British comedy that parents and children can watch and enjoy together has been a dying art form for over two decades. When I was a kid in the late 1970s and '80s my family settled down to watch Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses, Hi-de-Hi! - grown-up shows that made kids laugh - and also Danger Mouse, The Muppet Show, Worzel Gummidge, Fraggle Rock, Bananaman, Tiswas - kids' shows that made grown-ups laugh.
Through the '90s and '00s Wallace and Gromit, Mr Bean, Harry Hill and a few well-intentioned sitcoms were all that remained of a once-thriving entertainment tradition. It's tempting to blame the break-up of the traditional family and increased access to alternative technology, yet in this period the US has produced The Simpsons, Malcolm In The Middle, Everybody Hates Chris, School Of Rock, Shrek, Toy Story, The Incredibles - in fact just paste the entire output of Pixar here. Why has the UK lagged so far behind in providing quality comedy for a family audience?
One reason is money. UK television budgets have dropped and dropped over the last 20 years - and our comedy film industry never had a budget. To entertain multiple generations you need spectacle. This is why the hardcore preserves of UK family entertainment are The X Factor and Doctor Who (although while trying to re-pitch the sci-fi warhorse Russell T Davies was repeatedly told that families don't watch TV together anymore). And most of the best American family comedy costs so much to make because it's animation.
I learned how irresistible animation is to children the hard way. My stage show involves me talking to an animated cartoon boy. For years I tried to make this work as an adult show at festivals and on the stand-up circuit, but despite awards and great reviews many adults saw the cartoon boy on the poster and assumed it was a kids' show, while kids saw the cartoon boy and queued to see my very adult show with swearing and all sorts of unspeakable filth. Eventually I relented and wrote a show that kids could watch as well. Within six months my cartoon chum and I were on The Royal Variety Performance, selling out theatres, and had been commissioned for a series on CBBC. But UK television budgets can't afford to make animation alone, and our family comedy suffers for it. Cartoons that sound British are usually international co-productions that are revoiced for each territory. We have the fantastic Aardman, but without American financial help they'd take even longer to make a film.
Another reason we haven't made much decent family comedy for so long is that funny people haven't wanted to make it. For a generation family comedy has been massively uncool amongst the nation's comics. The Alternative Comedy revolution of the early 80's threw out the cosy likes of The Two Ronnies and The Good Life with the same bathwater as the politically unsound Mind Your Language, Up The Elephant And Round The Castle and The (little-bit-racist) Comedians. The brilliant iconoclasm of The The Young Ones, The Comic Strip and Saturday Live was a reaction against all that went before it; since then the way to earn your stripes as a comic has been the alternative comedy circuit, which has been strictly an adults-only affair. Comedy needs to shock and tread on taboos, and because the alternative circuit had rejected racism, sexism and homophobia the gap was filled with swearing and sexual frankness. Not the sort of thing you could comfortably watch with granny and the kids, unless you're a weirdo. Or Dutch.
This generation of comics created brilliant TV and live comedy for adults, but practically nothing for a family audience. When I started out in comedy in the mid-90's 'mainstream' and 'family comedy' were dirty words to me and my peers, ironically. They were still redolent of the blandest comic traditions of the 1980s, when Saturday evenings were dominated by the clean-but-corny likes of Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, Bobby Davro and Les Dennis. Not only was alternative comedy turning new blood to 'the dark side', we were also losing the previous generation of comics trained in family-friendly variety theatres like Eric and Ern, Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd. And those from the working men's club generation who would often be able to turn out a 'clean set' were rejected by the new elite, condemned to a life hosting game shows (where, ironically, they entertained large family audiences).
But there are signs that the form is finally creeping back to life. Comedy writers, performers and producers with a track record in grown-up comedy have been increasingly attracted to the imaginative freedom of children's TV; they apply the skills they have learned making adults laugh to making children laugh. When you can do both at once, you've got good family comedy. Witness children's shows like the multi-award-winning Horrible Histories (recently relaunched in the 6pm Sunday slot with added Stephen Fry), Sorry I've Got No Head, Big Babies, Hedz, (ahem) Little Howard's Big Question - even Vic Reeves has signed up for his own CBBC show. The kids of the 1970's and 80's are now the parents of the 2010's, who fondly remember the family viewing rituals of their childhood, and there is increasing demand for family-friendly comedy as parents look to replicate the way they were entertained when they were children.
A few trailblazers have lead the way. On TV the niche-appeal Channel 4 surrealist Harry Hill attempted a Saturday ITV family show, and found his comedy home. While in post-watershed slots Outnumbered has breathed new life into the family sitcom (even as Life Of Riley tries to kill it stone dead) and Miranda has proved that old-school sit-com can be cool, and very funny.
On the live circuit comics like James Campbell and Tiernan Douieb have started performing Comedy Club 4 Kids, challenging comics to perform for a family audience, who often find it much more rewarding than they expected. If you're at the Edinburgh Fringe or near a theatre in the next 12 months you can watch Potted Potter, Comedy 4 Kids, James Campbell, Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, (ahem) Little Howard's Big Show or 70's throwbacks Bagpuss and Mr Benn.
Hopefully with the trail well and truly blazed this will mark the beginning of a renaissance in comedy that tickles multi-generational ribs simultaneously.
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