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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Comedy's Gone Wrong

Here's a brilliant piece from today's Times by Michael Gove- a man who talks an awful lot of sense- so long as he's not talking about Iraq or 'the war on terror'.

Comedy's gone wrong, and it's no laughing matter
Michael Gove
The Times 1st February 2006

What temperature is your telly set at? Chilled, super-cool or cosy? The idea that you should adjust your set — for warmth — might appear to be a technological fantasy conceived by an electronics manufacturer determined to render existing home entertainment systems and central heating arrangements obsolete by allowing you to Sky-plus your consumption of fuel alongside your consumption of Desperate Housewives. But the notion that TVs should provide warmth is not a radical plea for technical innovation. Instead it’s a call for cultural conservatism. Which has come from a surprising quarter.
The demand that our televisions, and in particular their comedy output, should generate a warm feeling has been made by Graham Linehan, the writer and director behind Father Ted and Channel 4’s new comedy, The IT Crowd, which begins on Friday. Linehan, who’s just 36, has raised expectations about his show by suggesting that it marks a departure from the comedy consensus. He argues that The IT Crowd is “a reaction against how crass a lot of television comedy has become, really vulgar and crude and unpleasant. I do think one thing that comedy should be is sweet. That’s where I’m trying to hark back to, classic sweet sitcoms like Dad’s Army.” Linehan’s attack on the trend towards noir comedy is certainly smart positioning for his show, but it is also a reflection of a wider, and deeper, sense among writers that comedy has taken a wrong turning. It might have been expected that Victoria Wood and David Croft, as representatives of the comedy ancien régime unseated by Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen and The Office, would be critical of the new darkness. But it is telling that Armando Iannucci, the genius who created the bleakly pitiable world of Alan Partridge and who has, with The Thick of It, painted a picture of contemporary politics far more contemptuous than anything you’ll find in a standard newspaper jeremiad, has signalled his concern at comedy’s current direction.
Iannucci, who is now a visiting professor at Oxford University, argued last week that comedy had become too successful at exploiting the niche and the cult and in the process had forsaken the mainstream. Iannucci, whose doctoral thesis was on Paradise Lost, was careful not to succumb to nostalgia for a departed comic Elysium and had some tart things to say about the limitations of the comfort zone comedy of Terry and June. But he did make a compelling case for comedy to re-engage with the mass audience it had lost, pointing out that the average viewing figures for Britain’s top five sitcoms had dropped from 14.7 million in the mid-1980s to 6.9 million at the turn of the century.
Of course, part of that decline is a function of multichannel broadcasting. But the success of some of those new channels, such as UK Gold, with its reliance on re-runs of classics such as Dad’s Army, only reaffirms the popularity of sitcoms which generate that sweetness, and warmth, that Linehan aspires to. It’s fashionable now to turn on Little Britain as the symbol of what’s gone wrong with contemporary comedy, and I’ve happily done it myself, but to understand why comedy is failing to reach the broader audience it once enjoyed it’s worth going beyond the easy targets and looking at the weaknesses in shows which still enjoy near universal critical acclaim, such as The Office.
The difference between The Office and a genuine popular classic such as Only Fools and Horses lies in the fundamental attitude we’re invited to take towards the central character. Both David Brent and Derek Trotter are self-deluding show-offs, clumsy mock-sophisticates whose attempts at social elevation are doomed to failure — characters in the rich comic tradition of Malvolio, and Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme. But what makes OFAH not just more enduringly popular than The Office, but also deeper, is the affection the show’s writer manages to maintain in our hearts for Del Boy, despite his flaws.
We are invited to laugh at David Brent as he tries to insinuate himself into the affections of his co-workers with humour directed at those he considers life’s losers. But we ourselves are rendered complicit in that same process by the writers who are making us laugh at Brent. In OFAH, by contrast, we are invited to share Del Boy’s hopes and look beyond his scheming to appreciate his basic warmth. The fact that the centre of the Trotter universe is a dysfunctional but still happy home contrasts with the world of The Office, which has no place for the warm or the domestic. There is an inescapable cruelty about The Office which, for all the genius of its writing, betrays a chilliness of vision that the human heart resiles from. Artists excel by setting themselves challenges, and the real test of a comedy writer is the ability to make us laugh with as well as at. It is a test, as Professor Iannucci aptly reminds us, that too many currently fail.


Miguel said...
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Neil Clark said...

Nah - don't buy it. Gove's right. Captain Mainwaring although as pompous as Stephen Pollard, sorry, David Brent, is infinitely sweeter.
And give me George and Mildred any day over Tim and Dawn...