Of all the arts, comedy may be the trickiest and most complex. But it should never look that way.
The business of laughter usually involves huge amounts of work developing an idea or a situation, as well as the invention of a dozen jokes for every one that makes it to the stage or broadcast. If you’re attempting satire, in-depth knowledge and detailed research are usually essentials. And then it all has to be pared back to the minimal, the minutiae pinned down, the peacock feathers pulled and all delivered as if it was created there, then, on the spot; a spontaneous splurge of wit, performance and observation dropped into the audience’s lap. There can be no hint that it has been painstakingly contrived, worked on and perfected with eye bleeding neurosis, because if there is, that joke isn’t funny anymore.
On top of which it is very hard to be original and far too easy to aim low and borrow, beg or steal. It’s why so many comedies fail. They try either too hard or not enough.
But for the best part of 20 years, a band of writers and performers loosely connected by Armando Iannucci have managed to wear their ambition unapologetically, have been relevant and original; biting and yet generous.
We are about to be indulged again with the return of “The Thick of It” next Saturday, the aim now taken at the current political landscape and its marriage of expedience and awkward opposition. It’s rare that comedy can provoke a knowing nod and hard laugh at the same time. It is rare, worth noting and celebrating because these writers and actors have done so consistently for such a long period of time.
They first grabbed attention with “On The Hour” on Radio 4. That became adulation through its TV extension, “The Day Today” on BBC2. The talent gathered there, on and off screen, would go on to generate the best comedy of the following two decades. It is an unbroken sequence filling an entire shelving unit of DVD boxsets. It is a body of work that, when you consider it, easily bears comparison in quality and quantity with those totems of British comedy: Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
“The Day Today” , “Brass Eye”, “The Armando Iannucci Show” and “Jam” – sketch shows and satires political, philosophical, ridiculous and dark. Alan Partridge’s rise, fall and continued descent has provided British comedy with its most enduring character – across radio, parody chat show, character drama, podcast, autobiography and radio webcam we have winced, laughed, and against our better judgement, kind of cared.
“The Thick of It” is the definitive political comedy of 21st century Britain. Our politicians, vilified in the public eye, are given a more generous take in this satire – flawed, beaten, and vain, they simply can’t keep up. Public expectation far exceeds the limitations of public office.
The Coogan/Iannucci/Morris lineage is of course well known – add “Four Lions”, “24 Hour Party People”, and “The Trip”, and there alone is an exceptional body of work. Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow productions has green lighted hits and experiments from light to dark – ranging from the sweet-natured “Gavin and Stacey” to the deranged, misanthropic genius of “Nighty Night. They’ve cashed the cheques, taken the awards and reaped the adulation, then used that influence and wealth to generously bring in new talent and new ideas.
The reach of the wider “Day Today” writing team is exceptional. Between them, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews went on to create and write “Father Ted” and “Black Books” and Linehan alone the “The IT Crowd”. David Quantick’s writing, as well as contributing consistently to Iannucci and Morris projects, also includes the criminally under-rated “Smack the Pony” as well as the adored “Harry Hill’s TV Burp”. Here’s a question – how many truly great British comedies since 1994 can’t be directly linked to the writing or performing team of “On the Hour “and “The Day Today”? The Office, yes, but what else?
The writer’s room for “The Day Today” was probably a foul place full of bad coffee, stubbed out cigarettes, stale donuts and crunched up joke rejects. Of course, it might have been fairly well-lit, adequately air conditioned and had inspiring views, but the writing must have been brutal and intense nonetheless. There’s no way the mere six episodes of “The Day Today” could have been so insanely rich with jokes and moments of genius otherwise. Either way, it contained a very bright future for TV comedy.
Over the coming weeks, as a refresher course before the “The Thick of It’s” return, Pop Lifer will select some of our favourite moments and performances (stage cough, Rebecca Front) from the Morris/Iannucci/Coogan axis for three reasons.
One: there has to be a limit and both “Nighty Night” and “Father Ted” deserve their own Pop Lifer series one day. Two: as a reminder that we are witnessing a comic catalogue being created that we should revel in and wonder at. Three: because they are very, very funny.
Next – Omnigenuis#1 – The Day Today; To follow, Omingenius#2 – Alan Partridge
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