Tuesday 20 December 2011

Bleak Old Shop of Stuff

This show was also going to divide the viewers - into the group of those who like jokes and those who find jokes rather insulting to the intelligence. I am obviously in the former group. And tend to find critics in the latter.

I don't intend to dwell on the Bleak Old Shop of Stuff for long - only to say that it was a lovely, silly romp with lots and lots of jokes. Yes, a little too much CGI, and maybe an hour isn't quite the right length for this, but when somebody points out a church is called 'St Weddings', who can resist?

Well, some critics obviously. Mixed reaction, as one would expect. Now, one cannot blame someone for not liking something. There are plenty of shows out there which are not to my taste but people like them, and I must accept that. But the critic who falls into the trap of saying 'No one can find this funny' is skating on thin festive ice.

Criticiquing Critics
I mention this because Zoe Williams' response is baffling and slightly comical. She hates the show. Fine. She insists on relaying the jokes she hates. It really is the way you tell them. And then, it being the internet, people leave their comments. Some agree. Some disagree. Occasionally, the critic gets lured back into making comments. If you're a critic reading this (or a writer for that matter), can I suggest you don't get lured in message-board debates? Typing out a reaction and hitting 'send' or 'post' often does not end well. You may end up saying something exactly like this:

I don't think humour is subjective. I think some things are funny and some things aren't, and this wasn't, and people who think it was are misguided.

I hope that's a joke, and that the tone has not come across. Otherwise, that's a worrying statement from a critic who seems to have access to mythical equipment that tells us what is objectively funny and what is not. Can we all have a look at this equipment Zoe? Some of us could really use it in our day-to-day writing work.

Then Ms Williams makes the mistake of assuming that anyone who disagrees agrees with her must be in some way a relative the the writer. "Are you serious?" she writes. "Are you this writer's mum?" Cheap shot.

Come on, Ms Williams. You're a professional journalist and you're better than this. I'm sure you are. (I don't read the Guardian, but I assume so, since it seems to be a decent publication).

I'm making a fuss about this because the way critics write about comedy, and sitcoms in particular, has changed the way sitcoms are perceived and even commissioned - especially within the industry. But that is a topic for another blog post.

Now, please do post your carefully considered comments...


  1. My carefully considered comments.

    To begin with, I don’t particularly care about Zoe Williams’ review. Obviously leaping in to argue with people commenting on a review is a ludicrous thing to do. But then, so is arguing with a bad review by saying all comedy is subjective; if you believe all comedy is down to individual taste, then why are you reading somebody else’s review?

    I stopped watching TBOSOS after about twenty minutes. I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had expected for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, how it was made. I think perhaps the material might have been better served if the show had been shot to look like a straight Dickens production. I think comedy which is set within a genre (whether or not it is a ‘spoof’) works best when it is grounded and looks like a genre piece; Police Squad is shot like a 70’s police show, Airplane looks like a Irwin Allen disaster movie, Blackadder looked like the BBC’s costume dramas of the time, and Life Of Brian looks like Lew Grade’s Jesus Of Nazareth. When the comedy is set within a recognisable, believable context, it can then subvert it. TBOSOS didn’t look like any Dickens adaptation I had ever seen, with the camera whizzing all over the place and large amounts of not-very-good CGI. Even the picture grading was out. Like I said, I think the material might’ve been better served if it had been a show where viewers tuning in late would think they were watching a normal BBC Dickens adaptation until something silly happened.

    The same applies to the performances. All the actors involved seem to have been directed to play their parts ‘funny’ when I think it would have worked better for them to play their parts straight. Think of Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin, or Graham Chapman as Brian. If the director trusts that the script is funny then he should let the actors act; let them create characters, let them find the emotional reality, but instead with TBOSOS it just felt like they had been told to ‘be funny’. At gunpoint. The result? Lots of ‘comedy’ mugging.

    Secondly, I’m afraid to say I don’t think the script was that great. I think Mark Evans is a very good writer but suspect he was given some very bad guidance in adapting BE for television, or given very bad notes. Because in adapting the radio show, he seems to have been told to stick in as much visual business as possible, on top of and around a script based around verbal whimsy. The end result is that there are too many attempts to be amusing at once, undermining and distracting from each other. It’s as if someone has tried to take a script for Yes, Minister and turn it into a Friedberg and Seltzer spoof. I suspect that’s why many of the disappointed comments on the internet come from fans of BE; they were hoping for something tonally similar to the radio series whereas. TBOSOS is tonally all over the place, with so many attempts to be amusing piled indiscriminately on top of each other that nothing has time to breathe. How can you appreciate dry, whimsical wordplay when the character’s hat is growing and shrinking as he talks? I can only find one thing funny at a time.

  2. It’s also unfortunate that the show’s trailer was of a scene with Stephen Fry’s character giving his servant a short Christmas break, as it bears a similarity to the following well-remembered line from Blackadder III:

    “As a special reward, Baldrick, take a short holiday. (BEAT) Did you enjoy it?”

    I say unfortunate because comparisons with Blackadder are inevitable for any comedy set in the past, so “this show includes jokes you have heard before in Blackadder but not done as well” is not the message you want to send out.

    And finally, I’d take issue with your statement that TBOSOS has lots and lots of jokes. I don’t think it does. It contains lots of whimsical bits of verbal and visual business, but precious few actual set-up-punch-line laugh-out-loud jokes. What jokes there were – like the gag about the last tin of dodo wings – felt peculiarly under-developed; that sensation that there is a joke there but the writer hasn’t quite nailed it. And whimsy on its own can get grating very quickly (particularly if you’ve tuned in hoping for laugh-out-loud jokes such as may be found in That Mitchell & Webb Look or Miranda).

    Bah humbug. I do hate being negative. This was intended to be constructive. FWIW I’ve noticed that lots of people have greatly enjoyed TBOSOS, and for precisely the same reasons that it didn’t work for me, so I think it will find an audience, but probably not quite as large an audience as the BBC had hoped.

  3. I didn't watch TBOSOS, so can't venture an opinion on it - but regardless: your post is about humour being subjective, and I couldn't agree with you more, James. As Tina Fey says in 'Bossypants': "It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist."

  4. James, you're right to challenge critics reverting to cheap shots about those who like a show being members of the family or not understanding the objective truth of what is or not funny. But I don't think that means their shouldn't be comedy criticism, it unfortunately tends to be poorly written. Quoting a joke out of context is odd to do at the best of times and would never happen in a drama.

    But...TBOSOS didn't hang together. I agree with Johnny about the awful CGI, which felt like a student project they were keen to showcase. But what really undercut it was the tone that jumped all over the place.

  5. Criticising comedy is important. But making comments like "this wasn't funny" in lieu of actual analysis suggests that someone isn't up to the job. That said I tend to find the attitudes of all TV critics to studio sitcoms a bit hackneyed, and their attitudes to sketch comedy a bit hit and miss.

  6. In regards to the reviewer. I think it is fair enough for a reviewer to give a personal appraisal of the comedy's worth, just as long as they also relate vital information about the shows set-up and style of humour present. And of course, basic criticism as well. I don't think broadsheet journalism could be reduced to the level of say academic criticism, mass media requires a conversational level of personal engagement. Without that engagement, reviews could ultimately be reduced to a series of tickboxes and dry disenfranchised criticisms. We all like to think we are opended minded individuals, but ultimately we all enjoy like-minded people talking our 'truth' back at us.

    Yes, I imagine being a comedy writer, there is a particular viewpoint (seige mentality?!?) that develops, but really once the production is broadcast, it goes into the public domain - for better or worse.

    In terms of lauded journalists changing the landscape of comedy commissions, surely part of the skill of the professional writer is to work with and/or subvert that commissioning culture? That's not to say it isn't tough on the writer, it's hard enough writing 'funny' without focus groups. All artistic work deals with the same basic underlying issue of worth.

    Of course, after making a definitive statement, it was really silly of the journalist to attempt to defend her position online. She didn't get paid for it for starters ;)

    For the record, I think Bleak Old Shop Of Stuff was ultimately compromised by the lushness of its production. Wordy comedies like Yes, Minister work well in basic theatrical sets. The focus is directly on the word play, otherwise the production risks having the viewers' eye (and brain) continously distracted attempting to decode the mise en scène paraded behind.