People get so very angry about television comedy. Just look at the storm of vituperation that closed over Ben Elton’s head after the first episode of his BBC1 sitcom The Wright Way. Social networks and newspaper review columns were ablaze with indignation, bandying around “atrocity”, “dire” and “worst ever” with demands for licence-fee refunds. Such was the ire you’d think Elton had run over a group of schoolchildren on a zebra crossing then fled the scene.
Vicious is another lightning rod, although it doesn’t inspire quite the same level of abuse. ITV doesn’t make a lot of primetime comedy and this stagey sitcom about two poisonous old gay men (played by Sirs Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi) had lots of good buzz. Yet I could tell straight away viewers were feeling directly challenged by the generally very positive critical feedback before its first episode. I could sense the folded arms in living rooms across the coun- try before the first episode and hear the unspoken challenge: “Go on, make me laugh. GO ON!” Unsurprisingly, there was much anger when some took against Vicious, for whatever reason. There it was again, that sense of personal affront. (Though in the end roughly six million people watched, so it was hardly a failure.)
I didn’t think much of Vicious and, yes, The Wright Way is truly awful, possibly irredeemably so. It’s lazy and turgid, though its first two episodes had more than two million viewers in that difficult post-Ten O’Clock News slot, where I suspect it will become a well-watched object of curiosity. We’ll watch it to hate it so we can tell lots of strangers on social media how much we hate it. Then they can tell us in turn how much they hate it, too. Such is the circle of dislike.
But The Wright Way and Vicious are still only sitcoms. No one is dead, apart possibly from – in the case of The Wright Way – Elton’s reputation. But it was in tatters anyway after the years of accusations that he “sold out” after he had the temerity to make a lot of money with We Will Rock You. Yet it’s a measure of how we take the bestowal of our own laughter so seriously that The Wright Way, and the likes of Heading Out (the panned BBC2 Sue Perkins sitcom), Citizen Khan, Watson and Oliver, inspire spectacular levels of fury, quite out of proportion to the fact that they are comedies made by people who want us to laugh. That’s all, just laugh.
More than any other genre, audiences take comedies personally because they ask for a very specific emotional and physical reaction – laughter. No one (probably) ever sat, arms crossed, in front of an episode of Endeavour or Holby City, or whichever drama you care to name, and sulked with the words, “That just wasn’t dramatic enough. It didn’t make me cry! Why didn’t it make me cry? It wasn’t exciting! It didn’t thrill me! It should have done! It’s rubbish! It must be removed from TV screens!”
Yes, some dramas might be dull, they might be boring, but in themselves these don’t provoke anger and feelings of betrayal. They might provoke you to switch off or try to find a chocolate biscuit, but dullness and boredom rarely tickle the same type of reaction-synapse as a bad comedy. We take bad comedies personally because it feels like we are being conned. We are presented with a comedy that by its nature should make us laugh. When it doesn’t elicit this very specific reaction, we feel as if someone is trying to steal our laughter under false pretences and we get cross.
Maybe we should all calm down a little and laud anyone who tries to make us laugh, including big TV channels that take a punt, because when comedies work they can be life-enhancing, ageless things of beauty, like Frasier, Modern Family, Blackadder and Seinfeld. They can be treasured.