Housing in UK and US Sitcoms: The Modest and the Magnificent
It’s a question that’s been asked countless times about US sitcoms: how do the people they portray afford to live in the houses they’re given by the writers, directors, or product designers? This appears to be a fairly modern phenomena, and has come to light more frequently in the past few years as a significant subset of US comedy focuses on what it’s like to be “poor” in America since the recession. This has given critics fish in a barrel, as these “poor” people often live in gorgeous and glamorous apartments that most could barely dream of (*cough*2 Broke Girls*cough*).
This was frequently queried in the archetypal American comedy Friends. Monica was a waitress-on-skates at the beginning of the series, so how could she afford such a beautiful 2-bed in the middle of New York? It was explained that the place is rent-controlled as Monica’s grandmother is the official tenant, but Monica stays in the apartment illegally sub-letting it. This is problematic (illegalities aside) as Monica’s grandmother dies in the first season but her death evidently isn’t declared so she is still the legal tenant. Not sure how to explain that one.
Joey and Chandler’s situation is no clearer. Chandler may be an IT procurement manager, but there are regular jokes about how he pays the whole rent as Joey is a struggling actor. The cost of such a flat in Manhattan, the New York borough in which Friends is based, appears to be around $2700 (£1608) a month which seems pretty unrealistic. But this is a common trend in US sitcoms: the living conditions are almost unanimously gorgeous.
British sitcom counterparts seem to go in the opposite way. The characters’ homes are usually cramped and often filthy. If you compare either of the 2-bed flats in Friends with, for example, the 2-bed flat in Spaced, you see a marked difference in both size and condition. Even in something like Green Wing, where the characters are doctors and so in theory earning a little more money than the low-wage workers that sitcoms often follow, Caroline lives in a fairly dingy but modest house-share with another doctor. In other words, British sitcoms reflect what is generally quite normal, and if not normal then any exaggeration errs on the side of awful.
This is something that has gone way beyond the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Current Kat Dennings comedy, 2 Broke Girls, follows (surprise!) two broke girls who work in a diner on minimal pay. A lot of the shows laughs rely heavily on ex-rich-girl Caroline’s readjustment to so-called poverty, where they eat at a soup kitchen and can only afford clothes from goodwill. Despite this, they appear to live in a large, open-plan flat in Williamsburg with a garden big enough for a horse to live in(!)
A quick search of Williamsburg apartments shows that very few cost less than $2000 (£1188) a month which would be near impossible on the low minimum wage in the US. Max revels in being a sackably rude and abrasive waitress, so it’s unlikely her tips could subsidise such costs. Of course, this has also been explained away with some casual law-breaking. Caroline answers the house phone in one episode to discover that Max doesn’t pay rent (and has various other debts). Max explains that in order to avoid this little issue of rent, she doesn’t answer the wall phone. Because a landlord with a beautiful apartment in Williamsburg would only call every now and then to ask for rent, and would accept that there are squatters in their apartment which could make them thousands of dollars a month.
On the parallel other hand, a UK sitcom following two friends who live one of the most expensive areas in the country is Peep Show. They live here:
It’s grim, it’s gross, and it’s in Croydon – one of the cheaper and stereotypically more run-down and dangerous areas of London. As a loan manager in the series beginning, Mark can definitely afford this pokey flat, and with Jeremy contributing in part (never let your unemployed musician friend scrounge off you) their living situation is believable without having to resort to hiding from landlords or other ridiculous illegalities.
BBC Three’s Him & Her offers similarly grim living conditions. The eponymous him, Steve, lives in a dingy flat in which the lounge doubles as a bedroom, along with a miniscule kitchen and bathroom, where he and his girlfriend Becky spend the majority of their time. Socialising consists largely of their friends piling in onto the couple’s bed and the chairs surrounding in the chaotic living/bed room whilst they kick back in their underwear and pyjamas. Admittedly, this is rather infrequent as Steve and Becky generally spend their time playing video games, watching TV, and having sex in between talking about whether they need a wee or a poo. The intimate nature of shared living, even when not in a shared living space, is explored where Steve and Becky can hear their upstairs neighbour watching Titanic over and over again, and equally when the neighbour can hear Becky “hollering” during sex.
These examples are by no means isolated, but why is this the case? As with most things on TV (or film) one would generally expect an idealised view of life. Everybody wants the beautiful apartment, so why would you use anything else as a setting? One explanation is that American television is often concerned with the American Dream – the idea of working hard to meet your needs and achieve what you want in life. America’s sitcoms demonstrate these needs and wants as the beautiful apartment in New York. It’s not a house in the Hamptons, it’s not a personal limo driver, and so appears realistic and attainable.
A lot of these flats are not only attainable, but appear sustainable no matter what state you find yourself in. The roommates in New Girl have a gorgeous loft apartment, despite the fact that one of them is a barman, one is a primary school teacher, and one was unemployed for a fairly large stretch of time. Main character, Jess, also has a stint of unemployment, but this causes little concern in terms of meeting rent and bills, and there are numerous references to Nick mooching off his friends housing costs (although in season one we find out, as usual, that the flatmates are pulling an illegal scam for cheap rent).
British sitcoms, on the other hand, appear to prefer a theme of everything being a bit crap, but they deal with it. Peep Show is very typical of this theme, where pretty awful things happen but they just kind of get on with it. More recently, Channel 4’s Drifters examines the stagnating life of recent graduates who discover that a good background and decent education get you very little outside of unpaid internships and leafleting for a living. Admittedly, Drifters is slightly more idealistic in that lead character Meg can only move out of her parents’ house (age 24) to move in with her ex-boyfriend who appears to give her discounted rate because he’s still in love with her. However, the place itself is a pretty standard-looking houseshare in Leeds, so unlikely to incur the same kind of costs as New York or London. With that in mind, it’s worth mentioning Broad City, a US showthat started this year. Following the lives of two legitimately broke girls, it shows their shared living spaces as places of angst cramped in with awful roommates. Comparing Broad City and Drifters, although admittedly two quite isolated examples, appears to demonstrate a potential shift where the US show a little more realism vs. a little more idealism for the Brits.
On the whole though, British sitcoms tend to use terrible living conditions as a humorous aside. In Black Books, there is a whole episode dedicated to Fran’s abysmal apartment. Already only living in a single room, Fran’s landlord starts to slowly move the wall across to make her one room converted into two separate flats so her landlord can collect double rent from the same space. Of course, not all British sitcom characters always pay their rent. Brian in Spaced is a struggling artist, and so doesn’t always have the money up front for his small living space. However rather than tricking or ignoring an inept landlord he ends up sleeping with her as payment. This is arguably something that would never happen in a mainstream American sitcom (outside of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and is representative of British vs. American sitcoms as a whole. British sitcoms tend to accentuate the grimy and the unpleasant for laughs, whereas American sitcoms might flirt with it, but generally stay well away from these jokes such as veiled prostitution or casual alcoholism.
The disparity between depictions of homes between US and UK sitcoms may then be symptomatic of a larger, overarching theme, rather than just an extension of the American Dream vs. British cynicism. A large proportion of British comedy focuses on the horrible and the awkward, whereas American sitcoms often have a more family-friendly sense of humour. It’s this family-friendly sense of humour that tends to brush over the idea that life is hard. It’s the idea that you can meet potential partners in book shops, even if you’re socially awful. It’s the idea that, even if you drop out of law school and work in a bar your whole young life, you’ll be able to afford that gorgeous loft (rather than the likely truth, which is that one-room squat that Charlie from It’s Always Sunny lives). To give a more tangible example, in How I Met Your Mother, drug-use is referred to as “eating a sandwich”. Everyone knows it’s smoking up, but it’s never explicitly said. In Spaced, however, Tim and Daisy openly use cannabis on numerous occasions, as well as other characters experimenting with speed and ecstasy.
In American sitcoms, everything’s usually alright in the end. When Friends ended all the loose ends were tied up, and even in the recent end of How I Met Your Mother, even though the mother died, this negativity to offset by Ted getting with Robin again. American sitcoms work on a level of idealism, and so this is why they always live somewhere pretty great. British sitcoms, on the other hand, tend to work on the antithesis of idealism. In Peep Show Mark may have married his long-time love Sophie, but realised he didn’t love her by their wedding, married her anyway, and then they immediately divorced. The writers of Peep Show have also recently confirmed that, at the end of their near-decade of awkwardness, there will not be a happy ending for our anti-heroes. Likewise, in Black Books there is no “end” as such, just everyone is drunk and sad. British humour revels in the cringey and depressing, and so this would not work if everyone lived in a lovely home. American sitcoms show generally good people experiencing events, whereas British usually have quite selfish people bringing problems upon themselves. As such it fits that the Americans would have a nice environment to hold these events in, whereas the people in British are often reflected in the hovels that they live.
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