British Sit-Coms' Winning Formula

What makes a British sit-com successful? Robert Siegel talks with Dr. Helen Pilcher, a molecular neurobiologist and stand-up comedian who specializes in scientific jokes, about her formula for writing hit British TV shows.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

British sitcoms have a long history of success on American television. Of course, to cross the Atlantic, a show has to be reasonably successful in the UK. There are turkeys that we may never get to see. And then there are "Fawlty Towers" or, more recently, "The Office." Well, now from Britain comes a guaranteed formula for success. Dr. Helen Pilcher, who is a molecular neurobiologist and also a stand-up comedian, has derived the formula for the successful Brit sitcom, and she joins us from her home near London.

Dr. Pilcher, what's the formula?

Dr. HELEN PILCHER (Molecular Neurobiologist; Stand-up Comedian): OK, well, the formula is C, for how successful the sitcom is, equals RD plus V multiplied by F, divide by alpha plus delta S, fairly straightforward. Would you like me to explain that for you?

SIEGEL: I think you'd better do that.

Dr. PILCHER: OK. Well, first of all, R is the recognizability factor, so that's how recognizable the main character is. So, say, in "The Office," you know, we've all had a boss who's a bit like David Brent, but we've never had a boss who's quite so deluded. So we multiply R by D, which is the delusionality factor. Then we add on V for how verbally witty the script is, multiply it all by F, which is my favorite; F is the falling-over factor, you know, the moment in "Fawlty Towers" where the moose head falls on Fawlty's head, for example. Then there's two more factors. We divide it by alpha, which is the level of achievement, so basically in any good British sitcom, there will be some awful, convoluted plot, and if it fails really spectacularly badly, then that makes it funny. So we divide by that. And finally we add on delta S, which is the status difference between the highest-status character and the lowest-status character.

SIEGEL: And you would maintain, based on your research, that even if a sitcom had a very, very high V--that's the verbal wit, the number of gags--but fell short in some of these other categories--had no status difference, people didn't trip and fall, or the scheme did not fall apart--we'd have an unsuccessful sitcom.

Dr. PILCHER: Well, that's interesting. I mean, we've got six different variables in the formula, so if one of them is a bit weak but it scores very highly on the others, then it can still have a good overall score. I mean, for example, in "The Office," actually you don't have that many gags. It's more sort of a cringey, groany type of humor. So although V is actually quite low for "The Office," it scores very highly on everything else.

SIEGEL: Well, let's cringe together for a moment listening to a bit of David Brent, the character you mentioned, who is the branch manager in "The Office."

(Soundbite of "The Office")

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS: (As David Brent) When people say, `Oh, would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss?' my answer was the same; to me, they're not mutually exclusive. There's a weight of intellect behind my comedy. If you were to ask me to name three geniuses, I probably wouldn't say Einstein, Newton, you know. I'd go, Milligan, Cleese, Everett, Sessions.

SIEGEL: So this is a fellow who's delusional. He thinks he's the most beloved character in the office imaginable.

Dr. PILCHER: He thinks he's hugely popular, and he thinks he's better and cleverer than his office superiors, and clearly he's not. And, you know, as a result, by the end of the second series, Brent's out on the street without a job. His sidekick Gareth looks like he's going to take over. And we see just how much of a failure David Brent really is.

SIEGEL: And when you assign values to your formula for success, what score does "The Office" get?

Dr. PILCHER: OK, so "The Office" actually scored 678. And out of the sitcoms we tested, it came second. "Fools and Horses" came in first at 696. And just to give you an idea of comparison, we also looked at a couple of real British turkeys. You probably haven't heard of them. There was one called "'Orrible" and another called "Babes in the Wood" which were generally acknowledged over here as being terrible sitcoms. Now they scored five and seven respectively, so that'll give you an idea of, you know, the kind of score that a good sitcom should get.

SIEGEL: (Laughs) Do you think that this is a closed universe of British situation comedy, or could you similarly derive a formula for a successful American sitcom.

Dr. PILCHER: Yeah, I think you could, obviously, and I think there are certain elements of our formula that would apply. And one of the big differences, though, I think, between British and American sitcoms is that British sitcoms have these really convoluted plots that fail spectacularly badly, as I said. Now if you look at American sitcoms such as "Friends," for example, all the characters are actually fairly successful and things tend to work out in the end.

SIEGEL: Well, you may be on to a corollary to a larger principle which has been pointed out to me. The point of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in America was the excitement of seeing somebody win a million dollars, whereas in Britain, I believe it was the sight of seeing somebody lose.

Dr. PILCHER: (Laughs) I think that's exactly right. British people, we have this slightly unfortunate quality of we really enjoy watching people fail. And that's why so many of the British sitcoms have this huge element of failure. I mean, Basil Fawlty is really a failed hotel keeper. David Brent is a failed boss. And unfortunately, it's a rather nasty quality of British people, but maybe we do find certain elements of failure amusing.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Helen Pilcher, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. PILCHER: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Helen Pilcher is both a microbiologist and a comedian in London.

(Soundbite of music)

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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