Why are we so content to rewatch certain comedies?
We so often find ourselves relating to things we see in sitcoms; the minutiae of everyday life is comforting. And when we feel comfortable, we relax, we let these people in and we see ourselves. The Royle Family is a prime example of this.
Comedy often has many layers, of which we are not always consciously aware. Victoria Wood excelled at creating characters in which we invested; dinnerladies is so much more than a sitcom. Not least because of the topics covered, but also because she wrote them as real people - people in which we could believe, care and recognise.
I watched many sitcoms as a child and found them amusing, but it's revisiting them as an adult which has truly made me appreciate the writing. The storylines, the arc, the setting. Hi-de-Hi! in particular has, on the surface, some very funny characters. Yet when you spend time really watching, you see more; you see why Peggy is so desperate to become a Yellowcoat, why Ted feels like a failure, why Spike is yearning for more from life. And you find yourself wanting these things for them, too. There is a great deal to be said for how familiarity, in any area of life, can help to create a feeling of calm.
The humour is an important element; life has been and continues to be, quite frankly, fucking tough for so many at the moment. Comedy offers escapism. A reminder that there is a lot of Good Stuff in our lives. Much comedy relies on the ridiculous; it creates scenarios which would never happen in real life. One Foot in the Grave does this in spades; and also has the delicious addition of making us feel slightly uncomfortable. This is another important ingredient in a comedy; the relief we feel at not going through whatever the poor character is being subjected to but finding it funny at the same time. We can often see the joke coming a mile off; but this also creates that feeling of comfort.
Somebody recently commented on Twitter that they found it odd that people obsess over old comedies; why can’t we embrace new programmes? I feel that there is a place for both, but this comes back to a comfort issue. It is very reassuring to watch something which is familiar to us, especially in the current climate.
In the past couple of years the pandemic and everything it has affected has made people feel incredibly disconnected, both physically and emotionally. Many just haven’t had the “emotional bandwidth” to cope with anything new. Television has been a vital source of information, entertainment and company for people who might not previously have needed this in their lives. Working from home, not seeing their extended families or friends has meant that the public have needed additional support.
Mental health has been severely put to the test over the past couple of years. We have sought ways to soothe our minds. Lack of activity and social interaction has resulted in those who were already vulnerable and fragile needing to find ways of ensuring this doesn’t spiral. Comedy may be viewed by some as a trivial matter but I firmly believe that it can be a way in which people feel connected and, ultimately, happier. #lifegoals, as the youths say.
There is a reason we seek out these programmes, and a reason they are shown on various platforms. Supply meets demand; with all of the newer channels available, these still pull in the viewers. Gold has been around for many years but more recently Netflix has introduced a range of old comedies; many are available on iPlayer, 4OD etc, and late 2019 saw the introduction of BritBox.
The way in which people have reacted to watching shows from their childhood or younger days has been a lovely thing to witness. Yes, they might not always be of the highest calibre; but does that really matter in the great scheme of things? I will hold up my hands and admit to previously being quite scathing about shows such as Mrs Brown’s Boys. But I also loathe any form of entertainment snobbery. If something brings joy/humour/comfort to someone, just let them have that thing, ffs!
There is, without doubt, an element of sentimentality where comedy in particular is concerned. And I do understand that many don’t want this “rose-tinted spectacles” effect to extend to other areas of life. But I think most viewers are entirely capable of seeing vintage comedies in this way, appreciating that it reminds them of a particular time in their lives without sounding like a Facebook Flake.
I will often watch a sitcom because it reminds me of my late mum, or the first time I lived alone, or watching with friends after a night out. It’s not always the content which matters, more the association and the feelings this evokes. For this reason comedy can be an incredibly personal subject; another reason for keeping our opinions on certain programmes to ourselves. Human beings are social creatures; we seek out similarities, things which bind us, a cohesiveness. Comedy is a splendid example of this.
Studies have shown that repetitive behaviour can help to alleviate feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. One such study is that carried out by Prof. David Eilam and his student Hila Keren who sought to examine how certain behaviours may reduce stress. After examining both humans and animals they found that:
“ritualistic behaviour in both humans and animals developed as a way to induce calm and manage stress caused by unpredictability and uncontrollability -- heightening our belief that we are in control of a situation that is otherwise out of our hands” (Eilam, Izhar and Mort, 2011)
Of course, there is no denying that some vintage shows are still watched for their sheer quality. The top 20 British sitcoms list, compiled by a panel of TV experts in 2019, featured five which were aired in the 1970s, four which began in the 1980s and seven from the 1990s. Humans may have evolved over time but the issues which matter and to which we can relate have not altered a great deal over the past 50 or so years. Love, family, money, jobs, politics; the detail may go in cycles but we watch these shows because we can still identify with the lives of the characters. New comedy struggles as it is often compared to these older shows. There have been some outstanding new programmes in recent years, I am certainly not denying that (more of this in another article). But I think the Classic Comedies are here for the foreseeable and I, for one, applaud this.