ANDREW JOHNSTONE was turning into Mr Grumpy, possibly because he was watching too many Scandinavian detective noirs. It was time to become Sir Laugh-A-Lot and do a roundup of the funniest comedies.
Outside of YouTube clips of cats and dogs and drunk Russians I seldom watch comedy. How could that be? I used to be a funny guy and liked funny, I watched Friends and liked the Marx Brothers and ranked Morecombe And Wise among my all time favourites. I love Hank Hill and Peter Griffin and followed Seinfeld like it was a religion. Then suddenly I am all old and serious and am spending my days slumped over a laptop grumping on Facebook.
Time to learn funny again.
I started with Seinfeld (1989-98) and expected it to be old and creaky, but tickle me with cricket bat: it was brilliant. The narcissism, the zany antics, the callow acts, the craven selfishness, and that’s before we get to Jerry, Elaine and Kramer. Now warmed up, it was time to move onto something a little tougher.
I like Curb Your Enthusiasm. The way you like those friends who make you crazy, nicely but in small doses. A contrived sort of fly on the wall narrative, they start each episode with a basic idea and make it up as they go along. Seinfeld co-creator Larry David plays himself, as does most everyone else including stars like Ben Stiller. Watching Larry alienate Stiller is like watching a slow painful train wreck. Among my very favourites is Season 8, Episode 3 when Larry becomes the unlikely defender of a Palestinian chicken Restaurant and ends up sexually entangled with a gorgeous young Palestinian woman.
“Fuck me you fucking Jew! You Zionist pig. You occupying fuck. Occupy this. I’m going to fuck the Jew out of you. You want to fuck me like Israel fucks my country? Fuck me you Jew bastard! Fuck me like Israel fucks my people! Show me the promised land you circumcised fuck!” she yells as she rides a bemused David. Later he chats about it with pal Marty Funkhouser
Funkhouser: “Fuck me, Jew bastard?”
David: “Yeah. Small price to pay for the best sex I’ve ever had, anywhere! This woman is amazing.”
Funkhouser: “When did your orgasm? When she said she’d fuck the Jew out of you?”
David: “Hey, let me tell you something. The penis doesn’t care about race, creed and color. The penis wants to get to his homeland. It wants to go home!”
Nothing is sacred in David’s world, and the most untouchable subjects are frequently touched.
Now primed and ready for something new, I tuned into Baskets, as recommended by a movie and TV-mad pal on Facebook. It’s a story about a guy who wants to be a professional clown. I watched the first season and once I had adjusted to the ridiculously absurd Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis) I got to quite liking it.
His mother, played by Louie Anderson, is a triumph of characterisation, and Martha Brooks (Martha Anderson), Chip’s only friend, is a classic sidekick. Her innate decency is a well-written foil to Chip’s dank self-absorption, and the pair makes for good comic chemistry. Very ‘post-ironic’, and did well enough for a second season. Must watch some more sometime.
I was just out of school when Cheers debuted, and among my favourite characters was Sam the Barman aka Ted Danson. More recently I have enjoyed him in Damages and the aforementioned Curb Your Enthusiasm, and was keen to check him out in a new show I had been hearing good things about. In The Good Place, Dansen plays Michael, the curator/creator of a utopian after-life called, well yes, The Good Place.
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is indifferent and self-serving (think Larry but dead), who has ended up in the Good Place by mistake. She should have actually gone to the Bad Place. It’s solid enough and Danson is probably the best looking 70-year-old ever. A second season is coming but I have kind of drifted off it like I drifted off Crashing.
Pete (Pete Holmes) is a moderately funny Christian stand-up comic wannabe who discovers his wife engaged in wild sex with another man. Home and financial support gone, he drifts off to the big city in search of something, anything. I left the series early, not because it wasn’t good, I just wasn’t interested enough to make the commitment. If Larry David/George were a decent person they would be Pete, and episode 2, season 1 with Gina Gershon is bound for YouTube clip glory. Otherwise, it’s a decently crafted observational comedy.
Lacking inspiration, I turned to YouTube and found some comfort with Graham Norton. Clever, witty and mischievous, he gets stuff out of his celebrity guests that no one else can, using tricks no one would dare. The show where he talks Irish/English with two Irish brothers who had recently won Ireland’s first ever Olympic rowing medals ranks among my recent favourites; that and the one where Chris Pratt (Passengers, Guardians Of The Galaxy) reveals himself to be a grand story-teller and raconteur. And then there was Sharon Horgan, this insanely funny Irish woman.
Sharon Horgan is gorgeous with a devastating wit and reminds me of the woman I am married to. She and Sharon could be cut from the same mould, both specialising in saying that which should never be said as they are. I remember this time we were driving along in the car and it’s quiet and nice and then right out of the blue she says, “You don’t have a defined chin anymore. It’s starting to sag. You’re getting old.” Somewhat stunned, I turned to her and said, “If I said that to you, you would be crushed. I mean, why would you say that?” “Hmm”, she responded absently. She had lost interest and had moved on.
Sharon Morris (Sharon Horgan) says that which should never be said as well as a lot of other stuff, much of it Irish and absurd and it’s brilliant. Her husband Rob (Rob Delaney) is (mostly) a big jolly white man with a ton of patience, which is just as well because Sharon is a bit self-absorbed and always on the verge of doing something reckless, like fondling a stranger’s penis in a fit of pique after a row with Rob. This story arc fills out most of Season 3, and like a lot of what’s on display, it’s like holding a mirror up to aspects of your life. Not that I ever fondled another man’s penis.
As with Curb Your Enthusiasm nothing is sacred, like when Sharon is feeling a bit down and old Rob tells her that her pussy is still tight and tastes good, which is quite something, especially after having had two children. She likes that and responds a few days later by saying that he smells good for a bit after a shower. (There is a reason he is not smelling too good, and it looks like that is going to be the focus of Season 4).
Like any really good series, there is a fine supporting cast and Jonathan Forbes as Fergal Morris (Sharon’s brother) often steals the show. Writers Horgan and Delaney (who discovered each other over Twitter and decided to write something together) have given him great lines, all of which he delivers with suitable Irish aplomb – imagine Fergal as Dougal from Father Ted except with nous. The late Carrie Fisher kicks up a storm as Rob’s E-Bay-addicted mom, but there’s not one bad character in this whole affair.
My two favourite all time TV comedies are Father Ted and Fawlty Towers, and Catastrophe might just be in that league. It has a good line in absurdism, decent rhythm, sharp writing, examines some strident universal truths and is filled with laugh-out-loud funny observations about ordinary life. It’s also dangerous, and the best of them are. Decent comedy does not fudge the truth or turn away from difficult situations, and like its forbears, Catastrophe is quite happy poking at ‘polite sensibilities’ with a sharp stick.
Sharon and Rob have taken some ‘relationship’ time and are being massaged. The male masseuse works his way around to Sharon’s breasts and she lies there looking a little nonplussed as he does things with her nipples. She later explains to Rob that it was both disturbing and a turn on. With some of the most gobsmackingly audacious lines and set pieces on TV, Catastrophe has few boundaries, and the Horgan/Delaney team is magic, magic, magic. Season 4 is due next year.