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Friday, 11 June 2010

Enduring Comedy

I adore gentle, old-time comedies.

While looking for something to watch last night I stumbled across Victoria at the Albert, a repeat of Victoria Wood’s sell-out performance at the Royal Albert Hall back in 2002. Instead of trying to do anything productive like work on my thoughts for the upcoming 3rd draft of one of my novels I gladly sat down and laughed my proverbial off for two hours. But the thing is, I’ve more than just seen this before – I used to own it on audio cassette, I’ve listened to it thirty times at least. And yet it felt as fresh to me as ever, even though I knew precisely what was coming.

So how does comedy have that effect?

Drama, for me, is rooted in suspenseful writing. I remember sitting down to watch the opening episode of series three of Bad Girls and being absolutely hooked because I had no idea what was going to happen next. Those were the days before intense online speculation and spoilers so the events were a huge surprise to me. But on repeated viewings I know Jim doesn’t die and that Shell is in a lot of trouble and that Helen tries to break up with Nikki. It’s still good to watch but the tension has all disappeared. By my reckoning, comedy should be a similar toy. After all, if you know what joke’s coming then you know everything, don’t you?

Yes but no. The shows I grew up loving – and still love – all have a few things in common. Apart from anything related to Victoria Wood I adore The Golden Girls, Keeping Up Appearances, Open All Hours, Porridge, Goodnight Sweetheart and Only Fools and Horses amongst others. They’re all quite old, most of them are British but their most striking similarity is the wealth of talent in them. Comic geniuses such as Ronnie Barker, David Jason, Patricia Routledge, Bea Arthur and Nicholas Lyndhurst just have a way of delivering comedy without it ever seeming stale. I can watch a simple scene in a kitchen in Miami with four women sat around a table eating cheesecake and the lines just crack me up every time. I’m smiling while I sit here thinking about Rose Nylund’s herring tale about a herring being shot out of a cannon… ‘after that no herring would do it’. Hilarious stories told by amazing people.

So it is just the delivery that makes them great?

No, I think it’s the anticipation I get from waiting for the laughter to start. There are a couple of special moments in every episode – like the herring conversation – that I can’t wait to laugh at. In Porridge one would be the moment where Fletch is forced to get into the boxing ring to prove a point. Or the moment in Keeping Up Appearances where everybody hides under the stage to escape Hyacinth. It’s the little things in life.

This morning I woke up humming one of Victoria Wood’s songs from last night. I’ve been struggling to keep it under wraps because I don’t think the people at work would appreciate the rude words. Comedy is enduring. If I had to pick a series to watch on repeat on a desert island for the rest of my life it’d be a tough choice but my current favourite is The Golden Girls, inspired by the sad loss of Rue McClanahan.

And I don’t think I’d get bored.

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