Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Wright Way - or the Wrong Way?

The world can't get it together to stop the Syrian conflict or halt global warming, but everyone seems to be united in hatred of Ben Elton's new sitcom "The Wright Way". Among the critics' comments were "Unmitigated horror" and "fully deserved its graveyard slot in the schedule". Even the Radio Times slated it for being old-fashioned and sexist - adjectives which would have horrified Ben Elton twenty years ago.

Sorry folks, but I thought it was OK. The plots intertwined and cracked along quite nicely, there was some nice visual comedy with the tap which only spouts when pressure is exerted (they drive me mad as well), the routine in which Gerald Wright has to keep returning to the apathetic salesgirl to get his scarf built well and had me chuckling. And Wright's character, though far from being a David Brent sitcom monster of genius, is a competently drawn and amusing study of someone who can't handle the world not going all his way.

That's the word - competent. "The Wright Way" was efficiently put together. It was well paced. There were set pieces at the right times. There were at least four or five gags per minute, ranging from the good-ish to the lame. There was a good mix of characters..... and so on. If a new police procedural thriller was reviewed as "competently written", that would pass as a good notice.

Not so a comedy. If  a sitcom is deemed to be old-fashioned or harking back (perish the thought!) to the 70s, to be a bit sitcom-ish, with too many gags or broad generic characters, critics and punters react as if the writer had suggested that paedophilia is actually quite a good idea. Being well-made is almost part of the insult. If a singer performs in the style of 30 years ago, it's charmingly retro. If a sitcom seems as if it was made in 1975, it's an unmitigated horror.

There's lots wrong with "The Wright Way". The young characters are a cliche based on a cliche (constant repetitions of "yeah, like, totally" won't win Elton any awards for best-observed contemporary dialogue). Too often gag was piled on gag to throw any credibility out of the window. That's something good 70s sitcoms never did. I can see why he included all the characters in Wright's office, but they were so thinly drawn that you could virtually see the actors puffing out their cheeks to make themselves feel present.

I'll probably catch up with Gerald Wright again, but I won't watch every episode. The only sitcom really lighting my fire at the moment is "Parks and Recreation": sweet, real, of the moment and just bloody funny.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

How lifelike are comedy characters?

Where do we get our characters from? When I started writing, I had a simple, confident answer: life. If the population of our sitcoms or sketches weren’t lifted directly from the people we met around us, there was something suspiciously untruthful about them.

I once met Maurice Gran (half of Marks & Gran, writers of “The New Statesman” and “Birds of a Feather”) and asked him how much they took their characters from “real life”. “If any of them had been,” he retorted, “They’d have been locked up in a mental home”. I withdrew into my shell. My question had been viciously trampled over.

That was then. Now I know Maurice was right. Characters in sitcoms don’t behave like real humans - even those in ostensibly naturalistic shows like “The Office”. They run through tangled loops of repetitive behaviour with people who, after a week or two, would avoid them, scream at them, hit them or have them locked up. “The Office” ’s David Brent wouldn’t have lasted a month in a real office. He’d have been sacked, demoted or moved sideways.

We keep watching a sitcom, though, because we somehow feel the characters are real.  There’s a vitality to them. We recognise many of their emotions as our own. They ring bells. “I’ve met people just like that” is a frequent comment when people discuss David Brent. What they mean is that they’ve come across managers who sometimes spout meaningless office jargon, who can be embarrassingly matey, who at times can be excruciatingly insensitive.

But none of these real people would interrupt a team building meeting by accompanying themselves on the guitar to their own bad pop song, or give a motivation lecture by rapping throughout with a baseball cap on backwards, and next week leave a person in a wheelchair stranded on the stairs in a fire practice. Brent will commit several similar gaffes every episode.

When we’re writing a sitcom character, they’re a composite of people we’ve met, images dredged from our imagination, ideas springing from our own attitudes, and a calculated need to create conflict with other characters. We’re not copying behaviour from life. We’re doing something much better: we’re creating a completely new entity.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Are Old Jokes Funny?

The first recorded joke was written down in ancient Sumeria in about 1800BC. It went something like this:

“Something which has not occurred since time immemorial: that a young woman did not fart till her husband’s embrace.”

Got you in stitches? Me neither.  Maybe the double negative kills the laugh. Maybe something got lost in translation.

Another old joke, rather more recent, from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”:

OLIVIA  Go to, y’re are a dry fool: I’ll no more of you: besides, you grow dishonest.
CLOWN: Two faults, Madonna, that drink and good company will amend: for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry.

By anyone’s standards, that’s pretty feeble. But at least we understand the “dry fool” gag, even if we don’t laugh at it. What can we make of this one from later in the play?

“Remain thou still in darkness. Thou shalt hold the opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits; and fear to kill a woodcock, lest thou dispossess the soul of  thy grandam.”

No doubt Pythagoras and woodcock jokes were all the rage in 1600, but they leave us stony-faced.

It’s clear that context and style in comedy change drastically over the years, to the extent that jokes and sitcoms which made us hoot only twenty years ago now leave us cold. In terms of forcing us to drop our defences and let out a laugh, that is, which you could say is what comedy is all about.

But looking closer at the first two, you can see that they take the form of a joke much as we understand it today. They’re both in two parts. The first sets up an expectation (the setup) and the second subverts it (the punch line).

Our Sumerian gag writer sets things up with a pompous intro which leads us to expect something in the way of historical grandeur. What do we get? A fart.

The sense of the joke is that women fart anyway, and don’t bother too much about what men may think, even when they’re still in the market for a husband. That’s how I take it anyway. If you assume that Sumerian Society was a prim one in which women were expected to be like that, the appeal to people of the time is clear. It’s even slightly subversive. After thought, it’s rather humorous, even to us today.

Shakespeare’s gag is still terrible, but we can see the joke format OK.

Subject matter changes. The existence of the joke seems to be timeless. And long live fart gags.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Comedy Writing -  craft or art?

Is a great joke, sketch or sitcom created in the white heat of inspiration – or is it the product of hours or even months of hard work, refining and honing? You’ve probably guessed my answer from the way I’ve phrased the question.

Maybe the idea for a great joke or a sketch will come to you while you’re washing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk. Maybe it will arrive in your head fully formed and all you have to do is jot it down as fast as you can before the vision fades. I often think of the legend of “Kubla Khan”: that Coleridge dreamt the whole poem while stoned out of his head on opium. He was feverishly scribbling it down the next morning but was interrupted by a caller from Porlock. After the visit, the dream had gone, he’d forgotten nearly all of it and we’re left with a truncated few lines.

Imagine Coleridge’s script editor the next morning. “Interrupted by a man from Porlock? Why not just say your dog ate the script, I’d believe it more. Besides, you’ve passed the deadline!”

Comedy writing – like all writing except, obviously, romantic poetry – is all about producing stuff. In this case, a certain number of sketches, jokes or episodes, on time, which fit the bill and which make people laugh. You can’t do that if you’re smashed out of your mind on opium. It’s a nuts and bolts thing:  X number of laughs in Y number of minutes. It takes time to learn how to do that, and a lot of trial, error and falling on your face.

I remember Bill Dare of the BBC saying at a script meeting years ago that they weren’t interested in someone who produced one immortal sketch of genius, but people who could write five or six reliably funny sketches, and come back next week with five or six more. It takes craft to do that.

It’s not to say that brilliance and inspiration don’t come into it. We’re all aiming for that. But it’s more important we just keep writing. Once you’ve really mastered the lower slopes, you can more confidently tackle the heights.