The last laugh

Sunshine on Putty: the golden age of British comedy from Vic Reeves to <em>The Office</em>

Ben Tho

In the town where I live an eccentric pensioner helps keep the streets clean. He fills the cardboard box on his bicycle with glass bottles, metal cans and plastic containers plucked from under hedges and park benches, and takes them for recycling. His image sprang to mind as I grappled with Ben Thompson's book about the past decade of British comedy. This is a magpie's collection of recycled interviews, random anecdotes and uncritical hagiography strung together in glutinous footnote-encrusted prose. Authors generally come in two types: those who know when to trim the first draft so that each sentence bears some relation to the next, and those such as Thompson who type "But I digress . . ." and carry on regardless.

There may be a generation of comedy obsessives who will buy this book for the picture of Ricky Gervais on the cover, or the one of Vic Reeves on his Norton motorcycle. They may wish to know what Reeves and Mortimer said to Jonathan Ross at their first meeting in 1987. There may be media studies students whose hearts will skip a beat at finding a book that zigzags aimlessly from Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud to Ulrika Jonsson and Jerry Springer. But anyone hoping for an inside track to comedy success or an insight into how the business works will be disappointed.

Thompson is most at home in the world of stand-up comedy, in those fetid cellars where men and women in black T-shirts make jokes about their genitals, but he offers few insights. He has a shaky grasp of the difficult relationship between live and filmed comedy, and the barriers between the very different genres of stand-up, sketch comedy and half-hour situation comedy. Thompson knows what he likes (Steve Coogan, Chris Morris, Caroline Aherne, Father Ted and The Office) and what he doesn't (Ben Elton).

Few would disagree with his list of favourites, but his interviewing technique is too sycophantic to dig under the surface. The real problem in writing about comedy is not identifying the shows that make us laugh (we all have our top ten), but understanding why some work better than others. Thompson fails to make a convincing case for the 1990s being the golden age because his explanation of what happened in earlier decades is so patchy.

Sitcom is a fiendishly difficult genre to write and nine shows out of ten fail. Even the masters - Galton and Simpson, Clement and La Frenais, Perry and Croft - have produced their share of duds. Performing it well is just as hard, as many a comedian has discovered. When the writing and the acting come together, a range of unforgettable characters spring to life - the Steptoes, the Fawltys, Captain Mainwaring, Fletcher and Godber, Bob and Terry, Ted and Dougal, Victor Meldrew and more recently David Brent. Why do we all know a Victor Meldrew, but not a Ben Harper, the grumpy dentist in My Family? Why did Absolutely Fabulous become repetitive and self-indulgent while Dad's Army got better and better after an uncertain start? Why is the team-written My Family less funny than the great American sitcoms on which it is modelled, such as Frasier? What do Father Ted and The Office have in common?

OK, I'll answer that one. Just as all Russian literature is said to have sprung from Gogol's Overcoat, all great British sitcoms owe a huge debt to Steptoe and Son. Father Ted has a surreal visual style and a constant stream of sight gags, while The Office is shot in hyper-realist documentary style with no gags, no punchlines and no laughter track. But under the surface they both rely on character and relationships. Like the Steptoes, Ted and Dougal are father and son. Like Ted Crilly, David Brent is the dysfunctional father of a family. In The Office, even the subordinate relationships between his children (Tim and Dawn) are convincing. Steve Coogan's comic creation Alan Partridge is a monster in the David Brent class, but has no meaningful relationships, which leaves us indifferent to his fate.

Great comedy has very little to do with the Zeitgeist and lots to do with the eternal truths of human behaviour. It deserves serious analysis in a critical and comprehensive book, but unfortunately this isn't it. Comedy fans would do better to spend £14.99 on the collected scripts of Ronnie Barker and spend the leftover penny on one of Ken Dodd's tickling sticks.

John Morrison is a journalist and script writer

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The Hutton report - How a judge let Blair off