Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Why great comedy matters...

The ability to laugh at yourself is very important. By encouraging us to recognise the eccentricities and flaws in others, and ourselves, and forgive them - or even find them endearing - it prompts a very healthy sort of self-analys. 

I guess a lot of comedy could be seen as jokes made at someone else's expense. Virtually 
any joke could be taken out of context and read out with mawkish solemnity to someone most likely to be offended though. Then we’d really stop making jokes which would make the world a poorer place.
There’s definitely a British approach to comedy. A lot of our humour stems from our class system – our divided society – our sense of embarrassment, understatement and respect for the rules, even if we don’t follow them at all times.

Blackadder manages to combine history and comedy so well, covering so much ground from the Middle Ages, and the adventures of King Richard IV, to World War I and the ever funny Captain Darling. The slapstick comedy and word play is brilliant – such great put-downs and witty puns. I particularly like "Ink and Incapability" from the third series about Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

Monty Python
The brilliance of Monty Python lies in the absurdity of the many situations which the sketch writers explore. This can be particularly seen in "The Village Idiot" sketch.

The Two Ronnies
The Two Ronnies punned like no-one else. I like way they use and abuse linguistic meanings and structures and sounds to find and create humour. They were great at slapstick humour, as well as being amazing character actors - imbuing each character with believable emotion, acting with a lot of subtlety and taking the joke as far as anyone possible good and still getting the audience to laugh.

Yes Minister
Yes Minister made the driest possible subject - the minutiae of politics - into sparkling comedy. It opened the lid on the way the Government really operated.

Much of the show's humour derives from the antagonism between Cabinet ministers (who believe they are in charge) and the members of the British Civil Service (who think they really run the country).

Always buffeted by fate, wanting to do good but too scared of losing votes and status to do anything, the Right Honorable Hacker, MP, is the symbol of all of us, wanting to be better, and not quite making it.
Sir Humphrey, on the other hand, genuinely believes that it is the Civil Service that knows what is best for the country. His actions are motivated by his wish to maintain the prestige, power, and influence he enjoys.
Hacker's use of catastrophically mixed metaphors, his Private Secretary Bernard's fondness for awful puns and maddening pedantry, and Sir Humphrey's laconic wit and brain-wrenching sentences designed to confuse are just brilliant!
I particularly like "The Ministerial Broadcast", in which Hacker is advised on the effects of his clothes and surroundings on his media personae and "A Conflict of Interest" which lampoons the various political stances of Britain's newspapers through their readers. 
That Mitchell and Webb Look/Peep Show
Comedy these days seems to be more about developing long running returning characters whose comedy is found in the way people speak and behave. It’s all about observation of human nature, exaggerated and made grotesque.

It seems to be more about the eccentricities of people and less about the underlying eccentricities of communication. There are definitely fewer puns around. I think the best of the bunch is David Mitchell and Robert Webb. The "Toothbrush Company" sketch is particularly memorable.
Fawlty Towers
Fawlty Towers is more than just a comedy, it's a work of genius. It gave us the most unhinged sitcom hero ever, a brace of unforgettable comedy moments and a biting portrayal of a loveless marriage.
Farce doesn't normally work on television, but somehow in Fawlty Towers it did. Basil attacking his car with a tree, found straddling Manuel in the hotel lobby, being hit on the head by a stuffed moose… all priceless television moments. 
The setting was a pretty ordinary hotel, with Fawlty constantly struggling to inject a touch of class into his tawdry surroundings. His escapades included trying to hide a rat from a hygiene inspector, keeping a dead customer hidden and pretending to a party of his friends that his wife Sybil was ill during their anniversary party (when in fact she's walked out on him).

Basil was the perfect vehicle for Cleese's comic talents: mixing the biting verbal tirades against his wife and guests with the physical dexterity utilised to charge about between self-induced disasters.
Only Fools and Horses
Only Fools and Horses was about loveable, doomed aspiration. It gave the world Derek Trotter, the fast-talking, quick thinking whirlwind at the centre of the show who stirs up clouds of cash, dodgy goods off the back of lorries and affection wherever he turns. And it gave us Rodney Trotter, the ultimate sidekick, straight man and annoying kid brother. 

The show celebrates family values, practical morality and workaday virtues. Family and friends, loyalty and decency, fish and chips. It handles the heavy stuff - thwarted dreams, miscarriage and even death. But can still turn this unpromising material into comedy gold sometimes in a single sentence.
Only Fools even had the perfect ending. The boys started off on their usual journey but this time came away with their dream of becoming rich realised. This happened only once they had grown up, learned how to be kind to each other and everyone else and turn into fully rounded human beings.
Porridge is set in the grimmest place imaginable - a prison. And yet still manages to be both gritty and witty.
Fletch laid down the template for comedy rogues which Del Boy and Fools and Horses followed shamelessly. And who could be a better comedy foil for Barker than doe-eyed innocent Richard Beckinsale. 'Porridge' had proper villains too! 

No sitcom has ever had a character quite as mean as the man who really runs Slade Prison - Harry Grout. And prison officer Mackay, played to neurotic perfection by Fulton Mackay, very nearly stole the show from under the convicts' noses. It's comedy gold.

Father Ted

Father Ted charts the misadventures of chain smoking morally suspect Catholic priest, Father Ted Crilly (the late Dermot Morgan) who’s been banished to a stark, desolate off-shore ecumenical limbo somewhere off the Galway coast, named Craggy Island, for numerous misdemeanours and character defects.

With him are a young, inexperienced, child-like and likeable, but staggeringly stupid curate, Father Dougal Maguire (Ardal O'Hanlon) and the alcoholically hazed, psychopathically monosyllabic retired veteran cleric, Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly). Rounding out the central quartet is the excellent Pauline McLynn as the manically devoted parochial housekeeper, Mrs Doyle.

From this basically simple scenario, writers Linehan and Matthews created a near self contained universe of inspired lunacy and comic invention, which more often than not revolved around Ted's (forever) just out of reach dreams of striking it rich and effecting an escape to the civilisation, and tantalising pleasures of the fleshpots of the mainland.

Everything from the cult of celebrity through the blatant (but very funny) recycling of plots borrowed from every imaginable genre, to the lure of sex and existence of God Him/Her/Itself were routine grist to the comedic mill of the Craggy Island foursome. 

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