Posted tagged ‘Father Ted’

What’s so funny?

January 21, 2011

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.

Joking apart

September 2, 2009

While sorting through some memorabilia of my student days in a little-known Dublin university, I came across a magazine that had been produced for a student rag week in 1975. I sat down for a moment, expecting to be entertained afresh and maybe being able to use some of the material. By the time I had flicked through the first two or three pages I was aghast. It was all jokes. Well, ‘jokes’. Not only was it absolutely inconceivable that I would ever be able to quote anything I was reading to anyone, I found myself feeling distinctly queasy. I swear that it is very very hard to shock me. People have tried it in as diverse places as my family dining room and in the law courts, and have never succeeded. But this was stomach churning stuff. Absolutely nothing in there was funny, and almost everything was grossly offensive. I could not even begin to recreate the state of mind that the authors must have been in. Well, the cover said that it was being sold for various worthy charities, and I presume that’s why I bought it (or maybe I never looked inside the covers at the time); but that hardly justified the stuff that was in it.

The odd thing is that around the same time that someone was concocting this garbage, some clever and genuinely exhilarating comedy talent was being developed in other university settings. The most famous academy of comedy was the Footlights society in Cambridge University, and in the 1970s and early 1980s people such as Clive Anderson, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Griff Rhys Jones were gaining a reputation there – just as John Cleese, Eric Idle, Peter Cooke and others had done earlier. But there have also been several other universities that have been homes to extraordinary comic talent, as it happens including my own Dublin City University: Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Dougal from Father Ted) developed his act while a student in DCU’s School of Communications. While we shouldn’t think of comedy as something elitist, there is something pleasing about humour that is ‘knowing’, both in the comic sense and in the sense of a well applied but lightly worn intelligence.

And yet, it seems that good comedy must always do battle within the campus world with stuff that really isn’t funny. This week the Oxford University Conservative Association got into the headlines for holding an event at which members were encouraged to tell ‘inappropriate’ jokes. It appears that at least one such ‘joke’ was highly racist, so that Oxford has required that the association remove the reference to the university from its name and has, in effect, banned it from activities on the campus.

I suppose that, at a level of generality, it is worth asking questions about the dividing line between humour that tests the limits of conventional tolerance and that therefore represents a tradition of pushing the boundaries, and humour that is simply offensive and that targets vulnerable groups. It is not necessarily an easy line to draw, and it is probably tempting to say that we cannot define it but will know it when we see it transgressed. And of course universities should not encourage intellectual and cultural caution or prudish attitudes. So I don’t know the answer. I love good humour, and believe that much humour that has flouted convention and respectability has played a hugely important role in developing a insights that have helped society to mature. But humour is never good when it tries to get laughs at the expense of human dignity or equality. Maybe we cannot do more than be sensitive to this. Or maybe we sometimes have to accept the juvenile offensive stuff as the price we pay for the humour that genuinely builds us up.

F*** the expletives!

August 9, 2008

When the television series Father Ted was first broadcast in the 1990s, it proved life-changing for a friend of mine. An academic in her 50s, she had always avoided any swear words or other expletives. For those who might not have come across it, Father Ted was a totally crazy (but very funny) series, featuring the exploits of some entirely dysfunctional Catholic priests on an island off the Irish coast. One of the priests, Father Jack (past his most agile mental state) liked to shout out a string of expletives, starting with ‘Feck!’ – an Irish adaptation of the internationally more familiar ‘F***!’ Anyway, my (English) academic friend suddenly decided that ‘feck’ wasn’t a real swear word and that she could properly use it – and from that moment on her language was suddenly peppered with ‘fecks’ at every available opportunity. She infected her students, and whole classes of that generation were overheard telling each other to ‘feck off’, and referring to ‘fecking’ this and ‘fecking’ that.

They would probably have felt quite at home in Dublin, where the F-word, with or without the local adaptation, is constantly in the air. So much so, that it has almost ceased to be an expletive or a swear word, it is just a filler. I was sitting next to a group on a public transport vehicle recently, and literally every sentence had one or more F-words; until one of the group accidentally banged his head, and as he shouted out in pain for the first time since he came within earshot he didn’t use the F-word – it was too normal a word for him to serve as an expletive.

I confess that I can very occasionally be overheard using the F-word, usually for deliberate effect. And in fact, I take the view that swearing can have a purpose. Some studies suggest that the judicious use of swearing can have a positive psychological impact and relieve stress. But I suspect that this is lost entirely if swearing is just a verbal tick that is peppered through a conversation with no meaning at all.

So maybe we need to think again about the language that is used in popular conversation. Maybe we need to encourage a more judicious use of expletives. In fact, F*** all this swearing!


PS – For those who might want to hear Father Jack in full fecking form, you can get some extracts here.