Why does comedy always have to be funny?

Dave Cohen calls for a return to pathos

Something wonderful and magical has vanished from the world of comedy. It has only happened in the last 20 years or so, but it’s a terrible shame, and I reckon stand-up and panel shows must take some of the responsibility.

I’m talking about pathos – for many years the ingredient that distinguished comedy shows that were brilliant from those that were merely very good indeed.

Already, some of you are saying ,‘What is pathos’? Even as recently as a couple of years ago I would have scoffed at your ignorance. But the other day I was teaching a roomful of students about sitcom writing, and not one of them knew what the word meant. This was not a cross-section of the general public, but a group of people who want to make a living writing sitcoms!

Pathos is an emotion that arouses pity or sympathy. Shakespeare did it rather well, with comic characters like the pompous Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Even as we laugh at his pathetic attempts to win Olivia, we feel pity for his humiliating failure.

We seem to have mislaid pathos from our comedy world, not so much abolished as forgotten, in that rush to get to the gag as quickly as possible. Having spent ten years as a stand-up, and having contributed to more than my fair share of panel shows as writer or yabberer, I’m aware that I’m as much a part of the problem as the solution.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with stand-up comedy on TV. Or panel shows. Both forms involve comedians, and both make people laugh a lot. Isn’t that job done? Why would you want to include something in your comedy show that isn’t funny?

To which I would say, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ I’ve always been a fan of the old showbiz adage, ‘make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, always leave ‘em wanting more.’ Pathos adds another layer to comedy. It demands a little bit more from the audience, trusts them to know there’ll be another gag along soon. And, in the hands of great writers and performers, may deliver a bigger, more satisfying laugh as a result.

In the episode The Desperate Hours, two escaped convicts seek refuge in the house of Steptoe and Son – and by the end, even these two hopeless criminals realise their lives are not as bad as the rag and bone duo. It’s desperate, sad, and, when the prisoners have to lend their hostages some money for the electricity meter, very very funny.

There’s a moment in the pilot episode of Frasier, before Martin moves in, when the doorbell rings and Frasier knows it will be his dad. His face clouds over as he walks to the door, he stops, and looks so depressed you think he’s going to cry, then with a huge effort he summons a big smile and opens the door to his dad. Tragedy to comedy in two seconds.

Pathos crosses over boundaries, so that people who wouldn’t normally watch sitcoms will go to shows like Only Fools And Horses in their millions. I know some comics wear their labels of ‘challenging’ and ‘successful on my own terms’ like a badge of honour, but I’ve never had a problem with wanting my comedy to be enjoyed by people who are not out-and-out comedy fans.

When I was a kid the comedies I loved and grew up with were both massively successful, and steeped in pathos. Steptoe, The Likely Lads, Porridge, Dad’s Army, all of these shows had pathos built into their DNA. Most were sitcoms, but not all. Performers like Les Dawson, Morecambe and Wise and Tommy Cooper were all extremely skilled proponents of the form.

So where did pathos go? The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said ‘Humour is consistent with pathos, while wit is not’, at least two centuries before extremely witty panel games like Would I Lie To You became more commonplace than shows like Frasier.

One reason pathos has fallen by the way is because it’s not easy to write. There’s a fine line between great pathos and the kind of vomit-inducing mawkishness seen in some American sitcoms. But we all know when the line has been crossed: the two protagonists kiss and make up, and the studio audience goes ‘ahhh’. Larry David talks of the rules of Seinfeld, ‘no hugging, no learning’, and we know exactly what he means.

Seinfeld was one of four massively successful American sitcoms – Frasier, The Simpsons, and Friends were the others - that had very strong elements of pathos. And despite the lack of hugging and learning, the pathos of George’s character, played beautifully by Jason Alexander, is one of the most enduring features of Seinfeld.

The American TV stations have been searching in vain to find successful replacements. Although there are much fewer panel shows in the US, the popular (and cheap) diet of talent shows and stand-up appears to have diminished the sitcom as a ratings-definer.

Pathos has not vanished completely. Some brave stand-ups incorporate it into their Edinburgh hour-long shows. But you’re unlikely to see that same comedian performing material about his relationship with his dad, or her messy divorce, in a 20-minute set at Jongleurs. Which is hardly surprising, our stand-up clubs are simply not set up to accommodate any performance or material that strays from the strict conventions of compere-driven banter and set-up, gag.

The same is true of TV. David Mitchell performs pathos well, and he is served in Peep Show by the magnificent writing of Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell. There are many great examples of pathos in The Office and the excellent Cemetery Junction. In Lee Mack’s Not Going Out, back in the new year, his character’s attempts to win his flatmate evoke sympathy as well as laughs. Recent brave attempts have included The Trip, and it’s clear from Saxondale that Steve Coogan would love to be known as a writer and performer of pathos, and Miranda, which for all its knockabout silliness has at its heart a deeply ambivalent mother-daughter relationship.

But these are small gems, swamped by hours of brightly lit stand-up stages and desk-bound jesters. Rarely are these pathos-driven comedies as successful as in the days of Porridge and the like. Perhaps it’s because nearly all of these shows are not recorded in front of a studio audience. Even the most successful non-audience sitcom of the last ten years, The Office, peaked at around 5 million viewers, which would have been maybe just enough to keep it going if it had been an audience sitcom on BBC1.

Given the lack of pathos in audience sitcoms, I recently asked a well-placed comedy commissioner if there was a ‘no pathos’ policy in place. ‘No no no!’ she yelled. ‘We’re desperate for it! But nobody writes it any more!’

I take that as a challenge...

  • Dave Cohen is a writer on Not Going Out, starring Lee Mack and Tim Vine, which returned to BBC1 last night.

Published: 7 Jan 2011

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