07 Oct 2015
basac's picture

In his entertaining memoir 'Conversations With My Agent', the 'Cheers’ writer Rob Long talks about Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, and how they relate to the world of comedy writing in the US. Every comedy writer, he says, wants to write Bugs Bunny. Nobody wants to write Mickey Mouse.
I’d like to update this idea, and talk about not just comedy writers, but performers, and indeed, the whole spectrum of comedy. I would say, and this is the kind of massive generalisation that could get me a job as a journalist, the entire comedy world divides into two so that you are either John Lennon or Paul McCartney - yes, women and non-Liverpudlians too.
In the comedy writing world (and from what I remember of it, the world of stand-up too), everyone would like to think of themselves as John. He was incidentally a very funny guy, and could easily have had an alternative career as a stand-up. He was a fascinating complexity of contradictions: opinionated and generous, mouthy in public yet lyrically sparse on the page, rude and kind, often downright unpleasant, a fighter who discovered pacifism, a misogynist who discovered feminism, a drunk, a druggie, (a murderer if you believe that bloke who specialises in writing memoirs that trash rock stars), always funny, taken before his time and of course a working class hero. A British Bugs Bunny.
Paul - that's Sir Paul now, of course, darling of the establishment - is nice, and sweet, and just keeps making music, which is really all he's ever done, and sings about frogs and raccoons and Mickey Mouse silly love songs, and the man’s even got the nerve to still be alive. ‘Oh no’ joked Mark Steel when George Harrison died, ‘The Beatles are dying in the wrong order.’ Lennon, like Bugs, remains loved by the rebels, while Paul has for most of his life been as enormously popular as Disney's number one iconic rodent.
Lennon and McCartney represent a classic comedy set-up, the odd couple. Frankie Boyle and Michael McIntyre if you like. (Now there's an odd couple sitcom I'd love to see).
In music and comedy terms, this idea of two giant egos in one band was exploited mercilessly in my second favourite film of all time 'This Is Spinal Tap'. (My favourite film of all time is 'The Producers', I'm clearly a sucker for bad taste movies that tank at the Box Office).
I've written before how the odd couple is one of the oldest comedy pairings in literature and theatre. Shakespeare's comedies have them, the 18th century pairing of James Boswell and Doctor Johnson is a typical example, while Laurel and Hardy inspired several generations of physical and verbal comedy pairings.
(And recently I discovered that 'Gilgamesh' apparently the oldest story ever recorded, from thousands of years ago, has an odd couple at its centre. Thanks, 'Horrible Histories' researchers.)
The British sitcom that best illustrates the Lennon and McCartney love-hate relationship is The Likely Lads, featuring the characters of Bob, played by Rodney Bewes, and Terry (James Bolam). Written by the great writing double act of Clement and Le Frenais, each character brilliantly represented an aspect of working class life in the 60s.
We hear politicians use the word 'aspirations' a great deal, God knows why, these days it's completely meaningless. But in the 60s there was just enough paid work, social mobility and house building for working class people to believe they could, if they worked hard enough for 'the man', become middle class.
Squeaky clean Bob wanted nothing more than to settle down in a nice little house with a nice little family, and that's exactly what happened. Terry was angry, he wanted more, he was inquisitive about the world, and for his troubles, ended up joining the army.
In the 70s when they were successfully revisited in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, the differences betwen Bob and Terry were as heightened as they had become by now between John and Paul. Terry of course lacked the millions of John, the New York arthouse lifestyle or the exotic conceptual artist wife, but the 60s dream was well and truly over.
The differences were more marked and the comedy was harsher but the odd couple at the heart of that show were totally believable. And as even Bob's dream of suburban bliss crumbled before him, the standard message of the British sitcoms of the time remained intact - whatever type of working class person you might be, remember your place and don't try to rise too far above it.
The Gilmore Girls comedy drama is one of the greatest odd couple shows. At different times mother-daughter Lorelei and Rory remind me of Abbott and Costello, Patsy and Edina, Groucho and Chico Marx, Thelma and Louise. Lorelei and her mother also have a great Bette Davis-Joan Crawford thing going on, while Rory and her friend Paris are frequently as funny a pairing as Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza. Provided your characters are well-defined and original, you can adapt what’s already out there to fit your own world.
Occasionally I like to look at some of the relationships I have with comedy partners. I work with other writers, producers, performers and directors. What are the extremes of these couples? That's where you'll find good comedy because it's based on the truth of your own personality, but is an exaggerated version of it.
In some cases I feel very much like Lennon, the naughty boy in the class who will say something to get a reaction. In other relationships I find myself reining in the other person, trying to bring our extreme comic ideas back to some kind of centre ground, hearing a little voice sneering 'crowd-pleaser' into my ear.
I could squeeze this Lennon-McCartney analogy dry but the point I'm making, hopefully, is that mismatched couples can produce great comedy. As long as these people are forced to stay together for a reason - they might work together, or be married, or closely related - they can provide you with a rich source of conflict.

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