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Comedy should be heard and not seen

Michael Monkhouse on why radio is still the best medium

I've just read on Chortle that ITV is going to put out its first online/mobile sitcom. Oh joy. Oh joy and rhapsody, rhapsody unforeseen…

Because what does this mean in the real world? That we're going to get busloads dickheads downloading the latest set of tired gags on their sad little iPods while I'm trying to read? That we can expect another truckload of clever-little-me-mannerisms blurted out at us while we're minding our own business in some sad London café? That when I finally get a minute and a pint and a fag to myself I’ve got to listen to a bunch of grammar-school nob-ends reciting the latest crap-phrased catch-phrases?

Don't get me wrong. I’m not going rattle off yet another rant against the perils of modern technology. All I'm saying is: Does comedy really need this kind of gimmickry? Do comedians really have to make use of - or be used by - the wonders of the modern world? Weren't they happier - and, let's be honest, funnier - in the good old days of radio?

I'm no expert, but a lot of gags are based on good old-fashioned reversal. Aka reveal. Aka switcheroo. You know, take the audience down one alley, then switch 'em into another unawares… I think every comedian on Earth's used that technique. Well nothing works better than that than radio. I mean, take The Goons - one of the nicest lines they ever did was when Sellers was trying to chat up a nice young lady and Spike just wouldn't take the hint and, technically speaking, piss right off. Upshot of the whole scene:

Sellers: Spike for the last time get out…

Milligan: Ah all right.

F/X: DOOR SLAMS.

Milligan (muttering) I don't care - he tells me to go away, slam of the door, I…

Sellers: Spike GET OUT!

Did the audience laugh? Immoderately. Including me.

And you just couldn't do that kind of gag on telly… Well I guess you could, but you'd have to keep the camera still, by which time the audience would be wondering why you'd kept the camera still in the first place and, of course, foresee the gag. Booing and tomato-throwing ensuing

Something similar lies behind the Jack Benny gag in which the legendarily stingy comic was held up by a robber:

‘Your money or your life!’

Pause. Long pause…

‘I said, your money or…’

‘I know, I'm thinking it over.’

Would that kind of gag be helped by telly? By a long close-up of Mr Benny knitting his brows? I think not.

Because ultimately, comedy works best when it's just that. Pure comedy. I'm reminded of Ronald Wolfe's influential Writing Comedy book, in which he says you don't want to muck around with gimmicks, you just want straight humour. Such as Lenny Bruce, nothing more than a guy and a mic. Or vintage Woody Allen, same as. Or how the wondrous Alexei Sayle who did nothing more than stand up and talk, talk, talk - his Cak! album and Fish People Tapes are long-lost comic gems - then he got into telly and… Not a good thing.

Something rather similar happened to Ben Elton, king of alternative stand-up, when he hit the Beeb and used all these crappy silly gimmicks to pump up the act. Like, that 'things-to-do, things-to-bloody-do' routine would have been great, but because it was telly he had to drag in all these props… Why? Because it made it funnier? Or just because it was telly now? Look at that that embarrassing Get A Grip show on TV, and compare it to how much funnier - and cleaner - and neater - he did the same routines on stage. Point taken?

You may argue that many shows kicked off on radio, then made it to the telly and made, technically speaking, mega-bucks... And I concur. But bucks aside, did they garner bigger laughs too? Consider Radio Four's In One Ear, a show which garnered a cult following plus a Sony Award (the radio equivalent of an Emmy and a well-frigging-done) in the Eighties, then transferred to telly as Hello Mum and got well and truly scuppered – despite the assistance of both criminally underrated Arnold Brown and then-up and coming caricature hero Steve Bell.

It was the same with long-running, gag-funny Radio Active - nothing short of an institution on the radio, Then when it hit the telly as KYTV (what? I mean, what?) it managed two series then nothing… Or The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, that transformed into a television series, a stage show, a trendy towel and (finally) a movie. Sorry, but wasn't it funnier when two-headed Zaphod was on the radio and you could imagine which head was chatting? Visually it just looked stupid. Even the epochal Hancock's Half-Hour kicked out a couple of characters when it went from radio to telly because, in the words of writers Galton and Simpson themselves: ‘TV's so much more obvious.’

So let ITV play around with their wonderful, breech-breaking, buttock-crunching new technology. But let's also ask them why, why, why. And let's finally remember the words of the delightful Bob Monkhouse: ‘Television can do the things radio can't do… But it can't do the things radio can do.’

Posted: 20 Jan 2008

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