|Above: Ricky Gervais reading the reviews for his latest attempt to stay relevant, After Life.|
An issue which is of particular interest to me is what I call "comedy snobbery". I was raised with comedy of many flavours - Laurel & Hardy, Monty Python, Blackadder, Mr Bean, Bottom, Only Fools and Horses, The IT Crowd, Alan Partridge, Reeves & Mortimer, The Office (UK), Extras, etc., as well as children's comedy such as Dick and Dom, The Basil Brush Show, and Horrible Histories. Admittedly most of it, as you can see, was British-made; having had only four analogue channels for much of my childhood I was by and large shielded from foreign exports - though some did manage to slip through, such as SpongeBob SquarePants, South Park, The Simpsons, Futurama, Flight of the Conchords, Wilson, and countless American films.
My point is, I like to think I've had a mostly broadminded comedic education. I don't think I've missed out on anything that wasn't worth missing out on (mainstream American sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, Taxi, or The Office (US) are over-obvious, over-sentimental and barely worth my time).
I'm not here to argue that there aren't comedic hierarchies - clearly I have just divulged my opinion that The Big Bang Theory is a sitcom of a lesser standard than one like Father Ted. But just because comedic hierarchies exist, doesn't mean all of them are valid. A few snobbish presuppositions are present among middle-class television critics in this country that I find completely unfounded.
Firstly, I think many TV critics of the early 21st century were overawed by the stylish minimalism of the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant collaborations The Office (UK), Extras, and An Idiot Abroad. These are all great shows, of course, and they must have been refreshing after over a decade of bombastic Fast Show-esque laugh track-laden sketch comedy. But that doesn't mean what came before was inherently inferior. While shows like Little Britain could sometimes take it too far, to dismally low-brow levels, there's nothing wrong with a bit of silliness, slapstick or blue humour once in a while. And I really can't think of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant as being particularly lofty or high-brow after consuming (and thoroughly enjoying) many an episode of The Ricky Gervais Show (the original radio programme - not the watered-down Guardian podcast version). Many of the things Gervais and Merchant say on that are more childish and vulgar than Little Britain ever could have been (and much funnier, too).
I think the critics are finally beginning to catch on in a rather sad way - Gervais' more recent output, Life's Too Short, Derek, David Brent: Life on the Road, and finally this year's After Life, have received mixed reviews. Personally I found them to have a cheap, amateurish feel (strange, after Gervais has enjoyed so many years of success) and pumped full of soppy, clumsy, on-the-nose forced drama. Life's Too Short was shoehorned with unnecessary, show-offy celebrity cameos, as parodied by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse in the following sketch (in which Nigel Farage of all people is the celebrity guest). This is surely a great symbol of revenge by the laugh track-laden sketch comedy era against their now-fallen usurpers.
Speaking of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse - along with Charlie Higson I think they're geniuses. Their comedy is often smartly satirical, yet it's never afraid to get silly or surreal.
While locating a clip of this sketch, I stumbled upon another Enfield & Whitehouse parody of Gervais & Merchant's work, this time of The Office:
"Not possible". "A different class". Do writing such things make you feel intelligent? This pretentious twaddle is worth satirising in itself.
But for now I'll move on. I really appreciate, also, comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell. I think they're very talented - they're treasures, in fact. Yes, they regularly resort to crude or low-brow humour. Yes, they often debase themselves by taking roles in truly terrible pseudo-comedy films. And this has understandably stained their reputation and earned the wrath of pinot-sipping middle-class critics the world over. But, as for Baron Cohen, I think many critics simply miss the point of him. He's not just a childish prankster. He's a professional clown, trained by the French master Philippe Gaulier himself. His "wise fool" characters speak truth to power - often making shocking revelations of almost journalistic merit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest TV programme - Who Is America?, criminally underrated by critics and definitely worth a watch.
As for Will Ferrell - he's a great comedy performer and I'm glad he exists, even if he has a habit of taking well-paid roles in big dumb blockbusters. I particularly like the Anchorman films, starring his excellent character Ron Burgundy. If, after the atrocious Holmes & Watson (which he did not write, though he did produce), you're doubting whether Ferrell still has his old magic, look (or rather, listen) no further than the new Ron Burgundy Podcast, available on iTunes. This was a real treat to discover, and I cannot recommend it enough. It's refreshingly low-key for a Will Ferrell production, and Burgundy's bombastic personality is perfectly paired with the meek sidekick Carolina Barlow (who also co-produces and co-writes). Burgundy & Carolina are honestly my new favourite comedy double act. But where did Carolina come from? She appears to have worked with Ferrell in the past, yet only in a rather obscure way. Her YouTube channel only has five subscribers at the time of writing. Regardless, I predict great things for her to come.
Speaking of female comics, here's a little sidenote for you: women can be funny. Not only Carolina Barlow, but also Catherine Tate, Tracey Ullman, Morgana Robinson and Alice Lowe, as well as comedic actresses like Tamsin Greig and Katherine Parkinson. It's long been known. The only reason it's begun to be questioned today is because of an influx of vulgar, mannish comediennes who seem to believe that the female sexual organ is the fountain of all wit. Among their number are Amy Schumer, Ellie Taylor, and, of course, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (the "face of privilege", as I describe her in a previous article). This tumour in the world of comedy is guarded on all sides by misguided white knights who think they're serving feminism by pretending to enjoy sub-standard funnywomen, in a weird example of positive discrimination. Okay, I'm generalising. Plenty of people genuinely enjoy the works of these women. I do not associate with these people.
I think it's time to wind this article to a close before I get too off-topic. I just came here to defend some comedians I really enjoy from unwarranted snobbishness. Yes, there's a definite comedy hierarchy in my mind - and in this article I've given some passionate opinions on what I think is at the bottom of it. But it's only down there because it deserves to be - nothing should be judged on the basis of pseudo-intellectual snobbery.