British Student Sitcoms, Teen Television and Neoliberal Pedagogy.

Curator's Note

British situation comedies like The Young Ones (BBC 1982-1984), which depict university students during the era of the government-funded maintenance grant (1962-1998), source much of their humour from the notion of Higher Education as either self-enriching, or as part of an emancipatory project. The “undeserving student” stereotype attracts laughter precisely because they are deemed to be receiving an education at the expense of these values, while anti-student characters are mocked in the name of rescuing this defence from reactionary appropriations.

Off the Hook (BBC 2009) is the first student sitcom produced after the introduction of tuition fees in the UK, as well as a much broader series of neoliberal reforms which have seen an education system increasingly ‘geared to, and governed by, the imperatives of economic efficiency and social and political effectiveness’ (Kirby 2009: 234). As part of the BBC’s youth brand, BBC Switch (2007-2010), the series was specifically marketed at teenagers, rather than university students per se, shaping the expectations of Higher Education for its key demographic of prospective undergraduates. With official promotion for the series promising teens an ‘aspirational comedy’ comprising of ‘bad dates, worse parties’, and ‘social mishaps’, however, Off the Hook is notably devoid of the comic ruminations on the value and role of education that are frequently found in the British student sitcom. Indeed, its depiction of student life seems to echo the vision of one its characters, Shane (Danny Morgan), where the university degree is figured as golden ticket to 'three whole years' of gross-out movie style antics. Whereas The Young Ones employs farce to defend an ennobling or emancipatory notion of Higher Education in demotic terms, then, Off the Hook uses the same conventions to offer a vision of ‘the university experience’ defined by the [imagined] demands of the student-customer.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in this featured clip, in which Off the Hook's protagonist Danny (Jonathan Bailey) runs for student president, with unsurprisingly cringe-worthy results. As his improvised speech falls on deaf ears, soixante-huitard cliches function as glib comic foil for customer-friendly common sense, as a beret wearing Shane interjects 'who wants cheaper beer?!'. A comparison of Off the Hook with Channel Four’s more recent Fresh Meat (2011-) a programme which [albeit tentatively] engages with issues of  knowledge, meritocracy, and the 2010 student protests, would certainly be welcomed.


Joe, thank you for your thoughtful post. Being (shamefully) ignorant of much of British television and especially teen-oriented formats, I actually learned a lot from your short post. Naturally, it got me thinking. First, about the relation between sociological reality and cultural (re)construction - and this is already something I wanted to ask you about. Do you think that these shows reflect their respective social reality/context, or isn't it maybe more productive to assume that they shape their culture as much as they are shaped by them? And secondly, I was wondering about the role comedy plays in the cultural work performed by these shows. What is its function? Indirect criticism, the creation of distance, or do the shows sacrifice their goals on the altar of entertainment (understood in the narrow, commercial sense)? Or is it something altogether different?

Thanks, Florian. In relation to your question about reflecting/shaping culture, I agree that these sitcoms certainly perform that kind of work, in particular the figure of the student in The Young Ones as a more sympathetic/absurdist take on the student still proves to be a regular reference point in popular/populist discourse on universities, almost thirty years later-I think an audience study into Off the Hook/Fresh Meat would be really revealing in this regard as to how they might shape ideological formulations of the university in its audience[s]. As for the question of laughter, I think there are two approaches worth considering. Firstly, one could argue that such problems are indicative of the ‘comic impetus’ inherent in the situation comedy form; as Bret Mills notes, the narrative, thematic and generic features of the sitcom are always, to varying degrees, governed by pursuit of humour (the 'narrow' entertainment sense you mention). However, there's also the politics of laughter to consider - something Mills also accounts for with so-called 'cue' theory:‘the ways in which the genre signals its intention to be funny, creating a space in which audiences are primed to laugh’. I would say that laughter in the case of Off the Hook is much of the 'comic impetus' type- gross out, social awkwardness, and so on - I would argue that this lack of socially engaged humour is revealing in itself, however. Rising Damp, by contrast, creates a space in which audiences are primed to laugh at the expense of Rigsby, the desperate, deluded landlord and his reactionary anti-intellectualism, while the student tenant Philip -a young, well educated black man, who plays up to Rigsby's racial prejudices for his own amusement, functions as a surrogate audience member-in other words, there is a clearly defined politics of 'laughing at' and 'laughing with' at work. In my post I've put forward one suggestion as to how and why these spaces might have changed, but you're absolutely right to suggest that the comic imperative of the sitcom will always complicate these political readings. Hope this helps-thanks for a really interesting and insightful comment!

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