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Being Simon Amstell is no laughing matter

A new Simon Amstell sitcom starring Simon Amstell as ‘Simon Amstell’ is self-indulgently unfunny.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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Blame Ricky Gervais, I suppose. Ever since The Office took him from languishing in the shadow of Ali G on the now long-forgotten 11 O’Clock Show to Stateside superstardom, British comedians have leapt to imitate his schtick.

Thanks to his cheerleading for his influences – Larry David, Christopher Guest and Garry Shandling – we’ve had a resurgence of those clever postmodern sitcoms aimed at television audiences who have grown up immersed in celebrity culture and media studies. It is not enough for today’s comics to find new ways of telling us gags and making us laugh; now they all have to reflect knowingly upon the absurdities of modern life, using their comedy to critique the soullessness of contemporary celebrity-obsessed society. The success of Gervais’ Extras, with real-life stars parodying themselves in cameos, has only heightened this trend.

The problem is that when the targets of your critique are vapid morons who do nothing but get fat while watching vacuous, superficial TV, a TV sitcom is probably not the best medium. The skill of great comedy – which Gervais and David seem to know – is that it relies on finding a certain shared ground with your audience. The brilliance of David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is how neatly it skewers the apparently informal and unwritten yet utterly rigid codes of behaviour which govern our lives: David’s sociopathic tendencies tend to trample all over them, yet the indignant reactions of those outraged by his transgressions also give that show its life. Its use of apparent autobiography only heightens the ridiculous nature of social life: as one of the gilded Hollywood elite, blessed by fame, fortune and surrounded by obsequious underlings, surely he should be free of such concerns?

Similarly, in The Office, no one dreams of spending their life selling paper in Slough surrounded by oddballs and grotesques. Office manager David Brent may be an extreme example of aspiration, but all of them want to escape to a better life. Yet everyone fears it’ll never happen, either through their own ineptitude or because they will become victims of circumstances outside their control; they hope instead that a consolation can be found through love, or just something else to alleviate the tedium. All of the great comic creations of the television era rely on this universal element, whether it was the generation of clever, lower-middle class young men frustrated by the tedium of postwar Britain to whom Tony Hancock appealed, or the entrepreneurial, Thatcherite spirits of Only Fools and Horses.

The inability to grasp this essential point explains the general failure of new British comedy to replicate the success of Gervais and David. The inexplicable Lead Balloon was the first, featuring comedian Jack Dee playing a version of his grumpy misanthropic stage persona as grumpy misanthropic comedian Rick Spleen, complete with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s self-knowingness and Office-style downbeat humour. Dee is a likeable comedian, bringing an everyman’s sourness to the excitable excesses of popular culture, but one can only assume that Lead Balloon has made it to its fourth series out of goodwill. Where David in Curb simply can’t comprehend social mores, Dee’s Spleen is often just cruel and callous; where Gervais in Extras sneers at his contemporaries out of palpable insecurity, Spleen is just a prick. I think we’re supposed to find common ground with his long-suffering wife and treat Spleen as a satire of self-absorbed celebrity, but given all the jokes come from Rick, we’re left with the uncomfortable option of laughing along with someone genuinely dislikeable.

Sadly, it is this trap which comedian Simon Amstell has fallen into in Grandma’s House. Amstell, like Dee, is a likeable performer, bringing an absurdist cynicism and irreverence to the blandly self-important world of pop in Popworld and latterly Never Mind the Buzzcocks (following in the tradition of Smash Hits and the better bits of the NME). But his attempt at the modern sitcom simply reeks of contempt for his audience.

Grandma’s House centres upon a wackily neurotic Jewish family in which Amstell plays a version of himself, a young Jewish loud-mouthed comic looking for a change of direction. Repeating the mistake that comedians often make when doing a sitcom, it feels like the writing of a stand-up reworking stage material for the screen. Sadly, observational humour on the eccentricities of others doesn’t work when it’s your own comic creation you’re taking off. So the big joke of the first episode was Amstell observing that his mother’s new boyfriend was a pompous arsehole and – guess what? – he turned out to be a pompous arsehole.

Like all new comedy, it didn’t have a laughter track – which, because you’re not being told to laugh, is supposed to allow you discover just how witty and urbane the humour is all by yourself. Except – for all its flaws – a laughter track is TV’s attempt to replicate the social aspect of live comedy. While it is manipulated and over-used, ‘canned laughter’ (despite its suggestion of mass-produced, off-the-shelf laughter) is usually taken from actual laughter of the audience in the studio. It’s why the likes of Happy Days and Friends made a virtue out of being filmed in front of a live studio audience. Even if they glossed over it when it went out on TV, the performers, producers and writers would know when a bad comedy tanked in front of an audience. While it’s refreshing to be without the laughter track in these new shows, you can’t help but feel it can also serve as an excuse for self-indulgent comedians to tell jokes without ever having to be as vulgar and populist as to tell a gag.

Nobody particularly wants to return to the kind of hackneyed sitcom so regularly parodied by today’s generation of comedians. But for all its pretensions, Grandma’s House is a lazy and self-indulgent show, which seems to rely on the assumption that Jewish families are intrinsically funny (the teenager didn’t want to be an accountant! The mother was neurotic!) without ever really wanting to make us laugh. This was a good example of why the best comedy may break all the rules, there’s one it never breaks one: comedy is, at its heart, about making people laugh, however you choose to do it. And if a comedian isn’t happy doing just that, perhaps they really should consider a change of career.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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