Thursday, 7 April 2011

A Clever Turn of Phrase

I think if you're going to say fuck on television you should say it. Not freak, as in "What kinda freaking idiot are you?", not feck - for goodness sake why bother? Not eff off or naff off. When the word needs to be used it should be. How could the magnificent Malcolm Tucker (rhymes with Mother....) be the terrifying monster that he is without a lexicon of swear words that would make an old sea-dog blush. It's positively poetic.

But here's my grouch, it crops up so often that its shock value has been devalued. Worse still in some comedy it's used as a word to get the laugh. It's put at the end of a not very funny sentence just to ignite the studio audiences laughter muscle. 

When it's used in Empire Boardwalk it has a nice old fashioned feel to it, in the Sopranos you couldn't imagine any of those Wise Guys saying anything else, it's the rhythm of their speech. But don't use it because you could find a better way of getting your laugh.

Whilst we're on the subject, I have conversations with people who tell me that today's comedy is far too coarse. It's defended on the grounds that we're all grown up (no we're not) people use that language in their daily lives (not everyone) it needs to sound authentic (why?). Again, 'bad' language used in the right context can be hilarious - when it's part of the character  - but if everyone in your script is foul mouthed you may as well not use it at all.

This criticism isn't born of prudishness - I can curse with the best of 'em -  it comes from watching shows that aren't funny thinking they are because they're hip, on the edge - give me funny over the edge every day. Once you have an open door there's nothing to push against, and the dramatic structure in narrative comedy needs that. If, as heard in a new show on Channel 4 this week, the jokes comes from talking about anal bleaching and a woman who's 'fanny is a tight as a lobster pot' - her description - where's the inventiveness? Aren't we barrel scraping.

I think also we have to put the best bad words into the right mouths. The two instances I cite came from the mouths of characters I didn't like or care about, put them in other characters mouths and well, it makes a difference.

Surely part of a comedy writer's job is to find new (funny) ways to say things, that means being inventive with the language. Look at some of the best American shows that came from networks where once upon a time you couldn't say 'belly'. Cheers, Friends, Frasier didn't need to resort of bad language because they had such good characters. Sometimes it's good to have limitation to what you can say or do, it makes you think harder. The euphemism can often be a joy in a comedy script.

I don't think it's old fashioned to prefer Frasier Crane to Frankie Boyle but then I'm not on the front line of guerrilla comedy, hacking away at the frontiers so we can say what we like. It's not a question of censorship, more  the pleasure a clever turn of phrase brings.

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