• How TV Warped My Fragile Little Mind, pt 2: COMEDY (1/4)

    [Welcome to Part 2 of my TV-themed autobiography - the first part, Science fiction, proved wildly unpopular (far as I can tell only one person looked at it, and even they didn't read it all); but if I'd been worried about audience figures I'd never have written The Extinct Song, or anything else. Anyway, this is another monster essay, and I'm breaking it down into 4 sections if anyone feels like taking a swing...]

    Comedy is, sadly, the world's most disposable art form. That's not to say it isn't as valid as any other, just that its effects are fleeting and subjective - something either makes you laugh, or it doesn't. And even if it does make you laugh, then chances are it won't continue to make you laugh for any great length of time. Comedy, more than any other endeavour, is desperately dependent upon the continual output of new material.

    Which brings us to TV. In my youth, TV comedy was the big thing - far ahead of documentary, drama or sport. Some comedy shows were national institutions - the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show was as much a part of Xmas Day festivities as the tree and the turkey (audiences of over 20 million were routine). Saturday evenings were structured around The Two Ronnies, Sundays similarly around Til Death Us Do Part. Comedy ruled, and we lapped it up - uncritically - by the bucketful.

    TV comedy fell into four broad categories: Sitcom, Sketch Shows, what might be deemed 'Star Vehicle' revue-type shows, and a shadowy, unsettling fourth strand that drew elements from the other three but would eventually, for better or worse, be deemed "alternative". You can probably guess which category I would eventually adopt as my own, but it was a slow process, and my experiences of each comedy subcategory would also chart my developing attitudes about a vast range of issues. The story of my TV comedy taste is literally the story of my growing up.

    The 1970s is considered the Golden Age of sitcoms. I could write a very long list of 70s productions now considered 'classic', but what would be most striking is how few of them I actually saw. My TV-watching throughout that decade was influenced - nay, dictated - by my parents' tastes, which led to some interesting quirks. For example, my folks never watched ITV, and thus series as diverse as George & Mildred and The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin remained unknown to me. On the flip side, my parents were passionate BBC2 watchers - BBC2 at this time being considered a subversive and even mildly obscene operation, just as Channel 4 would be regarded in the 1980s.

    The other point is that I didn't particularly like sitcoms, or rather I grew pretty quickly to actively dislike them. It's difficult now to to remember how I felt watching the ones I did like - Steptoe & Son, Til Death Us Do Part and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? - because I revisited them in adulthood and thought they were all unfunny shite. The rigid sitcom formula - so dependent on the prevailing attitudes and expectations of its time - dates so rapidly that it can become obsolete even as it's being shown. Til Death Us Do Part is the classic example - nowadays it's impossible to tell if the show was a satire or celebration of Tory working-class racist attitudes (this dichotomy was certainly reflected in its audience - I lost count of the the number of times I heard people say "Y'know, they make Alf Garnett look stupid, but he does talk a lot of sense...").

    Generally speaking, sitcoms that I found hysterical as a child became laugh-free zones as an adolescent, and outright embarrassments as an adult; save for a few brave attempts to stretch the medium (Citizen Smith took the sitcom into the shadowy realm of left-wing activism, Red Dwarf took it into outer space, and the now totally forgotten Get Some In took it, bizarrely, into the world of RAF recruits).

    Thus, in the 80s, I was pleased as anyone when The Young Ones arrived, riding the sledgehammer wave of "alternative comedy" to effectively destroy the sitcom format. Based around an entirely conventional format (four dopey male students struggling to survive in rented accommodation), it brought such elements as atomic bombs, decapitation and sexually-active electrical components crashing into the once-cosy sitcom realm. The Young Ones was so perfectly anarchic that it's difficult to understand why anyone persisted with the sitcom formula afterwards. But sadly, they did, and I never regularly watched a sitcom again. [To be continued...]

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