The spectrum of comedy

There’s a strong case to be made for not analysing comedy. Laughter is a spontaneous thing, and as soon as one starts analysing, the very essence of what made us laugh in the first place is gone. All we know is that we have in us an impulse under certain circumstances to contort our faces into odd grimaces, and sometimes, in more extreme cases, to open our mouths and emit some peculiar noises. And that it feels good when we do. So let’s just leave it there.

But we can’t leave it there. At least, I can’t, especially when I think it gives me a good excuse for a blog post. So let me crave your indulgence for a bit while I try out a pet theory I have long held – that there are, essentially, two poles in comedy, and all that makes us laugh lies at one or other of these poles, or, more usually, at some point on the spectrum somewhere between.

At one end we have comedy that is dark, that is aware of the suffering and the misery of our common human lot. This kind of comedy can occupy the same space as tragedy: indeed, it can often be both comic and tragic at the same time. It acknowledges, as tragedy does, that life is indeed dark and comfortless, and profoundly sad; but where tragedy tries to salvage some sense of human dignity and nobility, comedy relishes the absurdity of it all – the absurdity even of trying to salvage anything. In this category I would place such works as Dead Souls, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22,

And then there’s the other extreme, where all thoughts of darkness are banished, where one is encouraged to smile at sunny cloudless skies, and to celebrate the fact, for fact it is, that even our brief existence can contain such warmth and happiness. In this category I’d place such works as The Importance of Being Earnest, The Inimitable Jeeves, Singin’ in the Rain.

Most comic works are somewhere on this spectrum, though leaning perhaps towards one end or the other. And, almost as if to illustrate my contention, two of the finest British television sitcoms – one may go as far as to sat the finest, without any objection from me – exemplify these two extremes. Both started in the 1960s, and the various series continued into the 1970s. One is Steptoe and Son, which a friend tells me that he finds so grim when he watches them these days on DVD that he cannot even bring himself to laugh; and the other is Dad’s Army, which, despite being set during the dark days of WW2, manages, without the slightest hint of self-importance, to celebrate all that was worth fighting for.

Steptoe and Son was successfully remade for American television as Sanford and Son, but since I haven’t seen this, I’ll comment on the British version only. It presents a father and a son, working class rag-and-bone traders – i.e. people who collect unwanted items people wish to get rid of, and salvage what they can out of it. Scavengers, if one wishes to be unkind. They live together in a dirty and impossibly cluttered old house, eccentrically furnished with various items that have been discarded by others. The decorations in the main living room include a medical skeleton and a huge stuffed bear. The old man is a pathetic creature, aware of his approaching end, and terrified that his son may leave him to fend for his own in his last days; he uses all the emotional blackmail and manipulation he can think of to keep hold of his son. The son himself has dreams of all the things that he may one day be, but he is no longer at an age where such dreams are viable: far from being an impressionable teenager, he is in his 40s. Possibly older: old age isn’t too far away from him either. He is deeply lonely and unfulfilled, and hates his father for having held him back; but he also loves his father, and can’t leave him, no matter how much he longs to. And so the two are stuck, loving and hating each other at the same time, seemingly for eternity.

This does not seem very promising material for comedy. And indeed, many would argue that it isn’t. Scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson skilfully weave a path balancing the various conflicting elements of this essentially tragic situation, and, aided by two peerless performances (Wilfrid Brambell as the father and Harry H. Corbett as the son), manage to get more laughs out of this than one might have thought possible. But the tragedy isn’t short-changed either. The whole thing is a masterpiece of dramatic writing. We may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the best dramatic writing is reserved for the stage, but we must beware of snobbery – even, or especially, unwitting snobbery: I do not think I have encountered anything in twentieth century theatre that surpasses in sheer quality, and very little that equals, these scripts by Galton and Simpson. They manage to invest these characters and the relationship between them with such depth and complexity, that there were entire episodes consisting of just these two talking to, and reacting to, each other: nothing further was needed – not even, quite frequently, a plotline.

The contrast with Dad’s Army could hardly be greater. This is set in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea, on the south coast of Britain, during WW2. And it focuses on the local branch of the “Home Guard”, an outfit consisting of volunteers who are either too old or too young to be called up for the forces, or who have been exempted for medical reasons, or on account of the importance of their jobs. Their task was to fight back as best they could against enemy parachutists, saboteurs, and the like; to help organise the local defence against air raids, or other enemy attacks.

Now, this premise seems no more conducive to comedy than did the premise of Steptoe and Son: the days depicted were indeed dark days; invasion by one of the most evil regimes in history seemed imminent (with the enemy themselves only a few miles away across the channel); and news of injuries and deaths from abroad, and shortages and hardships at home, were everyday things. And yet, out of this, somehow, emerged the sunniest of comedies.

It’s an ensemble piece. At the centre of it were George Mainwaring (pronounced “Mannering”), played by Arthur Lowe, the captain of the platoon, and the local bank manager; and Arthur Wilson, his underling both in the bank and in the platoon itself, where he is sergeant. Mainwaring is impossibly pompous and self-important: he is convinced that he is, by nature, a leader of men, and that his Home Guard platoon, consisting largely of doddery old men, he can mould into a mean and ruthless fighting machine. Wilson, played by John le Mesurier, is the more intelligent, and he wryly recognises the absurdity of it all. One would expect in such a situation that Mainwaring would be from an upper class family and Wilson from a lower, but the genius of the writing is that it is quite the opposite: it is Wilson who is from a privileged background, although, given his rather lackadaisical attitude to life, has risen no further in life than a senior bank clerk; and it is Mainwaring who is middle class, who has had to fight his way to get where he is, and who resents the privileges which Wilson has had, and has wasted. He resents also Wilson’s natural charm, and his popularity.

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The main players of “Dad’s Army”, picture courtesy BBC

The platoon is made up of a wonderful cast of comic grotesques, as beautifully eccentric and as vivid as if they had just stepped out fresh from the pages of Dickens. Each one is cast to perfection – Clive Dunn as the doddery old Mr Jones, the butcher, endlessly reminiscing of his younger days under Kitchener in the Sudan; John Laurie as Mr Frazer, the somewhat mad old Scottish undertaker; Arnold Ridley as Mr Godfrey, a pleasant old gentleman, as willing to please as he is physically incapable of … well, of doing much at all; Ian Lavender as Pike, the immature mummy’s boy; and James Beck as Walker, the spiv, well dodgy and – although we never get to the details – more than slightly crooked, who could get you anything you needed for a price, with no question asked. (James Beck died at a distressingly young age while they were shooting the sixth series in 1973, and although they continued for a few more series without him, the gap he left behind was never quite filled.)

These characters, especially Mainwaring and Wilson, have more complexity than may at first appear. Mainwaring may be insufferably pompous, but when the occasion demands, he could be genuinely heroic: when, in one episode, they had to form a line to clear the rubble created by an air raid, with those at the head of the line in imminent danger of being crushed by falling masonry, Mainwaring actually pretends to have drawn the short straw so that he could take the most dangerous position himself. This really is extraordinary courage, but such is the quality of the scripts (by Jimmy Perry and David Croft) and of the performances, it does not seem at all out of character. In another episode, he gives an absurd lecture to the platoon about the distinguishing physical characteristics of a typical Nazi, prompting the thought that had this man been born in Germany rather than in Britain, he would probably have been an enthusiastic Nazi himself.

Wilson, too, has depths that are not apparent: he may see the whole thing as a joke, but, as he concedes at one point, he is rather proud of being in the platoon, and even admires what Mainwaring has achieved. Underneath his general good humour there is more than a hint of sadness for an essentially failed life: we find out in one episode that his marriage had broken down, and that he only very rarely sees his now grown-up daughter, whom he never mentions, but of whom he is proud.

And there are the minor characters as well – Pike’s possessive mother Mavis (Janet Davies), with whom Wilson is obviously having an affair (Pike is the only one who seems unaware of this); the gloriously eccentric pairing of the effete vicar (Frank Williams) and his cantankerous, truculent verger (Edward Sinclair); and there’s the grocer, Mr Hodges (played by Bill Pertwee), who is also the Air Raid Warden. He is the sort of “villain” of the piece – brash, vulgar, unlikeable, and, Wilson says, “common” (“common” being just about the worst put-down in this class-ridden society). It is always a problem how to handle such characters in what is essentially a genial comedy, these Malvolios who refuse to be part of the general harmony: Wagner has been roundly criticised for his depiction of a similar character, Beckmesser, in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, who is presented without any sympathy at all, and whose ultimate humiliation Wagner appears rather to relish. There is nothing like that here: Hodges may be a bit of a fly in the ointment, but it is a fly one may live with, and he doesn’t unduly disrupt the sense of community and of gentleness that characterises the good-natured humour. At no point is the comedy allowed to turn sour.

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Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell in “Steptoe and Son”, picture courtesy BBC

Dad’s Army is always a pleasure to revisit. Steptoe and Son perhaps less so: one has to brace oneself for it. And, for me, they epitomise not merely the best that television has to offer (Steptoe and Son is great drama as well as great comedy), but also the two extremes between which, it seems to me, all comedy lies. They remind us also not to look down on the humble television sitcom: it is true that the heights these two series reached have rarely or never been followed up, but it is nonetheless good to remind oneself that such heights are indeed possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by caromalc on August 31, 2017 at 10:23 pm

    I didn’t watch Steptoe and Son much, but I find Fawlty Towers hard to watch for similar reasons. It is lighter, I think, but Basil is a pathetic figure, really. Laughable in one sense but some of the episodes show him very vulnerable and almost sympathetic; I have always found my sympathies are with Basil in the episode where the Americans want waldorf salad which isn’t available. You don’t ask for something which is not on the menu!

    Basil’s mistakes and the humour come from wanting to attract a better class of guests. From here in NZ it seems that virtually every comedy in Britain (and most other programmes) are predicated on the class system (whereas in NZ it is on the rural/city divide or Maori/Pakeha tensions). But whereas Keeping up Appearances just portrays Hyacinth as just a pompous woman, I think Basil has a depth to him that makes his plight and those trying to keep him sane and sensible quite sad.

    Reply

    • Yes, Basil really is quite a pathetic figure, I agree. Faulty Towers is essentially a farce, and farce really doesn’t get much better than this. And writers John Cleese & Connie Booth provided more substance to the comedy by characterising Basil Fawlty in greater detail than the plot requires. The result is, as is universally acknowledged, a high point of television comedy. It is still plot-led – whereas, in Steptoe and Son, the plot can often just disappear as the focus falls solely on the characters – but Basil aspiring to a bit of “class” despite not really knowing what this entails does cut a pathetic figure!

      Reply

  2. Posted by Janet on September 1, 2017 at 12:19 am

    Paul’s grandfather! What a brilliant little old man.

    I am going to have to find Steptoe and Son now. I had heard of it but didn’t know it was the British version of Sanford and Son, a show I grew up on. The basic premise sounds much the same, but race was a large factor in the American show as it was a very early (and still one of the very few) programs starring African Americans in the primary roles. I suspect Steptoe has the edge in gravitas, but Redd Foxx was a comic genius and a perfect old rogue as the self-serving, self-pitying, manipulative father of the long-suffering son (the wonderful DeMond Wilson). Foxx is probably best known for this role, but he had a long standup career; one thing you would never think to say of him was, “He’s very clean, isn’t he?”

    Reply

    • Yes, Paul’s grandfather he was! (He’s very clean!)
      I didn’t comment on Sanford and Son because I haven’t seen it. Some friends tell me that the tragic elements of Steptoe and Son were toned down, but then, these friends had, like me, grown up watching Steptoe and Son, so their views are more than likely to be biased. I really need to watch Sanford and Son myself. When one work inspires another, they both need to be seen on their own terms, rather than in terms of how faithful one is to the other. I hadn’t realised, for instance, that race plays a major part in Sanford and Son.

      I really do feel that Galton & Simpson are up there with Pinter & Stoppard & Bond etc. as among the finest British writers of drama. But television drama is not regarded seriously as art, and television sitcoms certainly aren’t. It would be a shame if the work of Galton & Simpson were to be forgotten.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Janet on September 1, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    It’s a wasted genre, isn’t it? When tv is good, it can be so good. Eventually, I think, the wheat and chaff will do their thing and the great tv writers will warrant their own canon.

    Of Sanford and Son, I honestly can’t recall any tragic elements, but it may have been my age. I haven’t seen it since it’s first run. I can’t imagine Foxx projecting vulnerability, but one of these days I’ll have to sit down and revisit some of these old shows. When my daughters were little, we invested in some old sitcoms from the 60s and 70s (e.g., Bewitched, That Girl, Get Smart). Some of them held up incredibly well and had the bonus of illuminating a time when opportunity was limited in ways that are hard for people born later to even imagine. History textbooks are all well and good, but drama is a more powerful portal for making the past (or anything beyond our own immediate experiences) real.

    I hope you are finding time for your translation project?

    Reply

    • Oh, the Steptoes are both deeply vulnerable figures. This is not dwelt upon, but it is clear from even a cursory viewing. I do hope you’re right, by the way, that the good ones will last, although, as ever, I can’t help but feel pessimistic!

      I really need to take up my translating again – I have not done anything at all since my illness. But that was about ten months ago, and I really have no excuse these days. Apart from my habitual laziness, that is… 🙂

      Reply

      • Vulnerable, yes indeed. Remember that episode where the son (what was his name??) takes up with a posh lady customer and starts to make plans to leave his father at last… and his father brings him down to earth by telling him that the woman doesn’t really want him, she just fancied ‘a bit of dirt, that’s all’. Crushing, and it was a rare example of the old man briefly having some sympathy for his son.

      • Yes, I think I remember that. Now you mention it, I think I’ll hunt that episode down, and watch it this afternoon. There’s such a wonderful complexity to their relationship. If we are happy to accept plays into the canons of literature, there really is no reason not to accept these Galton & Simpson scripts also.

      • Still, you wouldn’t want to be an academic trying to teach it, not these days, the way students carry on about things they don’t approve of (even if they know nothing about them).

      • Posted by Charley Brady on September 3, 2017 at 9:09 am

        God, that’s right, Lisa. This is bringing back some memories! And didn’t Harold actually marry a stripper in the feature film? And the old man messed things up every step of the way, even to going on honeymoon with them. Yes, there were moments of real pathos in that show — and this feeling that Harold would never, ever escape…

  4. Posted by Charley Brady on September 2, 2017 at 7:57 pm

    There’s a very funny book by Brian Viner called ‘Nice to See It, To See It, Nice’, which is a look back at 70s telly and in which he writes: “…the then-controller of BBC1, Alan Yentob, had risked ridicule by scheduling repeats of ‘Dad’s Army’ early on Saturday evenings, directly against ITV’s hugely popular ‘Baywatch’. Pamela Anderson making the most of her tits on ITV versus the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard making tits of themselves on BBC1: most industry insiders predicted no contest. And they were right, but not in the way they anticipated. Yentob had the satisfaction of seeing ‘Dad’s Army’ garner almost 10 million viewers, against a shade over 7 million for ‘Baywatch’.”

    Reply

  5. man steptoe and son was funny (though i have the boxset i haven’t started watching it lol)

    Reply

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