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.