Monday 2 June 2014


I've been thinking rather a lot about comedy lately -which can't be good news, can it? Was anything useful or true ever said about a subject so notoriously subjective and elusive? Certainly not by those who Take It Seriously and thereby kill the very thing they're studying. In the end, it's all down to what makes you laugh and what doesn't - or is it? A surprising amount of great comedy barely makes you laugh at all (take Buster Keaton - or Jonathan Swift, or indeed much Shakespearean 'comedy')...
Anyway, what initially got me going was Brit's comment under my recent Dabbler post on Bea Lillie, about how so much comedy dates irreparably, often in very little time. Why is this? And what kind of comedy is most likely to stand a chance of survival? As it happened, over the past weekend I encountered rather a lot of comedy, one way and another, including even an episode of Much Binding in the Marsh on Radio 4 Extra in the small hours. Unsurprisingly, this RAF comedy has not passed the test of time, though I was struck by how fabulously camp Richard Murdoch's delivery was - and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, this was the show that gifted us the conversational gambit 'Have you read any good books lately?' Can this be true?
 Much Binding was preceded by an episode of one of Kenneth Horne's other ventures - either Round the Horne of Beyond Our Ken - which still had a surprising amount of comic life in it, probably because of its fast pace, its range of comic grotesques and its sense of gleeful mischief (much saucy innuendo smuggled in under the BBC radar). But of course it had dated, in part because of topical references that would be quite meaningless to a younger generation. Indeed one thing we can say with something like certainty is that topical comedy is doomed to die soon. Only topical satire at the level of Swift on peak form can long outlive its occasion.
 I think I sense a glimmer of truth in another generalisation, which is that 'nothing dates faster than the dernier cri' - the most wildly fashionable and popular comedy is likely to fade fast. Monty Python is, I fear, a classic case: the last time I came across an original episode I found it not only unfunny but pretty much unendurable - and this was the show that, when it came out, had me falling about, hailing each new episode as a comedy masterpiece. Looking back, it seems to me that the most striking thing about it was its then breath-taking formal originality - an originality that in the course of things was soon absorbed into the comedy mainstream and became commonplace. On the other hand, the determinedly old-fashioned Fawlty Towers is still irresistibly funny. I caught an episode of that too at the weekend - The Psychiatrist - and, although I've seen it so many times I know exactly what is coming at every turn, I still found it impossible not to laugh. This was the show that was greeted with near universal dismay by a public expecting John Cleese to deliver something Pythonesque, not a knockabout farce set in a seaside hotel. Well, it's Fawlty Towers that's getting the last laugh.
 And there's proabably a lesson there too, for FT is perhaps the most meticulously scripted and crafted British sitcom ever made, an intricate machine engineered to raise laugh after laugh, time after time. For comedy to last, it surely has to be, at the very least, well written and carefully and tightly constructed... But I'll leave it there, and throw the floor open (in the confident expection of '0 comments'). 


  1. I think lasting comedy is scripted around eternal human truths, and the ephemeral stuff is built around catchphrases

  2. True yes - and the comedy must emerge naturally from the characters.

  3. That's a good analysis of Python, and is why Life of Brian stands the test of time a lot better.

    Three Men in a Boat is still extremely funny - universal truths, perfectly formed. As is Diary of a Nobody which actually feels quite modern.

    PS - Commenting is currently a bit of a pain in the arse on Nigeness because of the log-in malarkey and the captcha thing, hence drop in number of comments.

    Case in point, this is Brit speaking, and I can't be bothered to log out and log back in again to prove it.

  4. Somehow work of high quality circumvents and transcends the limitations of the topical. You refer to 'Swift on peak form' and the 'meticulously scripted and crafted' Fawlty Towers. I've been reading HL Mencken's Smart Set criticism. On serious subjects his use of scathing hyperbole is sometimes hilarious. I'm sure that the excellent quality of his prose contributes to this effect. His brilliant grasp allows for a range of comic effects. The Marx Brothers endure too and I'm sure this is because they are such professionals, so sure of their art.

  5. As it happens, I'm about to read Mencken for the first time.. Quite agree about Diary of a Nobody and the funny bits of Three Men on a Boat - and the Marx Bros, tho for me it's all about Groucho, not keen on the others.
    Sorry about the comment problems - I'll see if it can be made easier...