COMMENT: Dark


First Published NOVEMBER 2000
You may remember SOTCAA's Jam article back in April. Since then, 'dark comedy' appears to have become the new orthodoxy, much to our distress. The anti-comedy bores have taken over, and they're black as the ace of spades.

Case in point. At the BBC2 Awards last month, some dick was nominated for a special BBC Talent commission on the strength of his proposal for a comedy show. He didn't win, but his nomination still entitled him to an additional televised pitch. The show, he said, 'isn't played for laughs', and would (you've guessed it) 'offer something a lot darker'. He then told us one of his sketch ideas - about an ice cream van that only stops when it finds somewhere completely deserted. Y'know, it drives past crowds of children first n'that? That's the joke. Great, hey? DARK OR WHAT?

Well, as our old school chum Kumar Panja used to say, 'It's what'. Or, more to the point, 'WHAAAAAATTT???!!!???'

Oddly, those who promote 'dark comedy' (and remain stubborn about the genre's importance) seem the most ignorant about its definition. Because, believe it or not, your chums at SOTCAA absolutely love proper dark comedy. And by proper dark comedy, we mean ALL GOOD COMEDY. Everything that's worth adoring, from Monty Python to The Nualas, from Kenny Everett to Absolutely, could be defined as dark. Because dark comedy simply means comedy that makes your brain dance.

But there's an important distinction between these comedy giants and joyless tat like The League of Gentlemen . Namely, that proper 'dark comedy' doesn't wear its darkness on its sleeve. Proper dark comedy doesn't self-consciously bathe in its own 'gosh-aren't-we-dark'-ness. Proper dark comedy doesn't need a gang of fawning journalists and continuity announcers to fucking tell viewers how dark a programme is before they watch it. Proper dark comedy doesn't have to feature people with scary faces throwing blood everywhere and saying fuck. Proper dark comedy is simply that which delights. Chris Morris, Jerry Sadowitz and Derek & Clive are all dark, yes. But so is Porridge, Frank Skinner, and - as if to labour the point - Joyce Grenfell.

Because with good comedy, the darkness is part and parcel of the comedy itself. With pretend-dark comedy, it's an affectation, designed to win the youth vote. After all, the kitemark of a truly great dark comedy is the viewer's inability to identify the show as dark in the first place. Hence Goodness Gracious Me remains refreshingly bright and spunky and belly-laugh friendly, despite the general seriousness of its subject. Similarly, Seinfeld, where the full implications of its 'no hugging, no learning' approach to sitcom don't really become clear until you've watched about 28 episodes and you're already hooked. And Neil Innes, in creating The Innes Book of Records , clearly intended to produce a gently whimsical music series for all the family, but what he ended up with - simply by being Neil Innes - was a sinister motherfucker of a programme, the darkness of which was totally organic. Dark comedy is deceptively light.

In fact, the more cosy or 'anti-dark' a show appears to be, the darker it probably is in reality. One forum contributor recently argued that Ever Decreasing Circles , far from being a banal B-list sitcom, was actually extremely original in its themes and design, and thus very dark indeed. He would undoubtedly come in for some 'Ironic Review' accusations if he ever tried to argue this in a pub, but it didn't stop him being completely right. The world that Richard Briers et al inhabited was far more unsettling than Royston Vasey could ever be - no exploding toads or nosebleeds, just a general, slow-burning feeling that, as the contributor put it, 'something was not quite right in the close'. Briers' character was also clearly mentally ill, and one episode saw him visit a psychiatrist - comedy waters not braved since Frank Spencer took to the couch in the (equally dark) Some Mothers 'Do 'Ave Em.

There is, after all, something somewhat po-faced about what people allow into the 'dark comedy' canon. It pretty much amounts to what constitutes that fellow oxymoron, 'cool comedy'. Take BBC2's recent series Human Remains , the "relationship" "docusoap" "parody" written and performed by Rob Brydon and Julia Davis. Its desire to be 'dark' (and thus trendy) is so blatant that it can only fail as a comedy show. What people continually don't realise, when attempting to ape the naturalistic, ambient acting of shows like The Day Today or The Royle Family, is that said naturalism and ambience only works if it's part of a bigger picture - namely, a component of a playful comedy package. The 'Office Documentary' sketch in The Day Today, for example, works because the rest of the show is linked by Chris Morris playing silly buggers, giving the show a context and an identity. Also, the show in general - like The Royle Family - was created by a cast and writing team who had a quality threshold which was important to them, as well as a genuine desire to entertain people. Ripping off the dark bits from hitherto playful shows and wallowing in your own missing-the-point darkness is like Spooky Tooth's cover of 'I Am The Walrus', and about as useless as you can get.

What's depressing about Human Remains (or indeed Marion & Geoff, People Like Us, The Sunday Format - all of which should be great, given that they're the results of talented people influenced by the right things) is the implication that these shows are operating on a higher plane, or offering something more than mere comedy. More than comedy? What the fuck is that exactly? Dad's Army was a sitcom about a group of people who lived in constant fear of themselves, their friends and their families being killed at any point - you can't get much darker than that. But said darkness worked so well precisely because it was played as gentle, warm-hearted, silly, traditional sitcom, not in spite of it. All shows like Human Remains do is fuel the lie that that darkness is an add-on, an optional extra, rather than an integral part of comedy itself. All too often, apparent darkness is used simply to airbrush over the derivative shortcomings of a script. Either that or they pretend it was meant to be drama all along.

These cod-dark shows sell themselves as intelligent programmes where the comedy has to be detected rather than served up on a plate. Unfortunately, serving the comedy up on a plate is exactly what these shows do. The Sunday Format aspires to be a sophisticated satire on magazine junk culture blah blah, but this is a feeble illusion caused by the dark gloss the Burroughs-esque tape-splicing suggests - it's actually just full of twee Big Brother parodies written by Nick Revell. Human Remains, meanwhile, is typical in its sheer obviousness - every carefully placed line and manipulative camera angle seeming to explain (and linger boringly over) a joke that even a child would understand. The Royle Family is guilty of this too - particularly in its recent series - but it redeems itself by having the right attitude to begin with.

And attitude in comedy is everything. Julia Davis, for example, may be skilled as an actress and understand that comedy is best when played straight, but - as a comedy performer - she remains impossible to love. Truly awe-inspiring comedy actresses like Rebecca Front or Morwenna Banks are prepared to get their hands dirty, to grab comedy by its ugly big balls and really make it their own. The 'comedy is best when it's played straight' claim is, after all, a bit of a misnomer, and only partially true - what matters is whether the performer is in tune with a given script, understands precisely why it is funny, and can communicate their sheer joy in performing it. Compare Amelia Bullmore doing her shocked face in Jam with Emma Kennedy as Nostradamus in TMWRNJ ("Oh, 'cos I could've been doin' with that fence..."). Both are good actresses, but Kennedy's approach will - in comedy terms - always be better. Performers like her make you laugh, and - in doing so - get under your skin. 'Dark' performers just give the impression they want to get under your skin.

These are, of course, two completely different styles of comedy - don't think we don't realise that. And when dry, deadpan stuff is done well, it's great - Rob Brydon is hugely amusing (and utterly believable) in Marion & Geoff, despite having Steve Coogan's fucking face. The series is good not because it 'offers something a lot darker', but because it's a funny idea anyway. What narks us is listings magazines insisting that us poor plebs cannot possibly comprehend such a show, and have to be 'warned' of its darkness before we're allowed to laugh. It's as if dry, deadpan comedy is automatically equated with 'dark', and brash, joyous da-da-da-COMEDY type comedy is viewed as lightweight and trivial. It's so wrong. Bad comedy is bad comedy, no matter how slowly you talk.

Our general argument, though, is that the cod-dark school of thought is becoming so fashionable (not to mention unfairly elevated - Marion & Geoff may be good, but it's not exactly Kevin Turvey - The Man Behind The Green Door ) that it's rapidly becoming an industry standard. Remember how Rhona Cameron's largely inoffensive Rhona sitcom was criticised for being 'a little on the conventional side' whereas Spaced was celebrated for its 'wevolutionary' format alone? Similarly, Peter Kay's superb Comedy Lab pilot The Services - a show unashamedly played as comedy, but full of subtleties and dark as fuck - was developed into the decidedly less playful That Peter Kay Thing - a series which was very good, but not the out-and-out comedy masterwork it should have been.

Dark is easy. Anyone can do it. Creating good comedy which is, by definition, naturally dark - well, that's far more difficult. But it's up to you whether you're fooled by it. To quote Rowan Atkinson's Marcus Browning character, who could well have been speaking about his search for decent comedy, "We don't want to end up like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn't there".
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