One of my favourite pastimes when I am in England is – no, not traipsing around historical palaces, though I do that too – watching television. I know, this sounds a bit sad.
But believe me, it is anything but, because my channel of choice is the one that specialises in showing ‘retro comedy’, ie all the comedy shows that I grew up giggling on.
As I write this, I have just had my fill of the third series of Blackadder, the show that was set in the Regency period and premiered in 1987. And I am pleased to inform you that the series hasn’t lost its appeal with time.
Rowan Atkinson is still brilliant in the lead role of Blackadder. Hugh Laurie’s foppish, idiotish Prince of Wales is super fun to watch. Stephen Fry is hilarious as the bloodthirsty Duke of Wellington. Though I have to admit that Tony Robinson’s Baldrick with his catchline "I have a cunning plan" remains my favourite character.
But as I chuckled and giggled and sometimes laughed out so loud that I may have woken up guests in the next room, I also started to wonder why some comedy shows never date in decades while others lose their appeal after a couple of years.
Or in other words, what makes for classic comedy that we return to time and again? Well, sometimes it is just nostalgia for a lost age that keeps us coming back to certain shows.
In my case, Friends is the series that closely shadowed my own coming of age, getting a proper job, living away from home and forming adult relationships. So the travails of Rachel and Ross, Phoebe, Joey, Monica and Chandler don’t just tickle my funny bone (though they do that too).
They also serve as an aide memoire of my own youth, taking me back in time when I was fresh out of college and launching myself as a fully grown person into the adult world.
So, Friends will always have a special place in my heart because of its timing; though the brilliant writing doesn’t hurt either. But personal identification with a series and its characters isn’t always necessary. Sometimes it’s just the sheer comedic brilliance of a show that refuses to fade with the passing of time.
Fawlty Towers falls squarely in that category. No matter how many times I watch it, the scene where Basil Fawlty goose-steps around the hotel ("Don’t mention the war!") always has me in hysterics.
As does Manuel, when he says with the most pious expression on his face, "I know nothing!". I know
the script so well by now, that I find myself mouthing the catchphrases before the characters do, but
that doesn’t make them any less funny.
Another show whose re-runs I never tire of watching is Frasier. This was probably one of the first
‘cerebral comedies’ I ever saw. The writing wasn’t just witty, it was sparkling with intelligence and sprinkled with literary and cultural allusions that gave it a certain heft. Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier was a study in
comedic skill, but it was his brother Niles Crane, played by David Hyde Pierce, and his obsession with
Daphne (Jane Leeves) that was my favourite bit of the show.
Remembering my old favourites also got me thinking. Which of the current lot of comedy shows do you think will seem just as fresh another 20 years down the line?
Well, my money is on the following:
Modern Family: Yes, am sure that two decades from now, the premise of the show – how the definition of family has changed in modern times – won’t seem quite so revolutionary. But the laughs will come just as readily, whether they are provoked by ‘cool dad’ Phil Dunphy, the caricature-like Gloria Pritchett, the ditzy Haley or the nerdy Alex, or even the uptight suburban mom, Claire. And I defy anyone to keep a straight face through Cameron’s epic meltdowns.
Veep: I was never a great fan of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in her Seinfeld days but with Veep she has won me over completely. Her performance as the neurotic, highly strung Vice President of America (who later graduates to become President) is a marvel of comic timing, helped along with some fabulous writing by Armando Iannucci.
Miranda: This one is a personal favourite of mine, so there may be an element of wishful thinking here. But I can’t help but feel that the adventures of the awkward singleton, Miranda, with her joke-gift shop and her posh but pushy mother, will never get old.
How can anyone keep a straight face, no matter how far into the future, when Miranda steps out of a black cab, getting her wraparound dress caught in the door, and is left shivering in her underwear on the road as the dress is ripped clean off her!
Episodes: This is the one in which Matt LeBlanc plays himself (or at least a fictionalised version of himself) as the star of a comedy show called Pucks. The show has travelled to America from England along with its husband-wife writer team of Sean and Beverley, having been completely transformed along the way (and not for the better, either). But while Pucks will soon die an unlamented death on the show, I suspect that Episodes will live on and on and on.
From HT Brunch, July 12
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