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.