The Comedy Universe

‘Sounds of laughter, shades of life, are ringing through my opened ears
Inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns,
It calls me on and on across the universe’

John Lennon on heroin, 1968

fawlty camera

I’m a big fan of Fawlty Towers. Not a very original declaration, I know, but I love it. Quite clearly the finest sitcom ever made. Like The Beatles, it’s probably underrated if anything.

But there’s one rubbish thing about it that’s always bugged me: its title.

It is, with the possible exception of The Daily Politics and Have I Got A Bit More Old News For You, the worst title ever coined for a television programme. And the fact that the show itself is so magnificent only makes it more painful. What were Cleese and Booth thinking?

For a start, it’s not even a pun. There’s no such surname as Fawlty. It’s a single entendre; an innuendon’t. Its like Ronnie Barker’s character in Porridge being called Norman Stanley Cryminell, or Michael Crawford playing Frank Keepsfallingdownthestairs.

But here’s what irks me most: why did the young Basil never change his name? He’d presumably been mercilessly mocked for it throughout his bog-washed childhood, so it’s not as if he’d be unaware of its risibility. Why didn’t he change it by deed poll to something less embarrassing, like Basil Smith or Basil Tompkinson or Basil Hitler? One might speculate that he’d become proud of the surname and had decided to defiantly reclaim it – fair enough, but then that brings up another issue: why did Sybil agree to take the name as well? And not only that, but agree to name the fucking hotel after it?

I briefly wondered if, perhaps, the word ‘faulty’ simply didn’t exist in the Fawlty Towers universe. Maybe we hear the Fawlty/faulty pun but the characters don’t? Nice theory, but it’s not true – in the episode Communication Problems, Mrs Richards (now that’s another sensible surname Basil could have picked) refers to it directly: ‘The manager’s faulty?’ she barks at Polly. ‘What’s wrong with him?’. Which is an understandable reaction, seeing as it’s NOT ACTUALLY A NAME.

This got me thinking about comedy universes in general, and how they never really bear close scrutiny, even when the comedy itself is excellent.


The universe yesterday, sharing a joke

John Shuttleworth, for example, is one of the finest comedy characters ever created. Graham Fellows’ sublime performance is so utterly believable that there’s a part of me which adamantly refuses to believe the character doesn’t actually exist. I feel the same way about Dame Edna Everage and (in his early years at least) Alan Partridge. These characters sometimes feel more real than real people; surreal in the original ‘beyond realism’ meaning of the word.

And yet there’s a conceptual flaw behind them all. With Shuttleworth, it’s a simple one: his songs are really good. They’re not only catchy, but musically inventive and lyrically witty. As tunesmiths go, he’s as good as Paul McCartney. If Shuttleworth really existed, he wouldn’t still be living in a suburban house posting out cassette demos and being managed by his next door neighbour – he’d be huge. At the very least, he’d have a lucrative career writing ad jingles. For the joke to work, Shuttleworth has to be a ‘failure’, but for entertainment purposes the songs can’t actually be bad.

I’ve seen Shuttleworth in the theatre and the crowd has quite rightly roared throughout. But who are we, the audience, in this fiction? Do we exist outside of the Shuttleworth universe? No, because Shuttleworth responds to our reaction; he doesn’t say ‘Hang on, why do you all know the words to Pigeons in Flight?’. Nor does he acknowledge the incongruity of him playing a sell-out residency in a major London venue. So what is the conceit?  It doesn’t work. Except of course it does.


On Dame Edna’s chat show, the guests simultaneously play along with the idea that the character is real and giggle along to remarks that they’d only find funny if they knew full-well she wasn’t. Again, the presence of the audience complicates things – who are they? They laugh at Edna, but they (as characters in the universe) would presumably only attend the recording if they (as characters in the universe) genuinely thought Edna was talented and worth seeing.

Indeed, in the Edna universe, the joke rests on the premise that Edna is simultaneously a megastar and not a megastar: on one level, the joke is about her delusions of grandeur and lack of self-awareness, and yet…she still has a primetime ITV chat show boasting big-name Hollywood guests. Those guests play along as if she is a megastar, and yet the programme is only funny because she isn’t.

dame edna

There’s a running joke in Alan Partridge’s chat show Knowing Me Knowing You that the programme is constantly losing viewers. But if Knowing Me Knowing You really existed, it would be a massive so-bad-it’s-good cult hit; millions would tune in to see Alan’s latest gaffes and disasters. We, as viewers, have to willingly suspend our disbelief here, or the entire conceit collapses. And again, the studio audience plays two roles: they operate both as extras (applauding the guests and being in shot during certain scenes) and as outsiders who laugh at a remove.

What’s odd is that sometimes these universe issues are a ‘problem’ and sometimes they’re not. My friend has always been amused by the Mr Bean exam sketch – not just because it’s superb, but because of the implied back-story that Mr Bean spent three years studying mathematics. Possibly with Rudolph Walker marking his trigonometry assignments. Another friend of mine once talked about how the cast of Hi-De-Hi! were clearly never briefed on whether they should remain in character during the ‘You have been watching’ end credits. It is, after all, unclear whether it’s Spike Dixon or Jeffrey Holland holding up the rubber octopus as if to say ‘Do you remember the laughs we had with this six minutes ago?’.

In contrast, I’ve always felt slight dissatisfaction with the Brian Pern mock documentaries: its universe often feels inconsistent, specifically in regard to how famous Pern and Thotch are meant to be. If Pern is meant to be a crap version of Peter Gabriel, he wouldn’t have the clout to do half the stuff he does, but if he’s meant to be well-loved then half the jokes don’t work. Also, we now live in a world where pretty much every dinosaur from every music genre is respected as a legend/national treasure, but Pern still seems to be set in a world where such people are routinely mocked.

I’ve also always had a slight problem with The Rutles. Neil Innes’s pin-sharp pastiches seem to belong in a different film to the broad gags coming out of Eric Idle’s mouth.

But it’s in sitcoms where comedy universes are particularly interesting. On one of the commentaries for the 1980s Channel 4 sitcom Chance in a Million, lead actor Simon Callow talks about how sitcoms exist in ‘a sort of never-never land’. He was responding to the notion of sitcoms ‘dating’, arguing that the programmes are never really set in the present to begin with – instead, they’re set in a slightly woozy mixture of the past, present and future, a bit like A Clockwork Orange or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I’d cite Bottom as a good example sitcom here – a show that’s notionally set in the 1990s, but also seems to co-exist in an alternate reality which feels more like the 1950s.

I think Callow hits the nail on the head with ‘never-never land’, and it partly explains why comedy universes ‘work’ even when they theoretically shouldn’t.


Found this earlier. Promotional photo. Thought it apt.

Chance in a Million, in fact, is a fascinating case study. It was a conscious attempt by writers Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss to semi-lampoon the conventions of traditional sitcom by making coincidence itself the central joke. When you no longer have to contrive plausible reasons for coincidences to happen, interesting things start happening – a bit like how entire ‘worlds’ are visible when you look at a speck of dust under a microscope. You can do jokes that you couldn’t do in a more naturalistic show.

As a (slightly strange) child I always used to wonder two things about sitcoms. Firstly, why do the characters never laugh at the funny lines? And secondly, what happens after the programme ends? And indeed before it starts? Is their life normally ‘serious’, but only funny within that 30-minute window? Or is their life constantly funny and we’re privileged to experience a tiny sliver? Are they like refrigerator lights, where we cannot determine if they exist after we close the door? If Del Boy falls over in an empty wine bar, does anyone hear him plummet?

As a  comedy fan, I’ve pondered on these questions all my life, and I think my conclusion is that comedy is a bit like opera.

You see, in an opera, the characters sing throughout, but at no point does anyone say ‘Why are we all singing? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just talked normally?’. This is because, within the universe of the opera, the characters don’t hear the singing as singing. To them, it sounds like spoken dialogue – only we the audience can hear the music. I think comedy operates the same way: characters in a sketch show or sitcom don’t hear the jokes as jokes, and if they did then the comedy universe would implode.

It’s why I’ve always had a problem with ‘serious bits’ in comedy shows – they always feel like an imposed genre-change. I used to think ‘comedy’ and ‘serious’ were two sides of the same coin, but I’d now go further and say they’re the same thing. After all, we generally only bother to make jokes about things which (in a broad sense) trouble and terrify us  – there’s a good reason why there are countless jokes about death but very few about rainbows. We primarily laugh at stuff we take seriously, so to suddenly have a ‘Let’s get serious’ moment feels not only redundant but also a nonsensical category error.

It’s also why I have a problem with comedians doing adverts. Not for earnest Bill Hicks reasons (although I still think he had a point), but because I think the comedy universe and the ad universe are incompatible. Adverts are, by definition, humourless: even if they’re really funny (and many are), they’re still existentially humourless. Lots of you will be howling at the screen now, but hear me out. You’ve come this far.

Within the universe of an advert for Colin’s Crabsticks, the one thing the comedian cannot say is ‘Colin’s Crabsticks are bloody awful’. Their job in the ad is to carry the message that Colin’s Crabsticks are brilliant. That’s what they’re paid for, and that’s what they do. Even in ‘ironic’ ads, the message is still a positive one: ‘Buy this, it’s good.’ As something of a romantic comedy fan who believes a comedian’s job is to blow raspberries at the king and say ‘That’s not true’, something about this always sticks in my throat. A comedian in an ad is no longer a comedian. Or, to quote George Constanza in Seinfeld, ‘Worlds are colliding!’

fry ad

Fry and Laurie in their famous sketch about building societies being wonderful 

But anyway, that’s all we’ve got time for on ‘What the Fuck Are You Talking About, Mike?’.

Now that really would be a good title for a show.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s