Snobbery and contempt are corrosive to British comedy. That’s according to Ben Elton, writer of Blackadder and The Young Ones.
During the inaugural BBC Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture, Elton said snobbery and “lazy contempt” from critics and social media is killing the comedy form. In particular, he said people were too quick to dismiss shows with a laughter track.
“The principal objection to these comedies is that people are laughing. Why is that? I think it’s because we’re British,” Elton argued. “The laughter is evidence of effort. The terrible British sin of ‘going for laughs’. Laughs which are clear evidence of the greatest comedic crime of all, the crime of ‘trying to be funny’.”
He went on to rebuke the criticism of “canned laughter”, saying it was a “corrosive myth” that it had not been recorded live.
The comedian and author also defended Mrs Brown’s Boys, arguing the hit BBC sitcom “is not a tired and cheesy format at all”.
He continued: “Mrs Brown is quality comedy, not to everyone’s taste of course, but what work of art of any value could possibly be to everyone’s taste?
“It’s an exuberant, superbly executed celebration of what, for want of a better word, you might call big comedy. The comedy of the perfect theatrical double take.”
Elton then suggested that the criticism such shows receive may make commissioners think they’re not worth the money, saying sitcoms are “an expense that frankly is easy to duck if you’re just going to get slagged off for doing it anyway.”
“While there’s nothing we can do about shrinking budgets, fractured audiences and TV companies turning their precious facilities into prime real estate, it might help if commentator, critic and columnist alike stopped treating studio sitcoms with such thoughtless contempt.”
He then went on to say his own 1980s show The Young Ones, starring Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, wouldn’t “survive in today’s critical environment … had Rick, Vyvyan, Neil and Mike arrived in a world of instant opinions, formed and tweeted while a show is actually still on air I don’t think they’d have been given the grace to grow on people as they did.”
Finally, pointing to sitcom classics such as Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers and Only Fools & Horses, Elton argued “we are in danger of losing something of real value in our culture”.
The Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture with Ben Elton airs 10.35pm Friday, BBC1.