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Not at the Races

James Cary


There are plenty of commentators and columnists who look around the world and see nothing but moral decline. They point to the 'breakdown' of things they like and the 'rise' of things they don't like. Is society any less moral than it ever was? Times are changing (I did originally type 'a-changing', but then deleted the 'a-'). In past times, we used to venerate the old and overlook the young. These days we dump our old people in homes but have taken big strides in preventing child abuse.
No one needs to be more aware of these socially agreed morals than the sitcom writer because, strange as it may seem, sitcoms are intensely moral. Everything under the sun has a moral dimension, but sitcoms are so blatantly moralistic that we no longer notice it.

Ancient Greece had Aesop's fables. Jesus told parables. In Medieval times they had mystery plays. Today, we have the sitcom - artificially neat, half-hour comedies about a bunch of characters all with conflicting quests and desires that conveniently begin and end within 72 hours. And, crucially, the characters never learn and change their behaviour. Next week, they'll make the same mistakes again. In this sense, sitcoms closely resemble real life. We don't change - and nor do our friends, neighbours and relatives. All good sitcoms are based on this solid truth.

But there is another key truth to the sitcom - a strong sense of justice. Take Ricky Gervais' new comedy drama (dramedy? coma?) Derek. In sitcoms, your characters need to have two things. The first is a character flaw. They need to have a problem with their personality that means they are craving something they lack. In Captain Mainwaring's case, it's the respect of his men. In Alan B'Stard's case, it's power. In David Brent's case, it's the undying admiration of his colleagues. These are all understandable flaws but crucially culpable. When they fall flat on their faces, we don't feel too sorry for them because they should know better - and they don't listen to advice. Or they listen to wrong advice. They can be blamed for their failings.

The second thing a lead character needs is a clear quest each week - a plan to win that respect or power or admiration. And their culpable flaws hamstring their attempts and hilarious calamity ensues. But at the back of the audience's mind is the overarching worry about whether the character deserves their calamity. The character of Derek is, despite the public statements of Ricky Gervais, clearly someone with severe learning difficulties. He was born with them. And this is a 'character flaw' (though of course it is no such thing) for which he is not to blame. He doesn't deserve calamity. Not in sitcomland.
Being a massively successful, gong-collecting, multi-millionaire, Gervais knows all this. This is why nothing bad happened to Derek in Derek, because he didn't deserve it. So the programme ended up being sentimental rather than funny - which is fine if you like that sort of thing.

Perhaps this is the difference between comedy and tragedy. In comedy, the ending is a happy one because people get their just deserts. In tragedy, the ending is sad because justice is not done - the good are thwarted and the evil prosper - or a character was unable to change to prevent their final demise.
Comedy strikes me as the more satisfying of the two and yet there is an appetite for tragedy. I can't bear it, myself. Give me PG Wodehouse over Evelyn Waugh any day. On holiday a few years ago, I was reading about the adventure of Crouchback in one of Waugh's Sword of Honour books and ended up screaming 'Just leave the poor man alone!' Bad things were happening to our hero that he simply didn't deserve.

The problem is that every day we hear stories of bad things happening to good people. Lumps are found where there shouldn't be lumps. Crucial documents go astray. Floods sweep away villages. Tragedy may describe our human experience - but not our aspirations or deep-seated instincts about how the universe should be. Maybe that's the appeal of the sitcom. Not just the jokes, the characters or farcical situations, but a world in which the proud are humbled, the greedy are impoverished and the meek inherit the earth. Sounds familiar.

James Cary