I've been a little under the weather recently and have been watching a little more TV than usual. One of the programmes was one of the dozens of 'How funny Britain used to be' documentaries that all the networks find more appealing to make (rather than commissioning actual new comedy). The show in question was a Heroes of Comedy about Max Miller - the 'cheeky chappie' and the highest paid comedian of his day. To give you an idea of what he was like, think Paul Whitehouse's slightly uncharitable parody Arthur 'Where's me washboard?' Atkinson.
To give you an idea of the age of the Heroes of Comedy documentary, they were interviewing Bob Monkhouse about him - and the last episode about Les Dawson contained an interview with Dave Allen. We're going back a little. But one of the comedians being interviewed was a young-ish Victoria Wood. She pointed out how much of his jokes and patter were about the delivery - and how much comedy is about presentation and rhythm.
I think she overstated it a little when she suggested that the material itself was almost irrelevant, although I can see what she means. In this case, I was watching Max Miller and I didn't find it funny at all, since he inhabited a different world. Also, he was such a quintessentially live comedian and of his time, it would be odd if me, a thirty something in 2010 found it hilarious. His comedy isn't timeless - it's of its time. And all the better for it. One can easily see how he was the must-have act of every variety bill. Bizarrely, though, the same rhythm makes Paul Whitehouse's Arthur Atkinson funny. The lines themselves aren't funny, but they sound funny. Extraordinary.
It's easy to eschew this form of stagecraft or writing - but it's all part of the most basic of comedy skills - timing. I've noticed the more I write, and rewrite, the more I feel I know what the funny line should 'sound like', or how it should bounce. It's not just about getting the funny word at the end. It's getting there with a hop, skip and a jump. Sometimes, I get the rhythm before I think of the joke. Sometimes I can't think of a joke to fit the right rhythm, so I sit there until I do. Or I redo the set-up and give myself a chance of thinking of a joke with a different rhythm.
Rhythm makes comedy seem effortless and 'right'. It can cover a multitude of sins, which isn't always a bad thing, but it means that if it's well-crafted, it stands a chance and is more than simply people talking. Again, critics of the sitcom would point to the fact that it makes dialogue even more unrealistic. People don't talk like that. But it's sitcom. It's a contrivance. It's a play. Things are compressed and speeded up. Details melt away and we get to the funny stuff.
One of the great comedy shows of all time for me was The Phil Silvers Show aka Bilko, which I watched on repeats growing up and have seen subsequently and now own on DVD. It's brilliant. Phil Silvers is a force of nature. Bilko is a truly wonderful creation. The rest of the cast can't act to save their lives. It's ham as you like. But wow, the way Bilko talks. The patterns of speech, the gabbling, the escalations, the tickings-off, the flattery, the calls to attention - it's a masterclass in how lines can be written and delivered. And because of the situation, and the storylines are about people, they are not timely, but timeless. Oh, and very funny. And ultimately, that's what it's about, isn't it?