Why Is Comedy In Trouble?

The Arts


In the last couple of years, comedy shows have lost traction. Very, very few of them are doing well. As the rules of online behaviour change and we become self-policing, it’s getting less and less acceptable to use stereotypes – now, much of this is good, but it makes comedy, which often falls back on lazy typing, harder to write.

We’ve seen the return of PC-ignorant comedy like the execrable ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’, and the return of overly PC humour in sketch shows that fail to be either edgy or funny, but great comedy rarely relies on stereotyping. Going back as far as ‘Steptoe & Son’ we can see that Galton & Simpson merely wrote about people, creating a world in which even rag-and-bone men could become epic heroes.

There are groundbreaking shows which everyone loves like ‘The West Wing’ and ‘The Sopranos’, and there’s comfort-viewing like ‘Downton Abbey’ (which I’ve never seen) or ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (which I’m not much of a fan of). But my viewing floats around the peripheries of acceptability and, indeed, good taste. But I’m not a cult viewer (although I loved ‘Fargo’ (if you can call it a comedy) and shows like ‘League Of Gentlemen’ and ‘Father Ted’); rather, I veer towards the unfashionable or outré. My choices are driven by the writing style. Others I should have loved, like ‘Psychoville’ and that one with the gorilla falling off the Blackpool Tower, felt as if they were trying too hard. Too many US shows like say, ‘Community’ end up being a series of one-liners glued together. So I have to ask myself, why did I find the following funny?

‘Black Books’/ ‘The IT Crowd’)

Despicable characters, unlikely situations, silly dialogue, ludicrous plots, yet somehow Graham Lineham can’t help but create sympathetic, funny characters that make you believe in them. (Mind you, he always adds one charming dolt for the sympathy vote). And he does it right again and again. Respect.

‘Green Wing’

As close as a hospital sitcom can ever get to total surrealism (the camel!) but everything about it was effortlessly game-changing and hilarious, even if there were really any plots to speak of – and it brought a new generation of terrific performers to the fore.

‘My Name Is Earl’

Why did I like this so much? The absolute determination of the show to be lowlife and yet weirdly heroic, its cinematic look, the entirely logical plots that led you into weird places – Joy’s kidnapping spree and Roseanne Barr playing a nun (‘Don’t get your wimple in a wad’) weren’t even highlights – they were just as good as every other episode, although I especially loved Giovanni Ribisi’s terrifying appearances as the psycho-dumbell.

‘The Brittas Empire’

Someone else must have liked the ultimate annoying Little Englander because he ran to something like seven series. I thought of him like the Beano’s ‘Jonah’, always having to destroy something each week, whether he was electrifying Christians or driving his wife to drugs. And the baby delivered by clowns through a car roof was a stroke of genius.

The Thick Of It

There’s endless entertainment in watching panicked jobsworths running around like headless chickens, and it helped to have Peter Capaldi cracking the whip like a demented circus ringmaster. It barely mattered whether you followed the convoluted plots. The BBC-set show that attempted to pull off the same trick played out like a poor carbon.

Comedy is hard, runs the maxim, but being funny isn’t that tough. Making comedy believable is hard. When I wrote ‘Plastic’ the comedy worked from the first day. What took me longer was the creation of a fully rounded likeable lead character.Without that, comedy merely becomes a series of punchlines. Galton & Simpson’s advice stays with me; don’t consciously write funny. Write deluded characters.


5 comments on “Why Is Comedy In Trouble?”

  1. Fiona says:

    Black Books and the IT Crowd are my favourites. You might like a sitcom that Sean Lock wrote called 15 Storeys High. It’s a little bit surreal and has a despicable character as leading man. It didn’t get the attention it deserved because it kept being screened at odd times that made it difficult for people to follow. Another series I’ve enjoyed that I thought also deserved more attention was Psychobitches, shown on Sky Arts. It’s got some of the League of Gentlemen actors and writers involved in it. I particularly enjoyed the Bronte Sisters bit and Mark Gatiss as Joan Crawford. A lot of comedy on TV just doesn’t make me laugh. It’s a shame really as I’m sure there probably are talented people out there but I get the impression they don’t get the opportunities. I liked Misfits and although that wasn’t really a comedy it did make me laugh at times. Fargo the TV series was excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed it and the black humour in it.

  2. Ian Smith says:

    I’d nominate the Mitchell and Webb sitcom ‘Peep Show’. Watching it, I’d always wonder what depths its two misfit characters would sink to — dragged down by their insecurities, vanities, lusts and paranoia — before I’d have to avert my eyes from the screen. I particularly remember one episode set during a boating trip when the pair of them tried to woo two girls (one because he sniffed a job opportunity, the other because he wanted simple raw sex) and the Robert Webb character ended up having to force-feed himself pieces of recently run-over and recently burned dog.

    Incidentally, Christopher, I wonder what you made of the Matthew Holness comedy series ‘Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place’? I thought the jokes were pretty hit and miss but I loved Holness’s character of a pompous, deluded horror writer. As I don’t think you’re the sort of chap who’d introduce himself to people as an “author… visionary… dream-weaver”, I’m sure you didn’t find it too close to the bone!

  3. admin says:

    ‘Dream-weaver – hah! I’ve heard a couple of horror authors wax pretentious – you don’t hear much about them now that the genre has pretty much collapsed.

  4. K Page says:

    ‘Peep Show’ held a grim fascination.’The Thick of it’ is brilliant.I also liked ‘Lead Balloon’, ‘Phoenix Nights’, ‘The worst Week of my Life’ and ‘Kath and Kim’.Current favourite is ‘Friday Night Dinner’.No accounting for taste, is there?

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Obviously they don’t cross the pond well – or they don’t occur on my tv, except for My Name is Earl, which I never saw.

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