Schembri: your gay comedy needs straight people to be funny
Fairfax reviewer Jim Schembri has a bit of a problem with a TV show with only gay and lesbian characters:
The problem – well, one of the many problems – with this painfully strained stab at a hip, savvy sitcom is that it is way, way, way too gay… To put it bluntly, Outland is a show badly in need of a straight man – both figuratively and literally.
Wait, what? Did Schembri just declare that, whilst I doubt very much he’s ever reviewed a show featuring exclusively straight characters by declaring that it’s “badly in need of a gay man”, comedy requires at least one heterosexual person to work? He did, didn’t he?
Schembri explains his demand in terms of “contrast”:
One of the keys to any good sitcom is the comedy of contrast, wherein humour feeds off the conflicts and differences between the characters.
To pluck five examples completely at random: in Will & Grace a neurotic straight woman lives life with her long-time gay best friend; Love Thy Neighbour had a white racist living next door to a black couple; All in the Family had a rabid right winger with a liberal son-in-law; Family Ties saw hippie parents whose son is a money-loving yuppie; The Big Bang Theory has a quarter of nerds whose insular lives is invaded by a hot blonde.
The list is endless and wildly diverse – from Diff’rent Strokes to Fawlty Towers to Frasier to Seinfeld to Everybody Loves Raymond to Hot in Cleveland. It’s a pot-stirring sitcom principle that has proved its worth over the decades, and should have done so again here.
Apart from Will & Grace, none of those comedies had a single gay person in the main cast (if ever on the show). They were 100% heterosexual. And yet Jim doesn’t feel they were badly in need of someone with a different sexuality in order to create contrast and comic conflict. He recognises that straight people can have amusing differences with each other; why does he think gay people can’t? Do all gay people look the same to Jim?
It sure looks like it:
As it is, Outland is too gay-centric. With all the characters batting for the same team, the comic pot is too calm; there is simply not enough conflict to generate enough fizz or energy, not enough grist for the characters to bounce off or respond to.
That’s not because they’re homosexual, Jim, it’s because they’re not particularly well-developed characters.
Schembri is dimly grasping at a real problem with the program – that it just doesn’t seem to have much depth to it, and a bunch of predictable and obvious gags playing on easy stereotypes about gay people doesn’t exactly make for a sophisticated comedy. Those parts of Outland that I’ve seen didn’t have witty wordplay, or clever jokes, particularly original scenarios. (If anyone did actually laugh out loud during it, I’d love to know at what.) The first episode was largely indistinguishable from any sitcom where the main character is embarrassed about something and trying to hide it. Its best gag – about people who try to seem knowledgeable about sci-fi by joking about the absurdity of Daleks taking over the universe whilst not being able to climb stairs WHICH THEY’VE BEEN ABLE TO DO SINCE 1988 – was repeated several times; the other jokes seemed to rely on little more than shock value. (Something about “fisting” and a “prolapse”, if I recall correctly.) The second one looked like it might explore the comic potential of unhelpful friends insisting on sitting in on a domestic argument, but they just didn’t do very much with it.
So I agree that the program needs more wit, better writing, something… it’s just incredibly offensive for someone writing in a mainstream newspaper in 2012 to demand that they should add more heterosexual people as a way of achieving that.
Still, Mr Richards – there’s a comic straight character for a future show. The heterosexual privileged male reviewer who thinks there’s no conflict or drama between gay people because, so far as he knows, they’re pretty much indistinguishable from each other. Man, the fun you could have with him.