What’s that coming over the hill?

Pictured, above, are three sitcom monsters, who happen all to be white males with goatee beards. At the top we have the newest, Jonty De Wolfe, Vice Chancellor of the university in brand new C4 comedy Campus, from the makers of Green Wing, which is mainly Victoria Pile. He is played, with extraordinary comic ingenuity, by Andy Nyman. Underneath him is David Brent, the creation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who is sufficiently iconic to exist outside of the sitcom that featured him. You don’t even need to name it. (It’s The Office.) And finally, perhaps the least well known, Kenny Powers, the down-at-heel baseball legend around whom the incredible Eastbound & Down is built (Season Two currently showing on FX, with a third, its last, imminent on HBO in the States). Powers is the creation of Danny McBride, who plays him – who lives him – and the show’s co-creators Ben Best and Jody Hill.

All three men are horrible.

Having recently created my first ever sitcom character of note – a man called Harvey Easter in the forthcoming Radio 4 sitcom Mr Blue Sky, starts on May 16 – I am aware that I am entering a crowded and tricky marketplace. Every TV or radio comedy writer from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to Victoria Pile hopes to create a durable and recognised character. Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring, Victor Medrew, Del Boy, Hank Kingsley, George Costanza, Compo, Mr Humphreys, Wolfie Smith, Margo Leadbetter, Hyacinth Bucket, Rigsby, Frank Spencer, Anthony Hancock, the list goes on … who wouldn’t want to add to that list? But the immortal sitcom character is usually complex. He or she is usually flawed. And he or she is usually sympathetic.

David Brent was sympathetic. You didn’t hate him. He was a twat. But he meant well. Mainwaring was snobby and miserable and proud. But he meant well. Hancock was snobby and miserable etc. But he meant well. Kenny Powers – who I realise less people will have seen – is obnoxious, sexist, bullying, self-centred, self-aggrandising, delusional and ugly. He doesn’t even mean well. He means only to further his career and status, and is driven almost exclusively by ego and sexual desire. He will tread on anybody who gets in his way. And yet … and yet … as played by McBride, he is still lovable. He is pathetic, but somewhere deep inside him is a soul. That’s the beauty of the writing and the performance: that we can even detect something deep in him. Malcolm Tucker is another shining example, although he doesn’t have a goatee beard, so I have not included him in my thesis.

Jonty De Wolfe, whom I have only seen in one and a half episodes of Campus, is thus far a series of tics. Like Brent, he is self-absorbed and prone to the politically incorrect faux pas, which he doesn’t even realise is a faux pas. He uses the term “spastic” in Episode One. He mocks an Asian student by mimicking Indian music. He is a monster. But so was Brent, and so is Powers. So why does De Wolfe not work? Well, let’s give him a break – he hasn’t had time to bed in, and the subtleties of Mainwaring and even Fawlty may have taken longer than an episode to become apparent. But I suspect not. I suspect that both were, if not fully formed, at least partly-baked when they appeared for the first time on our screens. I certainly “got” Brent within ten minutes of The Office. There is nothing to “get” with De Wolfe. Not yet anyway. This is a shame, as there is an awful lot of writing and acting talent on show in Campus.

As there would be. Green Wing was amazing, a proper breath of fresh and bendy air, and a comedy that – gasp! – worked over an hour, rather than 30 minutes. No mean feat. And it did so because, even though its characters seemed like archetypes and idiots to begin with, it didn’t take long for hearts to start beating beneath their tics. (I am currently working with one of its writers, by the way, someone whose work I really admire, so this is not a dig at the writers, simply at the more general problem with creating new characters in this vein.) In Campus, so far, the characters seem just to be monsters and idiots. And it’s hard to sell a monster.

Am I right? I am now almost pathologically unable to criticise contemporary comedy, as I am in the same game. And I don’t mean to criticise Campus, but there’s something awry here, isn’t there?

No?

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31 thoughts on “What’s that coming over the hill?

    • I love proof readers. (No, I actually do. I’ve done enough copy editing in my time to appreciate a good read.)

  1. I remember hating Guy Secretan for the first few episodes of Green Wing, before eventually pitying and even liking him as he becomes more human and sympathetic throughout the series. I wonder if the same will happen with Professor Beer in Campus. I assume so, considering he seems to be the same character.

  2. I thought that De Wolfe was the equivalent of Sue White from Green Wing – the character so removed for reality that they are immune to it.

    More of a cartoon than a real person, the sort with infintely large pockets.

    • A fair comparison. But Sue White was very much a peripheral character, in her own world, whereas Campus seems to revolve around De Wolfe. Maybe it’s just a problem of focus and balance. Or maybe it’s because Nyman’s performance was so appealingly horrid in rehearsal and improv, they let him run with it.

      I feel disloyal to my fellow comedy writers to have even raised my disappointment. But this disappointment is only because I loved Green Wing to the marrow of its bones, right the way through to the end.

      • Green wing lost it towards the end. It was a shame, I liked the image of the two running into the seas naked but that whole premise was (even for Green Wing) silly…it was as if they either had to rush to finish the series in less-than-expected episodes, or simply hadn’t thought through the story arc.

        They didn’t need to give every character an ending though. Tamsein Greig flying off in the sky was also silly I thought.

        I also loved Green Wing to the marrow of its (but last one or two’s episode’s) bones.

        I read in an interview with the director (I forget her name) that the whole effect of speeding up and slowing down the camera shots in between scenes was simply a way of filling up or reducing time so they could fit the show in their alloted time.

        And am I the only one who things it’s a shame that for example, Harry Potter’s Quidich ended up being something fictional that was made into a real game

        http://tinyurl.com/3sf42sz

        and that Guyball has not been made into an Olympic sport?

        😉

  3. Real universities have a fantastic range of people in them. There are endearing eccentrics: Cambridge University Library actually has a real rule, stuck on the wall around the building, that readers ‘must wear shoes in the library’. One presumes from this that if not thus warned, the average Cambridge academic goes barefoot amongst the stacks. At the other end of the scale there are total crackpots who shouldn’t be allowed out; I was once lectured by a Classicist who actually announced in a lecture that ‘the only good Russian is a dead one’. Others I now know have gone to class dressed as Vikings (and I mean the lecturers – not that the students noticed) or inadvertently set fire to entire office blocks (ashtray malfunction).

    So, loving Green Wing and with a good idea of the potential in the Campus setting (indeed, what with the frequency of passing unicyclists on my campus, I’m often reminded of the show while lecturing), I had high hopes that the series would capture some of the strangeness of the places and their people. Instead we got boring and oh-so-limited stereotypes: boorish, lechy male VC; boorish, lechy male professor (didn’t anyone think that maybe if you’re using stereotypes you maybe shouldn’t use the same one twice?); female lecturers apparently have to be either mousy or viragos (note to self). The admin team were good,though – more realistic perhaps than the show’s creators realised, given that the admin team is always what keeps the university afloat.

    What went wrong here? Well, they clearly didn’t actually talk to anyone who works at a university. I’m not complaining that it’s not realistic -that would be stupid – just that the narrow range of jokes and characters in the show betrays a lack of the kind of experience that would have provided comic inspiration. Even an average day at my institution is funnier than this show. But I think I agree that the key problem is likeability. Green Wing had a constellation of-out-and-out unsympathetic nutcases (like Mark Heap’s magnificent radiologist) around a core of characters that you couldn’t help but like (Marty, Mac, even Guy, & the wonderful Tamsin Grieg’s character whose name I’ve negligently forgotten). That’s where the warmth came from that is wholly absent from Campus, because no-one in it (OK, apart from in Admin) is remotely likeable.

  4. Always interesting to hear about uk comedies.

    Out of curiosity, have the following us comedies made it over the pond? All are/were strongly influenced by the original office.

    Party Down – critically loved but sadly cancelled, starring people you’ve seen in other places.

    Louie – fantastic comedy from Louis ck following the not so glamorous life of a middle-aged standup. Probably one of the most daring shows of last year. Cameos from Gervais too.

    Archer – animated spy spoof much smarter than you’d think. Great voice cast.

    I highly recommend people watch these if they are on, or can find them somewhere.

    • I have a feeling Party Down might have shown here, but I didn’t see it. Any takers for the other two?

      We’re lucky to have FX in the UK, which is a good source for odd imports. As is Sky Atlantic for HBO output. But I’m still perplexed that no broadcaster here seems willing to take Season Three of Breaking Bad. Come on!

      • Archer was shown on Channel 5 last year, I think. It’s a great show, definitely worth a look if you come across it.

    • A fair point. But this isn’t intended as a “review”. (Also, I rather suspect my sitcom will be judged on its first episode. We’re all in this together.)

      • I will listen to your whole series before judging it – promise.
        I tend to Sky+ the first 3 or 4 episodes of a sitcom and watch them together to get a feel for the series.

      • Thoughts on Campus now the series is almost finished?
        I thought it was great, okay its not Green Wing but what is?

  5. “Kenny Powers – who I realise less people will have seen”

    You mean “fewer”, not “less”. You keep mixing these up!

    I’ve only seen the trailer for Campus, but it was terrible enough to ensure that I didn’t bother watching the show itself.

    If you want a comedy based in an educational establishment, watch Community. It has the occasional flat episode, but they only feel flat because the others are so entirely terrific.

    • I gave Community a go, and liked its wacky energy. But there’s too much on for me to have kept up with it.

      Fewer – less – less – fewer – it’s a weakness of mine.

      • Fewer – countable things
        Less – big wodge of uncountable stuff

        10 items or fewer
        Less rain today than yesterday

        See, I was a polite proof-reader and only mentioned the one thing …

  6. Completely agree with the lack of likeable characters in Campus (so far).

    Professor Beer seems to be an approximation of Guy Secretan (something that seemed to kick in suddenly when he started being obnoxious to the Maths lady) but without the appealing, pathetic quality Mangan’s character had. Maybe he’s too good looking? It’s very difficult to empathise with a character who is genuinely horrible AND somehow successful with women.

    I think this is why characters like David Brent and Kenny Powers resonate with people – because they’re trying too hard to be obnoxious idiots and *crucially* don’t actually succeed in the end.

  7. Doubt very much you’ll be adding anything to that comedy character hitlist Andrew. So don’t worry about it.

    • Was that a subtle dig? If so, you’ve certainly cut me down to size. That’ll teach me for writing a blog entry called I AM WORRIED THAT A CHARACTER I HAVE CREATED FOR A RADIO SERIES MIGHT NOT BE THE EQUIVALENT OF BASIL FAWLTY.

  8. I’m not so sure any of this is really a fair review. Yes, there are indeed many parallels to be drawn with other comedy series and with characters from the Green Wing.

    I have to say, I was getting the Characters by the end, though, I did keep thinking “why didn’t they just pour this creativity into resurrecting Green Wing? All they had to do was take a little ticket out of Dynasty’s book… make the last two series a dream! A certain someone’s coma dream!

    In the absence of the Green Wing, this will do and, like all things, the characters will cement and I am sure out of the randomness, some order will appear. In the mean time, I shall enjoy the ‘shock factor’ of seeing comedy poke fun at different ethnic groups, sexual orientations and those with disability, because its the last refuge of the non-pc crowd!

  9. I don’t think it’s necessary to LIKE a character, but I do think you need to at least UNDERSTAND them. Basil Fawlty was not a very likeable person, but you could see why he was the way he was (loveless marriage, class inferiority complex). The same goes for David Brent – at heart a nice guy just trying far too hard to be liked. But I do find it difficult to laugh at a character who I have no sympathy for.

  10. BBC Four need to buy Breaking Bad though to replace the loss of Mad Men.

    And can somebody please buy the rights to Rescue Me?

  11. I agree totally Andrew. Jonty was just bloody annoying. We all know it’s not usually wise to judge a comedy on its first episode, but this one really didn’t even make me want to watch more. I will though, just in case.

  12. Not sure if many people have seen it, But HBO’s “bored to death” isn’t bad, starring Jason Schwartzman. About a one time novelist with writers block who starts a detective agency via craigslit. I imagine people who liked rushmore or Wes Anderson’s work will like it.

  13. Looking forward to your new R4 comedy, mang! There’s been so much boring crap on the 6:30 slot in the last year. Did you hear the recent office comedy with the token “cool urban yoof” character who just said “innit” a lot? Lazy lazy lazy. And is it me, or does everybody on Just A Minute need strangling?

    Anyway, all the best!

  14. I haven’t commented here in a long time and I am sorry about that fact.

    And now I’m commenting on an old post. What an idiot I am!

    Just chipping in to say Green Wing totally passed my by. I saw nothing in it that I found amusing. It left me cold, naked and shivering. I couldn’t see any humanity in it, just berks being mean to each other.

    I’m not saying it’s not funny. It obviously is if so many people liked it. But it pushed a couple of wrong buttons for me.

    Then again, I consider Bottom one of the best British sitcoms, so what do I know?

  15. He is God, or rather a god, Zeus. I don’t mean this as in I think he is great, but in Campus what you have is a greek pantheon of gods and goddesses of greater or lesser power, with all the worst traits of man writ large, power is arbitrarily assigned to someone with an ego- just like the gods of old, but with that comes a necessary insecurity, just like you see in the tales of those old gods. Order cannot be imposed, even when power is wielded ruthlessly. The world of campus is pathologically arbitrary and unfair… sound familiar?

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