Monday, March 02, 2009

The Comedy Rule Of Three

I know I was supposed to be out living it up on Friday night because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but somehow over the years celebrating my birthday has either gone hopelessly awry or turned into a complete nightmare. So now I simply acknowledge the fact and then try my best to treat it like any other day, which meant that I was going to spend the evening with my feet up, watching a Brian G Hutton double bill on DVD.

That would have been all well and good, seeing me through until it was time to turn in. Just before loading the first disc (which would have been Where Eagles Dare in case you were wondering), I noticed that the schedules had somehow magically – or possibly tragically – fallen into place, allowing me to skip from one channel to the next, sampling what the various commissioning editors at ITV, BBC and Channel 4 considered to be good situation comedy.

For all ITV’s good intentions in trying to seek out half decent programmes, the channel still hasn’t managed to flush that massive great turd Moving Wallpaper, which has floated back onto the schedule. The reviewer for The Daily Telegraph may call the sitcom “a very sharply written and cleverly characterised comedy”, but I can only deduce that he wrote those words while recuperating in his hospital bed after suffering a particularly vicious blow to the head.

Maybe there are people who get a chuckle out of this listless look behind the curtain, but compared to the likes of The Larry Sanders Show and especially Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which takes every opportunity to stick it to NBC, Moving Wallpaper is about as sharp and edgy as an old episode of Terry and June. First time around, the show’s only saving grace was that Echo Beach, the useless soap opera the characters in Moving Wallpaper were making, was an even bigger mound of crap. This time, all on its lonesome, the sitcom appeared weaker than ever.

Echo Beach was cancelled because it was shit and nobody watched it, so of course the wheeze in Moving Wallpaper was that the non-entities in the soap’s writing staff are told the decision behind their show’s cancellation is down to it being shit and nobody watched it. Wow, there must have been high-fives and back slaps all round as that glorious nugget was squeezed out at the table read. After that any fetid waft of a joke was few and far between. The writer keeling over in the middle of a pitch and having his idea stolen by the producer? Oh, my aching sides!

The fatal flaw with Moving Wallpaper is that it lacks the real bite and sharp wit of its American rivals. Whereas The Larry Sanders Show had a real bulldog of a producer in Rip Torn’s gloriously foul-mouthed Artie, Ben Miller’s Jonathan Pope tries to be the Machiavellian monster but simply ends up as a bumbling incompetent and far less likely to keep a hand grenade in his desk drawer. Maybe the audience is supposed to sympathise with him, or more likely the writers don’t have the guts to seriously take his antics over the line. Whatever the reason the lack of real guts makes the sitcom utterly redundant.

The only decent joke that arises from the whole sorry Moving Wallpaper affair is that on ITV’s shoddy website the programme is listed in the drama section. Make of that what you will. As the episode drew to a wearisome close on what I assume was supposed to be a sight gag that proved to be the least bit amusing, and wondering how many Germans Clint Eastwood would have mown down or blown up by now if I had stuck to my original plan, I flipped over to BBC1 and the Lee Mack vehicle Not Going Out.

The situation of two mismatched people sharing a flat is quite a familiar sitcom staple, but what the show has going for it is the witty repartee that fills it with more funny jokes per minute than any other sitcom currently on the box. I suppose by today’s standards, that’s rather groundbreaking. The fact that Not Going Out doesn’t have some kind of vaguely high concept attached actually works in its favour, especially compared to the appallingly lame first episode of No Heroics that served up the idea of superheroes in their downtime and then did nothing remotely funny with it.

Primarily based in an apartment set, when Not Going Out first appeared a few years back it initially struck me as an English take on Seinfeld, which is certainly no bad thing. It’s certainly better to draw on that than something far lower down the sitcom food chain. So what made Not Going Out succeed for me was that it doesn’t make me want to reach for the Seinfeld DVDs as an alternative. On the other hand Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon, which, though funny, can sometimes get quite laboured in places, usually has me digging out the first or second season of Curb Your Enthusiasm to watch in its stead.

After that it was straight over to Channel 4 for Free Agents. There are no obvious gags and of the two central characters one is still mourning the premature death of her fiancée while the other, separated from his family, is teetering on the edge of clinical depression, yet the show really is funny as fuck. If you don’t find the trails of Sharon Horgan and Stephen Mangan’s Helen Ryan and Alex Taylor remotely amusing there’s always Anthony Head’s turn as the sex-obsessed boss of the agency CMA, Stephen Caudwell.

There’s no real reason for the sitcom to be set in a talent agency other than it allows Caudwell to be spectacularly reprehensible in an environment that allows for that kind of behaviour. Surely this is what Jonathan Pope should have been more like if only he and the writers had actually grown some goddamned balls? Though, as bad language goes, even Caudwell is surpassed by Matthew Holness’ straight-to-the-point agent Dan Mackey whose first language is clearly Tourette's.

Perhaps the best thing about Free Agents is that three episodes in it’s obvious the sitcom hasn’t gone for the easy opportunity of drafting in various entertainment types to make cameo appearances. While Extras learnt from The Larry Sanders Show, understanding that the only way to do this well was have them play extreme and unpleasant versions of their public personas, in it’s first year Moving Wallpaper simply roped actors in to simply play themselves, resulting in stilted, uncomfortable performances.

This time around they have plumbed the depths with Kelly Brook starring in Pope’s stupid zombie drama. Not exactly known for her acting talent, the only reason I could see for the poor girl’s appearance would be if she was passed around amongst the writers, each of them wearing her like a feedbag.


At 11:53 pm, Blogger qrter said...

Thanks for mentioning Free Agents - completely missed that.

Watched the first episode, really enjoyed it. I like it when main characters aren't either complete idiots or completely oblivious to what's happening around them, but react in a believable, human way.

At 11:54 pm, Blogger qrter said...

Which then leaves enough room for more crass over the top characters like Anthony Head´s.

At 12:14 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

What I think is really clever about it is that if there was just Head's character on his own acting like that it would be appalling. Having Matthew Holness pop up and be utterly tactless and disgusting make Head that bit more likeable.

There is a brief line of dialogue Holness' Dan Mackey said to an actor after the funeral of her agent that was staggering in it's marvellous tactless crassness. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cringe. Brilliant!

At 12:33 am, Blogger qrter said...

Ah yes, forgot about Holness! Great to see him in a series again.

I need that sense of contrast you talk about. I hate it when everybody is wacky and the audience is supposed to play the role of the norms.

It's why Arrested Development works so well for me, it has Michael Bluth to notice and comment on other characters irregularities, while still being able to make stupid mistakes himself.

It's also why, while finding Flight of the Conchords funny at times, the characters quickly start to grate on me.

At 4:39 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Ah, the great Arrested Development.

"Tricks are for hookers and prostitutes. I do illusions!"


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