Back when dinosaurs wore short trousers I entered a BBC comedy writing competition and won a place on a part time comedy writing course in Lancaster Gate, London run by a well-known (at the time) script writer, Brad Ashton. It was a purely informative course, no exams or qualifications (I would have failed anyway), just practical advice on constructing gags and comedic situations. Brad was writing for Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill among many others including Groucho Marx so he knew what he was talking about.
The course was primarily about gag construction. I may not have taken the right message from the sessions but I decided that the foundation of great comedy is truth.
I’m not talking about comedy based on facts nor the concept of the sitcom but the characters and situation have to be real. The viewer has to believe in both before the triple pillars of conflict, desperation and unpredictability, upon which a sitcom is constructed can have meaning. It matters not that the sitcom is set in Manchester, Manhattan or Mars, what matters is that the characters are believable and consistent.
Too many of the current crop of sitcoms fail this simple test. ‘Intelligence,’ set in GCHQ, the UK intelligence gathering centre based in Cheltenham, is a prime example. Granted there are one or two laugh out loud moments in each episode but the characters are totally implausible. The inept junior IT specialist, Joseph, played by Nick Mohammed who also created and wrote the scripts, simply wouldn’t be in his job. If the fact that he is totally incompetent is supposed to be the joke then for me that’s not enough. In episode two he wipes all the personnel files off the computerised systems, not by accident but because he can’t even understand the screen prompts. Then we have the stereotypical caricature of a hapless aging spinster Mary (Jane Stanness), the disinterested non-communicative hacker Tuva (Gana Bayarsaikhan) and Jerry played by Ross Geller, because that’s who David Schwimmer is (OJ’s lawyer aside), who has been transferred from the NSA in the States because he is also incompetent. Yet despite the entire resources of GCHQ these four inadequates form the crack team who in episode three spend the whole night uncovering an anonymous hacker who has brought the NHS to its knees. They do this, not by use of IT or forensic analysis but by Jerry’s gut instinct. The one saving grace is the department head, Christine (Sylvestra Le Touzel) but why she would employ these dummies is anyone’s guess: she even indulges a bungling PA who doesn’t know what PA stands for. Yet Sky have commissioned a second series.
If the viewer has to continually question why these people are in their positions then the whole basis of the series slides into a quagmire of incredulity and the comedy, apart from the slapstick, fails. I’m not talking about fantasy comedies such as Red Dwarf, 3rd Rock or Krod Mandoon. We know and accept that these are unreal characters but as long as they are true to their character then we accept them: part of the reason Red Dwarf has spanned 26 years.
Tastes change of course, even in comedy but those sitcoms that have stood the test of time have believable characters that viewers can identify with. I find it impossible to choose just one as my all time favourite but if pushed I would plump for Only Fools and Horses or Yes Minister/Prime Minister or Red Dwarf or The Inbetweeners or Gavin and Stacey or maybe……….