Damien on… “After Dark” – On Comedy
Back in the late Eighties, Channel Four (UK) began a TV show called “After Dark” – a live, late-night, open-ended discussion, between eight or nine people, with a presenter or moderator.
They sat around a long, low table, in armchairs and sofas – with the background in darkness – in which the cameras unobtrusively circled.
The show eventually fizzled out, thanks in part to the night Ollie Reed turned up drunk and embarrassed himself – a situation which was exacerbated when Victor Lewis-Smith rang up, pretending he was talking for Michael Grade and demanded the programme be taken off the air.
Which in turn resulted in a farce whereby they did so, substituting a black and white documentary on coal-mining – until they discovered Grade was on his boat and they had been hoaxed. The programme then resumed.
So what has all of this got to do with comedy? Well, every week the show would tackle a different subject, with appropriate guests.
And one week, they announced that this week, the subject would be COMEDY – and the guests would be comedy performers, writers and producers.
GREAT, I thought! At last, we would get a comprehensive, SERIOUS discussion about that subject. In the past, such discussions had degenerated into wallows through comedy nostalgia – or just ended up as joke-fests, with the comics trying to outdo each other.
However, my joy was short-lived. The series’ remit included addressing any topical issues that emerged – at which time, the planned subject would be postponed. Such a topic arose, that week.
And thus, what could have been the most MEMORABLE episode of the programme was LOST – to some political issue I cannot even remember – and it NEVER arose again. Tragedy.
So now, having been for half a century a student of showbusiness in general (and comedy in particular) I propose to attempt what After Dark FAILED to provide – a serious examination of the business of HUMOUR…
I should first admit that I have no PROFESSIONAL qualifications for such an examination. I once did five minutes at an Open Mike night, without TOTALLY dying on my arse – and I also once did some business at the Whitehall Theatre (on national TV) that got a few laughs. But that is it.
However, I AM a writer (I’m writing THIS, aren’t I?) And comedy is a close relative of drama – the idiot brother, perhaps. (See?)
And so I can tell you that drama is a three-act play. The first act sets up the situation and characters. The second introduces a new wrinkle – either a character or situation that throws the status quo into disarray.
Then the situation develops until Act Three, where the piece must achieve some sort of resolution, redemption, revelation, result – or another “R” word. And ultimately, it should deliver SOME statement about the human condition – in a way which is memorable.
But there is also the TWO-act play. Here, essentially, the first two acts are compressed into one. This tends to mean that background information regarding the situation and characters is introduced AS the development takes place.
In book form, the three-act play is a novel – and the two-act play, a short story, or novella.
Which is where COMEDY comes in.
There are many forms of comedy – satire (which, using comedy, will always drive a point home FAR more effectively than HOURS of LECTURING) farce, abstract, observation, slapstick (my personal favourite) character, situation, etc.
But – not having a WEEK to write this – I will concentrate on the humble JOKE.
My favourite gag for illustrating what comedy is, is supplied by the great Phyllis Diller. It runs thus… “My husband is so dumb – he bought a pet zebra and called it Spot.”
In just FOURTEEN WORDS – you have a three-act play. Act One: set up the situation and characters – her husband is dumb. Act Two: introduce the new wrinkle and develop the story – he bought a pet zebra. And Act Three: the resolution – and called it Spot.
You see, in a joke, you are following all the rules of drama – the only difference is, in the last act you are standing the thing on its HEAD.
Having set up a conventional situation, in one or two lines, the resolution is expected to be one thing – but you deliver something else.
Indeed, in showbiz, this device is not limited to comedy. Magic, for instance, uses it too. Most illusions are not too hard for an intelligent person to work out. The entertainment comes from your expectation of one thing – but you get something else instead. Substitution tricks RELY on this principle.
But to return to gags – the best are stories which are STRIPPED DOWN to their most basic elements. We do not need to know Phyllis’ husband’s name – it is irrelevant to the joke. Furthermore, we do not need to know how or why he obtained the zebra.
The only important factor is the final SWITCH. And the best gags reserve the “joke word” for the END – preferably (like in this one) as the LAST WORD. And as a bonus here – said word is short and SPIKY.
If you have to qualify the gag by adding words AFTER the joke word, the piece loses its EDGE – in fact, comedians will often sacrifice good grammar to FORCE that joke word to last place in the punch line.
So there it is. Hardly a comprehensive exploration of the subject of humour – merely a discussion of the technique of gag construction.
But After Dark had HOURS to examine the subject – and a roster of professionals to DO so. The boring subject that replaced the rare opportunity should be roundly CURSED – along with the Channel Four prat who allowed it to take the place of what SHOULD have been a LEGENDARY NIGHT.
Damn their eyes.