Monday, 17 May 2010

Comedy for Comedy's sake

One thing critics seem unable to grasp is that comedy itself is an artform as surely as literature or jazz, with its own unique strengths when written well and weaknesses when written poorly. Instead, the tendency when praising comedy is to compare it to literature or theatre, as if this legitimises the work. The greatest sitcoms - Seinfeld, Father Ted, I’m Alan Partridge, The Simpsons before its decline – have all been dedicated to the profound, mystifying process of being funny. Father Ted and Seinfeld should invite critique and analysis as surely as Philip Roth, yet so far the critics haven’t reached the nineties yet. Fawlty Towers, for instance, appears to have been vaguely canonised, but you are more likely to hear someone praising it for its tragedy, its psychological realism and its similarities to Shakespearean and Beckettian comedy than for what actually makes it so enduringly funny. I recall a critic once praised Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff by comparing it to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. This missed the point: the sharp black humour of Brydon’s show is a very different strength to Bennett’s. We don’t have to insist that a comedy show is as good as a drama in order to recognise its value. Shows like The Office and The Royle Family may invite comparisons with Beckett and the theatre, but they are funnier, and this sets them out as part of a different artform to theatre with its own strengths. This is why a lot of poor comedy – Extras, Saxondale – gets praised because of its fruitless aspirations towards profundity.
There are three main cul-de-sacs that modern comedy faces. The first is darkness, which always attracts praise but is no more or less an indication of merit than lightness. BBC2’s Nighty Night initially attracted praise for its unflinching blackness, but it soon became apparent it had nowhere else to go. Saxondale was the kind of show that attracted praise for having greater character depth than the infinitely funnier I’m Alan Partridge, but making the protagonist more miserable and giving him dialogue about the bleakness of his predicament does not increase psychological depth. Whilst in Curb Your Enthusiasm there is a terrible logic to the hero’s misanthropy, Lead Balloon – a show heavily influenced by Curb – simply has its protagonist do the most unpleasant thing possible according to the situation. True black comedy can be sublime, but blackness isn’t automatically clever or hilarious.
The second is self-referentiality, an aspect of post-modernism that is a good deal less interesting than most people seem to think. In shows like Extras and The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, the presence of cameras and tv shows within tv shows is presented as if it affords us a fascinating glimpse into the world of celebrity, when in fact it’s no more interesting than any other setting. The nadir was reached with the climax to the Extras Christmas special, which seemed to believe that launching into a diatribe against Big Brother and celebrity culture constitutes satire rather than yet another aspect of celebrity culture, no better than Big Brother itself. It’s much the same school of thought that persists in thinking that celebrities playing themselves in an unflattering light is both incredibly brave of the celebrity and deeply subversive.
The third is the tendency towards realism, in sitcoms which focus on characters with shabby, self-obsessed lives. The influence of Peep Show and The Office is strong here, and the excellent (and inexplicably axed) Pulling also demonstrated that this can be done well. The problem with these three fine shows is that their influence – along with the improvised, pseudo-documentary style of Curb Your Enthusiasm, probably the finest currently ongoing comedy series – has lead a generation to believe their own lives are funny enough to base a comedy show around.
Father Ted, Seinfeld and I’m Alan Partridge are not brilliant because they are dark, nor because they capture the humdrum reality of everyday life, nor because they are postmodern, and not because they achieve any effects similar to Beckett, Dickens or Shakespeare. In fact, some of those things they don’t attempt to do at all. They are brilliant because every aspect - the performances, the dialogue, the structure of their ingenious little plots, the characterisation, the gags, the imagery – has been scrupulously worked on so that each contributes to an overall effect that is unique and incomparable to any other artform. There is nothing more complex than something that succeeds in being funny, and nothing more valuable for sanity. In comparison with this achievement, postmodernism seems a very small thing indeed.

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