Back to the Feelgood Sitcom

The comedy of self-recognition invites us to laugh gently at ourselves, rather than despise others

This is only a guess, but I suspect that the recession will mean a reversion to a cosier, warmer, less aggressive style of humour than we’ve had in the past. Not Dad’s Army or Hi-de-Hi perhaps, but something closer to the feelgood sitcoms of the ’70s. And possibly fewer of the shows that depend on ferocious ridicule of individuals (some of them on screen) – Have I Got News For You, for example, and Mock The Week.

It is actually easier to scorn politicians, for example, when they seem to be doing a good job. When things get difficult, as Gordon Brown is no doubt pleased to be finding out, the public tends to circle the wagons and support them. Or maybe we just don’t want to be reminded of politics and economics. Clearly we’re never going back to the situation where, in mid-1997, it seemed almost heretical to breathe a word against Tony Blair, but there seems marginally less willingness to roast our leaders.

Already there is a certain revulsion against the excesses and arrogance of comedy stars – many of them paid fabulous salaries – and this revulsion they sometimes reflect back to us. For instance, Larry David, who plays a version of himself in the hugely popular Home Box Office comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, is rich and successful, yet socially quite inept, constantly discovering that his wealth and fame are scant protection against his own stupidity. In the second series of Extras, Ricky Gervais turned the previously luckless Andy Millman into a star (he writes and appears in a desperately bad sitcom, a show within a show, with feeble jokes and grisly catchphrases) purely in order to express his loathing of the person he has become and of show business generally. In the horribly bleak Christmas special he treats an extra – as it might be himself in the previous series – with odious contempt. The message seems to be, “Look, you’re welcome to hate us. After all, we detest ourselves.”

So what can we expect? Look at the highly successful Outnumbered on BBC1, a new take on the old family sitcom, in which the adults are scripted but the children ad lib nearly all their lines. It’s not cosy, but it is warm – the comedy of self-recognition. We are not being invited to despise outsiders but to laugh gently – if loudly – at ourselves. Unnoticed except by the public, Harry Hill’s TV Burp has become a huge comedy hit on ITV. This show pillories the excesses and stupidity of day-to-day television, the soaps, hospital dramas, etc. But it too has its carefully constructed warm side. For example, Hill has excoriated the BBC’s appalling Hole In The Wall for, among other things, featuring “celebrities” you’ve never heard of. But having been rude about these people, they then invite them on to the show, which gives them invaluable exposure to millions. So we finish with warm fuzzy feelings all round. Comedy as welcoming as a Cosiglow fire is where we may well be headed for the coming grim years.

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