British Comedy Awards: The serious business of finding new ways to make people laugh

Award-winning comedy is difficult - and expensive - to make.

Judging comedy is notoriously tricky, and the subjectivity of humour is only part of the problem.

The real issue is that when people don’t find something funny, they tend to assume that no one else could either. No one leaves a ropy production of Hamlet thinking it isn’t a tragedy: you might not like the production, or the lead actor, or the director’s choice to do the whole thing in Polish with English surtitles, but you don’t deny its very nature.

Since the dawn of time, however, since the very first caveman saw another caveman slip on a banana skin and decided that slapstick wasn’t really his kind of thing compared with some observational schtick about a mammoth, people have responded to comedy they don’t like in the same way: that’s not funny. John Cleese once said that an Englishman would rather be told he’s a bad lover than that he has no sense of humour, and perhaps that’s the problem: it can’t be our humour at fault, it must be the comedy which is wrong.

But this year’s British Comedy Awards nominations are out nonetheless, so somebody has taken on the unenviable task of watching dozens of hours of sitcoms, sketch shows, panel shows and stand-up, and drawn up a shortlist. It makes for sobering reading, whether you’re a comedy fan or not.

For the first time, the New Comedy Award has no nominations at all from terrestrial telly (yes, I know everything’s digital now, but you know what I mean). Three nominated shows come from Sky, and one from E4. This suggests, at least to me, that the BBC and Channel 4 are cutting back on developing new shows. It isn’t surprising, given that sitcoms are expensive and unpredictable to develop. Generally, you don’t know if you have a hit on your hands until it airs, and by that time, you have already spent a ton of money. But get one right, and it can be sold and syndicated all over the world – The Office has versions everywhere from Sweden to Chile – and some of that money goes back to the BBC and pays for the next generation of programmes. So even if you don’t like The Thick Of It or Mrs Brown’s Boys, they might well be subsidising the shows you do like.

Another depressing point to note is that the four nominees for Best Male TV Comic all appear weekly in their respective shows. Three of the four women up for Best Female TV Comic are nominated for one-offs (two of them are for guest appearances on Have I Got News For You): only Sarah Millican has her own show. Perhaps next year the girls might be allowed more than one episode each.


Give up driving, it’ll set you free


The RAC has released a report suggesting that driving is on the decline. Company car mileage has fallen by 50 per cent, and while more women have driving licences and drive more miles each year, fewer young men hold licences (presumably because they would have to sell a kidney to insure the car), and men’s driving mileage has dropped.

I gave up my car a few years ago – I no longer wanted to spend my life on motorways, and I had the chance to work more from home and give up touring, which is how I used to earn a living.

I do miss it, but not enough to balance out the astonishing cost of petrol. Giving up driving is like giving up smoking: you are amazed by how much richer you are. Right up until you have to buy a train ticket.