The best comedy is, at heart, an exploration of our anxieties. A form of catharsis via other people’s embarrassment. To steal from Mel Brooks: Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. Being an urbane gent, I’m very fond of sophisticated humour and satire, but nothing will ever crease me so powerfully or reliably as the public misfortune of others. Yes, Fleabag is edgy and honest and brutal, but have you seen that YouTube clip of the ageing rocker tipping over on his office chair?
The Goes Wrong Show, returning to BBC One this week, expertly mines that streak of hilarity through disaster. The premise is genius: an amateur theatre group stage a series of plays each week, soldiering on despite the sort of technical screw ups that would close most major theatres. Spun from a smash hit stage production, it’s savvy take on the age-old popularity of the blooper reel, the writers understanding that we will always find it easier to identify with glorious failure than brilliant success. Most importantly, it’s frequently the sort of funny that makes a grown man cry. (It’s also the sort of funny that a grown man can share with his kids, with only the occasional moment of bawdy awkwardness.)
This is a precious thing in our current cultural moment, where comedies often seem to worry more about getting their audience onside than provoking them to laughter. As Stewart Lee put it in Content Provider, audiences used to laugh at his material, now they just agree furiously. In an age of microaggressions and language as violence, there is a wariness about the perceived cruelty inherent in comedy. Are we ever laughing with or only at?
It’s funny because it explores every angle of anxiety
As The Goes Wrong Show demonstrates, the answer is both and neither. We are most often only laughing at ourselves. It’s a weird kind of empathy, laughing at appalling bad luck, terrible behaviour or public shame — at those people who do or say the things we wish we could or fear we might. The larger your empathetic muscles, the more likely you’ll laugh at the suffering of others. If we couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in compromising positions, we wouldn’t find them funny.
The Goes Wrong Show is funny. Relentlessly funny. Laugh until you weep funny. It’s funny because it explores every angle of anxiety. There’s the forgetting your lines in public anxiety. The rendered naked in public anxiety. The setting yourself on fire in public anxiety. No doubt the second episode of the new batch, with its cod-Shakespearean tragedy, will awaken long-buried trauma for anyone ever involved with a school play.
Part of the cleverness in the format is that there are always at least two stories happening at once. The plays themselves are knowing satires of tired theatrical tropes, while the cast are playing actors playing characters. The writing and performance are skilful enough to ensure we enjoy getting to know each of the actors, no matter who they’re playing this week.
They are a delightfully petty and spiteful bunch (they’re actors, after all), whose rivalries and tensions often sabotage the productions. But they’re also admirable in that nothing will stop them. Not shame. Not lack of talent. Not the fact that the set has mistakenly been built at a 90 degree angle or three times too small.
Those rivalries and tensions are a little more explicit in the new season, notably in the opening episode that sees the usual director deposed by the company’s loudest (therefore “best” actor). It’s not the show’s best work, threatening to not so much stretch the format as collapse it. Things soon improve and by the second episode only the sets are collapsing.
Cultural criticism increasingly foregrounds the subtext over the text
The focus on the physical means that the show largely avoids one of the main sticky areas for comedy — that of inappropriate language. People saying things they shouldn’t has long been a driver of British comedy, but it becomes complex in a global age dominated by the American notion that representation means endorsement. There’s a kind of soft bigotry at work behind that idea, worrying as it does about a largely imagined audience that is either too fragile or too stupid to understand irony.
It’s possible slapstick will prove one of the last refuges for comedy, as the joke is simply what it is. Cultural criticism increasingly foregrounds the subtext over the text, but a man falling on his face is still a man falling on his face. It’s tempting to say that one of the reasons The Goes Wrong Show is so funny is that it’s not hamstrung by having to say anything. In an era when everything is political (and problematic), it isn’t. The closest it gets is in the pre-show apologies for productions we never get to see. “Suffice to say, I will never again attempt my Jamaican accent,” director Chris Bean (Henry Shields) promises us. That’s not to say the show isn’t modern or diverse, more that these things come second to wringing every possible laugh from the audience.
In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby critiqued comedy as a form of humiliation, whereby the comedian exposes their darkest secrets for our entertainment. Without wanting to dismiss the very real trauma that Gadsby discussed in that show, humiliation — the risk of it, at least — feels a crucial part of being an artist. When I interviewed Matt Berninger, singer of confessional rockers The National, he said he considered it his privilege to humiliate himself on stage every night. Expecting an artist to humiliate themselves or expose their darkest secrets for our entertainment would be cruel, yes, but that’s a very thin reading of what art — and indeed comedy — is for.
If The Goes Wrong Show is the perfect antidote for our post-comedy age, it’s because it understands laughter will always be the best response to disaster. And, boy, do we have disaster to spare in 2021. Facing the chasm, what else are we to do but laugh?
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