Channel 4 recently broadcast School of Comedy, a sketch pilot where all the parts were played by children. Broken comedy with unbroken voices, as it were. Big Train meets Bugsy Malone. Naturally, the gimmick didn't disguise the grim fare on offer - if anything, the sight of young teenagers doing Minipops-style impressions of Ricky Gervais and Catherine Tate vocal tics made the Comedy Lab experience even more depressing than usual.
But it got us thinking. Doesn't pretty much all comedy these days look like the work of kids?
Good comedy, even when it seems crude and infantile, generally has a certain authority to it. It's made by people who know more about life than you do, or at least it appears that way. It's made by grown-ups. Grown-ups pretending to be kids, maybe, but grown-ups all the same.
The actual age of the performers has nothing to do with it. The characters in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps are meant to be about the same age as Bob and Terry in The Likely Lads. Pappy's Fun Club are older than the Beyond the Fringe team in their heyday. It's all about attitude - an extremely adult show can be the work of extremely young comedians.
A textbook example is the first three series of Absolutely, a show which had an unmistakably adult view of the world. The early episodes could be unapologetically silly, but they were also preoccupied with grown-up matters: characters who don't know how to behave, characters who aren't quite sure about The Done Thing, characters who want to be left alone, characters who are cursed by the need to be 'sensible', characters who are trapped and confused by the real world in all its terror. In some ways, Absolutely presented us with the best of both perspectives: it had a child-like way of viewing adult behaviour (eg, the 'Perkins' sketch - incomprehensible business-speak reduced to gibberish), but the angst which inspired it could only have come from writers with receding hairlines.
Something went wrong with series four, though. Like the equally disappointing mr don and mr george, the show essentially became Absolutely for Kids. All the anger and other-worldliness was removed and characters were reduced to cut-to-the-joke skeletons of their former selves. It was fun in places, but ultimately pretty slight. Calum Gilhooley had a (ho ho) 'out of anorak experience'; the Nice Family acquired a portrait of John Major on their wall; the pretentious Europhile couple were re-imagined as two simpletons who covered themselves in shaving foam for no reason. The show had always been silly, but now it was just silly. As the team themselves concede on the DVD commentary, it had all gone a bit Rentaghost.
That was 15 years ago, but Rentaghost-comedy has unfortunately become rather more widespread. It's not simply a case of shows like The IT Crowd and Lab Rats directly resembling children's sitcoms - it's more subtle than that, and has started to affect petty much all TV and radio comedy. The Mitchell and Webb team (none more so than their regular co-writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain) are obvious culprits - Mitchell and Webb themselves resemble two adolescents being allowed to perform Fry and Laurie sketches in school assembly, but the attempts at tackling adult themes in Peep Show are just as lightweight. Peep Show attempts to explore the adult world the way Absolutely did, but it ultimately has little to say and shirks from ambiguity or subtlety. The POV/voice-over gimmick is a double-edged sword: it forces the writers to pen proper dialogue rather than lazily rely on awkward silences (resulting in the odd cracking line), but it also means there's a lot of spoon-feeding going on.
Although it's critically-acclaimed as an example of comedy being in rude health, Peep Show is probably on about the same level as the 90s sitcom Game On - a show which seemed ropey at the time, but, like The Thin Blue Line, Men Behaving Badly and Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation, doesn't seem quite so bad in this current hellhole. In fact, Game On's interesting - not only was it one of the last unironically 'trad' sitcoms to be aimed at a youth audience (ie, it was shot on three-walled set on videotape because that was the default method, rather than the result of a cynical 'artistic decision'), it also came from a tradition of dark comedy shows produced in a non-Dark style; it did, after all, have a flat-bound agoraphobic as its central character. Game On is actually more 'adult' than Peep Show in a lot of ways, tackling disturbing themes without skimping on the big sitcom laughs. Cocksure, copper-bottomed old-school moments like this:
We can't even go to the toilet in this flat without each other knowing about it.
Oh come on, I don't think it's that bad.
(WALKING PAST DOORWAY) I'm just off for a dump, OK?
unknown episode, BBC2
rub shoulders with unsettling storylines about mental instability and a sense of genuine (almost naturalistic) bleakness that remains pretty unmatched. And yes, we're talking about bloody Game On here. It's come to that.
The difference is even more startling when you compare Peep Show with something that fused (for want of better terms) 'trad and 'rad' to truly exceptional effect - namely, The Young Ones. For some reason, The Young Ones only ever seems to be celebrated as a guilty pleasure, usually along 'I still find Rik and Ade talking about bottoms hilarious' lines. It's rarely given the credit it deserves as an adult sitcom - the strangeness of the humour itself, the density and breadth of its references and in-jokes, the ground-breaking way it subverted sitcom rules while also playing by them, the sheer intelligence of it. The show was written by 23 year olds, and yet it packed a real authoritative punch.
There are still scenes in The Young Ones which remain baffling and mysterious over a quarter of a century later - for example, the two men living in the cellar who think they're on a liferaft (and who suddenly start impersonating Tony Hancock and Sid James halfway through their Beckettian conversation), or the inexplicable psychopath who talks about going to his neighbour's house to borrow a drill: "You won't catch me with me trousers!". Scenes like those are captivating because, while they appear whimsical, they can't have come from nowhere - they must have meant something to the writers at the time. The fact that we haven't 'solved' their mystery is because Elton/Mayer/Mayall were on a totally different planet to us - as John Peel said of his rapture for The Fall's Mark E Smith, 'He clearly knows more about the world than I do'.
Graham Linehan attempted a Young Ones-style cutaway in The IT Crowd, where Jen found herself in a Gulag-type wilderness whenever she nipped outside for a cigarette. A reasonable enough bit of comedic business, but - being the 00s - this wasn't allowed to remain a throwaway gag: it had to be (a) totally unambiguous about what it was spoofing so that all the Big Brother fans could laugh along too, and (b) talked up by critics beforehand as a 'classic moment' so that everyone could prepare their responses in advance. It's a form of officially-endorsed weirdness - it's OK to include a 'What the fuck?' sequence so long as it's been explained beforehand and it's blindingly obvious what's going on. A background gag forced to take centre-stage. Fisher Price comedy in action.
So what's changed? There's the obvious explanation, and the reason why TV in general is so rotten these days - there's too much competition (not just from the hundreds of digital channels, but from the countless other way we entertain ourselves in futuristic 2008), which means that everything must be perceived as an instant success in order to survive. And when everything has to be an instant success, the first casualty is anything that's a bit alienating or weird. In short, we end up being spoonfed more than ever. 'Here's the joke, this is the reason why it's funny, this is the bit where you laugh.' Throughout the 'Dark' ages, comedians were often quick to dismiss the laugh-track as 'patronising', but the reaction-shot cutaway (its 00s equivalent) was far more contemptuous of the viewer. The Tim and Dawn romance in The Office was a classic example of spoonfeeding being sold as subtlety.
But it doesn't end there. The competitiveness results in a futile attempt by TV companies to get down with The Kids, to produce 'content' that rivals the you-can-be-the-star interactivity of YouTube and FaceBook. What this means is that amateurs start to get taken far too seriously. The likes of Charlie Brooker and Adam Buxton once had the 'They're not brilliant, but they're only producing comedy in their bedrooms for a laugh' get-out clause, but now seem to be respected as major-league comedy players. Which would be okay if the quality of their comedy had improved since 2001, but even their fans concede that TV Go Home and The Adam and Joe Show remain their respective peaks. In the past, that's where their careers would have ended - so long, and thanks for all the Star Wars parodies - but today they're almost regarded as comedy godfathers. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright pay affectionate homage to zombie and action films, but that's all they can do - again, this would be fine if that's where the acclaim ended, if their work was faintly-praised as a bit of B-list fluff, but they're actually regarded as serious film-makers. How did this happen exactly? They're kids.
The other problem is that this kind of spoonfeeding results in comedians who are only able to spoonfeed others. A quick-fix diet of instant comedy results in a generation of young comedians who are only able to ape comedy shows of the past rather than create their own voice or world. You can already see this in the dismal Pappy's Fun Club, a sickeningly studied attempt to replicate previous success stories (a bit of Vic and Bob here, a bit of Lee and Herring there, a dash of Harry Hill, a set that reminds people of The Goodies) without a single new idea or reason to exist. Comedy that's beige in tooth and claw. Vic Reeves' Big Night Out put old-school variety and alternative comedy into a blender and created something unique; Pappy's Fun Club just put their favourite DVDs into a blender and end up with a useless plastic mush.
As Michael Bywater observed in his excellent diatribe Big Babies, we live in an age of inverted commas, where everything is experienced at a safe and vicarious distance - instead of politics we have 'politics', instead of food, we have 'food', and instead of comedy we have 'comedy'. Take this exchange, from a 1976 edition of Man About the House:
Where did you and Mr Roper go for your honeymoon?
Dunkirk. George has been retreating ever since.
Man About the House
unknown episode, 1976, ITV
A funny joke, and quite a typical one for a mainstream sitcom at that time. But such a gag would have no place in 00s comedy, not only because of fears that the audience wouldn't get it, and not only because today's comedy writers have such a minuscule arsenal of reference-points, but because it just carries too much...well, authority. It relies on Chrissy, Mildred and the audience sharing an understanding of an historical allusion. If you don't know your history, you're excluded from the gag. These days, the 'anti-joke', where a character cannot think of anything witty and this in itself becomes the joke, is far more popular, no doubt because it's considered more inclusive (ie, less 'smug'), not to mention easier to write. This recent example, from BBC1's Would I Lie To You?:
Where did you go on holiday?
Whereabouts in Cornwall?
Would I Lie To You?
unknown episode, 2008, BBC1
received a round of applause. Fellow panellist David Mitchell, the ultimate meta-comedian whose whole acts consists of sarcastically deconstructing gags like some kind of Stewart Lee tribute act at the freshers' ball, found it particularly amusing.
One recent show which doesn't seem to be by/for kids is, ironically, one which spoofs children's programmes - namely, MTV's Wonder Showzen. It's a rare example of a comedy show which still seems to be beamed from another galaxy - yes, it's possible to identify its influences if you look hard enough, but they're certainly not worn on the sleeve. The show appears to genuinely tread virgin territory - there's a rare sense that you're eavesdropping on something renegade and counter-cultural. It's an uncompromising show, one that refuses to explain itself, or come down to 'our level'. Like the equally brilliant (if patchy) Family Guy, it can inspire a sense of awe; the old 'I could never have written that line in a million years' feeling. In contrast to all current British comedy, where any halfway intelligent viewer generally finds themselves re-writing a better script in their head.
Which brings us back to Absolutely. What made The Nice Family so captivating was that, in common with Fry and Laurie's Tony and Control sketches which debuted in the same year, it wasn't immediately obvious what the joke was. The family, despite their name, weren't just 'nice', and they weren't just 'sensible' - there was something altogether stranger and ambiguous going on behind Jack Docherty's eyes. Even Father's voice, which was initially Docherty's parody of his father's posh 'telephone' accent, seems to develop a life of its own, one which defies explanation but never becomes lazily whimsical. Calum Gilhooley was a similarly ambiguous character - far more complex than the 'We all know one of those' idiot/trainspotter stereotype he may initially resemble; there remains something incredibly unsettling about his dead stare - far creepier than anything The League of Gentlemen ever came up with. And yet, despite this, the characters never feel heavy-handed: there's no sense of 'Here's my character, and the reason he's amusing is...' or 'I think you'll find we're exploring darker issues here' - the characters are just odd, and the team credit the viewers with the intelligence to enjoy that oddness. In short, they treat the viewers like adults. It speaks volumes the way certain reactionary comedy fans/writers prefer to celebrate the thin whimsy of mr don and mr george (ie, the stuff they can easily emulate) rather than prime cuts of proper Absolutely.
'This programme contains adult humour from the start' is the way most Comedy Labs are introduced. Oh, if only...