The Cruelty of Comedy

Gareth Barsby tells us why the best telly comedy isn’t always the most pleasant. 

The world of comedy isn’t always so cheerful. Mark Twain notes, “The secret source of humour itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humour in Heaven.” Indeed, the very best comedies take miserable people in miserable situations, and make us laugh at them. Fawlty Towers would be boring if the hotel was a five-star paradise, and we wouldn’t enjoy places like Springfield and Royston Vasey if their residents were less potty. Thus a lot of comedy can come from cruelty to not only the less-glamorous cast members, but perfectly sympathetic characters, too. It actually can be funny when a character sees their heart’s desire in front of them, only for that desire to be pulled away from them – all along it was attached to a fishing line wielded by the writers. And we laugh because we feel sorry for the characters. Here are some of the poor bastards getting a dollop of pathos.

Baron Blackadder No More – Blackadder’s Christmas Carol

In BBC’s famous series, there were many Blackadders and Baldricks, but they were not so different from one another. Though they were given different time periods to play with, Rowan Atkinson entertained with his quips and sarcastic remarks, and the usually intelligent Tony Robinson would play his not-so-sharp foil. Life would not treat them well, either – Edmund spends years writing a manuscript only to have it roasted to a crisp.

The Christmas special Blackadder’s Christmas Carol is slightly different;  Ebenezer Blackadder, though he does have his moments of sardonic commentary, is the kindest man in England but his charity has left him without money or even any presents. Though he wishes that God will deliver a Christmas miracle, he ends up poorer. Even when it looks like his luck will turn around, and Queen Victoria visits him saying she is looking to reward the virtuous, she’s only there to ask if they have any money.

On Christmas Eve, however, due to mistakes made by the Spirit of Christmas, Ebenezer decides it would be more enjoyable to be villainous, and the next morning, insults and robs from the people he once gave to. As fate would have it, on that day, Queen Victoria returns to Ebenezer’s moustache shop, intending to reward him for his kindness with the title of Baron Blackadder and £50,000. Sadly, she doesn’t find the kind Ebenezer Blackadder, but rather a furious curmudgeon who sees her only as “the winner of the Shortest, Roundest, Dumpiest Woman in Britain Award.” Thus, all plans to reward Ebenezer are cancelled.

Considering earlier in the special we saw Ebenezer struggle with little resources, he is not unsympathetic here, but it still feels like a fitting and deserved punishment – Blackadder refused the answers to his prayers, and he has no-one but himself to blame. What makes this especially humorous is that Blackadder doesn’t discover the identity of his visitor at the very end. Baldrick shows him the Royal Seal Victoria left seconds before the credits roll – and the look on Blackadder’s face in those seconds is all the audience needs to make the gag work.

Homer’s Perfect World – The Simpsons

Though later seasons of the show may have made him a “jerkass,” the reason audiences loved watching The Simpsons for so many years was because we felt bad for Homer. Though he was lazy and idiotic, he did genuinely love his family and acknowledged his flaws, so we sympathised with him when his quest for happiness was thwarted, whether by Bart or Mr. Burns or even God himself.

In the non-canon “Treehouse of Horror V,” Homer is finally treated well by the world, only for him to undo it all. An attempt to fix the toaster causes Homer to inadvertently invent a time machine, and thanks to him bumbling around in prehistoric times, he changes the future several times. One alternate reality features none other than Ned Flanders ruling the world with an iron fist and a wide smile. Another has Bart and Lisa as giants.

Yet another is Homer’s heaven; his family are rich with an elegantly decorated home – even Maggie has a dummy with a diamond – his maligned sisters-in-law are dead, and Bart is far more polite than usual. It looks like things have finally turned in Homer’s favour… until it turns out that Marge has no idea what a doughnut is. This revelation about the altered world leads Homer to travel back in time again… but just as he leaves, it starts raining doughy treats.

As opposed to the drawn-out gags that would populate the show’s later seasons, this scene is quick yet effective, small but telling. Poor Homer, with his lack of critical thought and the way everything seems to be against him, will never find true happiness and this scene is all the proof we need.

No Prize for Basil – Fawlty Towers

Great comedy arises from chaos, and what British comedy understood that better than Fawlty Towers? Every episode revolved around hotel owner Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) attempting to retain order and keep his guests satisfied, only for his frustration to grow and for the episode to end with egg on his face.

“Communication Problems” is one such episode. Despite the fact that his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) banned him from gambling, Basil bets on a racehorse and wins £75. Knowing his wife will be furious if she finds out what he did, he demands staff members Manuel (Andrew Sachs) and Polly (Connie Booth) don’t say a word about his bet. The rest of the episode is him trying to keep his winnings a secret from his wife, but he entrusts his money to the senile Major (Ballard Berkeley), who soon forgets Basil ever gave him the cash, and a rather disagreeable guest, Mrs. Richards, is convinced someone stole some of her own. Just as Basil manages to reclaim his winnings, Richards claims his money is hers.

The charade drives Basil to shirt-stripping insanity, but then in comes a delivery man with a vase for Mrs. Richards as well as her missing money. Just when it seems Basil may come out on top this time, the Major suddenly spills the beans on Basil’s bet, leading Basil to drop Richards’ vase. How much did that vase cost? Why, £75.

Basil is rude and obnoxious, yet he is not unlikeable – he is played by Cleese, after all – and knowing his wife, it is understandable why he kept up the charade. We want him to succeed, but at the same time, we acknowledge he got what he deserved.

Let’s Give A Hand – Psychoville

Speaking of obnoxious-yet-likeable characters, BBC’s Psychoville was full of them. You might look at Reece Shearsmith’s Mr. Jelly and deduce that he is not a clown you want at a birthday party; he looks more Pennywise than Ronald McDonald. Yet the third episode of the show give him a sympathetic backstory – he used to be a friendly, cheerful, popular clown until the amputation of his hand ruined his act, and his doctor, who became Mr. Jolly, usurped his position. Needless to say, in a comedy in the vein of The League of Gentlemen, it only gets worse from there.

In the second series, Jelly learns his rival was involved in illegal organ transplanting, so, disguising himself as Jolly, he and his senile elderly sidekick Claudia Wren try to investigate. While in storage, Jelly comes across something he wasn’t expecting – his hand. His amputated hand, so perfectly preserved it could be reattached.

There’s another grisly surprise waiting for Jelly though – a severed head. The shock leads to Jelly dropping his hand, and it shatters to pieces. Jelly’s reaction is similar to our own: “Oh shit.” The shock is simultaneously relieved and punctuated by Claudia’s response: “Oops, butterfingers.”

“Kill your darlings,” it is suggested to many a writer, and stories, especially comedies, work if the writer is willing to not only love the characters, but to torture them, too. These four gags were kicks in the teeth to the characters, but they were funny because the audience liked and related to them. If we can laugh at their problems, perhaps we can laugh at our own.

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