Is 'The Inbetweeners' all it's cracked up to be?
It's a cult comedy gone mainstream. Viewing figures for series three are up 10-fold at 2.4 million as the middle-aged finally get in on the act. But does its success contain the seed of its demise, and is it funny anyway? Simmy Richman and his nephew, Darren Richman, cross swords
Sunday 19 September 2010
Simmy Richman, 46
Associate editor The New Review; music and TV writer The Independent on Sunday
If it were just puerile, base, crude and entirely lacking in sophistication, there would still be much to applaud about the I-can't-believe-it's-not-been-done-before simplicity of basing a sitcom around a group of sixth-form schoolboys.
The Inbetweeners is all those things but there is more to it than that. Sure, it's got that gross-out, cringey element that ensures people will talk about it around the kettle (the British equivalent of the water-cooler), but there are also moments of pathos, fully drawn minor characters (Greg Davies's Mr Gilbert is to the show what Sue Sylvester is to Glee) and even the odd underplayed insightful observation about society both inside and outside school walls (for all their sexist chatter, while the boys spend their lives desperately striving to be "cool", the girls, who couldn't care less about such things, innately are).
Through its main character, Will, the show also asks pertinent questions: is a fashion show just a shallow parade of vain people popular only for being beautiful? If a person is an obnoxious prat, do you have to be nice to them just because they've had a life-threatening illness and are confined to a wheelchair? These are complex issues, and ones you might not expect to find in a vulgar sitcom about schoolboys.
The success of The Inbetweeners does not surprise me and neither is it any shock that its appeal stretches to people in my age bracket – surely not the target market when the show was in development. Because just as The Office was not necessarily any funnier if you had a job in one – it worked because everyone recognised the type of man David Brent was – so The Inbetweeners does not rely on its viewer having been to school recently. It is funny because you will have met blokes with elements of Will, Simon, Jay and Neil; lovable losers who use bravado and jokes to disguise the inner turmoil they are ill-equipped to deal with.
But all of that is to intellectualise a show that works because it dares to try things that have not been attempted in a British sitcom before. The script is sharp at times, sure, but when all else fails let's give viewers a close-up of a hairy testicle. As films from American Pie to There's Something About Mary to Meet the Parents have proved, there is a communal joy in watching the boundary of what is and isn't considered acceptable in light entertainment stretched to breaking point. The Inbetweeners – though three series may well prove one too many and the feature film currently in production will almost certainly suck – consistently does this.
Most of all, though, buried beneath the jokes and the juvenilia, the show has a beating and wholesome heart of gold. Because in the real world, if a private-school snob like Will really was transferred to an inner-city state school, rather than being befriended by the group of boys who don't fit into the "cool or nerd" stereotype, he'd be eaten alive within an hour of registration.
Darren Richman, 26
Stand-up comedian and comedy writer (and nephew of Simmy), with a TV sitcom starring Jessica Hynes and a feature film for Big Talk in development
When The Inbetweeners first came on TV not many people watched it but I did, as I have tremendous nostalgia for my school days, I'd done gigs with Simon Bird (Will) – who's a fantastic stand-up comedian – and I knew three other people who were working on the programme. Beyond that, I loved its intention to show the kids at school who weren't the nerds or the cool kids. This, I thought, is exactly the sort of programme I want to see.
And then I watched it and was baffled and disappointed. Of the four main characters, I couldn't relate to one. Will had been reduced to someone who goes around doing a sub-Ricky Gervais "Brilliant" at every opportunity. Simon seemed to be nothing more than the leftovers for Will's character and, beyond his lust for Carli, we don't know anything about him. Neil is the archetypal "stupid" character and Jay is just about the worst character I've ever seen on British TV; as far as I can tell he is entirely based around his knowledge of synonyms for the word vagina.
In the early days I made the excuse that I was failing to see its charm because my school, which was all boys, wasn't like that. But then I met up with some old schoolfriends who told me that they could completely relate to the show and had convinced themselves that we were exactly like that, which is not how I remember it.
Not all humour has to be clever; that's fine by me, one of my favourite sitcoms ever is Bottom. But The Inbetweeners uses the gross-out thing to offend people and that only works if we know the characters' hopes, dream and motivations. Surely the comedy of embarrassment relies on people having a delusion of grandeur, which no one in The Inbetweeners has. These are sub-school play performances of cardboard-cut-out characters.
The Office and Peep Show relied on awkward humour, but because I don't like any of these characters, the awkwardness is not amplified. Do I feel for Simon when he exposes his balls? No, because for all I know he may be a rampant exhibitionist. Do I get offended if they smash a fish to death? No, I'd just like some jokes. It's also unforgivable to me that each episode has a highlights reel, so we see them puke or punch the fish again. This is a 23-minute show. How do they get away with that?
But if one incident crystallises why I don't like The Inbetweeners, it occurred in last week's episode: there was a lot of talk about a teacher being a paedophile and I thought, this could be interesting and funny because I remember how rumours and innuendo would spread at school and you'd pick up on something that maybe wasn't there or had got blown out of proportion. Here, I thought, would be a moment of subtlety. But no. It turns out the teacher is a paedo. Another wasted opportunity.
Woody Allen once said of Groucho Marx that he had "a natural inborn greatness that defies close analysis as it does with any genuine artist ... and I believe his outrageous unsentimental disregard for order will be equally funny 1,000 years from now. In addition to all this, he makes me laugh." So while we can intellectualise about The Inbetweeners all day long, the bottom line is that it just doesn't make me laugh.
The Inbetweeners facts
The clue is in the title.
They are the sixth-formers caught between the cool and uncool extremes of school society – The Inbetweeners.
Set at Rudge Park comprehensive school, the sitcom chronicles the rites of passage of Will, Simon, Jay and Neil.
Their doomed attempts to pull girls, get drunk and bunk off school have seen audiences soar 10-fold.
Little more than 200,000 watched it when it first aired in 2008.
Word of mouth has made it one of the most talked-about programmes in the country.
A record-breaking 2.3 million watched the first episode of the new series last week.
This was the highest rating ever for a Channel 4 commissioned show.
1.5 million DVDs of series 1 and 2 sold – beating Family Guy, Gavin and Stacey and Lost
And it confirmed the sitcom's transition from cult favourite to mainstream success.
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