We’re living in an era of back-to-basics sitcoms and it’s no laughing matter. From Vicious to Mrs Brown’s Boys to The Wright Way, the old-fashioned situation comedy is suddenly all the rage again.
It’s a serious business writing comedy. You don’t necessarily need funny lines all the time. The key is to create characters. Characters people can identify with. But right now we’ve gone back at least 30 years in terms of format.
Take Vicious. A sitcom with two old gays could be really good and moving. With two great actors in Sir Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi it should be fantastic. But it was insult, insult, insult every other line. You don’t believe in them. You don’t like them, for a start. It was positively homophobic! It made John Inman look restrained.
The great sitcom writers of the past didn’t think jokes were remotely important. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who wrote Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, knew that instinctively.
Johnny Speight who created Alf Garnett never did jokes; he just wrote great characters. And for immaculate writing it would be hard to beat Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’s Porridge. That show had a great gallery of characters and not a duff moment in any episode. That’s it. Great characters trapped in a situation.
In all the best sitcoms, people are trapped. They may be in prison, or stuck in the war like Dad’s Army, or in a boarding house (Rising Damp), or Steptoe’s scrapyard. They may have aspirations to get out but you know they never will. Success is rarely funny. There are more losers in the world than winners.
Galton and Simpson were the masters of the art. Take Hancock. We never knew what Tony did. Sometimes he was a comedian or someone in the business, and other times it was sort of indefinable. Galton and Simpson never pinned him down. All you knew was that he was Tony Hancock and he was raging against the world.
With Harold Steptoe – “I’m a rag-and-bone man. I shouldn’t be trapped in here with my father!” – they created another character imprisoned by his own circumstances. I read a review of a particular Steptoe episode that said, “It out-Becketted Samuel Beckett.” I thought, that’s a bit much! So I watched it again, and I thought Beckett would have raised his hat – because there were long periods where there wasn’t a laugh. But you couldn’t stop watching and listening. It was really moving.
Of course, we will laugh again soon. I am very fond – overfond – of Miranda Hart, although I think the falling down has got a bit out of hand.
But she’s a traditionalist. She worships Eric and Ernie. And a lot of the great sitcoms have an uneasy start – people have to ease themselves into it and then it gains confidence, and then the audience gains confidence in it. Take Blackadder, which wasn’t a riot until Ben Elton joined to help write the second series.
Or Rev. When I first saw Rev I wondered, “Is it a drama-comedy or a comedy-drama?” Which is never a good place to be… “Yes, and it’s neither very dramatic nor very funny.” But we all believed in the Rev Adam Smallbone by series two.
It’s straightforward stuff: character, character, character. You don’t need jokes, you don’t need funny lines. The humour will come because the secret to the truly funny sitcoms is simple – they are basically all about life.
PS A quick joke to cheer us all up…
There’s a psychiatrist and a patient. The psychiatrist says, “What do you think your main fault is?” The patient says, “My honesty.” The psychiatrist says, “I don’t think honesty is a fault.” The patient says, “Who gives a F@&%! what you think!” (Thank you Jack Dee.)
Barry Cryer is a panellist on Jo Brand’s Great Wall of Comedy (7.30pm Sunday Gold)