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The Long Lost Golden Era Of Comedy

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I'm not one to harp on about how I don't understand the youth very often. That's not least because I grew up in the 80s and 90s where shell suits and bumbags were popular - something which I would never expect anyone ever to understand. So aside from getting confused about how anyone can listen to more than three dubstep tracks in a row without feeling like they need a shit, I am wary of criticising anything or pretending that it was much better in my day.

This past week though, I've been tuning into C4 late at night to watch parts of their Funny Fortnight run of shows, including repeats of classic episodes of Jam, Brasseye, Spaced, The Harry Hill Show, Vic Reeve's Big Night Out and Peter Cook's appearance on Clive Anderson, amongst others.

These shows that were written with no briefs, no constraints of what may or may not offend the average Daily Mail readers, no worries about what demographic its for, and they all made me realise that actually the kids today are getting a pretty raw deal on television comedy. As an erstwhile comedian all I've had my fair share of, often just, television rejections, but some of them have been ridiculous, ranging from 'these are dark times so we don't want dark humour' or 'there's already enough political satire on TV with Mock The Week'. This is nothing however compared to some (fairly big named acts) I know having their sitcom about Norse Gods rejected because 'no one knows who Norse gods are anymore' or that a series based in Victorian times is 'too niche.' The creativity element of television comedy has been well and truly beaten out of the system.

When I was a teenager I'd excitedly watch The Day Today or Friday Night Armistice feeling as though I'd discovered something exciting, being amazed at Iannucci's commentary on the government or Morris's parodying of current affairs even if I didn't understand it all at the time. Now comedy is made for target audiences, assuming that teens will only like crude humour assigned to BBC3, middle aged types subject to the bland endless dross of panel shows and it's generally assumed old people don't laugh anymore. It's all down to budget and ratings. If a show has any hint of not pulling in all the viewers than it won't be made. And how can TV trust any of these comedian people who spend their lives making people laugh with making a show that might actually be funny? They can't because who can trust actual laughter eh? So it must be the role of the producers and execs to say that everything needs to be like the Inbetweeners or to, as in the case of one sketch group I know, insert shots of a turd in the street into the pilot episode as 'that's what people laugh at.' These people believe they know what comedy is, exactly how it works and what should be on, even though the idea of setting foot on a stage would terrify them. As a result long gone are the days where you would discuss with friends how amazing the Jack Straw's cannabis surgery on Mark Thomas's Comedy Product was or how the made up drug 'cake' from Brasseye made it to parliament. Or the sketches that didn't quite work on Big Train or Big Night Out but revelling in the sheer boldness of doing them. Instead people now say 'you have to see it! There was a bit when his ball was hanging out of his pants!' or 'did you see when that nobody that no one cares about off that shit reality TV show was persuaded to get in a car with someone who pretended to be blind?' Don't get me wrong, I'm all for stupid or crude humour but there's very little evidence of any of it being done cleverly anymore.

None of the classic shows being shown on C4 over the Funny Fortnight would get made now, or would have a very different feel. Spaced, originally written by friends, starring their friends and directed by a friend all with a similar image in mind, would have to have a celebrity in it for it to work. The script whilst written by Pegg and Hynes would be thrown through eight different development assistants and script readers until it became an entirely different show with a younger cast and more 'current' themes. Renamed 'Totally Spaced Out!' you'd have Tim Bisley, played by Russell Tovey and Daisy, played by anyone who's in Nuts magazine loads, who end up having an awkward one night stand where they realise they both need a flat, so why not move in as friends with benefits? Tim works in a music store in Shoreditch and Daisy is a model who is constantly in her underwear. Their friends are Mikey, played by James Corden and Brian a 'wacky' graphic designer played by someone with a regional accent and pretty hair. The producers and director would be too young to understand any of the film references so they'd all be scrapped for poor Twilight gags or jokes about Peter Andre. The episode everyone talks about as a 'classic' is where they go clubbing but Mikey goes to take a shit and halfway through realises there is no toilet roll, meanwhile both Tim and Brian sleep with Daisy by accident. Or something like that.

There are of course exceptions to this rule with the up and coming Kevin Eldon series, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle and the Thick Of It being recent examples. Even then, they aren't exactly new unknowns that are being given a chance. The US has had several great comedies at the moment. Though the future of one of my favourites, Community, is in jeopardy due to a studio caring more about ratings than quality once again. Someone on Twitter the other day said that they liked a comedy, before pointing out all the things that were wrong with it and eventually succumbing to 'well its better than other stuff on.' This is where we are at now. Settling for the least crap of all the bad stuff. I hope that lots of people are watching and remembering shows like Garth Merenghi's Darkplace or The Harry Hill Show. I hope they are watching it and comparing it to telly now that has little or no heart to it and that finally viewing figures will show we need that sort of output again. Otherwise I will have to continue to feel old and reminisce on that golden era when those in charge of entertainment weren't so scared of the letting the entertainers entertain.

Note 1: I am always happy to be proved wrong. If there is a TV program of recent years that you think is truly brilliant that I haven't mentioned, please let me know. I'm sure I've missed some good ones like Limmy's Show which I keep hearing is ace. And Alan Partridge doesn't count as Coogan has a legacy already.

Note 2: I am fully aware that you might not like some of the shows I've mentioned, in which case, remember ones you do like or at least acknowledge the change in writing. If it wasn't for people like you that will want to comment on something that you don't agree with I wouldn't put this and telly might not care as much either. In fact I blame you entirely for all of this.