Saturday, July 12, 2008

Creator of Father Ted says stop the Fekking swearing

Graham Linehan has an extra-ordinary pedigree as far as producing exceptional TV comedy. He's been part of creating Father Ted, Black Books and the IT Crowd so when The Stage reports that he thinks TV comedies now-a-days rely on "swearing and rude content to get cheap laughs" we are obliged to sit up and take note.

Although he loses points by talking about pushing envelopes (envelopes are posted, not pushed) I'll take his word for it because as far as I can see he's devoted his career to raising the standard of the slop we're given. I don't watch enough TV to make an informed comment about his substantive points but it should be pointed out that sometimes puerile swearing is funny - which is why the character Father Jack (he of the "fekk off" catch phrase) is so well loved. But of course it has to be done well and in moderation to hold the attention.

Linehan claims that this point was taken out of context and was, in fact, part of far more nuanced analysis of the state of TV comedy. He has interesting things to say about the way TV has responded to the new media for instance.

Some channels have taken to popping up messages that are not part of the show, or designed just to tell you what channel you've watching, which is not only pointless but distracting. He approvingly quotes one writer who says it's “completely disrespectful to the creative team that mounted the show... If we wanted Kathy Griffin to suddenly appear in the corner of the screen we’d put it in the script. If we thought the viewer was so stupid he wouldn’t know he was watching FRASIER just by seeing Frasier on the screen, we wouldn’t be writing Cezanne jokes for the show.”

Linehan goes on to make the insightful point that "one thing that always confuses me is this desire to make television look more like the more annoying side of the internet (shock value, grim porn and pop-ups) when it seems obvious that it could do far better positioning itself as a (cultured, non-intrusive, valuable) alternative to the internet. It’s like the cinema industry in the fifties decided the best way to compete with television was to make the screen smaller and break up the film with countless advertising breaks."

Less people watch TV now than they have for decades, and whilst part of this is due to the fact the medium has competition now due to advances in technology, a key factor has to be that 90% of the output is utter shite. Surely.

There's this extraordinary divide between the "super-brands" that the companies seem to actually care about (Dr Who, The Sopranos, Life on Mars) and the rest which is just churned out as cheaply and quickly as possible. On that kind of production line it would be understandable if some fell back on shock value and swearing. whilst the big names found it difficult to meet the expectations that had been raised unfeasibly high.

It seems to me that Father Ted benefited from *not* receiving the kind of attention that is heaped upon those in the golden circle these days.

It may also influence, as perhaps Linehan is implying, the kind of output that is produced. How well would a comedy of subtle glances and gentle awkward moments sit with stupendous fanfares and a desire to produce a competitive brand? The temptation to add an explosion or facile expletive may be a by-product of the marketing culture where the "product" itself is an extension of its own publicity.

Which is why it was such a brave and correct decision for Ricky Gervais to shut down The Office after just two short series. A decision that in itself shows there is still hope for those who'd prefer higher quality over ninety nine channels of junk any day of the week.

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