Wednesday 9 March 2011

Annoying People & Boring Bits

This week, I watched an episode of Red Dwarf Series IV that somehow I had never seen before. I am a huge fan of Red Dwarf and Series V and VI, especially - a really good blend of characters, gags and sci-fi imagination. But I missed the Waxworld episode all those years ago and never caught up.

Let's be honest. It's not the best of the episodes. The story is a bit wobbly and the location shooting is pretty ropey (which is a blog posting for another time). There are lots of unfamiliar characters that get in the way. But the episode starts with Rimmer telling a long boring story about a game of Risk that he played years earlier. The gag is that Rimmer is going on and on and has no idea how boring he's being. But, it's not really funny at all because it's, well, boring. Jokes about boredom, shaggy dog stories and anticlimaxes are often disastrous in shows, especially when shot in front of audiences. They don't usually play very well because they are boring, pointless or anti-climactic.

Non-audience shows can make a feature of these, and nuance them to perfection, as they did in The Office and People Like Us - making many others think they can do them. But my experience as an audience member, and as a writer, have taught me to avoid doing jokes along these lines.

A similar phenomenon has arisen in Friday Night Dinner. Mark Heap brilliantly plays a really annoying next door neighbour. But he doesn't make me laugh. He just makes me annoyed. The character is clearly sociopathic and doesn't realise when he's not wanted, and thus hangs around and causes embarrassment, and it's very true to life. People often don't get the message. It's believable. But I wonder how laugh-out-loud funny the character is.

There is certainly mileage to be had in these boring/annoying characters. But most of it is in the lengths the other characters have to go to in order to avoid being stuck with the annoying/boring character - and that this has comic consequence. In the Christmas episode of Miranda, she says that she finds carol singers annoying, because you just have to stand there while they sing and it's very awkward. And so, at the distant sound of carol singers, she pretends not to be in - and has to get all her customers to hide, which is, I think, rather funny. And even better, in so doing, she misses the van delivering her package in the process.

There are ways of doing this. But my general word of warning is to ask yourself whether you annoying character is funny - or just plain annoying. If it's the latter, delete, avoid, kill or rewrite.


  1. I agree about Meltdown, it is probably Dwarf's worst episode. I do like the Risk story though, he is being boring but I find it funny because it's part of his on-going obsession with military and rank.

    I was surprised how many fans rank it among their favourite RD episodes, if not their favourite. Maybe there's something more to it?

  2. I wouldn't say it's one of my favourite Red Dwarf Episodes but is one I enjoy and certainly not among my least favourite.

    I think it's because it does a very good job of showing just how insane and petty Rimmer is but in a situation where showing it doesn't need to have a large impact on the relationship with the others or the world they inhabit.

  3. This is spot on. A couple of years ago, every sketch show I seemed to see at the Edinburgh festival, the free ones anyhow, seemed to have one sketch centralised around a deliberately boring character. Boring types, deliberately poor singers, deliberately bad comedians. Horrible. Probably why they were free.

    It seems that such sketches are self-indulgent, trying to show observational skills whilst forgetting that it's the laughs we want.