That joke isn’t funny anymore

Yes Horne and Corden was ‘excruciating’ and ‘puerile’, but why are we only noticing the rot of British comedy now?

Ian Woolley

Topics Culture

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There’s something unappealing about the recent critical mauling of Horne and Corden, BBC3’s new, much-publicised comedy sketch show from the Gavin and Stacey pair (Mat Horne and James Corden).

This isn’t to say the show isn’t ‘depressing’ (Guardian), ‘unremarkable’ (The Times), about as funny as ‘credit default swaps’ (Telegraph) or ‘excruciating and puerile’ (New Statesman), because it’s all of those things. It’s just, where were you for Tittybangbang, Man Stroke Woman, Spoons, Pulling, Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show?

Where were you, most importantly, for the execrable Extras? Horne and Corden’s schtick is so obviously influenced by Britain’s favourite tubby funster (Ricky Gervais) that James Corden might as well be a fatter version of the one true god of comedy, blessed be his screechy cackle and ironic-mentionings-of-his-awards-and-soon-to-be-released-DVDs. Could it be that the tide is turning on a particular style of doing comedy but, with the big man Gervais still too surrounded, the hangers-on make easier targets?

Whatever the case, it highlights a failure of nerve in criticism, which has done nothing but aid the majority of British TV comedy to plough itself further into a deep and muddy rut. How did it happen? Where on Earth did fresh comic insight go and why haven’t critics noticed its absence?

To be fair, some critics over the Noughties have noticed its absence – just not mainstream ones. Ten or more years ago, around the time the rot was becoming obvious, one website, and the handful of people behind it, became notorious (in internet circles, at least) for moaning about the poor state of contemporary British comedy. Through essays and forum discussions, SOTCAA – ‘some of the corpses are amusing’ – would pretty much demolish every new attempt to amuse on television or radio as it appeared, and backed up its complaints with very detailed analyses of what exactly the problem was based on remembering with a passion what the problem never used to be – that is, remembering how life-affirming and life-changing good comedy could be.

The site is no longer particularly active, but the moaners moved to a new site, cook’dandbomb’d – a Chris Morris fansite – where they continued raising their lonely, sane voices all through the inexplicable deification of Ricky Gervais. There have, then, been rumblings on the subject. Why, though, didn’t these rumbles break above ground to be more widely and loudly adumbrated in the mainstream? Why the toothless amnesia? Or is it something worse than amnesia – fear of not being seen to be in on the joke? It’s important because, without this critical input, some basic tenets of comedy have been allowed to take a back seat. Specifically, funny ideas have been allowed to fall behind funny delivery.

Ideas: the keystone to the archway of the comic weltanschauung. The shortest and neatest example of a comic idea I can think of to illustrate this point is a chunk of dialogue from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The unpleasant feeling of going through hyperspace, Ford Prefect says at one point, ‘is a bit like being drunk’. ‘What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?’ says Arthur. ‘Ask a glass of water’, says Ford. Took me years to get that. (Drunk as in consumed, not pissed.) Brilliant. In three lines. Who goes to that effort now? Nobody, it seems. And why not? The key is in the word ‘effort’ perhaps.

Something happened in the mid-Nineties, it seems; something which meant that, for a lot of new writers, either there wasn’t much point making an effort or, at least, that making an effort was no longer required. In the early 1990s there had been a ferociously angry and talented generation of comedians. This earlier crowd invented a whole new sound and shape for comedy – and the sub-generation of comedians that came to the fore later in the 1990s couldn’t help but be in awe of it. So they did what came naturally: took on and mangled and neutered the style of their predecessors.

What was anger and frustration in the hands of Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Lee & Herring et al very quickly curdled into a much plainer, more languid misanthropy in the hands of a succeeding set of performers. Around that same time, TV needed to be filled. Commissioners needed product. Suddenly, not having to struggle for airspace meant that working hard to come up with one’s own take on the world was surplus to requirements. Since that period in the mid-1990s, British TV comedy has been coasting – and doing so in ever-decreasing circles.

The evidence is everywhere. The fallout from the mid-1990s explosion is all around us in certain themes and styles, voices and mannerisms. A certain strangulated intonation borrowed from Alan Partridge has come to signify ‘a comic moment’ without the need for a joke to be present at all. And why bother with metaphors, similes, verbal invention when you can pause awkwardly and allow somebody to react with an equal but opposite bewilderment? Red faces, silence and embarrassment all round – funny! Everyone is bored by it, but that doesn’t matter: like Pavlov’s dogs we react in the programmed manner: ah, one of those awkward, naturalistic, bewildered comic moments; time to laugh.

Then there’s Stewart Lee’s voice. Whenever Stewart Lee had to answer Richard Herring’s questions, his meticulously long-winded explanations, spoken with a sort of jaded petulance, were exciting because they betokened stylish, knowing sophistication, a sort of haughty indifference to the devilishly tricksy, culturally confusing world of the early/mid-Nineties. In the voicebox of Marcus Brigstocke, John Oliver or Robin Ince, unfortunately, that tone of jaded sophistication sounds like exhaustion. Listen to one of Brigstocke’s yanks-are-fat-and-stupid-and-polluting rants again, and tell me it doesn’t make you sigh and want to sleep through the next five years.

Finally there’s the Noughties’ dark trend, arguably started by Chris Morris (but we mustn’t forget The League of Gentlemen), who got darker and darker as he went along. As a late-night experiment in pushing the boundaries, Blue Jam was faultless, perfection, the apotheosis of savagely dark comic psychodrama. But its influence was appalling. Starting with its own manifestation on TV. If Morris wasn’t being indulged at this point – and there must be something to the idea that forces of nature benefit from occasionally being reined in (wait, this is spiked, of course they do) – a whole wave of copycat darkists, practising what we might call dark-lite, certainly were indulged. Nighty Night, Velvet Soup, Human Remains, Green Wing – all were encouraged to play their part in establishing a very skewed, one-dimensional picture of what people are like on the basis that they were producing hilariously ruthless psychological x-rays, looking through our self-deceptions to the savage, selfish animal beneath.

Take the puppets-on-a-string of Green Wing, all speeded-up and slowed-down. The obvious inference is that these characters are not in control. Look at the characters themselves: constantly fighting to keep a lid on powerful jealous, lustful and destructive urges, they’re either just one stutter away from full-on loss of control or in the middle of it. (This speeded-up/loss of control marriage is nothing new, as it happens: Benny Hill’s famous double-speed jaunts around the park occurred when he lost all control over himself, too.)

Take the grotesques of Little Britain, Nighty Night, Catherine Tate’s sketches and Tittybangbang, and the ineffectual little-boys/girls-lost of Man Stroke Woman, Extras and Hyperdrive (if I hear Miranda Hart’s comatose drone one more time I may have to strangle somebody to hear a higher pitched voice as an antidote) – add them all up and the message is: aren’t human beings dreadful wastes of space? Either lost, bewildered infants or vile, grotesque puppets.

Okay, we get it! But can we not, just once, be relieved of this biting satire? Can we not, just once, have a character make a breakthrough into self-awareness? (Remember the delicacies and embarrassments of Ted and Ralph’s relationship?) Please, can we just once have some relief from the monotony of morons tugged along by fate? Because these pessimistic takes on ourselves are not the whole truth. Oh, the inhumanity! Where’s Alan Bennett when you need him?

The sad fact is Horne and Corden, and their slightly bullying comic personas, do not, as many critics would have you believe, represent some sudden haemorrhage of taste and humour – they are the effluvia of a more generalised self-loathing. Our comic archetypes have never been quite so moronic and un-self-conscious, our comedy never so relentlessly contemptuous of the human condition as it is now. Previous archetypes – Hancock, Fawlty, Steptoe, Mainwaring, Arthur Dent, Del Boy – were losers of a sort, yes, but frustrated and constantly battling losers, railing against their circumstances. Our new archetypes are losers and they don’t even know it. They never seem to gain any insight into their predicament. Infantile, buffeted by events, lost and pathetic, they’re really quite depressing to behold. And they’re everywhere: these morons fill every sitcom and every sketch show.

Let’s hope the timid mauling of Horne and Corden, then, is the start of a rout and very soon the creators and re-creators of this army of mumbling dolts realise what they need to do now is shove their lazy, infantile, zombieloid characters up their arses and fuck off while they’re doing it – as Withnail might put it.

Ian Woolley is a writer based in the UK.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport thought Extras was extra special. Tim Black was critical of the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s treatment of Manuel, and did not think much of Brand’s football columns. He also praised the self-censoring comedy of Peep Show. Rob Lyons looked at the satire of The Daily Mash. Nathalie Rothschild felt Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation played to the prejudices of the liberal elite. Niall Crowley asked what the point of satire is if it ignores the new taboos. And Emily Hill reviewed nihilist classic The Arsonists. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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