The following is an abridged version of an article that appeared in March 2017 in a national newspaper. It’s overall message is something I understood loud and clear for months, even years, before it was written. With my current comedy output I have attempted to heed these wise words…
What HAS gone wrong with British comedy? Lewd, puerile, lavatorial and lacking any flair or wit – TV humour is at an all-time low, says CHRISTOPHER HART.
This week, ITV’s late-night car-crash of a programme, The Nightly Show, hit a new low when its ratings slumped below a million.For the 10pm slot, it’s an embarrassing figure. Mind you, with potty-mouthed Davina McCall in the chair — following comedians David Walliams’ and John Bishop’s less than glorious turns at hosting — is anyone surprised?
The Nightly Show is a pathetic creation: puerile, witless and embarrassing to watch. The presenters try their hardest, in a desperate sort of way, but what happened to the script? Where are the jokes?
Well, there was recently a sequence featuring a device called a ‘titometer’, which found that President Trump was a ‘tit’. Sidesplitting, eh? Devastatingly satirical? Then we had McCall resorting to chat about vibrators, and bragging obnoxiously: ‘It’s 10pm, so I’m going to say f*** and b*****ks as much as I like.’ Daring stuff.
It was all going to be so different. The Nightly Show, which controversially pushed ITN’s flagship news broadcast back to 10.30pm, was supposed to be a clever and sophisticated late-night news show of the kind that the Americans do so well. Yet, after just three weeks, ITV is reportedly in ‘crunch talks’ about its future, with rumours that News At Ten, which was pulling in around 1.7 million viewers, is to be reinstated.
The problem, however, is bigger than just one show. For the abject and high-profile failure of The Nightly Show raises a disturbing question. What has happened to British comedy? The sheer unfunniness of much of it is beyond depressing. No wonder channels called things such as Comedy Gold and Classic TV, with their endless diet of old favourites, do so well.Take Graham Norton, the man with the quickest wit on TV (well, after Paul Merton) and an accomplished chat show host. He’s capable of generating laugh out loud moments, but too often there is a juvenile tendency to fall back on cringeworthy innuendo, the crude and lewd, and a reliance on ‘stuff we found on the internet’. One recent spot on the show featured Norton reading out bad hotel reviews from TripAdvisor. I suppose at least it avoids the need for a script.
Meanwhile, British sitcoms can be jaw-droppingly bad. Not Going Out offers a kind of limp, laddish humour the audience, and surely its star, a veteran of stand-up — Lee Mack — outgrew years ago. Worse is Citizen Khan, about a Pakistani Muslim ‘community leader’ in Birmingham. It could have been ground-breaking in the mode of Goodness Gracious Me, an antidote to the political correctness that lurks in the background wherever ethnic minorities are concerned. But the jokes and one-liners are beyond terrible.
Even shows that are ratings hits, such as Mrs Brown’s Boys, derive their ‘humour’ from four-letter words and explicit sexual references, weirdly mixed with jokes barely grown up enough to be let out of kindergarten.You suspect it’s only a hit because it’s on at prime time and propped up by the laughter of an obliging studio audience — perhaps you do have to be there.
Too often, scriptwriters, as if dimly aware how desperately unfunny they have become, fall back on the lazy solution of obscenity instead of wit — which is no solution at all. It isn’t a quaint, old-fashioned prudery that makes you object to the four-letter words. It’s just that, in themselves, they stopped being funny about the time we left school. We British used to have something of a genius for the double-entendre: even when practised by those comedians we think of as very much family entertainers. That was why they were successful as family entertainers: because they had the kind of sly inventiveness that could cunningly disguise a crude adult joke.
But this kind of comedy has virtually vanished now that stand-ups and sitcoms can and do say everything, in that aggressive, in-your-face way that is surely the opposite of humour. Why bother with inventing startlingly rude and ingenious puns, when you can just shout out the obscenities and be guaranteed canned laughter or an easily-pleased studio audience?
Two exceptions to this demeaning and depressing trend are comedian Miranda Hart, and the laconic Paul Merton, a stalwart of game shows — who, incidentally, is devoted to and hugely knowledgeable about the old comedy. Contrast that approach with the clever-clever, oh-so-fashionable and deeply unfunny ‘anti-populist’ comedian, Stewart Lee, beloved of the Beeb and Channel 4. He recently told the following ‘joke’. ‘It’s true that not all Brexit voters are racists.’ Pause. ‘Some of them are c***s.’ And to think Lee is regarded as ‘subversive’! Give that man a red rosette for coming first in the obedience classes, an exceptionally well-trained lapdog of the Brexit-hating Establishment.
Younger comedians today seem to feel they have to engage in shock and obscenity just to make an impact. Nick Page, a former presenter on a daytime TV property show who turned to stand-up later in life, nails the problem: ‘It’s getting worse because of the volume of people trying to enter the comedy industry without the life experience to create good jokes and good stories.’ The role of political correctness here is a baffling one. On the one hand, certain topics are strictly off-limits — especially race and immigration. But violence, cruelty and obscenity are all fine. It’s certainly confusing. The true, carefree spirit of comedy has been hamstrung by the very modern fear of giving offence to the ‘wrong’ people, and yet in other ways is more offensive than ever.
Fashionable opinion seems to have it that the sitcoms we grew up with were riddled with racist and sexist attitudes which today are quite unacceptable. What, Dad’s Army? Of course, there are jokes about the Germans — what do you expect? There’s a war on. But the opposite is true. The old comedies were both wonderfully funny and remarkably gentle. When you did have an appalling old bigot, like Alf Garnett, he was the butt of the comedy, not a mouthpiece. Today’s comedians are often far nastier than Alf ever was.
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writing giants behind both Hancock and Steptoe, met as teenagers in a sanatorium when both were suffering from TB. Not in a BBC ‘Comedy Writers Workshop’, with skinny lattes laid on for free. David Croft and Jimmy Perry, meanwhile, the superb writers behind Dad’s Army, both fought in the war. Of the cast, Arthur Lowe, the incomparable Captain Mainwaring, fought in the Middle East. Clive Dunn (Corporal Jones) was a German PoW for four grim years, and sweet little old Arnold Ridley, who played Private Godfrey, fought on the Somme in 1916 with the Somerset Light Infantry, where he was seriously wounded.
That great, uncomplaining and quietly heroic generation valued a good laugh above all, and they would have been baffled at what passes for comedy today. What with the witlessness of The Nightly Show, the cruelty of Inside Number Nine, or the crude, loud-mouthed sweariness of Mrs Brown’s Boys, it seems we really have lost sight of the joke.
Our world has become a whole lot less innocent and fun, and we are all the poorer for it.
The full version of the article (with bright colours, pretty piccies) can be found here: