Can you have comedy without jokes?

Every so often there’s a review of a comedy show (invariably in The Guardian) that says something like “this is such a great comedy show and one of the reasons is that they don’t bother with jokes.” I exaggerate for comic effect, but not much. 

You should see us comedy writers when we all pile into our Comedy Writers’ Page on Facebook to slag off this latest nonsense by some skittish young reviewer straight out of college who’s been allowed to write this crap. We’re hilarious.

“Oh really?” we say “It’s a good comedy without jokes is it? Remind me next time I go to the fishmonger, to say to him ‘I’m sorry I’m no longer coming here, from now on I’ll be going to the local hardware store, it’s a great fishmonger because they don’t bother with fish, anyway this notion you have of selling fish is so outmoded, and another thing the hardware store smells a damn sight nicer.’”

We know what these Guardian critics mean, of course, we’re not idiots. We’ve been watching the gradual transformation of TV comedy from studio-based audience sitcom with a laughing audience to location-based programmes for more than 20 years. Anyone under 30 is far more used to receiving their narrative comedy without the backing track of a cackling bunch of idiots that’s obviously been dubbed on after to show us where to laugh (it hasn’t, but that particular hill on which I continue to die is for another column).

What these people are saying is, they watched The Office then Peep Show, proper funny shows that looked like drama, and they enjoyed those mega-budget American dramas with heavy doses of humour and irony like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, and decided that all British comedy should try and be like that, with a fraction of the budget and no teams of writers.

The other thing they’re saying, is they no longer enjoy the rhythm of narrative comedy. As I have frequently pointed out, comedy is like music, we instinctively listen to verses that are like set-ups to jokes, and expect chorus hooks like we expect punchlines, and we particularly like big endings, like the funniest joke that comes at the end of a routine, which in its entirity usually lasts about as long as a pop song. Leave that to the stand-ups, the critics are saying, keeping that rhythm for a funny story no longer feels normal. 

It’s a long, old tradition, that started with Greek comedy, carried on all the way through to Shakespeare, then pantomime, music hall, end-of-the-pier show, through to audience sitcom. You hear laughter at the rhythm of comedy, increased by the shared experience of being in the room when it happens. Apart from in the form of stand-up or panel show, that way of experiencing comedy has been deemed to be unfashionable.

I’ve spent years resisting this argument, but I’m starting to wonder if I need to address this elephant that is stalking the BBC Writersroom, who are about to receive a mountain of comedy scripts that will to a greater or lesser extent be judged on how funny they are.

The show that has made me challenge my own prejudices is Fleabag. I enjoyed both series, but remembered a moment from the first series, a short scene in which, while the boyfriend unable to bring her to orgasm nipped off to the loo, she watched a speech by President Obama in order to help her finish the job.

The boyfriend came back, was angry when he saw what had happened, and he stormed out. “That’s a funny set-up idea,” I thought, because comedy writers rarely sit and laugh at stuff, we’re too busy analysing it, “the scene that follows will be hilarious, where we get to see two characters coming to terms with their relationship falling apart because this bloke can’t abide having his masculinity threatened by the President of the USA.” Although I carried on enjoying the show, I remember being slightly disappointed that nothing more happened in that scene. The bloke ran off, and we rarely saw him again.

I thought little more of this until the show started to become that rare thing, a breakout hit, something much bigger than the place it started. It built a bigger audience, was adored by the media and it won loads of awards. And the Obama scene became the clip that went viral, to show the world why Fleabag was the greatest show ever.

What I had wanted from that Obama scene was an exploration of relationships from what in my mind I expect from a show that is advertised as a comedy, made with money earmarked “Comedy Department” – but that’s not what Fleabag was ever meant to be. It was always about Fleabag, her own self-obsession, and the self-destructive path she was going down. Sometimes it would be funny, sometimes not. You, the audience, had to take it or leave it on those terms.

And for the first time, the observation that “you don’t need jokes for a comedy show to be great” had a ring of truth. It didn’t really matter that the comedy nerd in me was expecting a comedy-romance scene more like something out of Marvellous Mrs Maisel, because that wasn’t the show that Phoebe Waller-Bridge was interested in making. There are enough comedy shows for everybody, if you don’t like what you see you can always turn off. 

The difference that we’re looking at, then, the difference between what you think you want to write and what you’re expected to write, is the difference between a show with jokes and a show that’s funny. If you’re writing a script with jokes, it’s relatively straightforward to see the aim of the comedy, even if it doesn’t work. It’s that musical rhythm again – set-up joke, set-up joke – that gets you in the habit of knowing when to laugh.

And anyway, Fleabag did have comedy. Miranda was not the first comic to directly address the camera (according to Barry Cryer, that honour belongs to Arthur Askey), but Fleabag ran with the notion and took it to places we hadn’t seen since Michael Caine did similar from a male point of view in Alfie. A lot of Fleabag is very funny, check out the pilot which has plenty of proper jokes (and a few more lines in the Obama scene than I give credit for).

More and more in recent years, I’ve met new writers who have funny ideas but haven’t yet learned properly how to write jokes, but continue to resist precisely because of this aversion to the seeming artificiality of the rhythm.

I’ve written at length about jokes – types of joke, how to write them, how to make them pertinent to your characters and stories – but I’ve never addressed this question. What if the script you’re writing is a comedy-drama? (Which is what commissioners are currently telling us they’re looking for). What if you’re trying to deal with a very serious subject? Do you crowbar in jokes for the sake of it?

My argument has always been that it’s still possible to write about dark subject matter and have jokes. What could be darker than a sitcom about bomb disposal units in Afghanistan? Yet Bluestone 42 was a consistently laugh-out-loud show. However dark a situation may be, comedy will always find a way in.

As with everything about comedy scripts, it all comes back to character. If you can create a character as compelling as Fleabag then you can take them wherever you want – dark, light or whimsically amusing, the choice is yours. Is there something original about your character, even if they are familiar? What do they want? And what do they get? And is their failure to get what they want a result of a flaw in their character meaning they’re trying to get something they can’t have?

I want jokes. But if you can show me funny, I’ll take that for now.