Movie madness

Michael Monkhouse on why films are bad for comedy

I was chuffed to read Armando Iannucci's back with Steve Coogan. Two classy comedians, two grandiose gagsmiths, two subtle satirists...

I was a little less chuffed to read the project's going to be a film. Give me the radio antics of 'he Goons, the telly tribulations of The Young Ones, the straight stand-up of Eddie Izzard… But a comedy movie?

As anyone who's braved the stage knows, comedy's got to be mean and lean. Sol Saks' epochal Funny Business: The Craft of Comedy Writing comments: ‘Clarity and simplicity are desirable in all writing, but necessary in comedy. They are crucial ingredients because you must have your audience's undivided attention…’

They’re ingredients you can flaunt easily in sitcom. Just 30 minutes, or more like 20 once you include credits, ad breaks and pauses for laughter. So, in the words of Paul Daniels (sorry), every second counts. Take a random bite at anything from Fawlty Towers through Friends to The Office, and you'll marvel at how nothing is wasted: every detail delineates character, drives the plot forward, gets you giggling yourself stupid…

It’s a dynamism you can't sustain for one-and-a-half hours.

Consider another peerless pairing, Laurel and Hardy. A short like the Oscar-winning The Music Box dazzles even today as the boys give it 100 per cent and pile on gag after gag, no messing. Compare and contrast with the longer outings: the erratically brilliant Way Out West, the meandering Babes in Toyland, the frankly embarrassing Atoll K. Stan told biographer superfan John McCabe: ‘I sometimes wish we'd never transferred from shorts to features. In a short you can just get up and be silly, in a feature you have all these other things to consider - different storylines, different characters, different themes... Very few of them are among my favourites.’ They’d often end up with two directors - Stan for the funny bits, anyone available for the serious story-building bits - and the result was a full-on feature. But a worrying dilution of pure comedy.

Jump ahead to John Cleese's interview for the Fawlty Towers DVD, and it's pretty much the same story. Each script turned out around 90 pages but they’d pack it all into thirty laughter-crammed minutes - no wonder they’re still a masterclass for today’s sitcommers - but when producers asked (and continue to ask) for a Fawlty film? Nope. Unequivocably nope: ‘In a sitcom you build up a neat plot; in a film you need various turning-points, climaxes, ups and downs… It just wouldn't work,’ Cleese has said.

He's right, of course. Check that appalling Steptoe And Son effort, that fair-to-middling Porridge piece, that Bottom: Guest House Paradiso yawnfest. Even the much-touted Carry On extravaganzas often degenerated into a clumsy patchwork of sketches, dirty puns and Sid James’s dirtier guffaw.

Shows often foray into hour-long specials too. But take the characters out of their usual habitat - the Friends out of their apartment, Fletch out of prison, Eddie and Richie out of the slum - and you lose the immediacy. You lose the pressure-cooker. You're so busy showing off fancy exteriors you forget the character conflict, which is what made it funny in the first place.

That’s another pain about the features. There’s an intimacy to telly: switch it on - especially in today's remote-control-friendly universe - and you want to be there with them. In the caravan with Alan Partridge, the shop with Granville, even that hideous student house with Rik, Vyvyan et al. In film everything's got to be bigger - bigger sets, bigger effects, bigger casts - but bigger laughs?

In a related but totally non-comedic context, Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage exploded on Swedish TV, so much so that the poor director went into hiding to avoid phone calls for advice from suffering couples. When it hit movie theatres viewers were just irked by the close-ups, the face-to-face chat, the overall lack of immediacy across the sprawling cinema screen.

So it's great for writers and performers to seek new forums for their talents. But it's even greater when they hit upon the one forum that works best. And for narrative comedy, that's surely a strong, swift sitcom format.

Published: 12 May 2008

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