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All for a good telly laugh!

Biswadeep Ghosh
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Indian TV chuckles delightedly with a surfeit of sitcoms, still mainly in English.

A sitcom doesn’t have dazzling special effects, mind-blowing action, or emotionally intense scenes. The maker’s solitary prop is a story that must engage the viewer. Pulling that off is difficult.

Yet, the recent Indian experience of watching sitcoms in English tells a different story. Those chasing a good laugh have options from the Star platform, FX India, and Comedy Central. And then there are quite a few re-runs.

The most popular idea for a sitcom is a story woven around a bunch of friends. Workaholics, telecast till sometime ago, is about three young men who were college buddies. They work in a telemarketing company but have failed to tame their youthful indulgences, such as partying and playing pranks. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia deals with a bunch of guys running a pub, whose self-centeredness leads to crazy schemes and conspiracies. The legendary Danny DeVito plays the father of two, possibly three, of them.

Starring stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld in a quasi-fictionalised version of his own self, Seinfeld — the all-time classic with its bunch of eccentric buddies — is back in our lives. That ‘70s Show is close to Friends, the first real sitcom in English that had worked with viewers across the country, but its characters go through their lives in a manner that typified the 1970s. Coupling’s take on buddies and their relationships enters the strictly adult territory — from the point of view of the Indian sensibility, at least. Trivia buffs might wish to note that the relationship between two of the characters is based on its real-life counterpart between the sitcom’s director Steven Moffat and producer Sue Vertue. Which is why the characters are named Steven and Susan.

Creating a dysfunctional family works big time. For Everybody Loves Raymond, a hugely successful sitcom about a sports writer and his crazy family, this is a second coming as well. Arrested Development has redefined sophisticated experimentation on the small screen. Revolving around the Bluth family, its perennially hassled protagonist, Michael Bluth, confronts the unenviable task of keeping his weird — and often selfish — family united. Shot in the style of reality television, the sitcom also uses background narration to take the story forward.

While Arrested Development’s plot is inhabited by a majority of adults, Malcolm in the Middle is dominated by youngsters. Malcolm, a genius and a bit of a misfit, has two elder and two younger brothers. The mother runs the show — which her sons aren’t exactly fond of — while the dad lapses into hysteria at the slightest provocation. Although not as bewilderingly successful as Friends or Seinfeld, Malcolm in the Middle lasted for seven seasons — hardly surprising since the family makes us laugh till we cry. Situating a story in a workplace can pay off. Shot with a handheld camera, The Office is hilarious. 30 Rock is also about a workplace, which has the head writer of a sketch comedy at the centre of all the action. It is distinguished by cameos by several personalities, such as the former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, and actors Salma Hayek and Jennifer Aniston.

There are only two ways in which a sitcom can work: An oft-repeated basic theme must be given a novel spin, or the concept must be completely unique. The decade-old Dharma & Greg is standard fare, but retains its freshness because of what happens after the two get married — on their first date. Call me Fitz, on the other hand, is new to India.

Underneath the veneer of frivolity lies a huge challenge for the sitcom maker. Every episode must have some fun-filled surprises. But the story of Hindi sitcoms is not as exciting. In a soap-obsessed nation, the genre hasn’t received the sort of attention it deserves. Hence, we do not have a single channel like Comedy Central, which shows classy sitcoms and other humour-based shows all through the day.

Some creators of sitcoms in Hindi have been ‘inspired’ by shows in English — such as Jeannie Aur Juju, which has been adapted from I Dream of Jeannie, or the immensely successful Zabaan Sambhal Ke, the Hindi version of Mind Your Language. But the situation isn’t as bad as the Hindi film industry, in which copies of Hollywood films flourish in large numbers. Had more hardcore sitcom makers chosen to whack ideas, the genre might have had more shows to talk about.

Decades after television entered the house of the average Indian, only a handful of Hindi sitcoms have made a real mark; Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi based on a family and its neighbours; Dekh Bhai Dekh, the story of three generations of a family; Hum Paanch, which is about a sales representative and his five daughters from two wives; and Ghar Jamai. Some sitcoms released after 2000 have managed to soar above mediocrity. In that short list are Office Office, a sitcom about corruption in government offices; Khichdi, which takes us for a merry ride with a joint family; Sarabhai vs Sarabhai about a rich Gujarati family; and Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashma. Most of the memorable Hindi sitcoms have families at the centre of all the action. But they are genuinely funny, making one wonder why talented makers who have stuck to ‘K’ and its kin — or simply, soap operas — have avoided a genre that offers endless creative possibilities.

When a sitcom clicks in a big way, we, as viewers, revisit them simply because they crackle with energy and fun. Boredom has no parking space within the precincts of their stories. Twists unfold. Madness reigns. Stress disappears, if only for a while. Living in an era when daily worries rob us of many a smile, what else can we ask for?

(This article was published on March 7, 2013)
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