Not long ago I read an article in which John Cleese lamented the death of British comedy and I can’t decide whether to agree or not. When I first saw the headline, I could at once think of at least three sitcoms that I feel put the great achievements of British comedy to shame, but at the same time I could think of some fantastic examples of the brilliance of home-grown British comedy. Into my own personal hall of shame go three of the worst pieces of television (I can’t in all sincerity class them as comedy) that I have ever had the misfortune of seeing.
Number One is Miranda. I have spoken to a startlingly large number of people who find this woman and her irritating breaking of the fourth wall hysterical, but I’m afraid I just do not see it. As far as I can tell, all she does is fall over and do literally unbelievable things, all the while cracking jokes that would have barely raised a titter at the height of Music Hall comedy.
Number two is Not Going Out, a program comprised entirely of cringe-worthy puns, profoundly irritating characters, and lame attempts at clever humour.
My third entry has to be Coming of Age, which follows a group of teenagers at college. Clearly the writer, who is only in late teens or early twenties himself, has never even met a teenager before, which leaves me to conclude that he has no friends.
The biggest insult is that all three of these shameful attempts at comedy have all been granted (at least) a second series.
On the other end of the spectrum lie the comedies that plainly show British comedy is still alive, and not turning in its grave. To provide a sense of fairness, I will choose three comedies that restore my faith in the good old British sense of humour.
Firstly, The Inbetweeners. Quite possibly one of the greatest comedy series of all time, the believability of the characters and the way in which the audience can respond to and relate to the situations in which Will, Jay, Simon, and Neil find themselves makes this one of the funniest shows on television.
Number two for me has to be Outnumbered. Allowing the children to improvise and ad lib their lines adds a wonderful sense of realism that the audience can relate to. The Brockmans are a normal family, and their normality is what is so entertaining. They do not have to resort to ridiculous, unbelievable situations in order to grab some laughs; the ridiculousness of normal family life provides more than enough material.
Thirdly, I am going to choose The IT Crowd. Taking traditional situations related to the workplace and exaggerating them grounds the show in a recognisable situation, but takes it to places that allow for slightly outlandish elements. The show manages to finds the balance between without pushing it too far towards the downright ridiculous.
When looking at my choices, I can see some patterns emerging. The comedies that carry on the tradition of excellent British comedy are all grounded in the believable, the normal, and the mundane, and also know the limits of these situations. A group of four normal teenagers at school, an everyday middle class family, and the staff members of a dingy IT department are so normal, so incredibly British that they lends themselves to comedy fantastically.
Furthermore, the writers understand the people they are writing and the situations in which the characters find themselves. The comedies that I have named and shamed suffer from a lack of this normality and that has, for decades, defined the great British comedies. Has Miranda Hart ever owned a joke shop or done any of the things that she gets up to? Has Lee Mack ever been a 40 year old bachelor with an attractive young neighbour and annoying best friend? Has Tim Dawson ever interacted with a teenager? The answer to all of these questions is no. Fawlty Towers was based on a real Torquay hotelier encountered by John Cleese and Connie Booth, The Vicar of Dibley tackled a topical issue and was inspired by one particular female vicar, the Reverend Joy Carroll who Richard Curtis and Dawn French consulted frequently and Blackadder made history far more popular by using historical general knowledge and constructing an alternative reality around it, helped greatly by the writing genius of Richard Curtis.
If you want to create a truly lasting and truly brilliant comedy, find something boring and everyday and use its potential. In my opinion, comedy should flow naturally and should not be forced in any way. Take life as it comes, and the funny will come right along with it.
Image credit – Leo Reynolds