Wednesday, 17 December 2014


So her coming two Christmas Specials will be the last we see of Miranda Hart's sitcom character. She's done three hugely successful series and I think she's bowing out at the right time. For me, the last series was looking a little bit worn out. She's a very idiosyncratic character, not one which readily adapts to a team of writers, which is how US sitcoms keep going for series after series. And there's only so much shelf life in falling over and raising one's eyebrows at the cameras, however winningly she does it. And she's aware of the no. 1 rule of sitcom: "the main character tries to learn and then they always go back to where they were." Hart goes on: "As a woman and a feminist, I hate the thought of her not coming into her own as she gets older."

However sympathetic I am to this sentiment, it worries me. It's tough enough for women to get on in comedy without the burden of feeling their characters have to be positive women. Like David Brent, Basil Fawlty or Patsy Stone, Miranda isn't an icon or banner, she's a great comedy character. Do we think Brent, Fawlty or Stone will ever "come into their own"?

Much worse was the attack on Miranda in today's "Independent" by Fiona Sturgess. "Hart's character," she says, "conveys the message that, deep down, we women are all neurotic, incapable of behaving like sentient grown-ups and deserving of pity."

Comedy characters are nearly all dysfunctional and inadequate. If they weren't,they wouldn't be funny. Nobody ever said that Homer Simpson conveyed a message that all men were useless, childish and incapable of stringing two thoughts together. Why do some feminists pile on the pressure for women performers to do more than create brilliant comedy? It seems that female comics face a double whammy: first to overcome the prejudice that women aren't funny and, on top of that, to pass a feminist test in presenting acceptably positive images of women.

Good luck, Miranda. You've brightened our TV screens and you've made us laugh. That's plenty.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Bridget Christie

Political comedy is supposed to be dead. Mark Thomas and Andy Zaltzman continue to fly the anti-establishment flag, but in these days of recession and world-weariness, most audiences want escapism, light laughs or maybe the odd dodgy lad joke. That’s the theory.
Thank heavens, then, for Bridget Christie. In her hour-long show  at the Soho Theatre, “An Ungrateful Woman” , she revives the art of barbed social comment and the once moribund genre of feminist comedy. Her whole set unapologetically tears apart the attitudes towards and images of women which are prevalent today. But she’s no screaming agitator: Christie brings all her considerable charm and self-deprecation to bear on making her points. She’s not interested in lecturing us, but communicating.
There are two high points.  Her first extended routine riffs on a Daily Mail article criticising her for not being grateful she’s not living under the Taliban (hence the title).  Stalked down a dark street, she thanks her follower for being a decent, British harasser, picks up some Union Jacks and waves them at him as she’s chased along, showering him with her gratitude.
Then she tells of her experience of a casting for a yoghurt commercial. Finding that the scene involves a man inside her fridge, she holds up the audition by questioning her scripted deadpan lines when she has no knowledge of who he is. Is this leading up to consensual sex or rape? Serious issues, explored in an absurd context. Her masterful build up had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand (though the yoghurt remained untouched).

Christie’s a great storyteller rather than a joke-maker. Her style may be nothing new but her approach is fresh and funny.  Only sticking point: was she really right to get so upset at a man farting in a women’s bookshop?  But she’s partly laughing at herself, so I was happy to let her get away with it.

Monday, 14 July 2014


You don’t need to be good at telling jokes to be able to write them. If you get tongue-tied down the pub when everyone is rattling off one-liners, don’t despair. Many good comedy writers are shy people.
The classic joke structure is a setup which establishes an expectation, followed by a punchline which subverts it. For example: “My husband left me on Tuesday and I’m depressed. Because the bastard came back on Wednesday.”  The first sentence sets up an image (depressed because he’s left) which is turned upside down by the punchline in the second sentence (depressed because he came back). There’s a great joke from a Woody Allen routine: “When I was a child I was kidnapped. My dad leapt into action –  and rented out my room.” Our expectations of a heroic dad fighting to rescue his son are overturned by the cynical reality. In each case the punchline provides a surprise which makes us laugh.
So all you have to do is tell a little story in which the second part subverts the first. Easy? Well, sometimes, but usually you have to do a bit of work. Give yourself a theme to write about. Let’s try dating, it’s something everyone’s done and is full of emotional complications which are great for comedy. On a sheet of paper, write down a list of topics related to dating: going to a restaurant, kissing, the cinema, blind dating, speed dating, dating people at work, etc. You can expand the list yourself.
Now look down the list and see if we can find ways of twisting a topic into a setup and punchline. One good technique is switching it round or inserting something else. Let’s look at “blind dating”: what can we switch in that? How about deaf dating? After doing a little work we could come out with “I’ve stopped blind dating and now do deaf dating. It means I don’t have to listen to them.” You can change the wording slightly according to your gender.
Wordplay is another useful technique. We can find different word meanings, either through contrasting usage, as a well-worn phrase or as a straightforward pun, and incorporate that into the setup – punchline structure. Looking down our list, we find “dating people at work”. Dating the boss is interestingly fraught. Also, the word “date” has subtle shades of meaning. “I asked my boss for a date. So she gave me a month’s notice.”
Don’t stress yourself by expecting to come out with a string of comedy pearls all the time. It’s normal to produce a few mediocre groaners before finding that little gem. You’ll need to polish the phrasing by cutting out unnecessary words, finding shorter ones where you can, and giving it a good rhythm. Words with a hard consonant, often “k”, work well. “Kipper” is funnier than “fish” and “cake” is funnier than “gateau”. And at all times think of that magic setup and punchline structure.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

And Now For Something Just The Same?

So the Pythons’ reunion sells out in 43 seconds. There’s life in the franchise yet, but what kind of life? It is that of a reanimated zombie, or a rejuvenated second spring?

In a rather blown-up spat in the Guardian, Charlie Higson and Adil Ray took either side of the argument. To Charlie, they are a wonderful vintage act with lessons still to teach the young’uns, to Adil a fossilised bunch of old farts with nothing to say to a new generation.

I was lucky enough to see the pre-Python Palin perform at a get-together of the Oxford University Etceteras Club (their version of the Footlights). He inspired me for years, and still does. The a-logical buffoonery of “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”, with some of the team that were to become the Pythons, spoke directly to our post-war, break-out, desperate to play generation, and when the Pythons burst out in all their glory a year later it was as if heaven had descended on earth.

It all began with them. Not surrealist comedy – that had been done by the Goons – or madcap characters – ITMA was before them – but intellectually respectable comedy. Comedy with a hinterland. Philosophy, history, abstract concepts were all jumbled in with suburban banality and random nonsense. Marx and Hegel jostled together with Arthur Two-Sheds. It was influenced by Ionesco and N F Simpson as much as by Tommy Cooper, but it was never remotely pretentious.

Spike Milligan and Galton & Simpson were the generation who fought in the war, keen to debunk the fossilised authority of the officer class, a more egalitarian society in view. But the Pythons simply exploded everything. Nothing made sense, the only fun to be had was to turn everything inside out.

That was then. Today’s standups and sketch comedians work in an entirely different landscape. Comedy is more personal and audiences much more knowing. The rules have already been broken and put together again. There is no great cachet now, thanks to the Pythons, of being clever, surreal or literate. It’s just another style choice.

Let the old boys and their audience have their fun and pay off their tax bills. Let them roar “This is an ex-parrot!” together. But let’s not pretend it’s that different from the elderly ladies who scream “Where the nuts come from!” in “Charley’s Aunt” (I love that, as well). They won’t be doing any new material, but I don’t think anyone wants them to. I wish them well, but I won’t be going along (I’d have never made the 43 second deadline anyway).

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Comic Behaviour
There’s a nice sketch in the underrated show “ManStrokeWoman” of a few years ago. Daisy Haggard accosts slobby boyfriend Nick Frost to tell him she’s leaving. It’s all been going wrong. Rather than acting with shock or pain, he tries to reassure her, mumbling “No, it’s been fine.” When she starts to get a bit het up, his mood changes to lust: “I know that look. Time for a bit of hanky panky!” The madder she gets, the more he treats it as a game.

It’s funny because an expected reaction is being subverted. In every situation, there’s an accepted way of behaving. Or, if not accepted, one that we can expect, whether in a formal situation like a job interview or an emotional trauma like being dumped by your partner. If you think that comedy comes from the unexpected, as I do about half the time, then by making someone behave in a way which breaks either the formal protocol, the polite way of going about the business in hand, or an emotional rule, you give yourself a load of comic possibilities.

Pick a situation, any situation, and ask “How are they expected to behave?” Make the response subtly different from the accepted one, wildly askew, or even an exaggerated version of it. When you go to the dentist, you’re supposed to be slightly nervous. There may be pain. Someone is going to delve about in a very intimate part of your body, your mouth. But instead of fear, what if this actually turns you on? Everything about sitting in that chair, the plastic bib, the drill, the injection, gives you an ineffable thrill…. You bet the dentist won’t be used to this. It’s creepy. There are various ways he or she could react, but whatever way you take it, you’re giving yourself comedy possibilities.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

To film or not to film? 

There’s a great article by Andrew Collins in this week’s Radio Times defending studio recorded sitcoms such as “Mrs Brown’s Boys” and “Father Figure”, which get such a slating from the critics. Andrew’s argument is twofold. In spite of what studio sitcom-haters say, the laughter isn’t canned: it’s the genuine spontaneous response of the audience in the room. You can’t can it, you can’t fake it. And that to obtain these laughs regularly over thirty minutes takes a huge amount of work and talent. I’ve acted in a couple of studio sitcoms and I agree with Andrew. “Mrs Brown’s Boys” may not be subtle or sophisticated (and it’s not my taste) but it works as comedy. People love it. They laugh.

I’d like to take the argument further and say that there’s not the gulf between the two comedy genres which critics assume. Whether filmed on one camera or with three in a studio, the format of the half hour sitcom has stayed remarkably constant. Take “Friday Night Dinner”.  Embarrassing, dysfunctional dad: well-intentioned prying mum trying to keep the family together: two squabbling and slightly rebellious offspring: eccentric neighbour. And their squabbles and misunderstandings. It sounds just like one of those dreaded, cheesy wobbly-wall sitcoms of the 1970s. Except it took the point of view of the boys, was about a Jewish family and, crucially, was filmed without a laugh track. It’s brilliant. But it’s not a million miles from the dreaded “Terry and June”. OK, ten thousand. But no more.

Grittier, more “real” subject matter? Emphasis on characters and not laboured setups and punch lines? Grappling with issues? These have been sitcom staples since the first disastrous tea with the vicar circa 1965. “Steptoe & Son” steered well clear of jokes, was downbeat to the point of being morose, and was all about social aspiration and the generation gap.  “Porridge” didn’t shy from extortion and bullying in prison or sexual frustration, and had two of the most naturalistic sitcom performers ever in Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale.  OK, it didn’t deal with forced male-on-male sex or heroin but I can’t think of any modern sitcoms that do, either.

People complain that the breaking of the fourth wall in “Mrs Brown’s Boys” destroys the purity of sitcom, but are somehow silent on the straight-to-camera rants of Jez and Mark in “Peep Show”. If Gerald Wright in “The Wright Way” had burst into song, critics would have had a hernia. But Bret and Jermaine’s music routines in “Flight of the Conchords” was part of its postmodern charm.

There’s a mismatch somewhere between what’s trendy and what isn’t. I’m looking forward to the day when no one really cares whether a sitcom has a studio audience or not, but laugh at it on its own merits. I doubt if it will be soon.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

What do you mean, women are funny?

Hooray. Last weekend Bridget Christie became only the third female comedian in 33 years to win the Edinburgh Festival Comedy Award. Double hooray because her act (by reports) isn’t a lightweight crowd-pleaser but an hour of hard-hitting and funny feminism.

Why is she only the third? Is it because women are only one eleventh as funny as men? Or is it because there are eleven times as many males as females on the circuit? I’ve just done a rough count of the comics listed in the Chortle website (As, Bs and Cs only. I haven’t got all night) and there are 216 men and 57 women. More men than women, but not eleven times as many. It seems that, simply, there’s an unwillingness to appreciate female comics.

There’s not this problem with sketch comedy. Wood & Walters, Smack the Pony, Katy Brand, Watson & Oliver (they’ve come in for a bit of stick, but their last series had some wonderful moments) – no one would dare argue that they’re not as funny as men.

But in standup women struggle to be recognised. The circuit can be a testosterone-sweaty gladiatorial arena in which most men would wilt. They say that it takes balls of steel to survive on it, which, if true, cuts out half the human race. But women don’t lack courage, talent or determination. The difficulty is that, in standup, they simply have fewer choices.

A comedian’s stage persona isn’t created by force of will. It’s forged over long months through a compact between the comic and their audiences. Laughing at someone involves a degree of acceptance and trust. And at the moment the stock of available routines audiences are willing to buy into is far more meagre for women than it is for men.

The dysfunctional weirdo (Emo Phillips, Paul Foot). The sexual predator (Mike Wilmot). The grossed-out drunk (Carey Marx). The innocent from outer space (Milton Jones). If these comics were women, audiences – male and female - would tend to feel threatened, worried or bemused. They would have to work far harder to gain acceptance.

This is why so many female comedians fall into either bubbly/loveable, sassy/chic, abrasive but likeable/gay categories. There’s so much more pressure for them to be loveable, sweet and attractive.

Hang on. Not all women comics are like that. Jo Brand was magnificently scruffy, grungy and grumpy, not giving a toss she wasn’t going to appear on the cover of “Cosmopolitan”. But notably few have followed in her footsteps. I can’t think of anyone at the moment with the same air of simply not giving a toss. (I’d be happy to be corrected on this)

The solution is for more and more women to get up on the standup stages, to renegotiate the space with audiences and get us used to the idea that they can be whoever they damn well want to be. As Bridget Christie is doing. Let’s hope she starts an unstoppable trend.

Look up Funny Women who are working hard to promote female comedy.