What’s so funny?

Last week I was supposed to be writing an article, but I had writer’s block, and so (unusually for me) I switched on the television and flicked through channels. No fewer than four of them were showing classic comedy shows, and for about an hour I was totally engrossed in comparing them with each other. They were, in no particular order, Fawlty Towers, Friends, Frasier and Father Ted. I concluded quickly that really great comedy has an alphabetical dimension, and so if you are planning to write a new show, make sure it begins with ‘F’.

But seriously (or not), I began to wonder what it was that made these four shows so successful. Father Ted has a formula that appeals to me, of taking totally absurd propositions and playing them out as if they were potentially realistic. Fawlty Towers is really extremely clever slapstick. Friends and Frasier are comments on life, viewed with what I would call humorous affection for the central characters.

I believe that Fawlty Towers is the funniest thing ever broadcast, but all four of these shows, in different ways, reveal and explore human nature. I hope that we will be able to enjoy new comedy classics in the years ahead.

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9 Comments on “What’s so funny?”

  1. Triona brick Says:

    That’s a very concise and eloquent way of describing each of those shows. In terms of recent comedy, have you ever seen modern family? Think it combines a little of all the elements you described above. It’s some of the best television I’ve seen and really does as it says on the tin in terms of social commentary

  2. wendymr Says:

    …and, in contrast, I can’t stand any of those shows. Even two minutes of Fawlty Towers or Friends was enough for me to have to change the channel or leave the room. Cringe-worthy stuff.

    Give me a classic episode of Yes, Minister any day!

  3. jfryar Says:

    The shows that you mention are, of course, classics but I’m always amazed at the contrast between those programmes and some of the newer series. The ones you mention were watchable by all ages, were extremely clean, and although there were obvious comments on society, they never overburdened the series.

    Father Ted dealt with racism for example (the perfectly square piece of dirt on the window was comic genius) as did Fawlty Towers (don’t mention the war, I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it). But they put essentially good, well meaning characters in situations of misunderstandings and the absurd and let them struggle for our entertainment. This is probably why wendymr uses the phrase ‘cringe-worthy stuff!’.

    In the UK they’ve commissioned lots of ‘edgy’ comedy shows some of which did well (Little Britian, The Inbetweeners). But I think there’s a growing population here who are tired of innuendo-laden jokes and gross-out humour. ‘Miranda’ on BBC, a terrible comedy in my opinion, is one such show and its attracting huge numbers of viewers. And the ratings always increase when Mr. Bean is shown on ITV. Maybe we’ve been through the shock-comedy phase!

  4. John Says:

    Those, plus Monty Python, Family Guy, American Dad.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    The fact that the very diverse shows mentioned were successful because ‘in different ways reveal and explore human nature’ is a bit too general an explanation, all comedy does that, so it is more interesting to look at the specific reasons why each was successful in its own right (also I’m not sure that Father Ted’s popularity equals that of Friends or Frazier) Let’s not forget that the humour of a nation or individual is an integral part of that person or nation’s culture and even ‘popular’ global comedians like Ricky Gervais can have problems in getting the balance right, as the recent furore re his jokes at the Golden Globes shows http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/jan/17/golden-globes-ricky-gervais

  6. anna notaro Says:

    Fans of Father Ted in Scotland might like to know this http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-12249412
    I bet it won’t be as surreal and funny as Father Ted though…

  7. kevin denny Says:

    And there’s also The Fimpsons.

  8. anna notaro Says:

    I really think that the ‘classic’ comedy shows of tomorrow will be the newstainments (http://thewordguy.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/newstainment-nyuzt%C9%99%C9%AAnm%C9%99nt/)
    like The Daily Show or this one just launched http://www.theonion.com/articles/onion-news-network-coming-to-ifc-january-21%2C18488/

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