Wednesday 10 February 2010

Understanding Failure in Comedy

Criticising sitcom, as I have remarked in previous posts, is the easiest thing in the world. Like many things that are easy, it can still be entertaining and fun, but it is ultimately destructive and unhelpful, as least for the purposes of this blog and constructive criticism of sitcom in general.

So passionate am I about situation comedy, that I want to defend every sitcom from attacks on all sides, regardless of whether I even like the comedy in question. At least that is what I felt when I read a recent posting on The Quietus - called Emma Johnston On The World's Worst Sitcoms. which can be found here. I don't mean to pick on her - I'm sure she's delightful - or the website for which she writes at all, but the article is a very typical example of pundits talking about sitcom that makes a number of curious points - and contributes to the overall welter of bizarre punditry surrounding a very specific form of commentary.

The trigger for Ms Johnston's article was undoubtedly The Persuasionists, the latest sitcom to emerge from the trenches before being mowed down by gunfire before it had a chance to fight back. I'm not going to defend The Persuasionists per se. A post-mortem is useful though, which I will come to in a moment. But in one sense, the audience have voted with their fingers. Episode 3 was only watched by 330,000 viewers, I believe. I recall a line in Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman, who explains the failure of his turkey movie The Year of the Comet. When the Box Office numbers came in, they simply said something like 'They don't want to watch your movie, Mr Goldman'.

But I'm minded to defend The Persuasionists as a valliant attempt at big silly comedy, simply because sitcoms are routinely given the most violent of kickings whilst they're on air, and then for many years after - regardless of their success, it seems.

For example, Ms Johnston says picks out The Persuasionists' "stilted dialogue, childish, laboured gags and excruciatingly unlikable, stereotypical characters" as if all of those things are intrinsically bad in comedy. Sometimes stitled dialogue is funny (like Moss in IT Crowd). Childish, laboured gags can work very well, as can excruciatingly unlikable (David Brent), stereotypical (Del Boy) characters. But we really have to do better than just point these things out and say "Why couldn't they have done a grown-up, nuanced, unpredictable comedy with Aaron-Sorkin-esque dialogue, since that would obviously work?" For a start Aaron Sorkin himself tried this on a sitcom called Sportsnight. The show was slick, clever and well-produced, but funny? Not so much. And secondly, big silly comedies are very popular and can work well, Black Books, The IT Crowd and Miranda being recent examples.

Merely describing the premise of a show is also not enough. Picking out Heil Honey, I'm Home as a bad idea for a show - whilst acknowledging the Producers pulled off a similar premise seems odd.

Slagging off shows like Two Pints of Lager (which is not a show to my personal taste) or Are you Being Served? seems bizarre to me - the latter show ran for 13 years, spawned numerous catchphrases and is fondly remember by many. To say "Are You Being Served? managed to deliver two jokes, neither of which were funny" is, at best, disingenuous. Ms Johnston has looked back and judged an 1970s/80s show by the standards of 2010 and, unsurprisingly, found it wanting - even though it delivered much joy at the time and even though David Croft was responsible for hundreds of episodes of sitcom that were gladly received by the British public at large (Dad's Army, Allo Allo, You Rang M'Lord etc)>. It is entirely fair to pick out Come Back, Mrs Noah as a notable flop, but why did it flop? That's what I'm interested in finding out.

What is my point? I'd just like to raise the quality of the debate. Why do some shows work and others not work? What is it about comedy - and audience comedy in particular - that sets it apart from normal criticism?

There are two main reasons that come to mind. The first is that comedy is so personal. It's a wonderful thing to laugh, and when you connect with characters, when you identify with themes, situations and ideas, and when the joke arrives perfectly formed, it's funny and joyous. But when it doesn't, it's unfunny and painful. And the sound of laughter - other people getting a joke that you don't get, or dislike - is irritating. It's like they're all in on a joke and you're not. A number of times, I've read critics write that they simply don't understand why the studio audience were laughing. Myths about canned laughter still circulate. It seems that people seem reluctant to acknowledge that we all laugh at slightly different things.

The difference is particularly marked if there is a moral dimension to this. Are You Being Served is of it's time and broad - when attitudes to woman and homosexuals were very different. There's the jokes about Mrs Slocombe's pussy or John Inman are, to many today, distasteful (perhaps because they haven't been told in a sufficiently ironic way to allow us to laugh at them). In the process, comedy that seems unfunny also seems, to the unamused viewer, morally defective - and then the hackles rise and criticism gets more and more vicious.

The second factor is that comedy is designed to illicit laughter. A comedy which fails to amuse has categorically failed - and can therefore be written off. The fact that it has amused others seems to be of little consequence as the knives are sharpened and people trot out the usual comments like 'That's half an hour I'll never get back', 'Worst sitcom since [insert previous failed sitcom]' or 'How does this stuff even get commissioned? Do the BBC actually hate us?' etc...

To analyse a comedy that fails to amuse, then, is difficult work. It requires empathy, imagination and a serious engagement of critical faculties - in a way that isn't terribly amusing. It's probably more akin to investigating and air-crash or a crime-scene. But that is what I'm interested in - partly because I should be, shouldn't I? I'm a sitcom writer? I have been for about ten years. I should be curious. I'm just surprised that lots of other people involved in the industry are not equally curious, and seem to be satisfied with explanations of failure like "Bad script, stereotypical characters and scenarios that just aren't true to life" - when plenty of shows survive with poor scripts, some of which have stereotypical characters and some extraordinary scenarios.

I started out my comedy career writing a sitcom called Think the Unthinkable. Ryan, splendidly played by Marcus Brigstocke, would say that mistakes are opportunities. Annoying, but true. We learn more by failure than success. Which is just as well because I fail far more often than I success - you see? I just did a typo. I really should learn to be more careful. So we need to work out a way of embracing failure, picking through the wreckage, learning and moving on. That's my plan, anyway.

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