Squirming over the new comedy of embarrassment

Historians may one day conclude that the early 21st century was a golden age for television comedy
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The Independent Online

As a caravan-dweller, I find myself taking mild exception to the storyline of the forthcoming Alan Partridge series. Apparently, Partridge's life and career will continue to spiral downwards. Once he was a chat-show host, then he was a fading C-list celebrity living in a motel, now he is to be truly pathetic – a man alone, going bonkers, in a caravan. Hugely amusing, I must say.

As a caravan-dweller, I find myself taking mild exception to the storyline of the forthcoming Alan Partridge series. Apparently, Partridge's life and career will continue to spiral downwards. Once he was a chat-show host, then he was a fading C-list celebrity living in a motel, now he is to be truly pathetic – a man alone, going bonkers, in a caravan. Hugely amusing, I must say.

But when the series comes on, I shall of course tune in. This is a greater compliment than it may seem, for here in my 14-foot Sprite Musketeer, even watching television requires a certain amount of effort. The set must be carried from the tent where it is kept and set up on the kitchen table/desk so that I can watch it from the bed at the other end of the caravan.

Apart from the odd football match and the latest bit of good-taste titillation from that fashionable scriptwriter Andrew Davies, few programmes justify this degree of disruption to my caravan routine. However, new work from Steve Coogan will almost certainly be worth the effort.

Now and then, some critic or rent-a-gob opinionist sounds off idiotically about the lack of good comedy on television. It is true that many of the mainstream sitcoms are pale, sickly descendants of Terry and June, but then the best is very good indeed. And with people like Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Peter Kay, Sasha Baron Cohen, Caroline Aherne, Rob Bryden and Paul Whitehouse at work, it seems quite possible that social historians may one day conclude that the early 21st century represented something of a golden age for television comedy.

On the face of it, this seems odd, for we live in peculiarly humourless times. At almost any moment over the past 50 years, hilarious, absurd figures – a few goofy innocents but mostly big-arsed bullies, profligate drunks or shameless sex maniacs – have been part of public life, bringing colour and incident to the political scene. Now our leaders vie with one another in their attempts to be unexceptional, the guy or girl next door. The few with comic potential (Robin Cook, Ann Widdecombe, Mo Mowlam) are marginalised, as the bland (Jowell, Milburn, May) go from strength to strength. Until recently, the Conservative conference could be relied upon for a few laughs but now, even there, the Tories are on their best behaviour and have openly joined the race to be the nice party, clean and sound and generally appropriate in word and deed.

One would expect at this point that character-based comedy would pack up its bags and give up, rather as satire has. Instead, significantly, something of a boom is going on. The best television comedy has a knack of reflecting the fears and insecurities of the moment, reflecting them back at us in a distorting mirror. Tony Hancock was the pretentious, lost little man of yje 1950s. Basil Fawlty was a farewell to a frustrated older generation, undercut by rage and marital misery. The Young Ones saw punk having to grow up and deal with the greedy new world of Thatcherite Britain.

Class was central to many of the best series, with characters drawn mainly from the restless lower-middle class. Although we are now supposed to be above such things, an element of snobbery is still in play. It is largely because Alan Partridge and Gervais's David Brent from The Office have been promoted above their ability, and have aspirations of social grandeur, that the gauche naffness is so funny.

Then, inevitably, there is showbiz. The hunger for connection to the world of celebrities that hangs over contemporary life is reflected in TV comedy, either in its form – a chat show, a spoof documentary – or in its fame-obsessed central characters.

But what makes the best comedy so much of the moment is that it manages to push character humiliation to new extremes. In The Office, moments arrive when one is so embarrassed by what is going on that, for a few seconds, one needs to see what is showing on another channel.

There have been race jokes before, in Till Death Us Do Part or Rising Damp but when Brent sidles up to the only black character in the office and tells him that his favourite actor is Denzel Washington – "No – correction – Mr Sidney Poitier" – something subtler is going on. And it is not by accident that The Office and Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights feature a character in a wheelchair at the centre of the joke.

On this occasion, there is no avoiding the cliché. One of the mainsprings of the new comedy of embarrassment is our old friend political correctness. In matters of race, sex or handicap, Brent, Partridge and the rest are every bit as in touch with their baser selves as Rigsby or Alf Garnett were, but times have moved on. In the world outside, the pretence that we are nicer, more civilised people is maintained, but the best new comic writers and actors know better.

terblacker@aol.com

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