Great comedy? Not any more

James Smyth says the 'classics' just aren't that funny...

Isaac Newton was a genius, no doubt about it. Invented differential calculus practically single-handed. Plucked the law of gravity from thin air. Came up with the laws of motion, the bedrock of practical science for centuries. Built, from scratch, the world’s first reflecting telescope. I mean, come on. That’s pretty good going.

But my question is this: If you were to unveil, with great ceremony, before a committee of modern-day scientists, a big, long tube through which you could see the moon a little bit bigger than you can already, what would you expect? Gasps of admiration? Awed silence? Accusations of witchcraft? Or would there instead be a room-wide murmur of embarrassment, a few shrugged shoulders and awkward glances towards the exit? At the back of the auditorium someone mutters something about checking out the latest development on the hadron  collider, and suddenly you’ve lost your audience.

I’m going somewhere with this. Bear with me. Because this is exactly the kind of situation I think of whenever I see Ben Elton or David Baddiel or Alexei Sayle or some other cod-intellectual cultural commentator banging on about comedy. Oh, Dad’s Army is clearly the best sitcom ever written. The Two Ronnies were geniuses. Monty Python was so downright hilarious I still get physically aroused by the theme tune.

No, no, and about a million other ‘no’s into the bargain. Obviously (and I mention this quickly, before the purists’ heads explode with sheer indignation), the creators of these old-time comedy ‘classics’ are to be congratulated. For their time, these programmes were ground-breaking. Exciting. And, if you happened to be part of their cultural era, genuinely funny. And I’m not denying that there are moments, even now, that still seem wonderfully inspired.

But times change. Python still has its fair share of brilliance, but watch the shows, rather than the ‘best of’ compilations, and you’ll see there’s a huge amount of woeful padding in there. And how does their slightly undergraduate zanyness now compare with the unparalleled surrealism of The Mighty Boosh? My answer: not well.  Remember the Ronnies and the ‘fork ‘andles’? Wordplay of the highest order? Not really. Superb opener, admittedly, but it’s badly downhill from thereon in. Bath plugs/electrical plugs anyone? Even compared to today’s middle-drawer sketch shows (Mitchell and Webb, say) it’s awfully artless stuff.

But ah!, you may cry. These modern shows are all inspired by the greats. They would be nothing without their comedic forefathers. I don’t deny it.  Because that’s how culture works. One generation subverts the ideals of the generation before. All of us, if we’re at all culturally aware, are almost unconsciously indoctrinated into a conspiracy of modernism, and that’s no bad thing. Comedy grows richer, and therefore better, over time, as its history expands, allowing more complexity to develop in terms of cultural allusions and stylistic back-story, in the same way that the tenth episode of a drama series is generally more satisfying than the first.

You might argue that, for instance, the toe-curling faux pas of David Brent are merely an updated take on the cringeworthy antics of Frank Spencer.  Why, they’re both just blathering fools, aren’t they? What’s new? But this would be to ignore the fact that The Office, or rather its writers, are already aware of their socially challenged precursor.  When, at one point, Brent utters the ‘Oooh, Betty’ catchphrase, this is not because (as at the time) the phrase is intrinsically funny, but because that particular impression is precisely the sort of out-dated, pathetic gag a desperate social misfit would attempt in order to impress. And that desperation is captured superbly, with a pathos that Frank himself never came close to achieving.

So to return to my initial, and admittedly rather clunky, analogy, we should, indeed, see the writers and performers of these early programmes as true pioneers, perhaps geniuses. Pioneers who inspired countless other comedians to build on their work. And build they have. It would be wrong to forget the legacy of the comedy greats, but we should not consider their output great comedy. Not any more.

Published: 9 Jun 2009

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