Television Tragic Comedies

By Tan, Clarissa | The Spectator, August 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Television Tragic Comedies


Tan, Clarissa, The Spectator


How did our comedies become so sad?

BBC1's new sitcom Big School (Fridays) opened with a scene that would probably tickle the ribs of many, but I, in my usual humourless way, found it depressing. Chemistry teacher Mr Church, played by David Walliams, hoped to excite his morbidly uninterested pupils about the effects of dunking a bottle of cold liquid nitrogen in warm water by using hundreds of table-tennis balls to dramatise the resultant explosion. But the bell rang, and his students filed out of class radiating boredom and contempt, leaving Mr Church gazing forlornly at a thousand ping-ponging shells.

A similar sense of vulnerability permeated Boom Town, BBC3's 'structured reality' series featuring a host of real-life eccentrics doing eccentric things in partly choreographed set pieces. (There's a wannabe fashion designer, who tries to sell her dresses made of sanitary pads, a man who thinks he's a witch, and so on. ) A couple - we never really know how aware they are of being made fun of - think they're terrifically good actors and the camera shows them rehearsing shudderingly amateurish scenes that are made all the more excruciating by the couple's apparent sincerity. I laughed, but my laughter was hollow.

The sense of bleakness that creeps into these shows is sometimes intentional, sometimes not. Big School belongs to that now-familiar subset of the Comedy of Embarrassment, where people very much like you and me, adults who should know better, are shown making asses of themselves, fumbling in situations such as offering a ride home to the new French mistress in one's sputtering Austin Maxi. These people are funny not so much because they are stupid or clumsy or evil, but because they are that most terrible of things - uncool.

This is fine as far as it goes, I suppose, but in Big School a complication arises: the series needs to feature minors in the form of secondary-school students. It would be harsh to make fun of young teens, even though these teens do terribly grown-up things, such as sending text messages with photos of their genitalia attached and imbibing hard liquor. They escape detention by bullying hapless teachers. Big School deals with this by involving the schoolchildren as little as possible in the main plotlines, so that they appear only in sequences where their delinquency is used to garner laughs at the expense of the adults. …

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