Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The good old days

In the news at the moment, if you want to waste your time on such things, is the “story” (if it can be called that) that a satirical panel game show on Britain’s Channel Four has been criticized for making lewd jokes about the Queen and Usain Bolt, among others. For those familiar with British popular culture, that’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year.

There may be a valid point here. I don’t know exactly what the joke about the Queen was about, but apparently the joke about Usain Bolt included the suggestion he be put out to stud. Apart from the distasteful likening of a black man (or, indeed, any person at all) to a horse, it’s especially unfortunate given that it’s very possible that Bolt’s ancestors — who were slaves — may actually have been selectively bred by their masters.

That aside: this being the internet, it wasn’t long before comments sections on news websites started lamenting about the state of British comedy and how much better it used to be back in the day. The golden age, it seems, of Only Fools and Horses and Last of the Summer Wine; Jasper Carrott and Kenny Everett.

Well, yes. There are two assumptions here: that there was no bad comedy back then, and there is no good comedy now.

This is all very objective, of course. The current bad boy of British comedy is Frankie Boyle, who is no stranger to controversy, but who, not so long ago, was curiously censured for likening a sportswoman’s face to somebody looking at their reflection on the back of a spoon, while a joke he made on the same show about the Queen’s private parts appeared to pass muster. Frankie Boyle is reviled by many, and loved by many others. The people who love Frankie Boyle no doubt consider Michael McIntyre to be bland and too safely middle-class; yet McIntyre, like Boyle, performs to sell-out audiences.

So it’s not easy to be objective about this, and if you’re British, you may disagree with what follows. It is necessarily my own personal opinion, but I think the general point still stands: there is now, and always has been, good comedy and bad comedy.

To represent the bad comedy of the supposed golden age, I would like to suggest the likes of Bobby Davro and Bernard Manning, for very different reasons.

Poor old Bobby Davro. He only really wanted to make people laugh, but unfortunately he just didn’t have the talent. The more he tried, the worse it got. His material was old and tiresomely predictable. At some point, long after his career had gone into its terminal tailspin, he found himself surrounded by some other fading stars of comedy, hands and face in the stocks, and having his trousers pulled down to his ankles, all in the name of comedy. Live on stage, he lost his balance; with his arms and legs effectively immobilised, there was nothing he could do and he fell face down. If this had been a scripted and rehearsed stunt, it could well have been the funniest thing he ever did. As it was, he lucky to get away with concussion.

Bernard Manning’s line was pretty much straightforward racism, homophobia and sexism “because,” he claimed, “it gets laughs”. In one infamous moment, he claimed he wasn’t at all prejudiced against other religions: he said he thought that Jews and Anglicans and Catholics and Methodists should all get together and fight the Pakistanis. He supporters urged us not to be taken in by his act: he wasn’t at all like that in real life. Perhaps he wasn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that his material was every bit as offensive as the one about putting Usain Bolt out to stud.

Good British comedy today? Well, there is a lot of stuff that is inoffensive but arguably bland: Miranda Hart’s Miranda, for example, is a fairly forgettable sitcom about a clumsy woman failing to attract a boyfriend. But I’d like to present one sitcom, and one writer, to stand in for good modern comedy.

The IT Crowd is penned by Graham Lineham, the man behind Father Ted and Black Books, and is an old-fashioned style sitcom about the IT department of a multinational. It manages not to be offensive while still mining for comedy gold in such subjects as pre-menstrual tension and disfiguring accidents.

And the writer John Finnemore is responsible, among other things, for the excellent radio sitcom Cabin Pressure, about a ramshackle fly-by-night airline (actually an airdot, because it only has one plane, and to put planes in a line you need at least two). Finnemore is a relatively young writer who nevertheless attracts to his little radio sitcom stars as big as Stephanie Cole, Benedict Cumberbatch and Anthony Head (and even if you’re not British, you ought to be familiar with at least two of those names). Again, it’s an old-fashioned style of sitcom (appropriate, you see, because we are comparing modern comedy with the supposed “golden age”), yet Finnemore’s material is always fresh, rarely predictable, and never cruel. If TV executives know what’s good for them, they’ll be keeping their eye on John Finnemore.

This is not a very scientific approach, I realise; but then you can’t be scientific about something as subjective as comedy, which is, after all, an art form. My point is simply this: before you hark back to the good old days, remember that there is a lot about the good old days you have forgotten because it wasn’t worth remembering, and a lot more to the current scene than the stuff the newspaper headlines are complaining about.

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