Comedy’s Lifespan.

I am a big fan of Radio 4’s long running topical comedy show; “The Now Show”. I’ve been listening to it regularly and enjoying it for six years or more.

A while ago I picked up a copy of 'The Best of The Now Show' from a charity shop for the grand sum of one pound. I listened to the CD expecting some sort of nostalgia for topical matters of the past but what I got was something quite alien. It was The Now Show that I knew and loved, and they where doing the normal Now Show jokes and the studio audience sounded like they where loving it. But I had no idea what they where talking about. I listened the all four episodes and really had no connection to any of the events they referenced.

I realise this CD must have been produced before I started listening to the show. Emma Kennedy was a regular, and I have no idea when she was a member of the cast. But it got me thinking about topical comedy. And I think this is the major problem with topical humor is that it doesn’t last. The Now Show CD I purchased could have been from Mars as I couldn’t recognise any of it.

Just a few weeks ago I found a sketch I wrote about Leo Sayer in a folder marked “Lesser Works” on my computer. I wrote it back when Leo Sayer had just been on the Celebrity Big Brother and came across as a bit of a miserable bugger clinging on to what little fame he had left. I wrote a “topical” sketch where he was trying to rekindle is career by appearing on Stars In Their Eyes, as himself. He leaves the studio in the cloud of smoke and returns moments later, looking exactly the same. He starts to sing, but gets frustrated with the audience’s lack of appreciation. He has a bit of a breakdown, and forces himself out of the set in a similar fashion to how he left the Big Brother show. I recall being rather pleased with the sketch at the time but even I had to remind myself of the story which has been forgotten now with the rest of Leo Sayers career.

How many times have you seen an episode of Mock the Week, or Have I Got News For You being repeated on Channel Dave and thought “Gee I’d forgotten that” or had to get someone your with to remind you what the news story they are talking about was. Maybe I am more forgetful than most but personally I find that happening all the time.

I recall reading the Novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” By Laurence Stern. Which I admit to struggling though for two reasons; Firstly I found his the style in which its written a little difficult to penetrate, and secondly, I had to keep flipping to the back of the book to see what his references where too. It ruined the flow of what was a rather interesting and at times funny book.

So maybe its not just topical comedy that ages badly, but comedy in general?

My Friend Larry, who performs in the sketches I write with me, was in a play a few months back. It was a production of Twelfth Night which had been updated to the 1940’s. Not being much of a thesp myself, I knew nothing about the play, but I was really pleased to see it was an incredibly fun and silly play. But one that doesn’t really stand up logically to a modern audience unless all the characters are incredibly short sighted. But in old Bill Shakespeare’s time all the rolls would be played by men, so the lead would be playing a man playing a woman dressed up as a man. It’s basically mocking the conventions of theater of the time. I enjoyed the play a lot. But I had the feeling that a lot of the audience had come there see a heavy Shakespeare tragedy and where of the opinion that you cannot laugh at art and enjoy it too.

Picture taken from the Wateryard Group website

Pyhton Terry Jones had written about the works of Geoffrey Chaucer claiming that a lot of people have missed the jokes through the mists of time. He argues that Chaucer’s work is much bawdier and filthier than the scholars give it credit for. In the video linked to below he claims that opening lines of the Canterbury Tales is mocking pilgrimage itself.

Terry Jones on Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”

But some comedy does seem to last longer than others. The work of Bob Hope, Marx Bothers, Morecambe & Wise, Laurel & Hardy and The Goons all seem to stand up really well. Despite some being over fifty years old.

But the thing that connects these performers is that they very rarely mock the specific things like the news or the political regime. They all seem to aim their comedic weapons on authority. Which of course, has remained pretty much the same for years.

So I guess in summery, some comedy last longer than others. But comedy that mocks specifics like; political regime or topical events seems to age much quicker.