Being a comedian or comic writer in Britain is astoundingly difficult. Not only do you have to produce relevant and funny jokes, but you must constantly battle with the bastards who came before you and did a much better job. You could have the most astute wit, a brilliant delivery — total waste of time when you’re against Dad’s Army or Blackadder.
So why bother trying? Surely emulating the classics is never going to replicate their success?
Comedy is as much about context as it is humour. Every joke, be it one-liner or anecdote, needs a wider context for it to get a laugh. Evidence of this in 2019 is through the popularity of memes. All have a context for their existence, regardless of how the meme is presented.
For example, take the infamous ‘Steamed Hams’ skit from The Simpsons.
If you were a lost alien, and this was your first experience of human culture, you’d be rightly confused. It doesn’t make sense without its context. The skit has entered into the meme economy as an ‘anti-joke’, it’s not funny on its own unless you are semi-conscious of this. And yet, watching it with that subtle awareness of the context makes it an hugely quotable sketch, and easily replayed when you need a laugh.
Take this idea and throw it into the past, back to the bright years of British comedy. Every so often a clip or news piece will come up and discuss old comedy. Recently, the BBC has once again exhumed Dad’s Army to commemorate its 50-year anniversary of first broadcast. The programme is fawned over, worshipped almost. It’s entered our culture as more than just comedy, but as a political tool. It’s hard to escape it; the living dead.
I don’t like Dad’s Army. That means I’m instantly a target for nationalists, football hooligans, and Tory MPs. The jokes are tired and easy. Brilliant acting, sure. But my biggest gripe is through its context — a nation at war, on its own defending against those damn pesky Jerries. It exists now as more than a old sitcom starring old men. It’s a cultural icon, an artefact used to justify national identity.
Looking into old comedy in this way is crucial to today’s development of the art, and for society’s values. Viewing old comedy should be like an archivist flits through the pages of a centuries-old almanac. It’s living history right in front of you.
Having said that, you cannot simply ignore the content of old comedies. History isn’t a jolly affair after all. For example, in 1977 ITV commissioned a sitcom called Mind Your Language. It ran for three series until 1979, and was briefly brought back in 1986. I expect the 1986 series didn’t do as well due to its outdated humour…
The programme was about an English as a Foreign Language school, with a naive English teacher and a multinational class. You had Indian, French, Chinese, Hungarian, a whole host of different cultures. But the comedy came from the outrageous racism and stereotypes of these characters, as well as sexism and casual misogyny. It’s a disgraceful programme.
The worst thing about this show? The actors portraying foreign students were actually from their respective countries. They were hired to be ridiculed by the colour of their skin, or which country they represented. Imagine this today: a show deliberately hiring actors of colour, just so they can be abused on that basis.
The headmistress in this school is also written to be a misandrist, hating the English teacher for being male. Definitely a poke by the writers at the women’s liberation movement, still prominent at the time. There’s an Italian who makes lewd and pervy jokes about buxom women. The Chinese student is used as a scapegoat to bash communism and Chairman Mao. The Indian and Pakistani characters trade insults in a battle to be the most stereotypical. They’re also treated like children, as people needing discipline and the tact of an Englishman to tell them what to do.
It’s utterly repulsive, and certainly not an anomaly in our broadcast history. Nevertheless, and despite the virulent hate crimes within, this is a judgement of the programme using 2019 values, not 1979 ones. That’s why you can separate the two functions, and still recognise the comedy’s values. Nuance is possible.
Racist, sexist and cringeworthy humour are basic components of golden age British comedy. Even the 2000s provides us with some awful content eg. Little Britain. Both Matt Lucas and David Walliams have stated they’d never get away with Little Britain today. Nor should they: it’s a disrespectful, classist, homophobic TV series.
But this is history. They are pieces of the past reflecting the views and humour of their time. It’s not funny now because society has changed. People (mostly older men with ruddy faces) rail against political correctness, and how you can’t call a gay man a poof, or a black man sambo. Somehow, these people think that returning to the social values of the past would be more comfortable, more simple. “This is political correctness gone mad!” — actually, you’re just annoyed that people on television don’t racially abuse people, or use women as an object of desire and ridicule. Simple definition, but at the core of this backlash is a defence of the offensive.
In these comedies, there is pain and emotion. It’s an artefact after all, it reminds us of worse times. The 1970s gave us classic comedy which have entered into our bloodstream as a nation, including that which we deem offensive. We can’t abandon these laughs, they’re history and they’re sometimes funny— but we can see construct a better understanding of them, putting them into the past without abandoning the present.