There's a weird kind of comedy I particularly enjoy; where the punchline goes right in the guts, and the laughter stops quite abruptly. British humor holds many exemplars of this : consider the finale of Blackadder Goes Forth, or the serious downer final episode of the aptly-named One Foot In The Grave. It's also funny how many of the Brit-coms I love - Hyperdrive, Green Wing, No Heroics - are really quite depressing, despite the laughs. But then, I supposes no-one laughs harder than the depressed.
It's all about the jarring dissonance of reality cruelly breaking into the laughs. The sudden, sobering experience can be managed disastrously in the wrong hands, lapsing into sentimentality. But when perfectly executed, it is like a cold, hard slap in the face. That, my friends, is quality humor.
There are few finer practitioners of this than Paul Whitehouse. Back when he was part of the team which made the awesome Fast Show, he developed a character who raised this kind of humor to an art form - Rowley Birkin QC.
Apparently based on some old chap that Whitehouse met when he was stuck in Reykjavik airport, Birkin became a running gag on the show. The very model of some old-school relic, he was forever seated in his club chair, telling a scotch-soaked story of some crazy pre-war adventure in that long-lost Imperial golden age. It was a fantastic character study.
(When I actually visited Cairo last year, I couldn't help but have this going over and over in my mind).
They ran about six of these, all essentially the same, and the character became quite established by the end of the series. The audience, it seemed, knew what to expect - especially his punch-line, which had rapidly become a catchphrase : "I'm afraid I was very drunk".
But then came the final one. Here, the joke became very unfunny - instead, quite ineffably sad. What had been a punch-line before, now become a damning indictment. The good-natured buffoonishness of the character, which had been so easily established, was suddenly gone. Instead was someone hopelessly sad and pitiable. It was a real kick in the guts, the first time I saw it.
There's an avid debate in the YouTube comments about the details of the story. But that doesn't matter at all. What does matter is that we know, painfully, that Rowley's boozing cost him the best thing in his life - and he can't even remember how. His reflection on that is acting at its finest. Where the audience had been laughing at him before, they were now made complicit in his misery; all those laughs covered up a terrible loss.
If you need a bit of cheering after that : Johnny Depp described Rowley as "creation of genius", and begged to appear on the Fast Show with Whitehouse. They got him into the very last sketch of the show, where he encounters the "Suits You, Sir!" boys. The result is quite funny.
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