Comedy: it’s the writing, stupid.

by isabelrogers

I watched an old episode of Cheers last night, which is currently being rerun on British television from its pilot episode. I remember it when it first came over – used to watch every week. I loved it then, but watched as a teenager and saw the things a teenager sees. [Resisting turning this into a CofE sermon from Corinthians “When I was a child I spake as a child, thought like a child, understood as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” Since I’m an athiest, and female, I’ll ignore that. Except you can’t ignore the Bible as a literary influence … and that is a whole other future blog post.]

Now watching Cheers as an adult, and specifically one who writes, it’s a very different experience. It is one of the best sitcoms to come out of the US (yes it is), and gave birth to another: Frasier.  Writers like Ken Levine, Rob Long and Glen & Les Charles put words in their characters’ mouths that stay in my brain long after I switch off the television.

The stand-out exchange from last night’s episode was Sam’s defence of his bar as one that would welcome all drinkers, not giving into the homophobia expressed by some of his regulars. Diane, his college-educated barmaid, applauds:

SAM: This isn’t gonna be a bar I throw people out of.
DIANE: That’s the noblest preposition I’ve ever heard you dangle.

Now, I love comedy. I like it visual, I like it verbal. Black, surreal, erudite, juvenile, political, feminist, stand-up, sit-down: you name it, I like it. But maybe when my love of comedy crosses over with my love of words – when I can inhabit that special intersection of the Venn diagram – that may be when I am at my happiest.

I was giggling at Diane’s line when I heard it, still giggling when I went to bed, and it makes me smile now. It appeals to the grammar nerd in me. Whoever wrote that line knew about words, how being able to flex them around your meaning is a subtle and powerful art, and how people constantly judge others on their deftness in that skill. Words are both the message and the medium. Diane was heaping praise on an uneducated baseball jock, and while she couldn’t bring herself to ignore his grammatical blooper entirely, she chose to highlight her forgiveness of it as the very thing that would make him realise her genuine approbation.  In one line we get a whole load of information about their characters: how they interact, what their basic take on the world is. In one line they said what I have been trying to unpick in a paragraph. That is great comedy. And it is very, very smart indeed.