Funny you should ask

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The Independent Online
At lunch the other day I found myself sitting next to a distinguished writer who also reviews television from time to time. After we had established the ground rules of sitting next to each other, such as which one of us liked salt and pepper more than the other, and who got first wipe of the only available napkin, he opened the conversation by saying: "Tell me, do you like Absolutely Fabulous"?

This was a difficult question to answer. I had seen one or two of the early episodes, and laughed, and hadn't laughed since, even though I have seen quite a lot more episodes, because it struck me that what made the early episodes funny either didn't bear repeating or had been lost along the wayside, and that the programme had very quickly become ... become ... (I am trying to think of a word meaning "formulaic" without actually saying "formulaic") and that anyway Jennifer Saunders is a better comedian than she is an actress and that ...

Of course, you are not meant to say any of these things. You are meant to say that Ab Fab is just one of the funniest things ever, and isn't it just wonderful the way it takes the mickey out of the fashion world? It's hard to see what that means, of course, because nobody could take the fashion world seriously in the first place, but it is also hard to say a thing is funny if you don't think so.

Even if you disapprove of a programme, you are not meant to dodge saying you don't find it funny by analysing the damned thing instead, least of all by using the word "formulaic", because what the man wants as an answer is something a bit like "Yes" or "No", or "If I had a sense of humour I would probably like it, but alas, it was surgically removed from me after a terrible road accident in 1983, and now I can't appreciate wildly funny trendy sitcoms ..."

So I suddenly decided to go for broke and be honest and I said: "I think it is a funny idea but not a funny programme." And the guy relaxed and said: "Thank goodness I'm not the only one who doesn't think it's funny ...", and emboldened by this, I said: "I had the same trouble with Fawlty Towers. Never found it funny. In fact, it was one of the things that brought me and my wife together, our inability to enjoy Fawlty Towers. My wife could never see anything in it but a lot of people getting angry and shouting ..."

By this time the distinguished writer was pumping my hand up and down joyously, whispering, "Me too, me too!", at the same time as looking round anxiously, as if not sure whether to crow over our newfound bond, or to keep quiet for fear of being lynched. Because there are certain things you are meant to take for granted. You are meant to take for granted that Bob Dylan is a great man, and that the Rolling Stones were the group of the Sixties, and that Hancock was very funny, and that if you didn't laugh at The Young Ones you were brain-dead ...

I certainly found it hard work getting through the Sixties, having to keep quiet about not liking the Stones or Bob Dylan. It must have been even harder going through the war and not liking It's That Man Again. You must have felt like a traitor to the country. Frank Muir had an instructive half-hour on Radio 4 the other day, of bits of wartime comedy, and he played a chunk of ITMA, and now that I have heard it again, and can give it a fair retrial, I can see that it was even unfunnier than I thought.

(I loved the Goon Show instead. My father, who had loved ITMA, never saw anything in the Goons. So it goes.)

What really does depress me is that the new Radio Times has Basil Fawlty on the cover, prior to a rerun of the Fawlty Towers series. It's bad enough that the BBC has so little to offer the public that they have to make a repeat their cover story, but what is even worse is the prospect of people saying to you: "See the one about the Germans last night? Great, eh?" or "Isn't it great to see Manuel again? I come from Barcelona!" or "They've got that one about the dead body on tonight! Mustn't miss that!"

"So," I asked this distinguished man at the lunch, "What do you find funny on TV?"

He looked around to make sure he was unobserved.

"Ever watched Pingu?"

"No."

"It's an animated cartoon about a penguin family that only speaks Norwegian. Give it a try ... "

I have. He's right. It is funny. But as a TV critic he can never say he prefers Pingu to Ab Fab.

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