Real Just Got Shit

This isn’t so much a moan about naturalism as a comedic tool, more the trend in recent years that any single camera sitcom with no laugh track, semi-improvised dialogue and preferably some swearing, seems to get an automatic critical pass and is deemed somehow more worthy. Spot these Bafta baiting atrocities by playing Critic Bingo and scouring your average broadsheet review for words and phrases like ‘dark’, ‘brave’, ‘realistic‘, ‘beautifully observed’ and ‘dead clever’.

So when did this all begin? Well the Year Zero as far as most reviewers seem to be concerned would be the advent of The Office. Sure, the mockumentary format was already a bit old hat by this point –  having been used in The Pool sketches in The Day Today, People Like Us and so on – and The Royle Family had already proven that longueurs were no barrier to mainstream success, but The Office was probably the one that has pretty much become the template for this is how it’s done. Now I’m not here to argue that those two aren’t classic shows – I’ve not gone totally wang-waving mental – but what seems to have got lost in subsequent years is that it wasn’t the form that made these shows funny, but the writing. What primarily made The Office so good was its brilliant execution – grafting dramatic, almost soapy storylines onto a sitcom format and making the whole damn thing work. Its stylistic quirks were just the icing rather than the cake.

The most noticeable trend in the last decade, particularly in UK sitcoms, has been the slow death of the laugh track (be it canned or studio). I won’t be dancing on its grave like some – in a few cases, such as It’s Garry Shandling’s Show or even Seinfeld, it really adds to the energy of the performances – but in general it’s a fairly inessential addition to a show. Having said that, a rerun of Father Ted or I’m Alan Partridge is in no way ruined for me by its presence, and I don’t see its absence as a signifier of some higher artistic worth. But you know who begs to differ? Sam Wollaston of course – a man for whom words fall from Macbook Air like shit from arse (c. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena).  Here he is on the execrable Roger And Val Have Just Got In: ‘I began by appreciating the lack of canned laughter.’ Oh brilliant. So now you’re sat there enjoying what isn’t in the show. What else did you enjoy not being there? A car chase? An uplifting Glee-style song and dance number? FFS. Griping about the presence of a laugh track seems to have become lazy reviewer shorthand for having a refined comic palate.

So, when I start my bi-weekly moan on this topic and the pub immediately empties or Friend X is no longer online, the show that inevitably crops up is The Trip. It’s a show which I thought had its moments, but its numerous self-indulgences signify for me where realism ends and onanism begins. The US show you’ll most commonly see cited by UK comedians is the undeniably great Curb Your Enthusiasm. The thing that most people seem to take away from Curb is that it’s semi-improvised, to the point where script has almost become a dirty word. Well yes, Curb is semi-improvised. It also has a cast comprised of some of the best improvisational comics in the US – plus Cheryl ‘why would you do that Larry?’ Hines – and storylines that are tighter than a gnat’s chuff. A Curb show outline will have around five liberally annotated pages but that’s solid plot, and takes can go into the thirties with LD suggesting key lines as jumping off points for the scene.

Compare this to The Trip which often played out more like Lost In Translation meets Groundhog Day, the cycle being starter, impression-off, repeat. And the pauses weren’t so much as pregnant as birthed, went through an awkward goth phase and then buggered off to university before the joke was eventually delivered. Yeah, that might be naturalistic, but entertaining? Debatable. As for the show staking a claim to realism, Coogan’s problems are real alright: ennui-laden multimillionaire comic ears-deep in muff can’t find true love, Hollywood acclaim or a really good crème brulee; but the general yearning for something better aside, I didn’t find these problems particularly gripping or relatable. Apparently the comedy had ‘real edge’ and it took ‘a lot of guts’ for them to make it. Personally I found as far as being realistic goes, ‘Steve Coogan’ was a far more sanitised, sympathetic creation than the coke snorting fuckmonkey of tabloid lore. Tommy Saxondale was a much more interesting, nuanced character.

However, the show that really pisses on my porridge, the one that’s taken the very worst that comedy vérité has to offer and combined it in one moribund Gagasaki of a half hour, is Him & Her. The premise of the show, if you’re lucky enough to have avoided it, is that the most tedious, unlikeable unemployed couple in the world hang around in their flat and do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Seinfeld ain’t got nothing on this shit. Of course the critics spaffed all over it saying that it’s yep, beautifully observed, to which my response is ‘oh that makes it good, does it?’ For a long time the last great taboo in television has been seeing characters on the can – well Him & Her breaks down the fourth (toilet) wall on this one when one of them opines ‘Can you make me some toast? I just done a wee. I fink I done a poo as well.’

Now I’ve had mornings on the mercy seat packed with more tension than a Hitchcock drama and parked my breakfast in many a meaningful way, but I’ve never thought it would add a deeper level of understanding to a character – to see man, trousers down, vulnerable and de-clenched, is to see the true essence of what it is to be human. Also, in line with so much realistic dialogue, nobody would actually say this. Even somebody with the most spastic of colons is pretty certain whether they’ve dropped the brown shark or not. But Him & Her really plays the full deck: mumbled, dramatically inert dialogue, quizzical rise and fall intonation, and interminable silences. We’re getting dangerously close to ‘comedy is like jazz’ territory here – it isn’t so much about the jokes as the space between the jokes. I wouldn’t want to spend thirty minutes with these enervating DSS fucks, so why would I want them beamed into my living room either?

A lot of these shows are often labelled as ambitious, but I think in many cases the reliance on naturalistic tropes belies exactly the opposite – celebrating rough cut amateurism for its own sake. The Observer’s recent review of  Fresh Meat warns that it ‘risks becoming as sparkling as 30 Rock.’ A long-running, successful, consistently funny gag a minute sitcom? How awful. Of course there are plenty of examples of this kind of thing being done well, like Marion & Geoff and even Peep Show in the UK to the cruelly cancelled Party Down in the US, but it’s the snobbery and unthinking blanket approval that really grates.

There are many more shows on my shitlist – Pulling, Lizzie and Sarah – shows where people behaving universally appallingly is somehow more real and therefore funnier, as if the recognition and laughter reflexes have the same trigger. But ultimately it should come down to this: when assessing a sitcom’s worth, funny should come before form. Realism is just another form of stylistic technique.

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3 Responses to “Real Just Got Shit”

  1. Comedy Fan Says:

    Agree with you on Woollastan – he’s shit. But Roger and Val was the best thing on telly last year. Hope it comes back.

  2. Sam Wollaston is one of those smart-arses who turns me off the Guardian. Seldom enlightens, usually sneers. Probably likes to think he’s the successor to Nancy-Banks Smith. Dream on, title boy. Better still, grow up.

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