David Monaghan looks at what makes Irish television unique when compared to its American and British counterparts.
Whenever discussions around television comedy arise, two distinct styles are often pitted against each other: British and American. British comedy champions the downtrodden, all-too-human hero, while American comedy offers a more positive and uplifting outlook on life. While this is a slight generalisation (there are a few American comedies that feature underlying negativity, just think Arrested Development or South Park), in most cases it is the accepted norm. Irish comedy, much in the vein of its British counterpart, also stems from a culture of negativity, but is there anything unique about it?
British comedy, while funny, also displays scenes of intense sadness or pity. Audiences laugh when Ricky Gervais’ David Brent hijacks an office training session to play his comically-misguided guitar songs, they squirm when he attempts to upstage his new boss with a terrible dance. They sympathise with Dawn when she, in the very same show, describes how disappointing her life has turned out to be. Similarly, people remember when a frustrated Basil Fawlty thrashes his car with a broken tree branch, when Del Boy falls through an open bar, and when Blackadder and company make the final leap over the trenches and into war. The humour in British comedy is often physical and at a character’s expense, and is punctuated by moments of reality.
American comedy, on the other hand, is distinctly different. While tackling moments of sadness, as well as elements of reality, it tends to wrap things up in a nice, neat narrative; rarely is anything left sad or ambiguous. In the sitcom Scrubs, for example, a storyline involving Dr. Cox’s alcoholism and depression is brought to a conclusion when JD helps the misanthropic doctor get back on his feet, and most episodes end with a life lesson or a moral. Friends concludes with Ross and Rachel getting back together, ending a long-running plot thread. This is in contrast to the final episode of something like the UK’s The Thick of It, in which Malcolm Tucker is arrested, his future left uncertain.
“A very introspective form of comedy, it sees the faults in our culture, or our society, and it exaggerates them to the point of parody.”
So, where does all this leave Irish comedy? Like British comedy, it wallows in negativity at times, but unlike British comedy, reality is often distorted or rejected. A very introspective form of comedy, it sees the faults in our culture, or our society, and it exaggerates them to the point of parody. It is no coincidence that Father Ted came to our screens in the 1990s, when people began to question the failures of the clergy in decades past. The show follows three Catholic priests on a small island off the west coast of Ireland – a simple, realistic premise. It is only when they do strange things like enter a version of the Eurovision or fend off an invasion of elderly women that farce comes into play. Both Father Ted and Father Dougal display incompetency at their jobs, and in one episode Father Ted attempts to woo a female writer on the island, a very controversial depiction. Writer Graham Linehan explains that they’re “just two people who happen to be [priests].”
This parody of Ireland’s reality can also be seen in shows like Republic of Telly. In a mock news segment, for example, host Bernard O’Shea sings in sean-nós style about emigrants’ longing for Tayto crisps while abroad – bringing Ireland’s emigration problem to the fore and playing with it. In a sketch from the same show, titled ‘Edward Hurleyhands,’ a blatant spoof of Edward Scissorhands, a character, dressed head-to-toe in black and with hurley sticks for hands, uses his strange gift to master the game of hurling. Irish culture and reality are once again brought to the fore, but are mocked or distorted to the point of parody.
While British and American brands of comedy continue to dominate the scene, Irish comedy, while holding some similarities to its British counterpart, is a unique creature. Seeing the flaws in its own culture, it chooses to parody them instead of embracing them. So why is it that it teeters on the edge of discussing something real, only to take two steps back? It can be argued that it has something to do with an Irish cultural reluctance to discuss things frankly, but who knows for sure? To paraphrase one Father Dougal Maguire; “the whole thing’s a bit of a puzzler.”