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.

16 comments on “Comedy Not Funny: Official”

  1. Ben Morris says:

    I must admit that a lot of television comedy seems to have lost originality and ‘funniness’ in the last 10 years. There are exceptions of course, you mention ‘Inside No.9’, but generally the writing doesn’t seem clever anymore, just brutal.

    Nowadays I listen to radio comedy, again there is a need to be selective, but the freedom that comes with radio seems to allow a bit more originality better concepts and cleverer writing.

    From a viewer’s point of view and as someone not in the industry, it seems that most of the comedy production which hits the television screen on mainstream domestic channels is playing safe, the days of the BBC being ground breaking seem to have gone, it seems to be left to Channel 4 or American based streaming channels to produce the original comedy TV.

  2. Roger says:

    Shane Allen doesn’t seem to realise that talking seriously – solemnly even – about some things, such as comedy, is inherently funny. The very words “Head of BBC comedy” raise a smile.
    It’s interesting that you chose an illustration from a sketch (in a Python film, I think) that was “clever and surreal”, but wasn’t funny.

  3. DC says:

    Trying to think of BBC TV comedy I have watched recently…..nope…..nothing other than the rare episode of QI.

    I can’t stand the Beebs radical, non-white, non-middle class comedians, such as Michael McIntyre (blatant sarcasm!) and I have given up looking for any sort of intelligent comedy. I agree with Ben, regarding radio.

    Except I did enjoy Cunk on Britain.

  4. Adam says:

    The only comedy series of recent vintage that made me laugh out loud was The Inbetweeners. It was crass and filthy, but the four protagonists had a genuine camaraderie, and portrayed teenaged angst with far more accuracy than any other show that I can remember. Would definitely not get commissioned by the BBC and of course the US version bombed. The only other one that comes close is Friday Night Dinner, which is more of a classic farce (and Mark Heap is fantastic as usual).

  5. Ken Mann says:

    There remains a great deal of variety in the world of stand-up (even if TV panel shows seem to cycle through the same faces). I hope there will always be a place for footlightesque comedy, but it can only be healthy for it not to be the only voice. Now I’m off to listen to the soundtracks of lost episodes of “misleading cases” on youtube.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Isn’t the title ‘Head Of Television Comedy’ similar in tone to the oxymoronic ‘Military Intelligence’?

  7. Wild Edric says:

    I really enjoyed BBC 4’s The Detectorists. Slow moving, space for the characters to breathe, stunning countryside and clever writing. Genuine laugh out loud moments too, especially the line about the lottery win. And I’m sure the C-bomb was dropped in one episode and didn’t appear gratuitous.

    Like DC I enjoyed Cunk on Britain and share Adam’s love for the Inbetweeners. I’ll be flicking through channels, stumble across an old episode I’ve seen countless times but still watch it (and laugh).

    RIP Wilsonnnnnnn!

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Mention of the brilliant ‘The Detectorists’ reminds me that it is probably not the favourite TV show of one real detectorist. Whilst scanning a certain field, this bloke got a very large reading. Digging at that point, he found a hoard of what he supposed were Roman coins. However, on showing them to his mates, who thought them a bit ‘off’, he took them to an expert, who pronounced them to be modern facsimiles. Further study revealed that the field… had been used in the extensive location filming of ‘The Detectorists’, and a load of coins had been planted, and not all had been recovered. In veritas testiculae canis. Or not.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    We had a series about a Korean owned convenience store in Toronto that got good reviews. I enjoyed it. Our favourite (for almost 20 years) political satire show has gone off the air. Rick Mercer was probably right to leave while we were still laughing and how can you do satire on Donald Trump?
    Radio has a version of Just For Laughs/Juste Pour Rire and it is sometimes good. Standup is a very restrictive form because you have difficulty in building up understanding in the audience in the short time you have on stage and there is something unnatural about 2 1/2 hours of unremitting jokes, especially if they were all funny – which they rarely are. We have a couple of other half hour radio shows which have introduced us to multi-cultural comics who give you entree into otherwise closed communities and there are now names and voices that make listeners perk up their ears.
    Comedy has never been easy and successful comedy changes from one half generation to the next.

  10. Mike says:

    I’ve been watching the series re-run of “allo allo!” and it’s gloriously non pc.
    I don’t think even one episode would be made now.
    Liked Detectorists as well, very gentle comedy.
    Johhny Vegas recent sit com was patchy.
    QI is much the better for having Sandi Toksvig in the chair

  11. Roger says:

    I watched “A Man for All Seasons” yesterday and it confrmed that what is funny isn’t always comical. There’s a scene where Henry VIII travelling by boat arrives at Thomas More’s house and jumps ashore and gets his elegant shoes coated in mud. His courtiers on the boats are silent and there’s a shot of the king’s face as he decides whether it’s officially funny or not. When he laughs, they laugh, but the wait isn’t funny and it’s likely that what amuses Henry most is knowing that he decides how people are to respond.
    The film often teeters on the edge of comedy – Henry is Basil Fawlty with powers of life and death. The clashes between More and Thomas Cromwell could be played as comedy – two intelligent, witty men in a duel of wits. It could be Wilde, but the wit is earnest. It shows the difference between being witty and being funny.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Roger, the tension involved in any scene involving Henry VIII shifts the focus of anything potentially comic to that decision of Henry’s – is this laughable or not? The audience daren’t choose. There was a little scene of two musical writers judging a piece of submitted music (Greensleeves) and asking into the air, “Who wrote this thing?” The answer comes from the back of the hall, “We did.” There is a moment of dead silence. That’s Henry, dead silence meeting every unique event.

  13. admin says:

    I’ve been meaning to watch Scofield in that for his Oscar performance. Can I suggest you check out the Hopkins Lear before it vanishes from iPlayer into the ether?

  14. Roger says:

    Admired the Hopkins Lear enormously.
    Scofield played Lear in Peter Brooke’s 1971 film – a very different Lear, but a a good one.

    It isn’t just Scofield – McKern’s Cromwell is good as well – a worthy opponent, even if he cheats.

  15. Denise Treadwell says:

    A Man for All Seasons is a very good play and the film is good too. John Hurt played Richard Rich , must have been one of his earliest performances.

  16. Wayne Mook says:

    I not a major fan of Hopkins, but I agree the Hopkins Lear was splendid, a lovely cast all-round. It’s no longer on the player but hopefully it will be released.


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