Comedies don't have to make you laugh

Rev, W1A, The Office... My favourite comedies aren't all rib-ticklers, says Alison Graham

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Comedies don't have to make you laugh
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We’re remarkably tolerant of comedies that aren’t funny. I think it started with The Office and then Extras; undoubtedly these were both exquisitely constructed and acutely well observed, not to mention in some ways a joy to watch. But they weren’t actually funny, in a mascara-running, cushion-clutching way.

Watching Ricky Gervais’s David Brent and Andy Millman was delightfully excruciating, if you could bear to peer between the gaps in your fingers. You might even have nodded in sorrowful recognition (anyone who has ever worked in an office must surely have identified with Dawn, Tim or even, you poor things, Brent himself). But again perhaps you weren’t on the floor being given oxygen as you gagged with laughter.

I love both Rev and W1A (both BBC2) but they don’t make me laugh. Rev makes me smile because it’s lovely and the central characters – Adam Smallbone, the vicar of a struggling parish, and his wife Alex, who’s supportive but who bridles against the role of “vicar’s wife” – are people I would love to have as friends.

After every episode I think I might even feel that I’m a slightly better person because Rev is so adept at subtly sending out little messages about tolerance, understanding and taking a delight in others, whatever their shortcomings, without being finger-waggy or preachy. It’s like a TV Thought for the Day, but without the dogma and Anne Atkins.

If Rev were a drama, it would be very easy to resist. It would be a This Is England-type grim litany of the effects of alienation and poverty. Or it would be directed by Ken Loach. But Rev pillows its social messages, thanks to writer James Wood’s light touch. For instance, this week’s episode features male gay-couple friends of Adam and Alex who want a church wedding. Timely, as gay marriage became legal in England and Wales on Saturday.

Though not legal in church, much to Adam’s disappointment, so he has to let down his friends. Without in any way trying to be shouty and divisive, the episode shows that all the sound and fury around the issue clouds the message at its heart, that people just want to be happy.

I’d be surprised if anyone learns any profound lessons from W1A, but its subtleties are more satirical, prompting smiles of recognition from anyone who’s far too familiar, possibly on a daily basis, with corporate-speak and management-ese. It’s set in the BBC (its parent, Twenty Twelve, centred on the Olympics) and is thus the kind of sitcom that has media commentators combing the scripts for real-life parallels and thinly disguised actual people set up to be figures of fun. 

I love it, but then I used to work at the BBC and television plays a big part in my professional life (of course), but I can see that it could be seen by audiences not in the know (and why should they be?) as a massive in-joke. Though we all have emotional and financial stakes in the BBC, audiences traditionally have seen dramas and comedies that are set in television as smug.

Again, though, I clutch my head in my hands at W1A’s comedy of excruciation rather than howl with laughter, when the terrible, dim and incomprehensible PR wonk Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) haplessly brings about a disaster with the words “this has pre-happened”.

But the television landscape isn’t a clever-clever and stark laugh-free place roamed by self-satisfied insiders. There’s Mrs Brown’s Boys (for millions of you) and my comedy Achilles heel, Citizen Khan. It makes me laugh noisily and heartily, and I can’t explain why. Which is fine. 

Rev is on tonight at 10:00pm on BBC2.