Television: The British: they're a funny old lot ...

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The Independent Culture
Studio audiences are not made up of people like you and me. How easy it is to provoke their laughter! A pulled face, a mimicked voice, an obvious gag, and there is a woman with a gurgling laugh like water flowing over loose marbles, or a deep-voiced man with a great stomachy guffaw. And you and I sit at home barely smiling. What bastards we are!

I make an exception for parts of Harry Enfield and Chums (BBC1, Tuesday). Enfield's smooth, moonlike face and inane smile work Tommy Cooper magic with me; I laugh out loud at the opening titles. He has succeeded in his aim of becoming the Dick Emery of a more sophisticated age, due to the brilliance of his observation.

But in comedy, staying power is all-important. It is extraordinary how many good ideas there are in this show, and how rarely they are sustained. One sketch featured Enfield's Jurgen the German, initially displaying that comical post-war gentleness and commitment to inoffensiveness which is so remarkable in the German young. This insight was unique to Enfield and on the verge of redefining comic Germanness. And then it was utterly wrecked by a sudden descent into camp "ve haf vays of making you talk" face-slapping brutality. This subverted the original joke, adding nothing except cheap recognition of a tedious and false stereotype. It was, in short, a failure of comic nerve. The studio audience laughed even louder.

But then they also killed themselves on a desperate show using the same "broken comedy" format: Hale and Pace (ITV, Sunday). This duo, you may remember, used to do the cockney villains skit, and peaked in popularity about four years ago. But neither possesses a tenth of Enfield's talent, and their script team are now reduced to a series of bodily-function gags (snot, shit, penises, and vomit all put in appearances this week). Let this joke (two blokes are on an aircraft) suffice for the whole show: "We aren't going down." "Well how come you booked us on Goblin Airways?" Going down - goblin - gobbling - fellatio. Yet the loose marbles shifted, the stomach rumbled.

Then there are the sitcoms, in which the sit usually takes precedence over the com. Grown Ups (BBC2, Tuesday) is thirtysomething with jokes. It is about the soft agony of entering middle age, but being British it must be done for laughs - no serious hugs, tears, or confessions allowed.

There are good ideas here too. The bored characters are whisked into a fantasy sequence, in which they become Chekhovian provincials, bored (literally) to death, and longing for Moscow. They each phone their parents, demonstrating the common pathos of being grown-up, but still childlike - locked into ancient patterns of relationship, but with death round the corner and waiting to end this oldest of links.

But the execution! Boring Bob's repetitions ("But my parents are perfectly normal!" x6) are just that - boring. The phone calls ("What do you mean that you always felt like a woman trapped in a man's body?") were ridiculous. The possibilities inherent in the situation - and the characters themselves - were simply thrown away. It proves that it is all too possible to have good comic ideas, yet be a bad comic writer. This may be yet another argument for having large teams of writers, as the Americans do.

Some sitcoms, of course, are not really intended to be funny - they are easy and amiable instead. Like Next of Kin (BBC1, Thursday), whose sit is that two grandparents have inherited three grandchildren. It is based on the neat perception that society is now full of older, materially comfortable folk, who feel that they have earnt their selfishness - and their confrontation with the selfish young.

But it's so cosy-wozy, so undemanding, so obvious and so unambitious. Take this line (from granny to grandpa, tartly): "Oh, and I like my bacon nice and crispy, thank you very much." After 35 to 40 years of marriage he'd be able to recognise her farts at a baked-bean tasters' convention, let alone know how she has her bacon. And still they laughed!

With such tameness around, it is little wonder that many have anticipated Chris Morris's Brass Eye (C4, Wednesday) with so much pleasure. His reputation and its history suggested there would be danger, novelty - something to talk about the next day. Unlike Next of Kin it would have Did-You-Seeability. And in that, the show didn't disappoint.

Many of the strengths of The Day Today (his earlier series with Armando Ianucci) were there - the great ear for how people talk, the parody of the language of TV journalism (though it should be said that no current- affairs show has half the budget that Chris Morris's spoofs enjoy). What has been added are the hoaxes on public figures. These are to modern comedy what secret filming is to current affairs - hugely fashionable, and almost indispensable.

So we had Jilly Cooper on the phone, Carla Lane in the studio, Wolf the Gladiator on camera, all taken in and enlisted for the cause of a zoo elephant whose protest against captivity had taken the form of shoving her trunk up her own bottom. Oh, it was funny. They made such fools of themselves. Didn't it just show them up to be the gullible, animal obsessed, blinkered, middle-aged prats that we'd always supposed?

It sure did. And it left a very bad taste in my mouth. I cannot abide the Animal First lobby, but what got Carla into the victim's chair wasn't venality, or lack of morality, but her beliefs. And don't we all know how much easier it is to take the piss out of people who believe things than people who believe nothing. The religious would be easy meat, as would the old and the very young.

And surely it is odd of Morris to connive in - almost to procure - their pomposity, and then, once it is procured, to crap on them. This is the act - not of a satirist - but of an agent provocateur.

And it proves what? That far too many of our fellow citizens defer to television? That it is remarkable what an authority figure (like a bogus reporter) can get fellow human beings to do? That we will administer large doses of electric shock to others if a man in a white coat tells us to? We know all this.

The real shits will see Morris coming a mile off; only the relatively innocent will fall victim. Which makes this is a playground exercise in seeing how much power you can exert over foolish people. So instead of identifying with the comedian (as I could with Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield etc), I find myself feeling sorry for daft old bats like Carla Lane. By all means, I thought, hurt those who hurt others, but leave the harmless alone - or else make their comedy part of ours.

But, insecure in my own judgement, I turned once more to Late Review (BBC2, Thursday), which is to critics what University Challenge is to quiz buffs - we sit at home and try and answer the questions better than the guests. There I found novelist Howard Jacobson - a pretty fine comic writer himself, and presenter of a series on humour that starts on C4 next week - opining that cruelty is central to humour.

In his recent book Jacobson defends the likes of Bernard Manning, maintaining that racial and other cruel jokes do no harm; that they can be a safety valve. That there is no inevitable connection between verbal and physical cruelty.

I do not believe it. In the playground many bullies maintain their power through the ability to ridicule. What makes parents as anxious as any physical cruelty meted out to their children, is the teasing - because of their fatness, big ears, spots, or thinness. A teasing that cannot be escaped, and which is beyond appeal.

And of course humour can desensitise! Look how amusing it is to see that old, rich Jew - until recently unable by dint of his wealth to tie his own shoelaces - scrub that pavement! Observe his expression! The incongruity of it! And look at the laughter on the faces of the onlookers. There is no inevitable connection, but there is a connection, nonetheless.

When, in the early Eighties, an appalling, pro-hanging MP - Peter Bruinvels - offered to act as hangman himself, Edward Heath remarked that the real test of support for the death penalty was not a willingness to be the executioner, but to be executed. For me the real test of humane comedy is not whether we laugh, but whether we would like to be laughed at.