The gentle art of comedy • 24 February 2010 • The SnowBlog
The gentle art of comedy
Thanks to all those who saw my anguish at missing the first episode of the new season of Fags, Mags and Bags and rushed forward to help. Em even got an e-mail from one of the cast (good samaritan Omar Raza, who plays Sanjay) who sorted me out with a download of the episode in question. I consider that to be decidedly amazing and great. I also thought, while I was on this subject, that I might try to explain what it is I like about the show, just in case anyone out there has a moment's curiosity on that score. Not to get too high-falutin' about it, but I think a lot of modern art (20th Century and beyond) relies too much on shock tactics. Make a visual representation of something taboo and you're much more likely to get yourself some gallery space. Do something socially unacceptable on stage and your marketing will take care of itself. But I don't consider controversy to be especially creative. In fact it can seem like artists are working their way down a tick list at times.
And I think the desire to shock means that cutting-edge art often deals in extremes. I think I've complained about this before, but I've lost track of the number of 'contemporary literature' novels I've read that deal with madness. Madness is an artistic licence to go wherever you want and as far as you want. And it's catnip to hip authors looking to brew up a bit of polemic. But I don't think it always has much to do with real life as most of us live it.
Similarly, a lot of 'indie' comedy, particularly in the Nineties was very transgressive. Pick a taboo subject and tackle it with the maximum amount of effing-and-jeffing and you're bound to get plenty of shock laughs. No gag was so funny that it couldn't be punched up with the right handful of swear words. But again, that's not real life for a lot of people. It restricts comedy so that it mainly pleases drunk university students, just as Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst fail to connect with a lot of ordinary punters. In the last decade, shock comedy went mainstream with the invention of the 'gross out' comedy, where it seemed that conversations only drunk men would have somehow became movie scripts.
Does that make me sound like a prude? The thing is, I don't mind people swearing. And I'm not often offended by what you might call vulgar comedy. But not being offended isn't the same thing as being entertained. The harder someone tries to get a laugh by grossing out their audience, the more I suspect they don't have anything amusing to say. A lot of people love it, but to me it seems needy and it smacks of desperation. As far as I'm concerned, gentle comedy is the real art form because it can't rely on the cheap pyrotechnics of shock value and f-bombs. It's got to construct its laughs from ordinary, household ingredients.
Of course, gentle comedy risks becoming twee or corny or dull, but when it's done right it has real warmth and charm, in a way that no crude tirade about bodily functions can ever achieve. Gentle comedy can be inclusive and uplifting. It can be beautifully observed and it can contain rich structure. It can generate worlds we want to live in and it can stir our sympathies. None of these things are possible with in-your-face and aggressive comedy-club-style standup.
Fags, Mags and Bags (FMB) knows when it's flirting with cliché or when it's spinning familiar tropes, and it has fun with that. It has the slightly farcical plot structure in which fate swiftly punishes the guilty and all more or less returns to the ante status quo at the end of every episode, but that's how most short-form storytelling works: sudden reversals and unlikely coincidences heighten and condense the themes of the story. And FMB has such fun with them.
The show also turns its potential critics into characters and drags them into the story. Sanjay represents the BBC's all-important youth demographic, who would hate FMB. His character is too cool to be impressed by anything he is actually likely to encounter and he is mercilessly mocked for his attempts to be aloof and unimpressed by everything real life has to offer. Whereas Alok, if his character were suddenly to become a writer of FMB, would make the show grittier, punchier and give it up-to-the-minute mass appeal. In other words he would ruin it. And his character is also mocked for his insistence that a comfy present should be jettisoned as quickly as possible in favour of a poorly-thought-out flash-in-the-pan future.
The faults of FMB are the same faults that P.G.Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome share. They are what they are - and unapologetically so. They don't break new ground, they don't shatter preconceptions, they don't deliver anything in the way of adrenaline. They're the opposite of 'gross out' comedy. They celebrate the exact same things that real friends find funny when they chat together. The show looks for its humour in the same places that ordinary people look, and because it's written so skilfully, it finds more of it than most of us do.
For some reason, comedy seems to have two powerful effects. It can cut things down to size - perhaps even destroy them - and it can build people up and make us feel good. Tina Fey probably deserves all our gratitude for helping make sure that Sarah Palin is not currently Vice President. But there's no reason that the power of comedy must always be used to vaporise things. Just as useful and just as skilful is comedy that gives us a nice warm glow. Anyone interested in the latter is invited to slip into the relaxing, Radox bath that is Fags, Mags and Bags.
Instead, they are perfect worlds that anyone who hasn't had all their nerve endings fried by too much exposure to the media's mutated version of real life might happily