It’s time that we took comedy a lot more seriously as an art form.
This morning, I found myself watching yet another episode of Sky Arts’ interminable and unbearable Discovering series, where a collection of jobbing clots trot out their hastily-memorised facts about movie stars, focusing on whatever films that the channel has clip rights to and which they can convincingly pretend to have seen. Today, it was the turn of Groucho Marx to be profiled, and one of the vacant chatterboxes commented at one point that Marx wasn’t just a comedian, he had intellectual tastes too – as if Duck Soup, Horse Feathers and A Night at the Opera were not amongst the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century. That they were saying this in relation to his TV appearance in The Mikado – which is a comedy, for God’s sake, but of course also an opera so something to take seriously – was simply the icing on the cake of a certain sort of ignorance and elitism that runs through cultural criticism in particular and into the wider world – that comedy is inherently slight and disposable. While horror movie fans can rightfully feel aghast at the way their favourite genre has been rubbished and dismissed by critics, comedy possibly has it worse: no one, it seems, will take comedy seriously.
We see this with TV and film critics who will often judge the quality of a comedy show on how unfunny it is – the more mean-spirited and grim it is, the better, the more belly laughs it engenders, the worse. Hence, a Channel 4 sitcom that strips almost every aspect of humour from the production will be hailed as a masterpiece, the ‘traditional’ (that’s to say ‘funny’) sitcom will be dismissed. What, after all, is more old-fashioned than a comedy show that makes you laugh? We see this in other genres – the ‘elevated horror’ made by and for people who seem to see the genre as beneath them. But it’s rampant when it comes to comedy, as though the act of laughing is somehow shameful and low-rent.
Comedy is simply not seen as art. Some years back, I was taken with the fact that a poll of film critics had decided – in the way that these people do – that Monty Python’s Life of Brian was the best comedy movie of all time. Yet the Sight and Sound Critics Poll to find the best movies ever made, the latest of which had taken place a few years earlier, didn’t even place the film in the top one hundred (the highest placed comedies on this list were Some Like It Hot and Playtime at joint number 43). What do we make of this? That the best comedy film ever made is still considered so slight and throwaway that it is essentially disposable?
Don’t take my word for it. Look at any critical list of the best films ever made: it probably won’t have any comedy on there, especially now that Woody Allen is cancelled. There will be exceptions, certainly, but most people will choose chin-strokingly serious movies. I’m certainly guilty of it too, so I’m not being judgemental. We all seem to have an inherent dismissal of comedy as being a passing fancy – very entertaining but not important. When comedy is taken seriously, it is via the sort of point-missing over-intellectualist analysis that misses the point entirely, usually written by the sort of person who you suspect has never laughed in their life.
Comedy is something that appeals to us at a primal level, which I think is why it is dismissed. Just as horror produces jump scares and porn causes arousal in people who think that they are above such things, comedy – even the broadest, trashiest comedy – can cause involuntary chuckles. Is it any wonder that critics were so vehement in their dismissal of Carry On films or On The Buses? Imagine the humiliation for a chin-stroking intellectual if they involuntarily guffaw at a crass double-entendre or a bit of crude slapstick. I once attended a press showing of Body of Evidence – the plodding erotic thriller starring Madonna – where the assembled critics were giggling like excited schoolboys after the screening, only to rush home and crank out their review insisting that the film “wasn’t sexy at all”. I imagine a similar sense of denial and shame runs through the criticism and dismissal of many a crude comedy.
But even if we put aside the embarrassing chuckles caused by low humour, we should still wonder why comedy is seen as a disposable pleasure by many. Comedy, it strikes me, is bloody clever stuff. Much smarter than some dour drama about the miseries of unemployment or a ponderous sitting room drama. Real comedy – the stuff that makes you laugh out loud to the point of breathlessness – is a magnificent skill. We’ve been watching re-runs of One Foot in the Grave of late and I swear that on several occasions, Mrs Reprobate seemed as though she was about to die from laughing so hard. Here’s a show that, if not exactly forgotten, is now pushed into the mass of anonymous sit-coms – you won’t see the ‘antics’ of Victor Meldrew alongside Del Boy falling through a bar on lists of Great Comedy Moments, or the show up there with the incomprehensibly popular Vicar of Dibley in lists of the best British comedies, but my God, it’s magnificent – a collision of absurdist humour, sight gags, sharp dialogue and moments of such utter tragedy that it breaks your heart – without ever forgetting that it is a comedy show, though. One Foot in the Grave plays like a traditional sitcom, complete with audience laughter, and so is bound to be dismissed – but it is a masterclass in writing and performance that outstrips any serious drama that you might care to name.
Comedy can puncture pomposity and comment on social issues in ways that feel laboured, depressing or unbearable in other genres. It can point out the absurdities of life, our institutions and leaders – or it can just make us laugh. Simple, unpretentious comedy is perhaps the most underrated of all things because it feels slight and throwaway – but we can watch slapstick comedy from a century ago and still laugh out loud. What other genre can claim to still have the same effect on its audiences after so long? People like to talk about comedy and comedians as being ‘old-fashioned’ because, for some, nothing is quite as pleasurable as putting down the past and finding it objectionable. But show these supposedly dated comedies to audiences without agendas, and they’ll still laugh because as people, we really haven’t changed that much. It’s why Fawlty Towers can be shown on a main BBC channel in 2021 over forty years after it was first broadcast. It’s a show that is almost flawlessly constructed, episode to episode, and despite advances in production techniques that make it look technically crude today, it is still one of the best shows of its time – or any time. Basil Fawlty remains a character that we can all recognise, some might think now more than ever – the pompous snob, forever looking to become that which is always beyond him, always doomed to failure. Like Meldrew, the Steptoes, Reggie Perrin, Frasier Crane and others, he is a character for the ages. You could remake those shows now (please don’t) and they would be as relevant as ever. Comedy only dates when it is hyper-topical (and even then, it feels like a comment on history) or, perhaps, when it is too smug. No one like to be condescended to by smart arses.
Comedy perhaps suffers from the fact that many people believe that if we laugh at something, it can’t be very important – perhaps why the fewer elements of humour a comedy has, the more critics will nod in approval. It’s a genre that feels like comfort food for many people – you can probably watch a favourite comedy again and again, laughing even though the punchlines are now ingrained in your memory. If the Best Film and TV Show polls were truthfully based solely on which productions we have watched and rewatched the most, then they would be all comedies, I guarantee it. There is no mood that comedy won’t suit – and we can’t say that about much else.
Who cares what a bunch of humourless critics think, you might ask? Well, the comedy writers and performers often seem to. Everyone craves respectability and to be seen as an artist, it seems. There’s a predictability to the fact that when a comedy producer finally makes a ‘serious’ film, they will be praised for doing so – as if they have finally stepped up to the big leagues, regardless of how popular their comedy work has been. Sullivan’s Travels is an effective puncturing of this idea – that you can only be an artist if you leave the childish populism of comedy behind. But in truth, the comedy is the art – the work that will last and be loved long after the people who made it and their more critically approved work, as both entertainment and historical reference point.
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