Saturday, January 20, 2007

Interlude: the Sofa Rule and Disambiguation

First, this is BB2, aka the nice one, aka known as Backword Dave. I've finally got round to getting a nick for myself, and this is it: Chardonnay Chap. (I think there's a Tom Tomorrow cartoon where libruls are accused of drinking Chardonnay, so that's where that comes from. I prefer red.) So now you know who's who. BB is still B2.

Now, the 'sofa rule.' I can remember arguing about this quite a bit in the 80s, when such discussions could just about be passed off as 'popular culture' and 'how we were going to bring revolution to the masses' rather than 'what I saw on the box last night.' I think it was invented by Ben Elton, anyway it went along with 'alternative [to] comedy' and its very much part of a reaction against a certain sort of programming which probably appealed to white, middle-aged producers. The sort of sitcom it's supposed to be against continues in 'My Family' (it that what it's called? the one with Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wannamaker and the guy in the phone ads). The reason it is (supposed to be) crap is that the comedy is about middle-class, middle-aged home owners who don't actually do anything much, and their spouses (ditto) and their kids writing about whom is like those round robins Simon Hoggart likes to collect (eg smug and boring) or else is picking on those who can't answer back in kind.

Ben Elton went on to write 'The Young Ones' (with sofa) and 'Blackadder' (no sofa); so even there the rule is only partially observed. The thing is good sitcoms depend on situations: not on people bouncing jokes off one another (most of the 'My Family' dialogue) and that tends to require people who wouldn't choose to be together - such as "Dad's Army" or "The Office" where you have tensions and character types which make for real drama.

The "sofa rule" probably applies to sets more than anything else. Even in the early 80s, most TV had to make do with a very few sets. So you want a set where people who are not going to get on have access. "Dad's Army" brought men (and it almost exclusively male) from all classes together in a church hall which is itself part of a territorial dispute with the vicar. Instant tension. You don't get that in a semi. Americans excel at this. 'Cheers' has one set; two if you count the back room Sam and Diane argue in sometimes. "Friends" had three sets: Monica and Rachel's apartment (sofa); Chandler and Joey's (no sofa); and "Central Perk" (sofa). Frasier had three: Studio (no sofa); Cafe Nervosa (no sofa); and apartment (sofa). Clearly there are lots of good sitcoms with sofas: "The Simpsons", "Father Ted", "Black Books" (in Dylan Moran's flat), and, god, lots of others.


The greatest sitcom of all had a sofa, which was put to use in its first ever episode. The problem with sofas is that they're in people's houses, and you want someone to enter so there is conflict of some kind. So scene: lead character is watching television on sofa, apartment door opens and neighbour enters in dressing gown, hands in pockets. He sits hands still in pockets: he pulls out a slice of bread in each hand.
Kramer: Got any meat?

3 Comments:

Anonymous McGazz said...

Didn't the first episode of "Love Thy Neighbour" start with a sofa being moved into a living room, setting up the first of literally several 'hilarious' racist clangers.

The Big Brother House has several sofas...

1/20/2007 08:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Fallhammer said...

One other point is that the position of the sofa is as important as its very presence. It enables a bunch of actors to just sit in a standard arrangement in front of the camera and spout their lines. It might as well be radio (for better or worse). Note that the sofa in Father Ted is side on to the camera, whereas Are You Being Served had a canteen table and Bread had a kitchen table (IIRC).

1/21/2007 02:33:00 PM  
Anonymous redpesto said...

Frasier - the key isn't the sofa, it's Martin's recliner, which clashes with everything else, including Frasier's ego.

1/22/2007 11:00:00 AM  

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