Improvisation and ‘New’ Sitcom

Across the last fifteen years the situation comedy has undergone a series of aesthetic and stylistic changes. The move away from the traditional multi-camera set-up – the “three headed monster” – and towards the use of a single-camera style, has allowed for a greater variety of comedic modalities across the sitcom genre. By abandoning the constraints of the multi-camera form (Savorelli 2010) these new comedies fail “to signal [their] comic intent in the traditional manner… [which undermines] the hegemonic criticisms of most sitcoms” (Mills 2005, 62). This comic ambiguity therefore highlights the need for further analysis of sitcom audiences, as fan’s constructions of taste, pleasure and identity become more complex.

Improvisation as a form of creative method in the production of ‘new’ comedy is a recurring feature. Stars such as Amy Poehler, Steve Carrell and Larry David are often praised for their ability to improvise, which in sitcom production means coming up with a new joke on the set of filming. These jokes either add to the existing script or attempt to ‘beat’ the scripted or suggested line. By removing the constraints of shooting in front of a live audience (temporal) and shooting on a theatre-like soundstage (spatial), new comedy encourages improvisation by allowing it’s performers to “bypass [the] limiting and disciplinary structures” (Seham 2001).

Sitcom fans often revere these improvised moments, despite not having full knowledge of the production process in the first viewing of a television episode. In fact, being told that a particular line or joke was improvised on-set often increases the pleasure associated with the actor or show. On learning that Chris Pratt improvised a line in a season three episodes of Parks and Recreation, many fans re-evaluated their sense of enjoyment.

Pratt came up with that fucking line? God bless him.

And it was an ad-lib?? Feeling so much love for Chris Pratt right now.

Never would have thought that one was improv. Brilliant.

Yeah, it blows my mind that Pratt improvised that line.

It’s so perfectly delivered, and that it’s ad-libbed makes that even more awesome.

[Comments on an AV Club Season 3 Walkthrough]

Such positive re-evaluation highlights the importance of improvisation and performance to comedy fans. It also shows how the revelation of an improvised moment immediately elevates the text to a ‘more awesome’ pleasure, and the appreciation of comedic talent lends itself to discourses of ‘quality’ television.

Improvisation can also be used in sitcom production in a more purposeful manner, being a planned part of the process and thus – through paratextual signposts – framing the comedy as a more ‘experimental’ show. The BBC series Outnumbered, about the lives of a middle-class family, did not supply the child actors with written dialogue.

these kids are absolutely brilliant – they are being allowed to express themselves with none of the stiffness a script would bring about.

but its the kids who really should be praised for the most realistic portrayal of children on T.V.

the jokes were funny and realistic.

[the children] deliver their lines with fantastic timing and a real sense of reality.

the observations and statements have clearly come from a child, as opposed to the traditional way of doing things of a 30-something adult trying to think like a 7 year old, and often failing miserably.

[Comments from the British Comedy Guide Forums]

For fans of Outnumbered, improvisation becomes a marker of an authentic cultural experience. They are wary of the “traditional way” of making television, with its emphasis on planning, drafting and commercial interference. Rather than emphasising notions of “funniness”, instead these fans see improvised performance as a better reflection of their own lives and experiences.

It is useful here to reflect on the notion of bliss, or jouissance, an extreme form of pleasure (Barthes 1975). While pleasure is a mundane amusement, which may be felt by consumers of all cultural content, Barthes argues that bliss is a distinctly physical reaction, often hard to describe in words (21). Fiske argues that the mediation of television is “not conducive to that intensity of experience which is necessary for jouissance” (1987, 230).

While Fiske goes on to argue that soap opera is a genre which may be considered to have blissful moments, I feel a more relevant example is reality television. Looking at the show Britain’s Got Talent, the reaction of both studio and home audience to the audition of singer Susan Boyle is more representative of jouissance. The ‘liveness’ of the moment, the risk of failure, and physicality of the reaction better emphasise the Barthesian qualities of bliss.

I argue that the use of improvisation in new comedy is another method to inspire a blissful reaction that is somewhat more authentic and extreme. By acknowledging the ‘liveness’ of the improvised on-set joke, or appreciating authenticity in an improvised creative method, these fans would seem to value ‘new comedy’ as a less intensely mediated experience.

Considering the use of improvisation as creative method thus brings up further questions regarding the relationship between comedy fans and the fan-text. How might improvisation – and the dangers of failure – present a risk to fans ‘ontological security’? How might we understand notions of ‘comfort viewing’ with regard to sitcom form and the intensities of mediation? With the situation comedy continuing to develop, analysis of its fans will play an important part in understanding one of television’s most popular genres.


Barthes, Roland, The Pleasures of the Text, (Hill and Wang: USA, 1975)

Fiske, John, Television Culture, (Routledge: USA, 1987)

Mills, Brett, Television Sitcom, (BFI: UK, 2005)

Savorelli, Antonio, Beyond Sitcom: New Directions in American Television Comedy, (McFarland & Co.: USA, 2010)

Seham, Amy E., Whose Improv is it Anyway? Beyond Second City, (University of Mississippi Press: USA 2001)


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