Thursday, 22 August 2013

Funny Words

“What’s comedy all abou- TIMING!!!!!”, according to the old joke. Actually it’s about quite a lot else, and one of the main factors by which a joke stands or falls is wording. Yesterday’s flat joke may bring the house down today if expressed with just one altered word.

Some words are funnier than others. Haddock is funnier than Fish. Cake is funnier than Gateau. Grub is funnier than Larva. Why? Often comedy writers just say “Well, they just are funnier” and leave it at that, but I think there’s a science to it. Or a bit of a science, let’s not get too nerdy about this...

The first rule is that short words are funnier than longer ones. Cake vs Gateau, Grub vs Larva, Wig vs Hairpiece. A short word has a punch which pushes the breath out and causes laughter. Brevity is the soul of wit. Long words can get in the way very quickly. Then again, Haddock is longer than Fish, so you can hardly say that this is an unbreakable rule, just like everything else in comedy.

The second rule is that hard consonants are funnier than soft. Cake and Haddock both have that wonderful edgy “k” sound, the ideal comedy consonant (there we go again). Cookie is funnier than Biscuit. The “g” in Wig is fairly hard. It has impact, and adds to the punch factor. Also, and this is important, hard consonants are easier to hear. A muffled joke has no impact.

The third rule is that words with hidden, or slightly underground, associations, can work really well. Hob Nob is funnier than Biscuit because, subliminally, it sounds like part of a  knob gag. Lunchbox is funnier than Packed Lunch because it also has knobby connotations. The Fluke fish sounds funny because it also sounds like something else. It doesn’t mean these work as puns. If they did, it would distract from the point of the joke. But there’s something in all these words which makes the audience sit up and listen. Their comedy sensibility has been alerted.

The fourth rule is probably the most important but also the most obvious. The word has to convey the sense of the joke precisely. If you set up with the phrase “The butler fetched the president a hob nob” it’s distracting because we’re expecting something posh – unless the joke is about spending cuts in the White House, or something like that. This rule overcomes all the others. Unless it doesn’t. This is comedy, after all.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


When I first saw the TV version of “Count Arthur Strong” I laughed a lot in patches but wasn’t too sure overall. Now I’ve seen a few more episodes I’m still laughing and I’m still not sure.

I was a big fan of the Count’s radio show. It seems strange that such a bumbling, harmless character should be described in the Radio Times as “divisive”. The nearest character to him (and this goes way back) was Harry Worth in the 1960s, who also either delighted you or made you want to slap him. But how does the Count’s show come across as a TV sitcom?

Strong’s a great character. He’s a failed music hall star, lost in the modern world, exasperated but terrified underneath, bombastic, tongue-tied, but strangely affectionate. Stephen Delaney’s terrific delivery painted a vivid picture for radio. His TV performance loses none of the vocal nuance, but is physically very mannered. He twitches and blinks and always seems as if he’s about to trip over his shoulders. And, looking at Delaney, you see he’s thirty years younger than the Count.

And I can’t get a hang on Rory Kinnear’s Michael Baker, the new character created by co-writer Graham Linehan. He’s been wisely added so we can see the Count and his consortium of 1950s throwback freaks through his eyes - but is he normal? Is he a neurotic hysteric? At times he’s sensible, at others he over-reacts to the madness round him. The problem’s not Kinnear’s performance but the concept of the character, who doesn’t seem to belong to the same sitcom as the rest.

While Baker is rounded, the Count teeters on the brink of caricature. The malapropisms at times are overused: I couldn’t buy him thinking “Twitter” was to do with Hitler. Some of the jokes are signalled with the subtlety of a Brucie gag on “Strictly”.

But then…. watching the Count perform “Windmills of Your Mind” as he twirled his brolly before the captive audience trapped by the riot had me nearly breaking springs on the sofa. He has the makings of a great sitcom character. He has a life outside each individual episode. You can hear his voice in your head as you go through your day, you ask yourself “How would he react to that?” at things going on around you. At least I do.

I just wish his vehicle carried him a bit better.