Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hypnotised Sightseers Budging Little,

When discussing the television comedy of today, it is fair to say that the sitcom has changed hugely from decades ago and that the situations are no longer physical but social. There are very few comedies where the setting may be identified by location; most of today’s comedies are simply defined by their characters that are of a group of people: Peep Show, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Spaced, My Family, Mrs Brown’s Boys, Not Going Out etc. I don’t necessarily care for all or any of these but none of these are dominated by their setting.

I think my own taste in comedy favours those shows with a well-defined location or situation, typically, these are shows from the past. When the setting is more prominent, the comedy is stronger as the characters do not only interact with each other, they also react against their situation or plight.

Father Ted would be nothing if they weren’t three priests isolated on an island. Like the pub of Early Doors, its incongruent characters would never meet. The Office is dominated by strong characters but the competition that exists within the workplace is at the root of most of its laughs. The Royle Family is really just a group of people but the crowded room and the fact that its characters never leave the glare of the television is its essence, this is similar to The Smoking Room (a comedy series that was sadly curtailed by changes to the law), where the characters are placed on top of each other in a single room (could it ever be revived at an outdoors smoking shelter?).

Once the setting is in place, the characters take over. One of my favourites is Dad’s Army, as it is set in the past, it can never go out of date and so it proves week after week on BBC2. The characters have no modern day equivalents; no comedy boasts a Mainwaring, a Fraser or a Jones. The comedy of Jones is simple: rambling, irrelevant yarns, mistaken choice of words, his catchphrases and bungled drill and exercises. There are no Joneses today, the best similarities might be limited to sketch shows. The mistimed coming to attention never fails to raise a laugh, the direction is quite stunning; the timing of the late stomp always interrupts Mainwaring’s next announcement.

Beyond the main cast, The Verger is the unsung hero of the show. As little more than the church caretaker, his gimmick is a misplaced sense of importance. After uttering his gratuitous statements, he puffs out his chest and pulls a face that suggests that he thinks the conversation is over because he has spoken. One such example is in The Royal Train, the platoon are trying to keep the king’s arrival secret, yet the vicar, the mayor, the warden and the verger descend. The Vicar starts, ‘I represent the church, his worship, the mayor represents the council. The warden says, ‘I represent the ARP’, leaving the verger to boldly state with pride and to pull his face, ‘And I’m a sightseer.’

Who are the vergers of today? The bit-part players, who appear in every episode, but would be missed considerably if they didn’t exist. The Janitor or Ted from Scrubs might be considered prime examples: of course, these two are from a sitcom dominated by its physical setting, the hospital. In conclusion, the best comedies, to me, are in well-defined settings, removed from my reality. The alternative is that the comedy is close to reality, involving a bunch of people - I can join a bunch of people and I am the funniest person I know, so why would I need to watch any other show?


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