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August 13, 2006

To do a Proper Gallows Laugh Requires a Stiff Upper Lip.

Curlicues [published on August 5, 2005 in "The Flatland Oracles"]

Terror brings politics to comedy. The London bombings mean comedy at Edinburgh will be the most political since the 1970s, the Fringe boss says. [BBC News | Entertainment | UK Edition]

         I remember reading a comment shortly after 9-11 by some pundit or maven (I truly don't remember who) that those tragic events had put the Nineties into proper perspective---specifically that it had overnight sucked out all the edgy, cynical humor that the Nineties had spawned.  Seinfeld was mentioned, I remember.  The pundit's/maven's position was that this was a good thing---he clearly thought it was time to put the brakes on all of that flippancy and irreverence towards God, the law, and our elected officials.  Time for a return to basic values---and a nation capable of being amused by Everybody Loves Raymond!  Time to put a stop on the smug, cold-hearted humor perpetrated by Seinfeld and its imitators!

        I'm sorry, but Seinfeld? Seinfeld wasn't exactly what you'd call mordant.  Curb Your Enthusiasm is, yes, but note that it's on HBO.  You couldn't show CYE on any network.  Americans basically just aren't fans of mordant wit (particularly at the expense of sacred cows) or of the gallows laugh.

         For that we have to look to the Brits.  And when we do,  many people are shocked!  shocked I tell you! to find out just how fundamentally cynical and mean-spirited British comedy can be.  We might have been evolving in that direction---Curb Your Enthusiasm, the HBO series by Jerry Seinfeld's co-creator is definitely bitterly funny in the British mode and Arrested Development is also in the mode---but Arrested Development is apparently struggling in the ratings and the Larry David offering is on HBO.   

       There have been several aborted movements by American producers to imitate madly successful British comedies like Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, the various ‘Alan Partridge’ series, Green Wing, or (darkest of the dark) Nighty Night.  It can't be done.  You can't make---or be successful---with an American show that is that mean.  You can't  do it even if you try to imitate the British formula, because Americans who will laugh at Brits being cynical/ironic/bitterly funny/trenchant/mordant  will (generally speaking) not laugh if the perpetrator of the bitterness is American.   

        And quite a few of us don’t find it funny when they do it either.  A friend of mine recently wrote:

I just watched the first two episodes of “Green Wing.”  Almost all of the characters are despicable  -- and very strange as well as mean.  It is as if one populated a hospital with a lot of clones of the lead female character from “Nighty Night.”  I know that some of the critics love the show.....Maybe it will grow on me with time....  Maybe it's because I am a “Yank,” but I find Scrubs, although in some ways “sillier,” to be more good-natured and edifying, teaching, if one will, moral lessons.

             I too am a Yank but seriously?  Ugh.  I like Scrubs fine and I do watch it, but I liked it a lot better in its early phases before it became ‘edifying.’  I suppose that once a program becomes really popular here the writers fall victim to the MASH syndrome or there is pressure in that direction and they start bringing the ‘edifying.’   I can get moral lessons from reading Time Magazine or---these days---The New York Times, thanks.  For relief from the solemnity and fear that surrounds me in these dark times, I need someone to mock the darkness. 

            So I hope that the Brits hang on to their cynicism and that very British ability to laugh through their stiff upper lips.  I hope that they won’t let the tragedies of the last two months turn them into a nation of solemn, canting, fearful post-Millenial Puritans.

Other Monty Python fans will remember the last scene in  Life of Brian (which probably wouldn’t make it into American theaters nowadays).   “Always look at the bright side of life—or death/Just before you draw your terminal breath.”  It’s such a British attitude, but it’s one I’d commend to my fellow Americans (or to those who still retain a sense of humor). 

            When the darkness closes in and your knees are knocking together with fear, that gallows laugh is so liberating.

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