Jonar's favourite comedy - Click on the links below to hear some favourite sketches

The concept of comedy has fascinated me since my early teenage years. I left school at the age of fourteen and took up part-time studies for six years. This meant that after a hard day's work, I had to attend classes which normally finished at 11:00 pm. Thereafter, I had plenty of homework to do. I was up until well after midnight. Although I do not listen to the radio now, back then, the radio did keep me company. At that hour of the morning, I could hear BBC comedy transmissions. In no time, I grew to understand and enjoy very old radio shows. It was then that my appreciation for comedy started.

These days, I study comedy like most people set about studying any other subject. I have realised that comedy is not a process of making one laugh, but of making one think.

Many a truth can be uttered in the guise of humour. I believe that humour and controversy are related; meaning that they both do exactly the same thing. Humour touches on very personal, revealing subjects, but manages to ignite laughter because it deflects off a person microseconds before it hits a raw nerve. On the other hand, controversy does exactly the same thing, except that at the last moment, instead of opening the relief valve, it hits the nerve, causing embarrassment, anger, or other unpleasantries. Both humour and controversy work on the premise of revealing truths. The former allows us to laugh at someone else's situation, while the latter makes us uneasy about our own situation.

There is a lot of excellent talent in the world of comedy. It is not possible to explore them all. For this reason, I decided to focus my studies on British humour, and follow actors' careers as they meander from stage, to radio, to TV.

My British comedy collection includes videos, tapes, scripts, photos, and books.

I probe into a show by observing the writers, more so than the actors. If I had to give an award to the best writer, it would go to David Renwick for what he created in One Foot in the Grave. Renwick is a genius when it comes to building suspense and drama amidst wit and intrigue (particularly in his movie-length episodes). Naturally, the cast bring the characters to life. I once met the lead actor. I was with a friend at a Sydney hotel very late at night after setting up for one of my lectures. While eating a pizza, my friend said, 'Look, isn't he that guy from that TV show?' I looked up and said the ever so famous words, 'I don't believe it'. That famous catch cry was enough for Richard Wilson (the man behind the infuriating and frustrated character of Victor Meldrew) to turn around and greet us. I have a soft spot for Victor Meldrew in that I fear that maybe when I grow older, I might be just like him. I can already recognise traces of his character in me now.

The apparent stupidity of Dad's Army was misunderstood. This show merely used the topic of the day to tackle popular issues that are relevant today; like greed, authority, discipline, confusion, hope, pride, and poverty. Dad's Army is not unlike Star Trek. No two shows could be further apart, yet they both explore topics of race, hatred, harmony, and human intolerance in ways that pertain to modern-day challenges.

Everyone knows Rowan Atkinson, but few would recognise his brilliance as a group effort with Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll, and later Ben Elton and others. It strikes me that Atkinson, the perfectionist that he is, just loves to stir us to use our brain. He does not care how he does it, as we have seen in so many of his works, such as The Thin Blue Line (whose strongest character is Goody), Black Adder,and Mr Bean.

Tony Hancock the actor who went to Sydney (Australia) and committed suicide, had the ability to make us believe that he and his character were inseparable. This is the ultimate trophy for an actor -- when people can no longer distinguish between the two. Actors who reach this supreme state of professionalism pay the price because they become typecast, to the point where they can no longer find work. No director can integrate them in new shows for fear of confusing the audience.

The stalwarts of the industry, since departed to the big stage in the sky, include Frankie Howerd who never seemed to be acting. He looked like a fun-loving chap who craved attention -- yet every gesture was scripted.

The old Round the Horne series was a hit long before I was born. The Charles and Fiona sketches from that show were breathtaking. (Charles is played by Bill Pertwee, the actor heard in Dad's Army as the Hodges character under attack in the sketch.)

It was through Round the Horne that I grew to appreciate the diversity of Kenneth Williams' talents. I have read some of his diaries (which he kept since the age of fifteen!), and I have grown to feel sad for Williams. One of his famous characters was Sandy in Julian and Sandy. (Julian is played by Huge Paddick, who appears in an episode of Black Adder.) Williams himself had a broad career, having worked on Hancock's Half Hour, the Carry-On Gang, Just a Minute, and several other shows, all enriched by his performance, yet each begrudging him the limelight for which he yearned like a child.

Enough has been said about Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. I can only concur with all the critics that these episodes ought to be mandatory viewing for anyone who works in an organisation of any kind. I still point friends to this series and sometimes insist that they watch it before I can advise them about a problem that they are having at work. The bumbling forerunner to this show was called The Men from the Ministry.

I derive pleasure from Just a Minute. This show has been running for decades. The guests seem to have so much fun. On several occasions I have purchased copies of this show and sent it to chairmen or CEOs with the note,

‘Wouldn't it be fabulous if corporate meetings were conducted under the rules of Just a Minute, whereby every executive would only have sixty seconds to present a case without repetition, deviation, or hesitation?’

The Australian series of Mother and Son is remarkable for many reasons. The major one being the ability of the writers and actors to create so much out of a simple concept. This was the case with Steptoe and Son. These simple poor men lived together, and showed us human nature in the raw. No matter what subject they tackled, it seems interesting that the opposite force was also revealed. For example, they were cruel yet kind. They were tough, yet soft on each other. They cramped each other's style, yet went out of their way to support each other. Steptoe and Son did not focus on a father and his son, but on two humans who exhibited many 'opposing' emotions within the space of five minutes. People all over the world endure these struggles daily. Similar struggles were expressed through Only Fools and Horses. Here, the two Trotter brothers get on each other's nerves, but they stick together, like a real family. They are hopeless, but they exhibit a refreshing sense of hope for the future, because, as the elder brother Del Trotter says, this time next year he will be a millionaire. (Del was played by David Jason who also starred in A Touch of Frost. If Tony Hancock wins hands down for vocal genius, Jason wins for supremacy in facial expressions whose timing is faultless, winching and twitching with every syllable.)

This left the way open for two sisters to live under the same roof to show us how the girls do it in Birds of a Feather. Leslie Joseph, who plays the nosey frisky neighbour called Dorian, enormously strengthened this show.

Although I focus on British comedy, I do keep an eye out for other talent. I enjoy old Italian comedies (unfortunately, they are mostly in black and white). I am easily hypnotised when I watch Indian movies in full blast. The only time I might watch TV is when I am in a foreign country. When I was in India, I could not take my eyes off the set, despite being tired. I could not help but telephone my colleague at 2:00 am in his room in the same hotel and plead with him to turn his TV on to witness how the Indians do it. I observe Arabic humour whose ability to produce political satire is second to none. The tomfoolery of the Irish is made famous by the likes of Hal Roach.

The Australians have their moments too. Frontline is almost like Yes Minister. I felt that The Games (addressing the issues surrounding the Sydney 2000 Olympics) was also like the Yes Minister series. It exhibited human nature within a complex political struggle. The probing capabilities of Fast Forward allowed Australians to laugh at their daily affairs, behind the guise of some silly characters, carried by superbly engaging actors.

American humour used to be fun. I do not like most of it these days, only because issues are smothered with overt witticism that is slapped on through telling people off, and putting friends down. I do not consider it funny to be constantly insulting other people, especially when it does not add to the script. Everybody Loves Raymond exhibited writing finesse, while the good old American comedies of the seventies were fun. Earlier, there were the likes of stand-up comedian Bob Newhart who later found his way to TV.

Modern British characters are just as good as the old. Absolutely Fabulous is loveable, as are French and Saunders, and now Catherine Tate, in everything they do. Victoria Wood is such a good writer. In fact, I think that she is a much better writer than she is an actor. However, I appreciate her presence because having the mastermind behind the show there in front of me reminds me of the power of the human brain. She is unbelievably bright. How one person can be so versatile in their writing still takes my breath away. Her shows enabled Celia Imrie (also in Ab Fab) and Julie Walters (also in Billy Elliot) to come to life as two of the most polished character actors I know. They immerse themselves in their role, deserving a standing ovation from my armchair.

Keeping up Appearances, although poorly made, depicts the struggles of a woman who is in an environment in which she does not want to be, so she creates her own world to pander to her ego. Hyacinth Bucket does in 'deed' what others do in 'thought'; meaning that she lives out her fantasy, while most people merely think about their fantasy.

Sundays would not be complete without an unwinding hour with the Carry On Gang. All the episodes are etched in my memory. Similarly, I can recite whole scenes from Fawlty Towers. Basil Fawlty reminds me of Frank Spencer in Some mothers do 'ave 'em, in that Basil is the intelligent version of Frank. Both men create their own living hell.

Some comedy is just brilliant because it exposes issues that were, back then, not allowed to be discussed in public. A clever writer used to shroud the controversy of the day in double meanings. This is where Monty Python came in. Most of that series is not to my liking. However, there were a few gems that have become world famous, like the argument sketch.

I could tell you about dozens more. I go through each show with a fine toothcomb. Anyone who sits with me while watching any of the BBC comedies is treated to a history lesson. I whip out episodes left, right, and center, and treat my guests to a tour down memory lane, courtesy of the loveable characters whom I cherish as virtual friends.

I hope that this will give you some idea about how comedy plays a big part in my life.

Please feel free to let me know what you find stimulating. I answer all my mail.


Jonar Nader