I am currently working on a study of online audience engagement with screen comedy, and have just completed three case studies that examine evaluations of sitcoms. One of these case studies focused on discussions of Miranda (BBC2/1, 2009-2015) on the discussion board of a popular British media and entertainment site.
Miranda is written by comedian Miranda Hart, who also stars as title character. Miranda is an uncommonly tall and clumsy single woman in her thirties. The show is mostly set in her joke shop, which she runs with her friend Stevie. Interestingly, Miranda bucks the current trend for single-camera sitcoms. It is shot using the traditional three-headed monster in front of a live studio audience, and so it also includes a laugh track.
This device is designed to give viewers the sense of being part of a communal viewing experience, where they are laughing along with the rest of the audience. However, the laugh track has been contentious since the early days of television, with critics constructing it as noisy, intrusive, annoying, fake and as a manipulative strategy to tell viewers when they should laugh. Recently, it has become quite rare in British sitcoms, to the point where critics and audiences seem slightly surprised when a new show does use this device. As Brett Mills (2009) notes in his book The Sitcom, not using a laugh track has become seen as a marker of quality in itself, and so Miranda seems to stubbornly position itself against the form that is currently favoured by critics.
It is not an entirely conventional sitcom, though. Prior to the opening credits we get the title character´s brief, introductory monologues, which resemble stand up segments, while each episode also combines traditional slapstick and broad humour with Miranda´s self-reflexive asides to the camera.
My analysis of the message board discussions examined debates around performance and quality. I´d here like to concentrate on talk about Miranda Hart´s performance style, which one poster described (positively) as “non-acting”. Some contributors clearly enjoyed her performances, praising her comic timing and her pratfalls, while others described her as “fake” and a “bad” actor.
I think these negative responses can be linked, in part, to the show´s self-reflexivity. Viewers are frequently reminded that they are watching a show because Miranda looks at the camera or addresses the audience at home. These asides transgress the boundaries of the story world, and can be seen as attempts to cement our focus on Miranda as both central character and comedian. Sometimes she draws our attention to her joke-telling (for example to demonstrate her awareness that a joke was highly conventional), while, at other times, she uses asides to reveal secrets or share her feelings about situations she finds herself in. This address to an extradiegetic audience is also used in Netflix drama House of Cards, where it works to demonstrate the ways in which Frank Underwood deceives other characters (Klarer 2014), but Miranda´s asides always set up comic incongruities while positioning the viewer as a privileged confidante.
This invitation to be Miranda´s understanding friend was embraced by many posters, who described their affection for the character or the comedian, and sometimes explained that they related to her clumsiness or dating disasters. In contrast, some of the posters who disliked the sitcom described the character as “hyperactive” or complained that she was “posh”. “Jolly hockey sticks” was a recurring phrase that the Internet tells me refers to an annoyingly enthusiastic posh girl/woman.
Miranda Hart´s performance style breaks with conventional sitcom acting, but also with the more naturalistic performance styles associated with more recent sitcom trends. Writing about The Trip, Walters (2013: 114) notes that shooting “on location breaks from comedy performance as a rehearsed and choreographed theatrical event”. In contrast, Miranda Hart draws attention to this theatricality, uses it for comic effect, and blurs the boundary between character and comedian. So I wonder if Miranda Hart fans might be enjoying her performance of her persona, while some other viewers see an unconvincing performance of an annoying character.