The sitcom isn’t endangered. We can all find something to laugh at – even Mrs Brown’s Boys | Michael Hogan

It was a squirm-inducing moment of awkwardness, straight out of one of his own sitcoms. At a BBC comedy showcase last week, the corporation’s head of comedy, Jon Petrie, was asked if he thought its biggest hit, Mrs Brown’s Boys, was funny. Rather than reply, Petrie sat in excruciating silence. “I’ll take that as a no, then,” said the hack who’d posed the question.

The fact that the event was held at braying media hangout Soho House and the innuendo-laden adventures of Irish “mammy” Agnes Brown are hardly the epitome of urban cool may have contributed to Petrie’s reticence. However, it doesn’t exactly indicate pride in his own stable. He issued a statement “clarifying his comments” the next day, presumably after a stern word from Beeb higher-ups.

Petrie has form for causing comedy kerfuffles. Only last month, he called on the TV industry to “help save our sitcom”, adding: “[It] isn’t dead but it needs a couple of Berocca. And a black americano with two sugars.” He asked producers to offer him more mainstream fare, claiming “we’re not getting pitched enough of the comedy we need to keep people happy”.

Does the headline-prone Petrie have a point? Does today’s fragmented viewing landscape mean the era of crowd-pleasing comedy is over? Are we so wary of cancel culture that it’s impossible to write guffaw-inducing gags any more? Have tastes changed for ever? Are LOLs on their last legs?

Not necessarily. Sitcoms can still cut through when channels commission, fund and market them properly. Coming over all coy about whether you actually like your own shows probably isn’t ideal, Mr Petrie. Besides, as he later acknowledged, “The ones that they are rewatching again and again are Ghosts, Motherland, Not Going Out and Mrs Brown’s Boys. They still get huge numbers for us.”

Look at the history of British sitcom and you might despair. Gone are the days when a sitcom could suck in 24 million viewers, like Only Fools and Horses did. But nothing gets the ratings it used to, simply because there’s more choice now. When the Trotters were wheeler-dealing their way around Peckham, there were only a handful of TV channels. Now there are hundreds, plus streaming platforms and social media. As Del Boy would doubtless tell you, it’s supply and demand, you plonker.

Even so, a lovely-jubbly sitcom still brings people together like little else. Ted Lasso was the most-streamed show of 2023. Derry Girls is the most-watched series in Northern Ireland since records began. Gavin & Stacey’s 2019 reunion special was seen by 17 million, more than a quarter of the UK population, making it the most popular scripted programme for a decade. The year before that, Peter Kay’s Car Share notched ratings of about 9 million. Less than a decade ago, Miranda pulled in 11 million.

Times have changed, sure, but the textbook “sits” haven’t gone anywhere. Suburban farce – the cosily familiar likes of The Good Life, Terry & June or Butterflies – is alive and well. See Friday Night Dinner, Two Doors Down and the underrated Here We Go. House-shares were another sitcom staple, from Rising Damp to The Young Ones. They’re still going strong. Look at The Big Bang Theory and Big Boys. Workplace sitcoms like On the Buses or Fawlty Towers? They’ve evolved into Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Abbott Elementary and Stath Lets Flats.

For a spell during the 2010s, admittedly, the genre fell out of fashion. Post-Fleabag and Girls, TV was all about the “sadcom”, where jokes came with a bittersweet undertow of trauma, addiction or mental health. Petrie says the BBC is overstocked with such comedy-dramas. He urged creators to “send us fewer shows that are an exploration of something and more that know where their funny bones are”.

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Comedy is still being made and consumed, it just may not be on terrestrial primetime. Younger generations flit from Sex Education on Netflix, to short-form skits on TikTok, to pranks on YouTube. Standup specials on the streamers do brisk business. Panel-game clips, chatshow anecdotes and awards ceremony monologues go viral. Friends remains in rotation, lapped up by teens who weren’t born when it first aired. Could they be any more eclectic?

Don’t forget that animations like The Simpsons, South Park and Rick & Morty are essentially 2D sitcoms. Factual entertainment series like Gogglebox, Gone Fishing and Taskmaster are watched like comedies. Some of our most acclaimed prestige drama is written by sitcom alumni. Step forward, Jesse Armstrong (who went from Peep Show to Succession), Sharon Horgan (Pulling to Bad Sisters), Steven Moffat (Coupling to Sherlock) and Charlie Brooker (Nathan Barley to Black Mirror). No wonder their scripts have a high gag rate.

Right down the viewing menu, you’ll see signs of sitcom life. A promising new wave includes Black Ops, G’Wed and The Young Offenders. Word-of-mouth Aussie romcom Colin from Accounts is back soon. Gavin & Stacey is returning for a festive special, as are Outnumbered and Mrs Brown’s Boys. Christmas is a time when generations sit down together, meaning comedies with broad appeal come into their own. They cut across demographics, unite families and create national connection. They’re part of our comedy heritage.

Lord knows we all need a laugh in these dystopian times. Reports of sitcom’s death are greatly exaggerated. Cultural snobs and doom-mongers can, as per Mrs Brown’s catchphrase, feck off.

Michael Hogan writes about lifestyle and entertainment, specialising in pop culture and TV

The Guardian