When the likes of ‘Friends’ gave way to single-camera-shot comedies, it seemed to herald the end of the sitcom.
The news that Tommy Tiernan is to star in a new Sky sitcom will surprise the many experts who have declared last rites on that hoariest of formats, the sitcom.
They are probably already reeling from the success of 'Mrs Brown's Boys', Brendan O'Carroll's stoutly traditional, proudly uncool ratings monster, to say nothing of the 'Big Bang Theory', a three-camera yuck-fest slightly less dangerously edgy than a musty packet of Werther's Originals.
Tiernan is giving away few details about the show, though it is known that he is to play a psychiatric patient who moves home with his mother. The vehicle, as yet unnamed, will be filmed around his native Navan over the summer.
Sky decided to take a risk on the Meath man after the success of a one-off piece he and Dylan Moran put together for the UK network's 'Little Crackers' series last year.
The death of the sitcom has been predicted for years. Like an unkillable virus, it keeps coming back. A decade ago, a new wave of darker shows – such as Ricky Gervais's 'The Office' and Larry David's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' – were poised to usher small-screen light entertainment into a new era, one in which the sturdy, old-school, studio-shot comedy had no place.
'Friends', the series that refused to die, was about to end its exhausting 10-year run; British TV had essentially given up on what looked an increasingly flabby format. TV humour was set to blast off into a brave new tomorrow.
With its jittery camera work and deadpan gags, it seemed as if this new generation of shows was determined to be everything the sitcom wasn't. They were manic and unpredictable, the laughs typically bleak and understated.
After the rib-poking, pie-in-your-face shenanigans of the 'Only Fools and Horses' era, funny was suddenly a serious business. In such a world, the conventional set-up/gag/set-up farce had little place, it appeared.
Lately, however, the wind has turned. Unsophisticated chuckles are back. A special edition of 'Mrs Brown's Boys' last Christmas brought in 11.7 million viewers in the UK, ahead of 'Downton Abbey' and 'Doctor Who'. Meanwhile, the supposedly revolutionary likes of 'Arrested Development' and Louis CK's 'Louie' are condemned to a twilight existence: the former now exists as a Netflix niche-only offering, the latter goes out on Fox's hard-to-find digital channel.
The ghost of television past has returned with a vengeance, and if you can't hear the clanking chains that's probably because the sound is drowned out by torrents of prime-time laughter.
"Sitcoms never really went away," says Billy McGrath of production company Sideline, which recently launched a hunt for a new Irish sitcom. "They have still gone out on satellite channels such as Dave, so they have remained with us."
The triumph of 'Mrs Brown's Boys', he suggests, reveals the gulf between what an audience wants and what the television establishment thinks it wants. Few shows are as widely panned by critics – but their disdain has done absolutely nothing to stymie its gallop up the ratings.
If the sitcom was dead, somebody forgot to tell viewers.
"Even after 15 or so years, RTE Two can still screen 'Father Ted' in 2013 and the episode is in the top 10 most viewed of the week," says McGrath. "Whenever RTE One has a slot to fill at 6.30pm or 8.30pm Sundays, it sticks in 25-year-old repeats of 'Only Fools and Horses' and it is a top 20 show of the week.
"On RTE Two now you can watch sitcoms such as 'Two and a Half Men', 'Big Bang Theory', 'The Simpsons' and '2 Broke Girls'. There is a resurgence in the USA of sitcoms and broadcasters are back investing big time. It is the same with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and especially Sky."
"The people who make ['Mrs Brown's Boys'] are talented," said stand-up comedian Sean Lock in a recent interview. "It's just that they have decided to go in a broader direction. It is not to everyone's taste. Historically, you have an appetite in the UK for end-of-pier type entertainment. It is part of British comedy tradition."
Though sitcoms are costlier than the other great ratings monster of the modern era, the reality show, they offer a distinct advantage – they can be repeated ad infinitum.
Reality smashes such as 'X Factor' and 'I'm A Celebrity...' go stale the moment they are aired. As the decade-and-a-half afterlife of 'Father Ted' shows, a good sitcom, in contrast, lives forever.
"They are far more valuable to a broadcaster than a reality show that can never be repeated," says McGrath. "More expensive, yes, but the best ones sell all around the world, dubbed, subtitled or sold as scripted formats and remade in various languages. There must be a reason why the cast of 'Friends' was receiving a million dollars per episode in later years."
The revenge of the sitcom isn't just confined to mass market entertainment. Supposedly 'edgy' new, shows such as Lena Dunham's 'Girls' and Zooey Deschanel's 'The New Girl' are, beneath the hood, surprisingly conventional.
Hailed as 'Sex and the City' for under-employed Generation Y-ers, two seasons in, it became increasingly clear, for instance, that 'Girls' is essentially a grittier, saucier 'Friends' – if the sex scenes are in your face, the humour and plotlines are relentlessly old-fashioned.
Get past Deschanel 'adorkable' shtick, and 'The New Girl' is even less challenging, with its broad set-ups and silly plotlines. Its spiritual forerunner is 'Two and a Half Men', rather than 'The Larry Sanders Show'.
Speaking recently, BBC head of comedy Mark Freeland was of the opinion that the sitcom, like most TV formats, is destined to fall in and out of fashion. Right now, it just happens to be having a zeitgeisty moment.
"During the 1980s and 1990s you had a stream of very good sitcoms: 'Ab Fab', 'Men Behaving Badly', 'Red Dwarf'," he said.
"The turning point was 'I'm Alan Partridge', when they came up with the hybrid format of filming with an audience, but putting four walls up. They shot single-camera in a cube, but with the audience watching on monitors. It teetered between the two formats, and it put a question mark under traditional sitcom.
"Then, in 2001, 'The Office' came along, and that defined comedy for five years. The sound of the photocopier replaced the sound of the laughter track. It had a huge effect on comedy practitioners. New comedies became single-camera obsessed. It looked as if that was what the audience wanted, and it's difficult in any genre not to chase the last success."
One of those who has always waved a banner for the traditional format is 'Father Ted' creator Graham Linehan, whose mid-2000s show 'The IT Crowd' was among the few three-camera, laughter-track hits of its era. He robustly defended the old-fashioned sitcom, arguing that, in certain circumstances, it was the perfect format.
"I find all the post-'Office' shows that are shot with a shaky camera really dreary, with the exception of 'Peep Show'," he said at the unveiling of 'The IT Crowd' in 2006.
"This is very much a reaction against all of those. But everyone seemed surprised that I wanted to do it this way.
"Let me put it like this," he continues. "'The Office' was a non-traditional sitcom because it had to be. If you'd put those actors in front of a studio audience, it would have dropped dead: they wouldn't have been able to hear it, as it was so naturalistically done. On the other hand, if you had shot 'Father Ted' very naturalistically, it would have been a disaster. It's a question of things suiting the format."
"There is always garbage on television and there is always good stuff," adds American stand-up comedian Rob Delaney.
"There is lots of funny stuff happening right now on television. It [the death of the sitcom] is just a story people tell from time to time."