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The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest (Or Why Rev Isn't Funny)

...An older rant about Rev, comedy, Christianity and not taking yourself too seriously...

If there's one thing Oscar Wilde teaches us about comedy it's the vital importance of not being earnest.  If Earnest was earnest there'd be no Earnest - if you catch my drift.

Whatever you put at the centre of your comedy it cannot be earnestness or else it will pull all things down into it's righteous self-absorption.

Which brings me to Rev - the BBC sitcom set in an East London church.  At the centre is Adam, a well-meaning priest who seems world-weary long before his time.  From the outset he seems worn down by the clash of his sincere liberalism and the harsh realities of modern ministry.  His heavy soul dominates the show and there just aren't any interesting characters to offset this earnest-overload.  The writers seem very aware of this, desperately trying to punctuate the morass with some fairly blunt sex gags.  Something's got to break up the moralism.

Maybe this sounds weird coming from a minister - but the whole thing is just way too preachy.  The punchlines all fall to Adam who turns them into sermonettes:

Colin isn't vital to anyone, Darren, except God. And if God loves you, Darren, then he loves Colin just as much.

In any other comedy this would be the feedline.  In Rev it's the punchline.

Now there are ways of communicating the love of God creatively.  But you couldn't shift gears more clunkily if Adam turned to camera and said "You know guys, if you're affected by any of the issues raised by this episode, phone the number on your screen..."

So much comedy works off pricking the bubbles that Rev produces.  But it's usually a wide-eyed, joyful bubble pricked by a caustic, insightful wit.  Think of Blackadder with Baldrick, or Peter Cook with Dudley Moore, or Basil Fawlty with the Major / Manuel, or Del Boy with Rodney, or Sir Humphrey with Jim Hacker, or Bernard with Manny, or Mark with Jez.  There's an ebullience and joy to the bubble and a razor-sharp riposte to burst it.

But in Rev it's a tired moralistic bloat bludgeoned by sex gags (oo er vicar).

And it's not as though you need a sardonic crank at the heart of the show.  In the church context, Father Ted and The Vicar of Dibley worked exceptionally well as comedies - I'd say largely because there was a joie de vivre in the central characters.  In fact here (and with anything Graham Linehan does) it's not so much about bursting the bubble, more about the bubble gloriously flying off into the stratosphere.

But this is so desperately lacking in Rev and instead we have a black-hole of worthiness in the worst sense.

I think it goes to show something I harped on about last year.  There's nothing less joyful, nothing less funny, than taking yourself seriously.  True joy comes when we take God seriously but not ourselves.

More posts on comedy here.

1 thought on “The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest (Or Why Rev Isn't Funny)

  1. Si Hollett

    The biggest problem with Rev is that they pushed for realism of a not very funny situation. People I know who have had been in similar situations (sincere liberal vicar in a poor urban parish) have found it really funny - I can't understand why that would be - perhaps laughing at how they once were or something?

    Actually, a lot of Christians across the spectrum (different roles in church, different churchmanships) seem surprised when I say that I really didn't find it funny, but rather the opposite. And I'm surprised they find this story of a vicar who desperately needs better theology struggle with the little impact his ministry is making as he tries to prove himself hilarious. There are some funny jokes/moments, but the whole concept is depressing and you are right - it makes it hard to laugh. I enjoy dark humour, but this is just too dark!

    Well-meaning, depressed people can be funny - see One Foot in the Grave or Mark in Peep Show, but the Rev in Rev is the straight character, not the one who is outlandish and the source of humour.

    I've heard lots of times that there are parishes like Craggy Island and that Linehan was going for realism in the wackiness - though I'm sure it has to be a bit exaggerated. But it's a situation which is funnier, despite being very similar: Father Ted is our straight man - a priest who takes himself too seriously and is stuck in an awful parish, and Adam is our straight man - a vicar who takes himself too seriously and is stuck in awful parish. The differences are that Ted doesn't take his job seriously, is generally a more jolly character and that the awful parish is a lot more comedic - there's those interesting characters to act as foils and it tosses out bizarre situations.

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