What went so wrong for British comedy?
Laughter might be subjective, but few would say we are mid-renaissance
“Young people just aren’t watching anymore,” a producer friend sighs airily over yet another glass of red wine. “They are too busy with gaming, or out drinking. No imagination or desire to engage with anything.”
I smile at my napkin, not wanting to start a food fight by pointing out the current lack of creativity pumped into the Beeb. It would be undiplomatic to point out we are bored by the 430th rehash of Friends or young-attractive-couple-who-flat-share-and-have-awkward-parents. Sitcom or serial comedy is largely dull, predictable, repetitive and repetitive. I can’t even remember character names half the time because everyone is so suburbia saccharine. Where are the dark, twisted jokes? The absurd settings? Where is the sharp political commentary? The brilliant, engaging sets and slick, memorable antagonists?
Everything is so dumbed down. It’s too safe. We don’t watch nasty borderline sociopaths plotting to behead the king, overtake the government, steal a best friend’s husband or store uranium under a primary school. We don’t have to engage with a character for a series or two to fully understand them and get on the emotional bandwagon. The backgrounds are dull, the character development is non existent and the plots are identical. We certainly don’t spend the whole of series 1 desperately checking that there is just one more episode. It’s obvious Jim and Sarah are going to make up at the picnic and continue their boring disinteresting lives.
Comedy is about escapism. I’m not saying everything needs to be Monty Python or Blackadder, but watching series after series of the same romcom flatmates is uninspiring. Don’t get me wrong, when it works, it really works, but you need to develop the characters. Gavin and Stacey worked because the characters were just a tad too ridiculous, but relatable. You could engage with them and at the same time not feel like you were watching series 13 of Don’t Tell The Bride starring Bland Dave and Vacant Jessie.
The best comedy works because you can engage emotionally and still know you are watching something ridiculous. Blackadder was funny because you got to see ludicrous characters in an era you associated with history textbooks. The IT Crowd was funny because we all know a Jen or a Moss in real life, but the screenplay and drawn out hyperbole made it absurd.
Even Bridget Jones, the mother of all chick flicks, got us invested because things went wrong for her. We didn’t know if she was going to be successful on her diet or if she’d ever find out where Germany was. You wanted to find out. But no one cares when your latest bland heroine gets a job as a life model, because we know everything will work out perfectly for her (and she has no interesting or negative personality traits at all). She doesn’t smoke too much, get jealous, or get a crush on the idiot in the office. She doesn’t come from the 1880s or Mars or get taken in by a crazy family when her flat floods. She just smiles prettily and occasionally makes a silly giggly joke about a boy with a friend. Yawn.
And dear god, please stop shoving ‘feminist’ or ‘diverse’ tropes over comedy just for the sake of appealing to the youth of today. You are awful at it. If you have a ‘strong’ female character, you make her so perfect she becomes incredibly boring and unrealistic. Do you know why us 20 somethings like Jen from the IT Crowd? Because even when she is calling out sexism or misogyny, it’s done in a way that is funny. She bounces off clever, non preachy humour and uses sarcasm to stretch out her role as the straight woman in the situation. And she’s not perfect. She says stupid things, lies, gets into trouble and obsesses over ridiculous things. That’s fun to watch. We like that. Simply getting the heroine to be perfect or face a sexist idiot is not enough. You need a plot, character development and humour. Same goes with your badly written token gay, black or disabled characters. If they don’t have anything funny or interesting about them, they just fade into the pedestal of why. And then -thanks to you- people say women/black people/gay people/disabled people aren’t funny or are two dimensional. Thanks a lot, representation.
My favourite comedy series ever was made in the 1980s and 1990s. It is actually more relatable and funny now than most of the stuff I see on TV today. The New Statesman by the late and great Rik Mayall knew exactly how to ridicule, hyperbolise and satirise absolutely everyone, and keep you interested in the fate of a narcissistic evil protagonist. How? Because it wasn’t kitsch. It wasn’t cutesy. It was good because you could explore current affairs and the blacker side of comedy through absurdism. I cared more about Alan B’Stard’s marriage with his cheating, nasty and backstabbing wife than I ever will about Dull Dave and Jessica’s because it is just so much fun to watch. Despite being a hip, trendy lefty 21 year old, I relate to that a hell of a lot more than ‘Ooh look we share a zany flat and have iPod parties’.
You don’t know how things will work out by the end of an episode. Hell, you don’t even know how Alan will survive half the time. Little jokes and wise cracks about Thatcher or Hardcore Labour travel for whole episodes because you can tell someone has thought about how it would look, sound and make you feel. It’s fun. It’s clever. It’s thoughtful.
There’s nothing like that now. Honestly (and this isn’t a slight to anyone, especially if you are my comedic friend, I love you) I haven’t enjoyed a British comedy sitcom in absolutely ages. And that’s sad, because I love comedy. I love involving myself in a plot or storyline. But the lack of creativity is making me switch off the TV.
You know what I want? A good, filthily costume-heavy bonnet-budget satire. Something clever but ridiculous. Hell, I’ll write it for you. In fact, anything this doesn’t bore me silly in pitching. Come on Brits, we can do better than this.