Judgement of comedies sometimes gets a bit hung up on whether they're funny or not. Laughs matter hugely, of course, and their absence is fatal. But other qualities are important too and can often go missing without any comment at all. Likeability is one, and its presence means that a comedy can survive rough edges that a more calculated affair might not. Chris O'Dowd and Nick Murphy's Moone Boy is a case in point.
Based on O'Dowd's experiences growing up in Ireland in the Eighties (and filmed in the town he grew up in), Moone Boy is – theoretically at least – a slightly risky proposition in some respects. For one thing,it exploits a private nostalgia for a public audience (and nostalgia can easily get self-indulgent). For another, it employs a lot of child actors, which can be tricky when it comes to comic delivery. In practice though Moone Boy is entirely lovable, one of those comedies that you actually feel a slightly better person for liking.
The comedy is centred around Martin, a young boy growing up with three unrelentingly scornful sisters (Trisha, Fidelma and Sinead) and taking refuge in doodled cartoons and the comforting presence of an imaginary friend, played by O'Dowd himself. Martin is bottom of the pecking order at home and not much higher at school, but he has a resilient can-do perkiness that appears to carry him through (and which can, if one's absolutely honest, sometimes be a tiny bit off-putting). If the comedy was only about him it wouldn't work anything like as well (the alter ego device doesn't deliver as big a pay-off in laughs as you might expect). But it diverts in quite unexpected ways. In the first episode, for example, a run-in with the school bullies triggered a lovely running joke about Irish manhood. Confronting the father of the bullies, Martin's dad is startled to encounter a paragon of sympathy instead of a brute ("Oh no! They're awful aren't they?"). He then finds himself enlisted to a secret self-help group for the town's patriarchally challenged.
The comedy of childhood is nicely done, too. Faking a love letter to his sister as part of a complicated deal to enlist the protection of the school's tough guy, Martin searches for the highest praise he can think of and comes up with "you smell nicer than crisps". But it's the sense of the family and community around him that really makes the thing work. In the second episode of the opening double-bill, Martin's mother came to the fore, campaigning with other women in the town to get Mary Robinson elected to the Irish presidency. "I won't vote for her for President," says one of the women they canvass, "but I'll vote for her to be the President's wife." And Steve Coogan – whose company Baby Cow makes the programme, appeared in a very funny cameo as a notoriously gropey local plutocrat. It's sweet-natured, fresh and absolutely not by-the-numbers, and if you want to bully it you'll have to get past me first.
Malcolm returned in The Thick of It, his early melancholy dispelled by his decision that it's time to evict Nicola Murray from her post as Leader of the Opposition. "She's electoral asbestos," he tells a fellow plotter. "She's going to sleep with the fishes. Or at least witter on at them until they lose the fucking will to live." The Thick of It isn't sweet or lovable and hasn't a fraction of Moone Boy's essential good-heartedness. I don't think it's forgiving or tender to any of its characters. But it doesn't need to be because it offers an unceasing stream of savagely funny lines. "I can't even see the clicking of the pilot light," Malcolm said disgustedly, as he searched in Nicola's eyes for the "fire" of political passion. Difficult to like him, but almost as hard not to laugh.