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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Are we running out of funny?

Last night I caught five minutes of the new Harry Enfield & Paul Whitehouse show. There was a sketch about two old duffers in a gentlemen's club (good to see comedy doing its bit to preserve long-dead social history) which involved the repetition (and I do mean repetition) of the words "is he queer?", a sketch about some semi-criminals with an attack dog which involved the repetition (and I do mean repetition) of the words "shut it" and one called Mr Bean, Psycho which was about throwing a grenade into a crowded lift and then stepping in to the blood stained compartment. (I bet somebody at the BBC was more worried than most about the threatened "Mumbai-style" attack yesterday.)

It was clever, accomplished, edgy, humorous and exactly the kind of thing we have come to expect from two of TV's most popular comic actors. Unfortunately, it wasn't funny. I know funny. Funny makes you laugh. Funny has surprise on its side. Funny is - correct me if I'm wrong - the only thing that actually matters in comedy. It's like tunes in pop music. If you've got a tune you can do anything. If you haven't got a tune there's nothing you can do.

Maybe there's not enough funny to go round any more. Makes sense in a way. You've got all those channels that are looking for funny. Funny can't be an infinite resource. You've got the movies immediately signing up anyone who so much as raises a smile on TV. Then they're writing books that promise more funny. Then there's the internet. And adverts. And Twitter. And then there may be the fact that they've told all their jokes. There was Victoria Wood the other week complaining about the fact that nobody at the BBC seemed to care about her stuff anymore. But then, as people pointed out, her last big TV spectacular wasn't actually funny.

Look, I remember Morecambe and Wise. They were funny for about 20% of the time. The rest of the time they were merely comical. Seems to me we've got too much that's comical and not enough that's funny.

27 comments:

  1. I can't remember the last time something on the telly made me LOL, beyond repeats of Frasier, although the wireless, especially The Unbelievable Truth and ISIHAC, never fail to deliver.

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  2. You'll be telling us next that you didn't rate Norman Wisdom.

    The problem is one you've highlighted on previous podcasts: there are more musicians than plumbers. And there are more 'comedians' than musicians. So, as the best tunes have (arguably) already been written (and those that are left are in short supply) the same is true of gags.

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  3. It is still possible - Vic and Bob's last series, TV Burp and the under-viewed Still Game are all LOL comedy. Writers of sitcoms and sketch shows seem to be going for edge (shorthand for swearing and shock gags) rather than laughs and the. approval of their peers rather than the public. Probably driven by a fear of being tarred with the mainstream brush

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  4. Presumably you have not sampled the puerile delights of The Inbetweeners, David?

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  5. Without wishing to sound like some old fogey, I think one of the problems with some modern comedies is that they're not recorded in front of an audience. There's no rule that says stuff that *is* turns out to be funnier, but at least those making it have the benefit of being able to road-test material in front of an audience, and thus get a better idea of whether something is going to work or not. Also, there's arguably greater pressure in such scenarios for a higher hit-rate of gags or funny moments when you're facing an audience - whereas with Harry & Paul's format, you can be as long-winded and meandering as you like.

    It doesn't always work that way - 'The Royle Family' luxuriated in the kind of relaxed atmosphere that not being an audience-based sitcom allowed - but for sketch shows, where you need to be a lot snappier, I'm not sure that approach works.

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  6. Without wishing to sound like some old fogey, I think one of the problems with some modern comedies is that they're not recorded in front of an audience. There's no rule that says stuff that *is* turns out to be funnier, but at least those making it have the benefit of being able to road-test material in front of an audience, and thus get a better idea of whether something is going to work or not. Also, there's arguably greater pressure in such scenarios for a higher hit-rate of gags or funny moments when you're facing an audience - whereas with Harry & Paul's format, you can be as long-winded and meandering as you like.

    It doesn't always work that way - 'The Royle Family' luxuriated in the kind of relaxed atmosphere that not being an audience-based sitcom allowed - but for sketch shows, where you need to be a lot snappier, I'm not sure that approach works.

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  7. As you so rightly say: there's edgily written comedy and there's funny. Sometimes you get both. But there aren't many people who, as my mum used to say, make you laugh without really doing anything. I've enjoyed their stuff at various points in the last twenty years, but Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, for me, have never fallen into this category. People that are/were naturally funny, and possibly not even slightly edgy, are Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Michael Palin. The only one recently who just makes me laugh naturally is Alexander Armstrong. There's just something about his demeanour that really makes me laugh. I can't put my finger on it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B3WtulyPyI

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  8. Norman Wisdom? Funny? Good grief.

    I gave the first episode of Enfield & Whitehouse 5 minutes last week : incredibly tedious dragons den sketch : OTT caricatures of various "celebs"? Tick. Man dressed up as a womand? Tick? Funny? Not in the slightest. I switched it off and won't bother again. The Alan Davies programme before was slightly better and I did laugh a couple of times. The Big Bang Theory makes me howl with laughter (but the IT crowd is a mystery to me : terrible script, terrible acting, mind you I never understood what was supposed to be funny about the Office either) Accidentally on Purpose is also very funny : super sharp script writers, but it will probably tail off quickly. The Inbetweeners makes me squirm and I don't find that funny (but I can see that it is funny if you see what I mean)

    And the worst thing of all? What is that programme with children doing jokes they keep advertising : School of Comedy or something. Good grief.

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  9. I find "the puerile delights" of the Inbetweeners very funny.

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  10. I tend to watch The Inbetweeners with my fifteen year old daughter. Laughing and squirming in roughly equal measure at this week's, particularly.

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  11. I don't believe Harry Enfield has been funny since 1987. You should check out 'Modern Family' and also the 'Inbetweeners', both of which manage to make me laugh. Incidentally, I started purchasing 'the Word' since reading this blog....is there any way to improve distribution in Ireland - it's increasingly difficult to find it.

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  12. Miranda and The Inbetweeners are the only LOLs around now. Perhaps because they're essentially warm and good-hearted, rather than vicious and dark.

    They don't care if the Guardian doesn't like them.

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  13. Seamus, is you email me via mailATdavidhepworth.com and tell me where you are I'll look into it.

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  14. As we all know, and these comments support, there are very few universally funny programmes.
    In the last couple of weeks we've watched an episode of both Whites and Him & Her and while they're both quite watchable, and maybe raise a smile, there are no laugh out loud moments. I suspect that's true for everyone who has watched them.
    So, what's the problem? Safe commissioning? The eagerness of TV to bank on established names past their sell by date, or as David suggests there just aren't enough jokes to go round?

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  15. QI remains funny, depending on the identity of the guests and whether Stephen Fry is in a foul mood or not.

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  16. I agree - I think there is a finite amount of funny. In the so called golden age of TV the funny was concentrated into one or two shows that were the highlights of the week, and much talked about. Now with multiple channels and other outlets for comedy, the funny is simply spread too thinly. Another factor is that many shows used to mix funny with contrasting pathos and gloom - Steptoe, Boys from the Blackstuff, Likely Lads .. so the funny bits stuck out more.

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  17. There are 2 things which are still consistently funny on British TV - Shooting Stars and Peep Show. The last series of Shooting Stars had me literally crying with laughter.

    It's all subjective I know but it worked for me. There is still funny out there.

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  18. I don't believe we've run out of funny - that's like saying we've run out of songs: all the notes have been used up. The format and performers have changed that's all. It's panel shows and vehicles for new(ish) stand ups now, who haven't developed the legs for longevity

    Compare this with the age of performers during the Golden Age of comedy. These were older comic actors, and cabaret/music hall acts that had spent years refining their craft, working with experienced writers. Panel shows were mainly radio or niche programmes.

    The classics Python, Dad's Army, Morecambe and Wise, all have dips and dullness, but when they peak, it's a peak so high fair-to-middling comedy can't compare.

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  19. Of course there are still funny things. This morning when I should have been working I watched an episode of The Inbetweeners which was breathtakingly vulgar and genuinely very, very funny. My point is that we have more and more hours given over to things that present themselves as comedy but aren't funny. What they offer instead is a kind of grim cynicism.

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  20. Watching H&P last week with the GLW I wondered whether some of the sketches were "growers": not instantly funny on a first viewing but growing over the series into something good (e.g. Ralph and Ted in the Fast Show). Having yet to watch last night's, I live in hope over expectation.

    What I've noticed over the years is that funny programmes seems to lack the confidence to just keep on doing what they're good at and seem driven to keep pushing the edge a bit further. Some of the first series of Little Britain was excellent, but by the third series was, almost literally, execrable just because "it had to get more outrageous".

    Spike Milligan once remarked that the burgeoning alternative comedy scene was a case of "hanging your willy out and telling a joke". Perhaps that sentiment persists, but I guess its success depends on the willy, the joke or both.

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  21. Funny you should say that because the episode of The Inbetweeners that made me laugh so much was all about an exposed testicle. But I like to think I was laughing at the absurdity rather than just the rudeness.

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  22. An exposed testile you say? Oh dear, unhappy memories of an unfortunate incident on a school trip to Austria. Adolescent humour wasn't so funny when I was an adolescent.

    Did they make one of those "if you've been affected by any of the issues dealt with in tonight's Inbetweeners..."? I might need to call in.

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  23. There is still funny to be found, you just need to sift through the Harry & Paul's and the My Family's to find it.

    I think the best suggestion I can make in addition to those already made above (esp Inbetweeners) is the mighty 30 Rock - I heart Tina Fey.

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  24. I had a related epiphany the other day relating to cartoons in newspapers. They're just not funny, are they? When did they stop being funny? There was a time they were cutting edge, so I'm told by Old People. I dutifully turn to Steve Bell or whoever every day, and make a sort of knowing snort, "Tcoh, yes, I see what he's done with the child benefit thing there, ve-ry clever" and then it goes out of my head immediately. There's no actual laughter involved. It's like the cover of Private Eye.

    The cartoons that really make me hyperventilate with laughter and want to buy t-shirts with my favourites on are XKCD, Hyperbole and those steam-punky ones about great writers. I'm sure there are other sources that don't occur to me at the moment. Uniting factor being, of course, they're largely drawn for free and on the internet. Why has no newspaper gone out of its way to get hold of some really good, funny, fresh cartoonists, the way they go out of their way to find new writers (sometimes). Clintons Cards is quite genuinely more innovative than the media here.

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  25. Funny you should say that about Clintons Cards, Alix. The huge Borders that I used to pass every day contained a Paperchase franchise. Not long before Borders went bust, presumably seeing the writing on the wall, they moved out of there and took on the big premises directly opposite. Now when I go past I contrast Paperchase - usually full, generally with females, buying expensive items made with print and paper - with my memory of Borders - which was stacked to the ceiling with millions of items that had taken blood, sweat, tears and enormous expense to make; and often empty. Feels like there's a lesson there.

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  26. XKCD funny? Good grief! Hasn't been funny for a very long time. Geek and Poke is funny (though probably only if you work in software development)

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  27. Loved this post.

    There's a fascinating keynote on this subject by Kevin Slavin (head of games company Area/Code and new social TV service Starling): http://www.reedmidem.com/mipblog/index.php/2010/04/15/181-miptv-liveblog-next-gen-audience-engagement-keynote-area-code-s-kevin-slavin

    He has some really thought-provoking things to say about how laughter is social, and has been killed by the internet and the phenomenon of ubiquitous computing. Or, to put it another way, "social media is the new laughter track."

    Kat

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