4 years, 9 months ago
I kept meaning to do a post on various bits of British comedy over the last year. Really, I did. But, you know how it is. There was always something else to write about, and Doctor Who wasn’t really going for comedy much in the 1980s, and something else always seemed better. And so when I finally found a spot to do it, suddenly there was a lot to do. So we get something in the spirit of our hellish dogpile of late 70s/early 80s science fiction: six mini-entries on assorted British comedy of the 80s and early 90s.
It’s brilliant, of course. But let’s look carefully at what’s brilliant about it. On the one hand it’s taking a bit of an easy route to brilliance: it’s a massive team-up of comedic talent. The sheer volume of talent involved in making Blackadder is outright staggering. Not, of course, that everything that combines a large number of talented people works. Blackadder, however, works wonders, combining a traditional comedic structure with some particularly bitter teeth. It’s notable, then, for being at an interesting cusp between two modes of comedy - an export-friendly traditional sort and a more cynical and experimental one.
It’s the end of Blackadder Goes Forth that gets the most attention. The episode, by and large, is a straightforward comedy in which Blackadder tries to get out of a certain death charge through No Man’s Land during World War I, initially by feigning madness. He fails, of course. That much is inevitable. Blackadder, in all but the first series, is a scheming and clever character, which means in turn that he’s always going to be frustrated as events spiral out of his control. (See also Joking Apart further down)
But this is set over the backdrop of World War I. And so there’s a real and looming sense of death over it. The humor of most of the other characters is based on their complete failure to recognize that they’re in a horrible war and almost certain to die tomorrow morning, with Blackadder being the only one to realize how bad their situation is (other than Stephen Fry’s character, General Melchett, who, of course, doesn’t have to worry about the front lines).
And so the end of the episode, in which Blackadder finally fails and has to go over the top, is astonishingly bleak. One by one the characters admit to Blackadder that they’re scared. Baldrick, his long-suffering manservant from across the four series, announces that he has a clever plan - a claim that is almost certain not to be true. But before Baldrick can explain it they have to charge into battle, and we cut from slow motion of them being gunned down to a field of poppies as the credits roll. It’s brutal.
It is by far the high point of the series, which was not that savage in its preceding twenty-three episodes. But it’s at least an example of what Blackadder does that is so engaging, which is to mix a very classic comedic structure with a more aggressive flair. The bleak ending is one extreme of that, but also notable is its frequent employment of alternative comics such as Rik Mayall in a memorable turn in Blackadder II as Lord Flashheart.
Good as Mayall is, however, for most viewers the obviously notable actors are probably Rowan Atkinson, playing, at least in the latter three seasons, quite against the “complete idiot” persona he’s more famous for thanks to Mr. Bean, and both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, about whom we should pause and talk about for a bit.
A BIT OF FRY AND LAURIE (1989-95)
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are an odd pair to deal with. They are, at this point, among the most recognizable Brits in the United States, with Stephen Fry being the all-purpose respectable British comedian and Laurie being mistaken as an American due to House. A result of this is that they’ve become standard bearers for a particular era of British comedy. They both had prominent roles in Blackadder, there’s Jeeves and Wooster, about which more in a section, and then there’s A Bit of Fry and Laurie, their sketch comedy show.
Here’s the thing about A Bit of Fry and Laurie, though. It’s not actually that good. I mean, it’s perfectly serviceable sketch comedy show, but it is by and large British comedy done in as straightforward a manner as is possible. The sketches are funny enough, but with nothing that cries out for status as a classic bit of comedy.
One sketch, for instance, hinges on Fry and Laurie playing a couple seated on opposite ends of a farcically long table, with Laurie (in drag) asking Fry to pass the Marmalade and Fry extensively mishearing him. There’s some good wordplay to be had, but, well, it’s hardly what you’d call promising. A sketch about an AA meeting in which Stephen Fry’s character misunderstands the nature of the support group and asks a question about starting his car is slightly more promising, having a second funny joke in which Laurie’s group leader hands Fry a bottle of liquor at the end of the sketch. But we’re still talking about a two minute sketch with only two actual points of humor, the first of which (Fry bringing something inappropriate for the setting to the group) is utterly predictable.
Perhaps the most telling of the sketches in the episode I watched is the first one, in which Fry attempts to buy a greeting card from an (again in-drag) Laurie, only to find that every card is ludicrously hyper-specific. This one is interesting in that it’s a clear variation on two of the consensus-best Monty Python sketches, the Dead Parrot and Cheese Shop sketches. Except, again, the Fry and Laurie version is just… tamer. It’s comfort food comedy, as opposed to anything with actual teeth.
The cynical, but not entirely inaccurate thing to say at this point would be that Fry and Laurie were consciously playing for the role of iconic British comics instead of for the role of good ones. A Bit of Fry and Laurie does, for the most part, play like British comedy made to export to the US. I’m not entirely sure when it actually got exported to the US, but it’s playing for exactly that. It’s content to show a slightly absurd social order and call it a day having done nothing so much as light wordplay.
But equally, Fry and Laurie themselves are both very, very good at their roles here. The writing is flaccid, but Fry and Laurie are adept at slipping seamlessly into the comic roles called for by the sketches. And if their sketch comedy itself is mediocre that, at least, has little bearing on how good they might be in something else.
JEEVES AND WOOSTER (1990-93)
To wit, Jeeves and Wooster, their ITV series adapting P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, which aired during the same time as most of A Bit of Fry and Laurie. If A Bit of Fry and Laurie felt at times like it was playing for an American audience, Jeeves and Wooster, at least, was definitely a successful export, at least, if the several VHS sets my father owned are any indication.
The thing is, while A Bit of Fry & Laurie is a bit of a frustrating experience, Jeeves and Wooster is actually quite sharp. Which is not a surprise - the biggest flaw in A Bit of Fry & Laurie was that the writing wasn’t up to snuff. When you have P.G. Wodehouse to work from then you’re starting from something of a position of strength.
Beyond that, it plays right into Fry and Laurie’s strengths. They’re both good at slipping into programmatic roles, which both Jeeves and Wooster firmly are. They’re both roles that are done best by a consistent set of gestures and mannerisms, which both Fry and Laurie are superlative at. They’re better comic actors than they are comedians as such. Put in something like this, they slip gloriously and effortlessly into the roles required of them. The result is an extremely good P.G. Wodehouse adaptation.
Is it great comedy? In the wake of more cuttingly inventive things like Blackadder and Comic Strip Presents, no, not entirely. It’s funny, but in a respectable and classic way. Which, to be fair, is appropriate for Jeeves and Wooster, which shared the sort of Agatha Christie-style nostalgia for a golden age before those pesky World Wars mucked up the aristocracy and the empire. They’re more clever than funny. This isn’t a flaw. But it does feel very much made for the export market - an intersection with that old concept of “heritage themepark” Britain whereby things are made to be like everyone remembers them to have been, or, more often, like everyone wishes they had been.
And there’s something a little bit sad about this. British television’s classics in this period are the ones that got exported abroad. Even when they’re very good - and both Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster are, in point of fact, very good - it seems as if the only point of making a big piece of British television is to sell it abroad, as though the whole of British television was just a feeder service for PBS mixed in with some soap operas. To some extent this is by design - the period of British television we’re looking at through here included both a heavy move on the part of the BBC towards a more competition-based corporate culture and a wave of mergers of ITV franchises that would eventually mean that one company owned over two thirds of the ITV license holders. To some extent, for a Doctor Who fan at least, there’s a bitter irony to this logic taking hold in the early 90s, as it’s exactly the sort of logic that would have preserved Doctor Who on the sole grounds that it was net profitable for the BBC due to international sales. (Though equally ironically, the program’s return came in part out of a revival of thinking about the BBC as a public service.)
Though it would be a mistake to suggest that the only effect of this changing corporate structure of British television was a profusion of classics for the export market. There was also stuff like, well,
HEIL HONEY I’M HOME (1990)
This, of course, was absolutely terrible. Not, to be fair, for most of the reasons people say. Yes, it’s a sitcom about Adolf Hitler. That this is taken as some horrific trivialization of the Holocaust is, to be honest, a bit rich. Its basic premise - that Heil Honey I’m Home is a lost sitcom of the 1950s - has nice complexity to it. And the entire joke is how wrong it is. The basic concept relies on the fact that Hitler is recast from a powerful force of pure evil into being a complete and ridiculous putz. It’s the same joke we take for granted with Downfall spoofs and shoving Hitler in the cupboard these days. Heck, nobody would have bristled at it as a Monty Python sketch.
The problem is that the half-hour pilot has fewer funnier moments than a five minute sketch from competent humorists would. And that nobody in their right mind would think that an aggressively high-concept premise like this could be stretched out over half an hour, little yet over an entire series. So what we have here is a good sketch concept handled by people without the skill to do it and without the sense to realize that they have a sketch, not a television show.
In some ways more interesting, then, is why this got made. Everything else we’re looking at today comes from one of the two BBCs, ITV, or Channel 4. This, on the other hand, is from Galaxy, a network you’ve probably never heard of due to its only existing for about nine months. Galaxy was one of British Satellite Broadcasting’s channels prior to its imploding in a merger with Sky to form BSkyB.
Implicit in this, however, is that the volume of television being produced was massively higher - there were, after all, several times more channels sitting about on the two satellite networks. Added to this were goings-on at the BBC, which acquired a quota of externally produced programming they had to make in a year. This was part of a larger set of reforms, including, in 1992, John Birt ’s Producer’s Choice policy, which meant that the BBC was able to use external services in making programs. This had mixed effects - money was saved, but historic and important departments such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were axed.
But more broadly speaking, there were suddenly a heck of a lot more people producing television. The rumors and news pages of any Doctor Who Magazine from this era will show the profusion of production companies supposedly linked with making Doctor Who. (In most cases the response to their failure ought be “thank God.”) But add to this marginal stations like Galaxy and you have a circumstance in which it is unusually easy for ill-advised disasters of programming like Heil Honey I’m Home to get made.
But not, as it happens, to stay on the air - Heil Honey I’m Home is one of the noble pantheon of series to be cancelled after a single episode.
COMIC STRIP PRESENTS (Actually a staggeringly long time running from 1982 to 2011 at present)
If Heil Honey I’m Home represents an astonishing failure of an attempt at edgy and alternative comedy then we should probably flip back in time to a more successful iteration. The Comic Strip, broadly speaking, is a group of comedians out of the 1980s including Rik Mayall (mentioned earlier), Alexei Sayle (of Revelation of the Daleks fame), Dawn French, Alexei Sayle, and a bunch of other prominent and notable people. There was a show called The Young Ones that I’m told I should have discussed a while ago with many of these folks as well. I didn’t, obviously. But I will discuss Comic Strip Presents, their occasional series for Channel 4.
What seems the consensus highlight of Comic Strip Presents is an hour-long piece called The Strike In it Alexei Sayle plays a writer who does a good little social realist screenplay about the 1984-85 miner’s strike only to have it systematically twisted by Hollywood into an over the top action film starring Al Pacino as Arthur Scargill and Meryl Streep as his wife, played by Peter Richardson and Jennifer Saunders respectively. Also, Scargill wins following a moving speech to parliament delivered in the nick of time before Robbie Coltrane and his band of hardline miners blows up a nuclear power plant.
What’s interesting about The Strike compared to, at the very least, Blackadder or A Bit of Fry & Laurie, and really to Jeeves and Wooster is that large swaths of it have no jokes in it. This, however, does not mean that it's not funny. (Jeeves and Wooster splits the difference - it's often more broadly funny as opposed to based on single and clear-cut "laugh here" points, but the nature of the humor is very different, as we'll see. Heil Honey I'm Home actually does work much like The Strike, except for the bit about working.) But it’s funny in a very different way.
The easiest way to understand the difference is to look at Monty Python. Contrary to what you'd think if you just watched Spamalot, what's funny about Monty Python isn't actually the banal repetition of catchphrases. Rather it's the way in which they tarry extensively in the realm of the completely ridiculous. The alternative comics of The Comic Strip take this as their starting point. Long stretches of The Strike are simply scenes from the fictitious film. These scenes have no concrete moments where the audience is expected to laugh. Instead the humor comes from the prolonged absurdity of what is being depicted, with the laughter being more nervous than cathartic.
And The Strike does this very well by having the bad movie frequently be just barely bad enough to stick out. There are frequent moments in the episode in which the movie momentarily looks no worse than a generic bad American movie, albeit a low budget trainwreck of a bad movie as opposed to the high-powered blockbuster the film supposedly is And then, just as the audience starts to get lulled into thinking that they’re just watching a bad movie, some reminder of the fact that this is supposedly the miners’ strike comes up and the nervous laughter kicks in.
While it would certainly be overplaying my hand to suggest that this nervous laughter is the only route to socially effective humor, it’s certainly a damn good one, and it captures much of why The Comic Strip were such a breath of fresh air.
JOKING APART (1993-95)
Which leaves us with this, Steven Moffat’s first sitcom. Much like Press Gang, this isn’t something that would have been recognized as a major part of the comedy landscape of the early 1990s. I mean, it was well regarded in its time, and it’s certainly not the most ridiculous choice for inclusion in this entry, but again, let’s face it, this is here because of Moffat’s future.
Still, it’s a doozy. I admit to some personal bias here - I discovered its existence within a few weeks of the finalizing of my own divorce, and it was exactly the sort of piece of bitter hilarity I needed right then. But there are two things Joking Apart did that are of note. The first is that was one of several shows to make real progress in figuring out how competent audiences were. This is something we’ll do a more substantial post on early in 2013 (tentatively a post on The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, and Coupling), but the short form is that Joking Apart made a habit of non-linear storytelling, and other than one bit that was sandbagged by some poor filming choices (the stand-up sequences, which fail to make their nature as fantasy sequences clear) it was fine. Despite jumping around in the way that now gets accused of being “too confusing” when he does it on Doctor Who, everybody followed Joking Apart just fine. The fact that it’s so clear despite a thoroughly complex structure is important to highlight.
But in the broader sense of comedy, what we have here is a careful honing of the Blackadder approach. Like Blackadder, Joking Apart has a thoroughly conventional comedic structure. Its protagonist, Mark, is, like the Blackadder, the enormously clever person whose schemes constantly collapse around him. And Moffat is very good at writing elaborate farces that make use of this. (Though not quite as good as he seems to have thought at the time - his next sitcom, Chalk, failed largely because it was based entirely on the farce structure and not on the stuff we’re about to talk about)
But where Joking Apart really shines is in its tangible self-loathing. The fact that Mark is self-evidently an authorial persona, and that the subject matter is so desperately uncomfortable ups the stakes on everything. On top of that, the show is absolutely unrelenting towards Mark. As much anger as the show has towards Becky, the character who really comes in for a hiding is Mark, who is repeatedly shown to be a superficial ass obsessed with his own cleverness. And while he’s funny, it’s vividly clear that Becky’s reasons for leaving him are sound and that he’s not a terribly nice person.
There’s something properly beautiful about this sort of public self-flaying, especially as it’s done so well. The farce and comic structure are impeccable. The show doesn’t wallow in its own self-pity in the least. It just mercilessly flays the authorial surrogate from within the structure of a proper, traditional sitcom. And there’s a significant shift from Blackadder to this. Blackadder realizes that you can put some real barbs on the standard comedy structure. Joking Apart realizes that those barbs can be intensely personal and emotional moments, giving comedy weight usually reserved for drama.
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