Like the uncle who ruins every Christmas, the Edinburgh Television Festival has a tradition of inviting Frankie Boyle to come along and tell some bitter truths to end the party. After being the guest of honour at last year’s Alternative MacTaggart Lecture, this year he interviewed Catastrophe star Sharon Horgan about her career and ‘pushing the boundaries’ of the industry.
The main concern was whether television now played it too safe, even remaking ‘golden era’ sitcoms like Open All Hours and Porridge rather than take a chance on riskier propositions.
“I wonder if it’s gone too much that way, because to me it seems like TV in 1978,” Boyle said. “They’re remaking a lot of old comedy shows and there’s an air where you wouldn’t know alternative comedy had happened.”
Referring back to Pulling, Horgan’s critical darling first shown in 2006, Boyle doubted commissioners would take such a risk now.
“If you watched Pulling, you would go ‘oh that’s very different’. Whereas now, most of the comedy is observational, most of the big shows are variety shows and most of it’s family friendly. I think it’s hit a bit of a stale patch.”
Horgan was less dismissive of the current crop of comedy, and didn’t put the blame entirely at the feet of commissioners.
“Just blame the British public,” she said. “You have to blame the people, that’s what they want to watch.” Thinking better of it, she then softened her position slightly. “I don’t know, maybe that’s not the thing to say. I think good stuff still gets through, the kind of stuff we want to watch, but then I think ‘what does everyone else want to watch?” And I know there’s good versions of that.”
“Modern Family is a bit of a holy grail, because if you can write for a network, and write 26 episodes of that and last for seven years – although I don’t think you need 26 episodes of anything, I think it’s stupid and greedy – but [it proves] you can do that and make it good with really fucking good jokes in there. But it’s hard.”
It should be noted that the exchange was jokey throughout – they’re both comedians after all – and had “a lot of jolly and upbeat things to say” about television, in the words of Frankie Boyle (no, really). But he also had a theory about why so much comedy appears to play it so safe.
“You know like how in the 50s every movie has tap-dancing in it? And it’s because people had been through the war and still had rationing, but they just thought that’s what movies were. I wonder if now we have a lot of gentle sitcoms because we’ve been through the financial crash and we’re living under a Prime Minister who… I was going to say was elected, but she wasn’t elected she just fucking stepped out of a haunted mirror or something.”
“If you look back on us, maybe we’ll go ‘well those were quite hard times for Britain. After the financial crisis, one of the first things that happened was Michael McIntyre became the biggest comedian in the country.”