Everyone has an opinion on comedy, but can anyone truly be right?
I'd like to talk about the referendum
Yes, I know it's a contentious topic, but earlier this week the Radio Times released the results from it's public poll on the best sitcom of the 21st Century (so far), and it's proved more controversial than any other single-issue ballot I can think of.
Firstly, I'd like to thank everyone who voted for the horse we had in that race. I cannot tell you how genuinely chuffed I was see Yonderland at number 17, rubbing shoulders with such comic gems as Phoenix Nights and Twenty Twelve/W1A. For a show on a subscription channel, with just two series under its belt (a third arrives on Sky 1 this Autumn), this is an incredible result, which warmed the very heart-cockles that doctors keep assuring me don't exist.
Special mention too to Raised by Wolves, the semi-autobiographical sitcom from Caitlin and Caroline Moran, which came in at number 9, within days of being cancelled by Channel 4. If you enjoyed this show as much as I did, you can help give it a new lease of life by clicking here and joining their rebel alliance.
Higher up the list though, things proved more divisive. As soon as I saw the forty strong shortlist, drawn up by Radio Times critics and the BFI, I immediately guessed both the winner and the response it would garner.
If you say you prefer rock music to country, or classical to jazz, chances are you won't be chased from your home by a baying mob. If you let it be known that you love a Lichtenstein but detest Dali, you're unlikely to be vilified on Twitter, because a rich diversity of tastes is something the art world prides itself on. But there's something about comedy that attracts a far more binary reaction.
As 90% of dating profiles will confirm, everyone like to think they have a 'good sense of humour'. Unlike 'athletic physique' or '6'0 tall', it's an attribute that is tricky to empirically verify, so pretty much anyone can insist that they have one. This means that, if you imagine comedy as an equation, with laughter as the result, the vast majority of humans think they have a pretty decent understanding of the formula. They get what's funny.
So if they find something hilarious and you don't, that either means you've got the equation wrong (ie: you're an idiot), or you're implying that they have (ie: you're calling them an idiot) and the upshot is pretty predictable. “What?!” they'll spit, “How can you say that? I pissed myself laughing, ergo: it was funny.” (they probably won't say 'ergo'). “Well, I didn't!” you cry, before setting about each other with fire axes. Or having a passive-aggressive social media exchange. Thankfully, most often the latter.
Of course everyone has the right to an opinion. But, when it comes to comedy, the weight of evidence that laughter (or its absence) seems to offer, tends to make both parties vehement in defense of their viewpoint. There's more chance of agreeing to disagree over Brexit than there is over how funny Miranda is.
Not that I'm not being self-righteous about this – I've been just as fervent myself. On several occasions I have responded with incredulity to an assertion that a particular show is or is not hilarious. Someone at a party once suggested that The Thick of It 'wasn't all that great' and I had no choice but to kill them and everyone they knew. Yet I seem to remember that, when it first emerged, and before it became the whipping boy for this whole issue, I could be just as dismissive of Mrs Brown's Boys, based on nothing more concrete than one man's laugh-o-meter.
Yes, it felt a little regressive to me – not just nodding to the past (I'm the first to admit a hat tip to Jim Henson's work in Yonderland), but feeling almost like it had been transported wholesale from a bygone era. But, of course, this was by design and ultimately proved to be its great strength. Whilst many programme makers had moved on from that style of comedy, swathes of the viewing public had not. And Brendan O'Carroll et al worked tirelessly to produce a show that spoke to, in his words, that 'audience out there that comedy forgot'... which, as the recent survey proved, is a big one. Nearly 10 million people watched the show's Christmas Special, which, to put it into perspective, is fucking loads. If the purpose of comedy is to make people laugh, and ten million people are laughing at Mrs Brown, it stands to reason that it is a bloody good comedy. Nothing else is making as many people laugh. Apart from maybe animal gifs.
Of course, such incredible popularity does lead us on to the worry of precedence. Where Agnes led, others have followed, and a recent slew of 'retro' commissions has raised questions about the future for bold and inventive new work, especially with a shrinking number of comedy slots. Yet shows like Fleabag and People Just Do Nothing (both ace IMHO) have still found their way into the critical limelight of late. Edgy Tracey Emins to Mrs Brown's more traditional Constable. Proof positive of the broad church that is comedy (NB: 'Broadchurch' is not a comedy – I've checked).
I suppose I'm just saying that maybe there shouldn't be any definite rights and wrongs when it comes to comedy. Everyone should be able to laugh at what they find funny, without judgement or snobbery, and regardless of who is / is not laughing with them. Accordingly, I'm trying to be far more embracing of comic diversity. To be pleased by the presence of laughter, regardless of what provokes it. And I have to say, having sat in a room with my parents watching Mrs Brown's Boys, it would be a cold heart that would see it as anything other than a vehicle of great joy and a very worthy winner.
...Having said all that, my personal top three would be Peep Show, The IT Crowd and The Office and if you don't agree YOU'RE WRONG! YOU'RE JUST PLAIN WRONG!