I listened to Will Smith's Mr and Mrs Smith the other day - part of the Happy Tuesdays season of pilots on Radio 4. It was a show about a married couple undergoing counselling, and starred Will Smith and Sarah Hadland.
I rather liked it. In fact, I like it a lot.
Why? Here is one reason. There were lots of jokes in it - making me and the studio audience laugh. I like it when that happens. It seems strange to point this out, but there are some comedies out there with scant few jokes in, both on radio and television. It's not that these comedy have lots of jokes that are lame, or misfiring or don't work. It's just that there aren't any in the first place - and yet the show can still be billed as comedy. Which is odd.
If you follow me on Twitter (do so here), you will have seen my mild disappointment with Roger and Val Have Just Go In - which appeared to be a well-cast, well-directed comedy, but one without any jokes in. After 7 minutes, I tweeted that I would be requiring a joke soon. And after 15 minutes, I tweeted that I was going to bed. Which I did. My problem was not that the show wasn't any good. It's just that it wasn't trying to make me laugh out loud with jokes.
It struck me that this is tantamount to making pornography but not including any sex scenes. Now, one could argue that there are much subtler ways of creating the same erotic effect - and that the most sexually charged films do not need to contain sex or nudity but that's not the main reason people buy pornography, I don't think.
Lots of people have tweeted how marvellous they thought Roger and Val was, and that it was clever and subtle and warm et al. And that it was very funny and made them laugh out loud. So clearly, I have more mainstream preferences. (eg I'd take Seinfeld over Curb any day.) I'm pleased that the show is finding an audience, and that the BBC are not trying to sell a pup. They've made something that really connects with people. Well done, Beeb. I just wanted to laugh. And found the show wasn't interested in making me do so all that often. So I went to bed.
Mr and Mrs Smith, on the other, made me laugh out loud plenty of times. From the moment Will started quibbling about the cost of the session and the lost minutes, a refund, and then working it out on the calculator on his phone, I knew I was going to enjoy it.
But the show was more than a succession of jokes (as if that were easy to do anyway). The characters inter-played well - or at least disappointed each other again and again. The format of the characters explaining it, and cutting in to actually hear the event being explained, worked. It can be muddling, but I was never in doubt as to what I was listening to - which always fights comedy. (Confusion is the enemy) There were plenty of call-backs and running jokes too and overall it didn't feel like any lines were wasted. Every line delivered in terms of being a joke, revealing character or advancing the plot - and many did more than one of those things.
If I had one suggestion for the show, should it be commissioned for a thoroughly merited series, I would make a plea to warm up the central characters a little. This doesn't mean making them 'likeable', but making their failings and foibles more forgivable. Will Smith's character throughout the show was worried about getting back in time to see Avatar with his lifelong best friend. This was funny and he wouldn't give up on it, so provided a really good distraction and quest for him, that was fighting the romantic weekend at every turn. It's just his desire to sacrifice romance for his friend seemed a little unreasonable and hard to forgive. It might have been better if these was some extra reason why he had to see Avatar with his friend on that particular day - something stemming back to a poignant moment in childhood or adolescence. It could have served the plot well in demonstrating how Will's character is unable or unwilling to let go of the uncomplicated life of being a single man. I'd also say that his job as a would-be novelist is also a little self-indulgence and needs some sort of redemption.
But all of these changes are just a minor adjustment in detail and tone. There's a lovely show here that's properly funny. And it'll be even funnier if we care even more about Mr and Mrs Smith. More please, Radio 4.