Wednesday 28 October 2015

The Other One

There is a long running debate in comedy about whether comic characters need to be likeable. On the surface, this may seem surprising since many of our great comic creations are pretty unpleasant, narcissistic or snobby to the point of pathological derangement. Look at Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Edina and Patsy, Arnold Rimmer, Hyacinth Bucket, Arkwright, Alan B'Stard. Even Blackadder. And Victor Meldrew when he gets going. They're obsessives, or social climbers, or paranoid and deluded. Not what you'd call warm or likeable.

I was first made aware of this debate by Rob Long, who does an excellent podcast here by the way, in his book Conversations with My Agent, which I also recommend. I think it's in that book where he talks about the great divide between writers and network executives. The network wants writers to write Mickey Mouse. Yeah, the megastar, million-dollar mouse without a single defining characteristic other than being a bland mouse. But comedy writers want to write Bugs Bunny who is, and let's be fair to him, a jerk.

I've been introducing my kids to Bugs Bunny, and remembering that he really is a piece of work. But, I would argue, he's very much a 'live and let live' kind of rabbit. Leave him alone and he'll leave you alone. Point a gun down his hole, or take away his carrots, and he will utter the words that will lead to your condemnation: "Of course you realise this means war." And at the end of the cartoon, he might look to camera after he's utterly destroyed Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig or Yosemite Sam and say "Ain't I a stinker?" Yes, Bugs. You are mean. But I like you. It's something about his self-confident swagger, (especially as the character matures. Early cartoons have him scare a little to easily).

A hint of this debate came up in the most recent episode of the consistently brilliant Scriptnotes podcast in which they mention a theory from the days when there were only three TV channels. It was called Least Objectionable Program, which essentially means that your audience have decided to watch TV. They just don't want to be annoyed or repelled, so it's up to you to annoy them less than the other (two) channels. So the temptation is to move to bland Mickey and away from brutal Bugs, whom some may dislike for being too mean. One could argue that in a multi-channel universe, blandness is now fatal, although there are plenty of highly successful and profitable TV shows that would suggest there's life in the old theory yet.

This is all by way of introducing an excellent piece of writing by Jason Hazeley, who wrote a delightful guest post a while back on the passing of Bob Larbey, co-writer of The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles, among many other TV treats.

Esmonde and Larbey also co-wrote a bit of a stinker called The Other One, which showed us a very different kind of Richard Briers. A really smarmy one. And a slightly fresh-faced Micheal Gambon (who looks more like Glenda Jackson in the picture on the right). The audience didn't seem to like them. And Jason explains why. So go over and take the time to read Jason's delightful essay. (I read a draft of it a few weeks ago and made a few comments for which he overthanks me at the end.) It's here. Click it. Open it. And read it over lunch.

In the meantime, I just want to remind you that if you want to talk about sitcom and the nitty gritty, there are few places left on a 2-day a sitcom course I'm running with Dave Cohen on 5th & 6th November 2015 in London. Details here. We also podcast here.

No comments:

Post a Comment