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?