Comedy Not Funny: Official
An interesting piece in the London Times this morning. Shane Allen, Head of BBC comedy, has declared old comedy dead and says that shows like Monty Python which feature ‘six white Oxbridge males’ wouldn’t be commissioned now, and that in future there will be more diversity, with the all-black show ‘Famalam’ proving popular.
Now, there are several contradictory things about this. Aside from the article feeling suspiciously like clickbait designed to wind up the BBC’s elderly demographic, a look at their schedule includes plenty more white shows where characters still dress up as women, including the excellent ‘Inside No.9’ and the neanderthal ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’.
If the argument is that Oxbridge mostly produces smart white males trained in Footlights reviews, you only have to turn the page of the article to be confronted by an Oxbridge rowing team – all white. It’s not Oxbridge comedy that needs changing but the university system itself.
In a separate opinion piece James Marriot, a Times arts writer, goes further, condemning Monty Python as unfunny and as dead as John Cleese’s parrot, and weirdly championing the old Pink Panther films, which are now just as old and uncomfortably racist in places.
It shows that humour is personal. Python was never that funny – it was clever and surreal, and surreality doesn’t date. But laugh-out-loud funny? Not remotely. ‘Fawlty Towers’ was the funny one, a series of Feydeau farces played out in suburbia. Python broke new ground by tearing up every comedy rule and starting over; no punchlines, no observational humour, jokes for readers and thinkers. Silliness involving Von Ribbentrop, Wittgenstein and Cardinal Richelieu. There were no good female or ethnic roles because they only knew people like themselves – and books.
So when the BBC declare this kind of humour dead are they saying that being clever is a bad thing?
Whenever the BBC decide to get consciously ethical the resulting shows feel like 1950s throwbacks, relying on tropes that Python killed off. Working class black humour is the same as its white equivalent; go to London’s Hackney Empire on a black comedy night and you’ll hear a lot of punchlines, catchphrases and observational jokes.
I like cleverness. I like intellectual humour, surrealism, black comedy (as in André Breton), political comedy. I am not interested in jokes about haircuts. Ideally there would be humour that doesn’t parse women, BAME or gay roles in strict accordance to quotas, but represents naturally the country’s makeup.
Of course we need more diverse humour and it has to be championed from the top, but it’s done by adding to the history of good writing, not by denying the past.