In search of intelligent life on Planet Sitcom

Sailing Friday night is now comedy night on network television and is the climax of 18 hours of `laughs' a week. Thomas Sutcliffe watched every minute...
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I have done worse jobs. In one of the flaming heatwaves of the late Seventies I was given the task of sorting bad eggs from good by a supermarket manager who probably thought salmonella was a fancy kind of fish-paste. It was about a year before I could look at a chicken again without heaving. Watching every comedy broadcast in one week feels as if it has inflicted a similar sort of damage, a cauterisation of the comic appetite that may yet prove irremediable and which, incidentally, provides no measure of the quality of humour to which I've been exposed. You don't have to stare at the sun to go blind - a 40-watt bulb will do if you look for long enough. Some 18 hours of staring in my case, from The Cosby Show at 6.00 on Monday to The New Statesman at 11.10 last Sunday. In between lay more than 1,000 minutes of professional jocularity, incalculable numbers of double-entendres, hundreds of puns and savage metaphors, intractable canyons of credibility. I watched old sitcoms and new ones, sketch shows and mime acts, repeats and originations, British and American programmes, the good, the bad and the ugly. It was a wilderness of laughter.

Looking back over my notes it's clear that derangement begins to set in after about the ninth hour - the grammar starts to break up and the handwriting wanders as if the author has lost the will to live. The pages are defaced by strange drawings (why the obsession with nooses?) and wild exclamations. By the time the end is in sight the record has become terminally sketchy, interrupted only by brief moments of lucidity. No overarching truth was ever likely to emerge from such a reckless communion with comedy, but in the wilderness of laughter some vague generalisations seemed to shape themselves out of the chaos - announced, in revelatory manner, by the programmes themselves, by lines that seemed to hint at a larger meaning. This, then, is the gospel according to sitcom.

1. There's no accounting for taste

There is no appeal against such a verdict, no new evidence with which one might overturn someone's false conviction that something is funny. Criticism has always been slightly helpless in the face of comedy - cut away the paraphrase, the description and the intellectual padding and you are mostly left with little more than Chris's stolid utterance - "makes me laugh". There may be a defensive note there, of course - because to have your sense of humour questioned is to have your character questioned, too.

Only an abundant variety of taste can explain the range of comedy available in one week - from the grimly synthetic buppie pantomimes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Cosby Show - in which every performance makes an extravagant pitch for the whoops of the studio audience - to the callow playground abuse of Fist of Fun. If I've just abused your favourite programme all I can say is - sue me. There's no legislation that governs the motion of a funny bone.

My favourite demonstration of the unpredictability of audience response, incidentally, occurred in An Audience with Freddie Starr. For what it's worth, I laughed only once during this (a piece of inspired clowning in which he attempted to juggle with barbed-wire hoops, objects not ideal for this purpose because of their tendency to cling tenaciously to anything they touch). The studio audience, on the other hand, roared throughout, except for one moment when Starr managed to produce a stark division amongst those present. Taking a fistful of live maggots, Starr ranged before the audience menacingly before flinging them at the ample cleavage of Faith Brown. Oddly enough, the person at whom the gag was aimed found it distinctly unamusing, while those it had passed by flailed and gasped for air as if they'd been shot in the belly with a twelve bore. I can't imagine persuading either party that they were wrong.

2. Nostalgia is just what it used to be

It certainly looks as if the audience believes this. On BBC2 last year Steptoe and Son regularly outperformed new material from Alexei Sayle and Reeves and Mortimer, appearing week after week in BBC2's top five programmes. This year Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads is repeating the same trick; when it comes to our friends in the north more viewers are choosing to watch Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' affectionately comic version than Peter Flannery's expensive new epic of corruption and compromise. And there has to be more at work here than nostalgia - fond memories would build an audience for one or two episodes but not the consistent loyalty which both series have enjoyed. On Channel 4 Rising Damp is holding its own between the transatlantic charms of Cybill and Roseanne.

Programme makers appear to have sensed the mood, too. Contemporary writers such as Richard Curtis and Ben Elton have turned their hands to self- consciously antique forms, citing as their inspiration programmes like Dad's Army. Indeed, Elton's The Thin Blue Line was described by one BBC executive as "a future classic", as if the corporation had turned itself into a branch of the Franklin Mint, producing instant heirlooms for the airwaves. The old code, by which "classic comedy" meant "schedule Polyfilla", will no longer hold.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that humour is suddenly less perishable than has conventionally been assumed. The crucial experiment has been performed by LWT, which recently commissioned new productions of six "classic" Galton and Simpson scripts, starring Paul Merton. The result has been as funny as a failed attempt at cardiac resuscitation. Merton is one of our most gifted comic surrealists - a man able to soar on the thermals of his own overheated imagination. To watch him trying to pound some life back into lines as drab as "Ooh, when she digs her heels in - like a mule, she is" is to see a racehorse harnessed to a milk- cart. What survives in The Likely Lads, too, is less the line-by-line jokes than the essential human foundation on which the comedy was built: the subtle, mutual dependency of the feckless and the careworn, as well as the performances which depict that.

Perhaps the most intriguing commentary on the perishability of comedy is delivered by The Fast Show, which regularly includes performances by Arthur Atkinson, a music-hall performer whose act consists of a series of catchphrases - "Ow queer!" or "Where's me washboard?" - each of which induces near hysteria in his contemporary audience. Arthur is funny because he isn't. The real irony is that this sketch sits in a programme itself consisting almost entirely of catchphrases, a comedy in which the audience knows the punchlines already. The comic tension is simply a matter of how we will get there. In 50 years, I would guess, The Fast Show will be virtually incomprehensible - which doesn't prevent it being one of the funniest programmes currently on air.

3. Is that a double-entendre in your pocket?

Without double-entendre British comedy would be bereft. A short selection from a week's viewing: "You should have heard the gasps when I showed my marrow to the Women's Institute" (The Brittas Empire); "Before you went down - in the criminal justice sense" (Birds of a Feather); "I wouldn't mind a little rattle on her tambourine," (Morecambe and Wise); Terry: "I could handle her". Bob: "I'd have liked to" (The Likely Lads).

For the British, sex is an irrepressible force, lying in wait behind the most innocuous exchanges; small-talk suddenly swells with lascivious bulges ("Is that a pun in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?") and the speaker bends double in an attempt to conceal his embarrassment.

In this respect the example from Birds of a Feather is interesting - double-entendre used with knowing scorn - and it suggests that an American influence is beginning to take hold. American sitcoms aren't immune from embarrassment about sex, but they counter it with sardonic dead-pan rather than confusions of meaning. "You guys sure have a lot of books about being a lesbian," says one of the happy, shiny people in Friends, at a loss for words when visiting his ex-wife's new lover. "Sure," she replies drily, "Didn't you know? You have to pass a test before they'll let you do it." In Britain the same man would probably have found himself having an implausible conversation about Dutch land reclamation, before realising too late that he couldn't think of a synonym for dykes. (It is difficult, too, to think of a British comedy that could include quite such a guileless expression of bestiality as The Larry Sanders Show, which opened last week with a guest singing a love song to a chicken, a composition that included the deathless line: "If an egg can fit in there, why can't I?")

Waiting for God is unusual in that it combines both the coy deniability of double-entendre and the old comic standby of elderly people saying rude words. "You have been putting aftershave on your willy," says Diana firmly, harvesting a dependable guffaw from the audience. But both forms depend on an expectation of reticence that may already be dead - what price double-entendre when almost nothing is unspeakable? And when Rik Mayall is 70, who will find his candour startling? The double-entendre has lasted for hundreds of years as a comic device, but we may be among the last to enjoy its ambiguous pleasures.

4. Laugh when you're told to

Contrary to received opinion, laughter is very rarely subversive, at least not the laughter you hear on British television. In fact, conservatism could be said to be the defining feature of most television comedy - conservatism of its creators about time-honoured traditions of the comedy world (socks shall be smelly, mothers-in-law repulsive, young wives incompetent in the kitchen) and the audience's conservatism about its supportive role in the affair.

Studio audiences are volunteer galley slaves, ranked on their cramped benches, willing the vessel on by force of will. If a line sounds like a joke, if it rises to a peak then leaves a space for laughter - it will be treated as a joke, however lame or turgid the writing. You can sense a positive discomfort when stamina fails and the audience simply cannot winch themselves up to a titter. They want to do their humble bit for the comedy, these obliging invisibles, but sometimes it is beyond them. What you hear when they do laugh is the noise of obedience - to the urgings of the warm-up man ("you're a vital part of the show") and the Pavlovian stimulus of the punchline.

This machinery isn't always baleful - all talented comedians know the audience sometimes needs to be told when to laugh, and that the waves of laughter can be magnified by timing the intervals. But there is a difference between tickling an audience's comic reflexes and hammering on them mercilessly. Dismaying amounts of TV comedy now employ wearily predictable comic forms - exaggerated insult, outlandish metaphor (easily the most common syntactic forms in British sitcom are comparative constructions: as X as Y, more A than B) or tried and tested plot devices - the misunderstood conversation, the misapprehension, the secret that must be kept from others. In the wrong hands -in most hands - they are as formal in their demands for audience response as the Alternative Service Book, comedy as a habitual ceremony rather than a surprise attack.

When something breaks this pattern the effect can be oddly disconcerting. The Fast Show initially suffered from the fact that it came without its set of instructions. Some sketches had no punchlines, others had nothing but. Audiences have slowly learnt how to use this novel product but you sense that the laughter is still slightly tentative and awkward to the feel, the unaccustomed liberty of making your own mind up.

5. The truth, the half-truth and everything but the truth

Artie's sentiment is undoubtedly true for bad sitcoms, in which even microscopic traces of honesty would prove fatal. Take Married for Life, for example, a "new" Russ Abbot series adapted from a successful American sitcom. Married for Life may be one of the worst sitcoms ever broadcast, and I speak as a man still receiving trauma counselling after accidental exposure to two episodes of Next of Kin (20 times the maximum safe dose).

There isn't a frame of Married for Life that isn't a lie - from its Planet Sitcom relationships to its dislocated mid-Atlantic setting (the house, the theme tune and even one of the children have all been borrowed from Roseanne - did they ask permission?) Honesty would have required its producers to say no when they asked themselves whether it was even marginally credible that a wife would cheerfully own up to calling a Dial-A-Stud line, whether a council lamppost would be moved after a protest from a single householder, whether British Telecom would cut off a subscriber's telephone as retaliation for his querying a bill, whether anyone still thinks that all Frenchman go "hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw". If sitcoms were cars, Married for Life would have been recalled as a safety hazard, instead of which it's out there on the airwaves mowing down innocent viewers.

This isn't a rigid pedantry, incidentally. Red Dwarf, which is not even set in this universe and the cast of which includes a talking hologram, an evolutionarily-advanced cat and a pedantic robot, is honest in ways Married for Life could never dream of, at least in part because it respects the boundaries of its own invented rules. Red Dwarf might be in orbit but it has own centre of gravity, which it never ignores.

Similarly, Goodnight Sweetheart asks its viewers to believe that an out- of-work aerial fitter would be able to flit at will between wartime London and the present day - but then is honest (within broad limits) about the difficulties this might conjure up. Both absent themselves from the real world but then play by some of its emotional rules. Married for Life, and every exhausted domestic sitcom like it, does exactly the opposite. And once you've made that decision, honesty is about as welcome as running spikes in a rubber life-raft.

So you think you can do better?

If the 18 or so hours of comedy that network television broadcasts in a week leave you stony-faced, perhaps you think you could come up with something funnier?

Here, then, is your chance. Complete the four questions below in as witty and scriptwriterly manner as possible. Your efforts will be judged by Geoffrey Perkins, the head of comedy at BBC TV. The best entry will win four books, four videos, and four audio-cassettes of the winner's choice from the current BBC comedy catalogue.

Marks will be awarded for freshness, novelty and wit, and deducted for shameful plagiarism or resort to cliche. Remember, you are meant to demonstrate that you can do it better than the professionals, not merely to the same standard.

1. Write a four-line exchange of dialogue between two people, employing the word "bollards".

2. Complete the following lines:

a) It would have been easier to ....

b) You've got as much chance as ....

c) You're less use than a ....

3. Write a 10-line conversation between an unfaithful husband and a traffic warden he has wrongly assumed to be a private detective, employing double entendre and comic mishearing.

4. A wife turns to kiss her husband in bed, only to find his socked feet lying on the pillow. What does she say next?

Send your entries to the the Features Department, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, marking the envelope "Comedy Competition". The closing date for entries is Friday 15 March. The winner will be notified by 31 March. No correspondence can be entered into - though if any entry is funny enough, we may consider publishing it.

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