Archives for category: comedy

TV has been dire recently. Summer is always a silly season, where the foot gets taken off the peddle. But this year feels particularly bad for some reason. No wonder people are turning to streaming services more and more, when you consider the alternatives on offer.

Because of this, I am forced to discuss a show I have written about before, namely It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. To be fair, I am now on season 11, so another look at it is worthwhile. The passage of time always changes things. Some shows dip, others find their form.

I feel It’s Always Sunny is in the latter. The plotlines that are designed to shock have been done away with, like racism or drug addiction, in place of a more standard pattern of the gang gets into a scrape or come up with a ridiculous idea and either get out of trouble or fail miserably, depending on what the plot requires. There are some episodes that specifically pastiche certain genres (‘The Gang Hits the Slopes’ mocking of 80’s movies for example’) but there is still a fairly simple rhythm.

This has helped the show in many respects, as the humour is now driven by a character’s flaws directly interacting with a simple set-up and allowing things to spiral, rather than trying to satirise a specific aspect of society. There is still an outrageousness and blackness to the humour, but it is more character driven.

One of my personal favourite episodes is ‘Charlie Work’ from season 10. In it, Charlie tries to get the bar past its health inspection, but is undermined by the rest of the gang’s scam involving live chickens and contaminated steaks. There was a great use of unity of time as Charlie became ever more frantic and the eccentricities of everyone else also built (Dennis’s insistence on playing his role as barman in the style of Matthew McConaughey, Frank flushing his clothes down the toilet etc.). All this leads to a perfect denouement involving a bar stool.

When it is this good, it is hard to see why the show isn’t bigger. Having said that, there is a frustrating lack of consistency in quality of the show. Or maybe it’s just that I get uncomfortable with it at times. For example, the gang’s behaviour is fine when they are just harming themselves, but where there is a large-scale cast involved it feels like the humour is just that bit cruller.

Maybe though that is how the hard core fans like it. Maybe the episodes I love are too soft and don’t create enough awkward tension, as the gap between the character’s expectations and reality is smaller. The bigger the gap, the bigger the laughs for some people. Still, it wouldn’t hurt for the show to be more toned down. It has adapted successfully once, it can do it again.

A recent Twitter thread piqued my interest. This is rare, as I rarely have time to click on links or open entire threads. But this was a subject I was passionate about, namely the argument that Friends should have finished with Rachel being with Joey rather than Ross as they were a better match. Cue much contention on my timeline. So here is my two pence worth.

One of the big arguments in favour of Joey is how he treats Rachel compared to Ross. They are on an equal footing- both recognise the other’s hotness but still have respect for each other. Joey doesn’t at any point stake a claim to her. Yes, the brief time they are together the plotline isn’t exactly sizzling, but that is more the fault of the writers never treating their coupling as one that would work. It would have been ten times better on screen if they had put the effort in and made their relationship the end goal.

Ross, meanwhile, is possessive. As the thread writer stated, he has had a crush on Rachel since high school and hated every guy who has dated her for taking what he sees as his away from him. His jealously is always about the threat of losing his ‘property’. Rachel is never treated as his equal. In fact, it’s his need to be superior over her that plays a big part in the initial break up.

To illustrate this point further, let’s compare his jealousy to Chandler’s regarding Monica. Ross always sees the guy dating Rachel as taking something belonging to him, and that she should only be with him. Chandler’s jealousy revolves more around Monica finding someone better for her than him – he never presumes he is her only option, that he is the only one she has a right to be with. Both of the times this happens, first with the funny guy at work and then with the soulmate, Chandler’s instincts are that Monica has found someone better for her. Ross never sees the other guy as better for Rachel.

Interestingly, Monica’s one big jealousy flare up over Chandler with Wendy is similar to Ross’s, in that it is very much driven by ‘he should be with me, not her’. This makes me wonder if rather than this behaviour being ‘Ross is a bad boyfriend’ and it is more a family trait the writers have woven in.

The defence of Ross seems to be that he is funny. Now, don’t get me wrong, the sofa episode is a piece of comic glory and he has his moments. But funny doesn’t excuse possessiveness. He wouldn’t be less funny if he treated Rachel better. Besides, most of the humour is based on him doing something dislikeable and getting punished for it: breaking into his ex’s apartment to get a shirt back, dating a student and then emotionally blackmailing her dad etc.

So where does that leave us with Rachel and Ross getting back together again at the end? Well, I always saw the show as the evolution of Rachel. We meet her as someone whose only ambition was to live off her husband’s credit card. Over ten seasons, she builds an amazing career, becomes independent and proves to be an excellent mother. Her rekindling of her love with Ross disrupts her move to Paris, which suggests that history is going to repeat itself and that Ross’s controlling nature will stifle her personal growth. Unless, and I hope this is the case, that they both still go to Paris, that Rachel gets her time to shine and that Ross has learned his lesson and takes the passenger seat for once. Maybe then they are right for each other after all.

It seems weird to be discussing a show as lightweight as 8 Out of 10 Cats, but I have good reasons to. The first is, to put it bluntly, there is little else on TV at the moment that I haven’t analysed to death, although if someone wants to know my thoughts on New Girl for the umpteenth time I am happy to divulge. The other is that it is a prime example of a successful satirical panel show, and is worthy of dissection as a representation of the genre.

I always see Cats as the teenage grandchild of Have I Got News For You that is enjoying its first few trips to the pub with its mates. The jokes are not as deep and there is no Ian Hislop to offer some thought provoking monologue but it shares some basic genetic material. There are the digs at those in power and popular culture, the latter of which hit home more. It is always more convincing when you hear someone under 40 bemoan modern life if you are in that age bracket. Paul Merton dissing, say, Lady Gaga always comes across as the older generation patronising the younger. Rob Beckett doing it feels more genuine.

The change of captains from Sean Lock and Jon Richardson to Beckett and Aisling Bea is welcome. Not that Lock and Richardson weren’t great, but there was a danger of the show slipping in to the very problem described above with Merton and Hislop – complaining about modern life only works if people genuinely believe you are aware of what it is you are commenting on. Besides Beckett and Bea are hilarious. I am a particular fan of Beckett’s long-running insistence that Jamie Oliver has a kid called Spaghetti Pete. It’s not the cleverest of jokes, but you buy into it because it only stretches the truth slightly.

I do think the show shares a limitation with HIGNFY. Both of them in their satire paint an almost consistent negative picture of politics. There are two camps in satirical thought – one that it exists only to ridicule the powerful and the latter that it should offer guidance on how to improve. I belong in the latter. HIGNFY does have Hislop sometimes giving such a patch of light. Cats does not. You could argue that is not the show’s remit, but with it being so youth oriented, and that generation proving to be so crucial in elections (as the last few years have proved), it almost owes us a duty to encourage engagement in social issues. The Last Leg does this so well without being preachy, so it can be done.

Still, as a diversion it does its job and it isn’t the worst way to spend an hour with the TV.

I’m sure regular readers are all too aware of my love for Orange Is The New Black. I genuinely consider it to be on the most original shows out there. You can laugh your head off at one scene and be heartbroken by the next. And I have waxed lyrical about the diversity of the cast, but I will say it again for those at the back – this is THE show that waves the flag for diversity.

My love did dim a little last season. There was too much darkness, too much oppression, too many people at warm. OITNB is skilled at doing those little uplifting moments, but there were too few last time.

Yet this repressive atmosphere is what has led to the catatonic energy of season 5, which centres on a riot. The emotional explosions only work because so much was contained previously. It also is where the viewer gets a big payoff. We have followed these characters for quite some time now and know them. Seeing the breadth of reactions is powerful. We have the Hawaiian woman who chooses to hide, the meth heads who decide to become guards, and those who seek to exploit it purely for their own gain.

The humour is right back in full flow. Big Boo, so dislikeable at times early on, has become a one-liner machine and her growing friendship with Pennsatucky is one of the most rewarding sub-plots in the show. Meanwhile, Red on amphetamines has to be one of the most perfectly pitched pieces of slapstick I have seen.

The heartbreak is here too though. So-So’s reaction to Poussey’s death has been well played, subtle little moments of private grief interspersed with explosions of anger. It is a grief that burns away and eats you from the inside.

The star of this season though is Taystee. Having spent most of the first four seasons as a comedic foil or second-in-command, she is now the leader. She is the one who is driving through change. This isn’t just revenge on the guards, or even salvaging something from Poussey’s death. This is about changing the entire culture of the prison and restoring humanity. The failure of those outside to grasp this – both the media and the corporations – is a damning indictment of how fair minded those of us we consider ‘civilised’ actually are.

If I could make one change, it is that I feel that there are some stories still not being told. Take the Nazis, who suddenly appeared last season. Why are they who they are? Everyone else is given a reason for their behaviour, why not them? In making the case for diversity, is this show failing to explore the mind set of those who oppose it?

This show has always been a social commentary. It has, at times, lost this too soapiness and titillation. But this time, it seems to be pitched just right. This should be compulsory viewing for all those that think the private sector is the answer to our problems or that we can dehumanise sub-sections of our society without a cost. Yet they are the very people that will not watch it.

Sometimes I wonder rather than genres of TV we should just have two categories: “investment” and “disposable”. Investment TV is anything you need to watch regularly, say once a week, in order to understand what’s going. In other words, episode 10 will only make sense to those who have dedicated time to the first 9. Disposable TV is where you can dip in and out at will – each episode is self-contained or has minimal references to what went before.

The latter category has your talk shows, panel shows, some sitcoms depending on how much they invest in long-term plotlines, and animated comedies. Don’t get me wrong, you can still binge watch and diligently follow these shows, you just don’t necessarily get a pay-off.

One of my new favourite disposable shows is Bob’s Burgers. I have seen only four episodes and I couldn’t even tell you if they were from the same season or not, but it doesn’t matter. What is important is has it kept me entertained, which it undoubtedly has.

I find it far superior to Family Guy. The gag rate is much higher and it moves along at a quicker pace. Most importantly, it actually feels far less dark-hearted. There seems to be an increased need to make everyone an arsehole in FG, which BB doesn’t have. Instead of maliciousness, the driving force is pure eccentricity.

Everyone can find someone to identify with. I personally want to be Louise, with her constant energy and fearless drive. In the episodes I’ve watched she has brought down playground dictators, been an effective defence lawyer and rescued missing pets. The truth is I am probably Tina. Plain, easily panicked and happy to be in the middle of the road, albeit an eccentric one.

It may not be as edgy or willing to confront social issues as some its rivals, but I feel that it is no less funny. In fact, because it is not distracted by trying to make a point, the humour is allowed to be at the core.

So yes, it is disposable TV. But don’t let that make you think you are not watching high quality. Because you are. It may not be investment TV, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of your time.

Graham Linehan is a personal hero of mine. He has created some of my favourite shows, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. He is also collaborating on Motherland, a pilot I enjoyed last year, which is missing some of the trademark absurdities of his other shows but is compensated by allowing the characters to zing off each other.

His current big project though is Count Arthur Strong. As with his other works, this is a collaboration, this time with Steve Delaney. It focuses on an out-of-work former variety star (played by Delaney), his eccentric friends and the put-upon ‘straight’ man Michael. The standard episode revolves around Arthur having some bizarre scheme in his head, which impacts on Michael’s hopes of a quiet life.

The most recent episode progressed as follows: Michael got called up for jury service, while Arthur got addicted to doing good deeds, everyone being followed by a vision of Brian Cox staring dreamily off into the landscape. In doing so he messes up both Michael’s jury service and gets entangled with organised crime, before everything reaches a climax with him overdosing on ‘gratitude’.

This is essentially a comedy of errors writ large. And it is joyful. This is largely because it is written in an innocent way – this is no black-hearted sitcom, with cruel people and comedy monstrousness. Interestingly, the first two series were put on in obscure timeslots, particularly series 2, which is strange when you consider how ‘family’ orientated the show is. No bad language, no sex, and minimal bad behaviour – this is something a ten-year-old could joyfully watch with their parents.

There are some Linehan trademarks. The absurdity has already been hinted at, but also the ensemble nature of the cast is a classic feature of his work. A small retinue of regular and semi-regular characters that have their oddities, but none of them nasty. It isn’t afraid to be tender either. In episode 1, a rare moment of clarity from Arthur helps save Michael from a mistake.

Steve Delaney is great as the eccentric and easily confused Arthur. The malapropisms are a nice touch, showing the character’s delusions in a light way. Rory Kinnear plays the unfortunate Michael well, and the rest of the cast all allow their moments to shine as well. All of this – the kindness in the characters, the warmth in the jokes, the silliness in the plots – makes this the perfect family sitcom. It’s a shame the BBC didn’t realise this two series ago.

In a year of celebrity deaths, the one that struck me most was Victoria Wood’s. It seemed shocking that someone who was still at the top of their game and producing brilliant television comedy and drama was being taken from us. No retirement, no dwindling into irrelevance. Just one day, gone.

Television obituaries tend to be clip shows, and, as we reach the anniversary of Wood’s death, so we have Our Friend Victoria, a clip show of her best works, each based around a theme and presented by a close friend and colleague. The most recent episode, for instance, focused on her take on appearance and was presented by Maxine Peake, who was discovered by Wood when she was casting for her sitcom Dinnerladies. The episode featured stand-up, sitcom clips and sketches around diet, fashion and beauty.

Amongst the highlights was Wood’s many mockings of exercise classes and their over-exuberant but under-qualified instructors, including ‘Fattitude’, the class for ‘Fatties with Attitude’. This was Wood showing that she was more than just someone who could write killer lines with perfect word choice and throw together a great comic song, she could also do physical comedy as well.

The drawback of shows like this though is, however well intentioned, the need for talking heads as it were distracts from the clip. A good example in this episode was the Shoe Shop sketch, a personal favourite of mine. Played out in full, this is a sketch that builds on the manic energy of eccentric shop assistant Julie Walters, her exaggerated mannerisms becoming more frantic with each line. Instead, it is interrupted whilst Walters discusses the rehearsals and other contributors offer their views, cutting of the energy and making the sketch feel oddly disjointed. Weirdly, in praising Wood, they accidentally tarnish the very beauty of the scenes they are trying to sell.

So what’s the solution? Well, one option is to perhaps make the show twice, one with the sketches just as they are, the other with a ‘commentary’. Whichever is screened on TV, the other could be made available online. The other is just to show Wood’s work in its entirety, either on screen or online, with a red button service for commentary for anyone who wants it.

This gripe may seem unkind, but I feel it is justified. When you are celebrating someone for being funny, you want people watching to find it funny. Anything you do to distract from that lessens the brilliance that you want people to see. Wood made a career out of sketches that built in energy and the viewer deserves to see that uninterrupted. We are watching to see her, not to hear what everybody else thought about her.