The Joke’s On Us: Where Does Comedy Go Now?
I wrote this a decade ago: ‘The English sense of humour really takes a lot of explaining. It’s a mixture of coarseness, camp, surreality, amateurishness, cruelty, subtlety, wordplay and dark dry wit. We don’t do puns – they’re loved by the French. We do like the strangeness of language (why else would we find the words ‘Nesta Bough’ so funny, and how could we begin to explain the dark undertones there?)
Considering our sense of humour is so attenuated and nuanced, it’s odd that humorous books and films don’t win awards. It’s as if everything has to appear serious to be taken seriously – rubbish, of course, because most of the output of say, Evelyn Waugh is both funny and serious.’
Three years into the disastrous mess of Brexit, summed up so pungently by journalist Rafael Behr here, writers have been struggling to find a response. It’s difficult to reflect the times of a political vacuum, but on. TV they’re trying.
So far, Russell T Davies’ ‘Years and Years’ has been the bleakest and sharpest show on a major network, even if it’s not without graveyard humour; one extended family, seen across the years, but starting in the present and projecting into a nightmarish future of failed banks, collapsed jobs, punitive laws, LGBTQ+ hatred and the rise of fascism that I have a feeling will make ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ look like ‘Mary Poppins’ before its end.
Is it too woke, or what we used to call ‘right on’? No, because it’s moving into the future and the danger is that it goes nowhere near far enough – but its emoji-facemask in the first episode feels horribly prescient, as does Emma Thompson’s gruesome distaff Farage character. Its decision to kill a major character in mid-season is brave if heartbreaking, making for an almost unbearably painful show, which won’t be watched by those most likely to be affected.
Balancing that serious take is another steel fist, but wrapped in a velvet glove, and very funny if you have the driest sense of humour. ‘Don’t Forget The Driver’ is co-written by Toby Jones (my ideal Arthur Bryant) and stars him as a Bognor Regis coach driver accidentally harbouring an illegal immigrant. Visually it seems modelled on Martin Parr’s spare seaside photographs – the camera lingers on a cockle shack or a burger stand, and there’s space allowed for scenes to evolve (leading to inevitable cries from dim critics that it’s too slow) but it repays the time spent with a transcendental ending.
There’s lots of loving detail too, like brother Barry, an emigré to Australia who bangs on about the fabulous life there until he creeps back home. ‘You’ve got a face like a man with piles,’ said the burger van lady. ‘I am a man with piles,’ replied Toby.
As Trump, Johnson and Farage have strangled satire to death, perhaps the way forward is in shows like this, which are dark and seemingly bleak, but ultimately filled with unsentimental kindness. Next up I’ll be reading Jonathan Coe’s ‘Middle England’ for his take on this catastrophic decade.