HOW much licence do you give your jester? Setting up comedy is a
dodgy business: your fool is supposed to make gentle fun of you, to
show the world what a good sport you are - it is a way of enhancing
your own reputation.
But if the clown has a completely free rein, and is master of
insight, courage, and wit, then you might hear stuff that is as
uncomfortable to you personally as it is hilarious to your
Comedy has the valuable property of allowing you to engage with
truths that are far too challenging to acknowledge seriously,
offering the cathartic possibility of not just learning about
yourself, but also actually changing. Hence the value of the parish
pantomime, which, if given proper freedom, should draw the sting of
every disastrous situation and initiative that overshadowed the
These solemn reflections (one of the paradoxes about humour is
that it is not possible to discuss it without becoming ridiculously
over-serious) are prompted by a surfeit of comedy programmes
broadcast last week, which all variously drew their material from
the medium that commissioned them.
By far the most significant was Harry and Paul's Story of
the 2s (BBC2, Sunday), part of the 50th-anniversary
celebration of the channel, in which Harry Enfield and Paul
Whitehouse created a merciless send-up of its character and mores.
Nothing was sacred: in the course of 60 minutes an astonishing
number of favourite series, dramas, comedies - and also the
political history of the BBC and its directors, producers, and
personalities - were skewered, pinned down, and flayed.
The whole was cast as a Simon Schama documentary, the
mannerisms, camera angles, and tracking shots faithfully captured.
Parodies of I Claudius, Boys from the
Blackstuff, The Office, Not the Nine O'Clock
News, Talking Heads, and Dennis Potter - the range
was extraordinary; Whitehouse and Enfield's script and
impersonation of the highest order. It was a brilliant programme,
conjuring up half a century of magnificent television, and
simultaneously making us laugh out loud at it.
I have only just caught up with Episodes (BBC2,
Wednesdays), a sitcom about a couple of British writers in the
world of Hollywood sitcoms. This triumphantly proves that the
United States can indeed, if only sporadically, "get" English
comedy, and this particular transatlantic marriage works very well
The central delight is Matt LeBlanc, from Friends,
demonstrating, by, as it were, showing us the workings, that the
obnoxious halfwit persona that he was required to present was just
that - a part of whose absurdity he was fully aware. I had always
assumed that that was how he really was.
Cardinal Burns (Channel 4, Wednesdays) is a sketch show
that mainly offers parodies of TV genres, but its protagonists do
so with rare energy and conviction. I particularly enjoyed the
appalling scenario, brilliantly realised, of the imbecile Best Men,
who, their stag-night buffoonery having led to the death of the
groom, simply used their excruciating wedding speech as his funeral