to finally add that whilst historically I would say that British panel shows have been better than American ones I think the Internet and its rise in a wider selection of shows, as well as a shift towards just raw viewership numbers as the dominant motivator for television programmes, has meant that there has been a decline in the quality of British television programming and that with every passing year it seems more and more like the US market which is sad but I’m not sure reversible without a UK television subscription service which can afford to raise its ambitions.