What's wrong with TV comedy

by Michael J Dolan

Watching television has, over the past six or seven years, become an agonisingly difficult experience. As somebody who was practically raised by TV it has been uncannily similar to watching my actual parents lose the plot with age. Similarities include their refusal to admit that their actions are motivated more by panic and confusion than by their own design, their increasing insistence on openly insulting me without realising that that’s what they are doing and the fact that they have absolutely no idea what’s funny any more.

Browsing over a list of recent TV comedy commissions shows glaring signs of desperation and leaves me with the unshakeable feeling that nobody involved has any idea of what they are doing. The schedules of the past few years have been overloaded with non-starter sketch shows, blatantly commissioned in the wake of Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show in a futile attempt to recapture their success.

Panel shows are everywhere in countless guises providing a convenient dumping ground for all the talented comedians that telly doesn’t know what else to do with. Mainstream sitcoms regularly appear with much fanfare and then disappear almost as quickly with a bit less fanfare, or maybe an Alan Yentob-fronted documentary about why mainstream sitcoms are shit.

Worse still, when telly does accidentally cough up a genuinely original and funny show it seems almost hell bent on making sure nobody sees it. When Sean Lock’s perfectly pitched misery-com 15 Storeys High aired, finding it in the schedules was problematic even if you knew it existed, which you probably didn’t given the lack of publicity.

Similarly The Mighty Boosh seems to have been a tremendous success almost despite the Beeb, whose shuffling of the first two series in the schedules made it absolutely clear that they had no idea what they had on their hands. The BBC has got previous here though, having squandered the potentially massive imports Seinfeld, Larry Sanders and The Simpsons.

Channel Four has had similarly embarrassing moments of late. Stories that Peep Show would not be re-commissioned for a fourth series came out at almost the exact moment that it became a hit(although it later was renewed). Nobody has ever been able to predict a hit, but these days the people in charge don’t even seem to recognise when they already have one.

The fact is that the way people watch TV has changed and the ‘surprise’ triumphs of The Boosh and Peep Show are perfect examples of this. The rise of the DVD box set and the ease with which your programme of choice can be downloaded or streamed from the internet has meant that ratings are an increasingly redundant method of measuring success.

A show’s quality is currently assessed by telly big cheeses on the basis that the average viewer will be a bleary-eyed, zoned-out simpleton who isn’t really sure what the show they’ve just flicked over to is, and who certainly won’t be watching it more than once. This idea is horridly apparent in E4’s newly adopted method of trailing their upcoming shows and films, which ‘ironically’ suggest they are moronic shit and that any viewer must be some kind of dribbling cretin to even consider watching them.

As TV inevitably morphs into the on-demand, internet-rivalling Telly Of The Future, the concept of the average viewer will have to change, as will the content. The viewers will be actively seeking out the shows they want to watch, and more importantly the shows their friends have recommended to them, in much the same way I’ll pass a Flight Of The Conchords DVD to a friend, rather than wait for them to maybe stumble across it on the highbrow TV ghetto of BBC Four.

DVD has already had a noticeable impact on American TV. In drama, the all-conquering success of HBO shows such as The Sopranos, where every episode must be watched intently and in the correct order, has had a knock-on effect, and now even bubblegum superhero shows have alarmingly intricate storylines. Yank comedy has also undergone a facelift with networks actively pushing smarter, subtler sitcoms (the American version of The Office, 30 Rock) hoping for the big DVD sales and internet revenue that those same shows’ writers are currently in a big old industrial-action strop about.

Cancelled animated shows have even been re-commissioned off the back of strong DVD sales (Family Guy, Futurama) and South Park owners Comedy Central have even made a concession to the fact that every episode of their biggest hit has been available for free on the net for years (and that its illegal availability has been wholeheartedly sanctioned by the show’s creators) by providing cut down, advert-saturated versions of all of the episodes on their own website.

British TV is slower on the uptake. The massive DVD sales of The Office and Little Britain are anomalies (both shows were a hair’s breadth from never making it to our screens in the first place). DVD and the digital on demand services seem to be mostly used to generate new revenue from past glories. Another Father Ted boxset here, a re-release of the complete Blackadder there.

The rising ‘threat’ of the internet has been addressed by little more than an increase in the use of the stomach-churning phrase ‘user generated content’ and shows that seem to be trying to replicate the bewildering and unsatisfying experience of half-watching clips on YouTube for hours on end. Anybody who has seen comedians they love have their talents squandered on BBC Three’s Comedy Shuffle or ITV2s Comedy Cuts will know what I’m on about.

The BBC has made a little headway into using the internet as a broadcasting tool. If you wanted to watch a blurred and jittery streamed episode of The Mighty Boosh a week early the BBC website has made that possible for the last two series.

The Boosh’s production company, Baby Cow, has itself made slightly more promising headway with their internet show Where Are The Joneses?, a sitcom paid for by a single sponsor and created and broadcast without interference from cackling media tits at any point. It did unfortunately make the mistake of letting its audience have an influence on its storyline. It’s an irritating trend that I can’t wait to see die out. People don’t want their stories to be interactive, they want them to be carefully crafted by people who know how to write stories. It’s a system that’s worked well for centuries. Nobody texted Jane Austen to suggest that Mr Darcy should, like, get totally murked in a freestyle clash by his mate what got his missus pregnant, y’nah mean?

So where does TV comedy go from here? The cynic in me dreads to think. The idealist in me hopes that as the audience becomes more involved in the process of choosing what they watch, rather than just flicking between whatever’s on, the programmes will have to increase in quality. As that fabled water-cooler conversation switches from ‘Did you see that?’ to ‘Have you seen this yet?’, shows will have to become worthy of further conversation at a later date, be subtler, more complex and stand up to repeat viewing. More of the pinpoint precision of current standard bearer The Office, less of the jumped-up happy-slapping of the comedy nadir of Balls of Steel.

What’s called for, in that case, is the complete removal of non-creative people from the creative process. For risks to be taken on programming irrespective of demographics, focus groups and ill-informed notions of what drove previous successes. Because at its core that’s what comedy is. A risk. Anybody who has ever vocalised anything that they thought might possibly be a little bit funny knows this fact. TV has forgotten it.

Published: 28 Dec 2007

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