It’s a strange world we live in where an Alan Partridge film is met with reserved cynicism. Steve Coogan’s sublime alter ego is a character that ranks with Basil Fawlty as one of the greatest comedy creations of all time, but we are now predisposed to expect so little from big screen comedy that it’s hard to get hopes up.
Obviously, the rather poor track record of big screen conversions of hit comedies certainly plays a part. There’s a desire to go bigger and better, to the point where the situation, often just as integral to a show’s success, can be written for the movie version; The Inbetweeners’ Movie (whose box office success is purported to have been a key step in Partridge getting the cinematic treatment) lost much of the series’ original spark when the gang were taken out of the school.
But there’s something worse lying below these complaints that have existed since the likes of On The Buses which is a much more modern concern. Namely, the overall decreasing quality of comedy in general.
We can theorise at length as to what went wrong, but today I’m going to cast an eye on four problems that really just need eradicating. These apply to both film and TV with varying severity, but all need saying so I can get them off my mind and focus on more important things (like whether Scary Movie 5 actually exists, or is actually joke).
4. Dated Casual Racism
In the Olympic special of Absolutely Fabulous (the final of three poor anniversary specials last year), Patsy’s daughter returns from Africa after seeing her son and her husband, who happens to have nine other wives. Assumedly hilarity was meant to ensue; she’s dressed in what a middle class person would assume authentic African dress looks like and her Grandma just can’t get her head around it.
This is very similar to one of the main running jokes in Rising Damp, the brilliant Leonard Rosseter sitcom from the mid-seventies; Rosseter’s Rigsby can’t get his head around African Phillip’s nine wives. The only difference is that then the joke in the latter was always on the striving to be proper Rigsby. Now, over thirty years later we’ve stopped being meant to laugh at the Rigsby-type characters – we’re meant to be laughing with them.
I find this trait particularly deplorable and it is made increasingly PC to do such jokes thanks to the rise of acceptable outrageous comedy that is close to going too far (Frankie Boyle anyone).
3. Tecnobabble Doesn’t Equal Laughs
Isn’t the way young people text funny? Wuu2? Lol? OMG? What crazy people are they? It’s so inconceivably silly that it’s no wonder jokes in this vein are now a classic way of showing how a grumpy old stick-the-mud isn’t up to date with the latest technology. Except, as anyone who has sent or received a text in the past five years will know, no one speaks like that any more.
This applies to more genres than comedy, but the point still stands. With predictive text and phones with QWERTY keyboards making it easier to use correct spelling, these abbreviations aren’t necessary and no longer in common use. There may have been some humour to be found when they first came about, but its now the case that when a cop is jokingly bemused by a brb, it’s the writer who clearly hasn’t a clue.
With the changing face of technology, you can forgive being a little behind (although you have to question someone’s suitability to a career in topical writing if they make any reference to the now almost defunct MySpace), but most techno-barbs tend to come with little originality or knowledge behind them,
2. It’s Not Serious Business
It’s incredibly easy to get an emotional investment in comedy characters. Their knockabout adventures present them at their rawest and particularly in TV, we spend a lot of down time with them. Sometimes this connection is mined brilliantly, like in How I Met Your Mother’s heartbreaking Symphony Of Illumination, where Robin’s inability to conceive is dealt with sensitivity, but still maintaining the ability to make you chuckle.
Conversely, Only Fools and Horses started out as a half hour sitcom with little to no development week to week, but come its end there were wives and children for the protagonists, extended runtimes and eventually a straight drama prequel. While it allowed the characters and their fallacies to be explored more, there was none of the charm that had propelled the series to this point.
Fools and Horses is an old example, but this still exists in microcosm. Judd Apatow’s cinematic output seems to fit closer in the drama category than comedy. Over the last decade he became known as the finest purveyor of adult comedy, a title which each overlong, straight-faced effort is slowly eroding away.
1. Parody or just references?
This last entry is at the point where it is literally an epidemic. The endless trotting out of references to pop culture, believed in its action to be a joke.
A great example is shown in the declining quality of the Ice Age franchise. Whereas the first part told a wholesome story as realistic as a film about a tiger, a sloth and a mammoth teaming up could be, each new episode has travelled from contrived to ridiculous and back again, via dinosaurs and a gang of pirates for some reason. What changed was the way they did the jokes, forgetting the notion of a witty script and replacing it with one pop culture reference after another.
This is not inherently bad; Shrek became the mega hit it was because it was silly enough for kids, but packed full of pop culture jokes for the parents. Family Guy is strewn with so many pop culture jokes that they can get away with doing entire episodes devoted to Star Wars. But what is in Ice Age is not jokes. It’s not even visual gags in the style of Aardmann. It’s just a reference to a scene in a much better movie. This is the exact same tactic the Epic/Disaster/Scary Movies use. And there’s a reason they are regarded as some of the worst comedies in recent years.
This type of film and TV isn’t funny, but survives because it tricks people into thinking they’ve seen something lampooning something else they love, when in fact no brain power has be used. It’s now present in many works now, even Family Guy maestro Seth MacFarlane’s feature debut Ted.
Mentioning a different movie in a movie is as funny as the ‘Who’s There?’ part of a Knock Knock joke. If there’s no punch line, there’s no joke.