Comedy as art

Comedy as art

Steptoe and Son

Comedy writing has always had a harder time finding legitimacy than other forms – television comedy even more so. Different writing genres have always been prone to elitism and arbitrary labels of legitimacy or triviality, which seems a mite unfair when we look for genuine artistry.

When we consider the classic plays of Shakespeare, most people would list his tragedies high on the list; King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and others. But Shakespeare wrote a wide number of brilliant comedies as well: Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and more. Certainly, his comedies are revered, and in my mind are equally brilliant. But I’ve yet to hear an actor talk about playing Malvolio, say, with the same gravitas as he would Hamlet or Lear. Howling at the wind seems to be more respectable than making an audience laugh.

Why do we consider comedy as somehow lesser than so-called ‘serious drama’? Why is a portentous, verbose and supposedly ‘deep’ novel assigned more worth than, say, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – which is a best-selling comedy masterpiece that outsells most Booker Prize winners and is a work of true linguistic and storytelling skill?

Comedy has always had a harder time of justifying itself than most other genres. If people are laughing, apparently the writing has less weight than if people are crying. In a recent BBC Radio 2 celebration of the writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Dennis Nordern had this to say about the classic Steptoe and Son.

I always remember my daughter… one of her set books that she had to do at school was a Pinter play. And I remember at one of the Parent Teacher Association meetings, saying that there were these two blokes, Galton and Simpson, whose work was not only on a par with Pinter, in the way it used everything that Pinter used – the language and the dramatic pauses and so on – but the kind of poetry that they put into demotic speech was, to my mind, way above…and that it would be a very good idea to set a Steptoe script for English A Level.

Dennis Nordern

I certainly don’t wish to take anything away from the achievements of Harold Pinter – I’m as much of a fan as many of you may be. But there is no doubt that writing for the stage is more likely to get you on the school curriculum than writing a popular sit-com, no matter how skillful you may be.

The following is the final scenes from the Steptoe and Son pilot episode The Offer, written as a single one-off play in the Comedy Playhouse series. Entwining comedy with drama, Galton and Simpson avoided the banality of many unremarkable sit-coms and create an emotional honesty in their characters many more-acclaimed writers should marvel at. But despite the mix of strong performances and incredibly poignant dramatic moments, the comedy label sticks.

Although Galton and Simpson received a few awards over the years for their work on Steptoe and Hancock, it is fair to say that they are not considered by many to be in the same pantheon as Pinter, Potter or Brecht. Yet, if any of you have ever tried to write comedy, it is much, much harder than virtually any other genre. It requires additional ingredients beyond the universal need for strong story, structure and dialogue. It also needs to be funny – and ‘funny’ can be like trying to catch lightening.

Somehow, that extra difficulty has the ironic effect of trivialising the skill involved. Doesn’t seem fair, does it!