Comedy writing should be about elegance. At the British Comedy Awards on Channel 4 last week, elegance was completely absent. The script was rigid with obscenities and every ad-lib was an expletive.
That’s not comedy — it’s shameful and demeaning for everyone; performers and viewers alike.
For the sake of cheap and easy publicity, it insults our intelligence and robs the English language of some of its power.
Compere Jonathan Ross set the tone when he took the stage and described the venue for Thursday’s ceremony as a ‘s***hole’. When the audience reacted to his one-liners with groans and winces, he swore at them — ‘get a f***ing grip, won’t you?’ I expect, even from Jonathan Ross, a little more sophistication.
This was not so much a professional event, more a boozy and aggressive barrack-room — and the swearing got steadily filthier as performers jockeyed to outshock each other.
The C-word was used countless times, but the lowest point came when chat-show host Alan Carr described in the grossest terms the sexual act that he wanted to perform on X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger. Carr later admitted he had been drinking. Now there’s a surprise.
It’s a feeble defence — every industry in the country holds these bibulous, back-slapping events where everyone can congratulate each other, and you don’t hear this sort of obscenity at the Guild of Florists’ Christmas party or the Shoe-Makers’ annual dinner-dance.
And with good reason: anyone who grabbed the microphone and started drunkenly slurring sexual threats and incendiary swear words would risk immediate dismissal, if not arrest.
I can use the F-word with as much gusto as the next man, but I found the two-hour broadcast on Channel Four thoroughly offensive on many levels. It was clear from the outset that the swearing was not accidental: these middle-aged delinquents weren’t spouting obscenities on an impulse. Their scripts and even their ad-libs were carefully considered; they had been told to go on camera and drop F-bombs and C-bombs.
The producers must have known these comedians were going to do it; they might even have been given quotas.
Well-refreshed or not, Alan Carr knew that if he simply said ‘Well done’ when he handed Nicole her award, no one would remember he had even appeared, and there’s no point a comedian appearing on national TV if no one remembers him.
It’s cheap and it’s cynical, and it represents a low ebb in television comedy.
Great comic writing plants images in the mind, and it does it by subtlety and suggestion.
Explicit sexual language does the opposite: it’s crude and brutal, and like any blunt instrument it requires little skill.
With my writing partner Maurice Gran, I wrote one of the two most successful mainstream sitcoms of the Nineties: Birds Of A Feather.
We knew that our characters, Sharon and Tracey, would use a torrent of F-ing and blinding, and we wanted to convey that to an audience before the nine o’clock watershed.
The girls, played brilliantly by Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke, were married to a couple of armed robbers serving long jail sentences.
Anyone who has ever visited prison knows that the language inside makes the British Comedy Awards sound like a Vatican tea party.
But when the first episode aired, there wasn’t a single word in the script we were ashamed to repeat to a maiden aunt — and maiden aunts across the UK loved it.
We still received more than 300 complaints, from viewers who thought that they had heard swearing.
They hadn’t: the words had been generated inside their own heads.
The other smash comedy of that decade was Only Fools And Horses, by the wonderful John Sullivan.
He had David Jason, as Del Boy, constantly abusing his younger brother, played by Nicholas Lyndhurst: ‘Rodney, you plonker!’
If you’ve heard London street traders, then you know the word Del Boy was really implying. But John was far too clever to spell it out.
The most elegant example of all was created by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais in their Seventies prison sitcom, Porridge. Instead of the ubiquitous F-word, they employed ‘naff’. It was an old slang word that meant ‘rubbish’ or ‘tasteless’, but the comic genius Ronnie Barker made it sound like a curse from the gutter.
When he growled, ‘Naff off,’ the threat was eloquent. When he grumbled about ‘naffing this’ and ‘naffing that’, he made us laugh ourselves breathless at the same time.
If you tried to remake Porridge now, you couldn’t say ‘naffing’. It would sound archaic, like ‘golly gosh’ or ‘cripes’, because the F-word has become so commonplace on TV.
But if old lag Fletch was F-ing and C-ing, it wouldn’t be as funny, and it would certainly not be viewed by as many millions of people.
Maurice Gran and I know the power of four-letter words: we used the C-word in a TV script back in 1998. And we did so after intense discussion, because no other word would do.
At the climax of Mosley, our drama about the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, we had the character in prison. He was confronted by a warder, a man who could not express the depths of his loathing for this traitor. No language could do justice to his feelings.
So he called him a c***. And we didn’t get a single complaint. Every viewer understood the prison officer’s emotions, and probably sympathised.
After a ten-year gap, Maurice and I have returned to television, to write a new series of Birds Of A Feather for ITV. The Ofcom guidelines about what you can or can’t say are priceless — we aren’t allowed to use the word ‘Scouser’, for instance.
It’s racist, apparently.
And there was a huge row when we described someone as Australian: unbelievably, ITV insisted it must not have any negative connotations. If you say someone is ‘Australian’ and drunk, that’s racial stereotyping — and unacceptable.
So this is British television in 2013: you can say f*** as much as you like at a comedy awards show, but you can’t call anyone an Australian.
I find that odd, whether before or after the watershed.
By spraying obscene words around as if they were aerosol, many of today’s comedians have robbed English of a potent weapon.
The political comedian Lenny Bruce in the Sixties could rock an audience in their seats with a well-timed swearword.
I saw the first night of the Comic Strip in a Soho Club during the early Eighties: Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson could reduce a room to gasping laughter by swearing. But they only did it occasionally, because they knew that the words lost power with every repetition.
Crucially, these historic live comedy shows happened in clubs, where audiences paid on the door and knew what to expect. They were not broadcast on national TV to cause indiscriminate offence and alienate large sections of the audience.
The British Comedy Awards got an audience of 1.3 million on Thursday. Compare that with the approximate 14 million who tuned in to the Sports Personality of the Year show on BBC1 last night.
If Gary Lineker and Clare Balding had started spewing obscene language, they might have earned easy headlines and cheap notoriety . . . but the event would have been ruined for millions of viewers.
It would have gone from being a mainstream celebration to a niche sideshow.
As a writer whose shows have enjoyed audiences of above 20 million, it disconcerts me to see comedians drive my craft into the margins. They are playing to a clique, a cutting-edge audience who buy their DVDs and tickets for their shows.
They may appear live before rock star-sized audiences, but there is simply no need for them to reduce their behaviour to the standards of cavemen.
The British Comedy Awards are bound to be nepotistic. It’s television singing the praises of television, and that’s self-serving enough.
But Jonathan Ross, Alan Carr and the rest were even greedier — they had to turn it into a feast of self-publicity. There’s nothing funny about that.