Making a Case for Dark Comedy #3: The League of Gentlemen

NOTE: there are disturbing and crude subjects discussed in this post.

Terry Gross: You've said your speciality as a comic is going to a place where people get uncomfortable and then you stay there. How did you realize that was your comedy, that was what you do?

Louis C.K.: I kind of couldn't help it, you know...Like the stuff in that monologue [we just heard from SNL]. It's very touchy stuff...Maybe there is a God, maybe there isn't. Is God divorced? Did God kill his wife? Some things that are like "Oh boy...." You feel a little sweat on the back of your neck when you get there. But if you stay there for a second you can find something joyful and funny in it. And it's such a great thing to go to a scary place and laugh. I mean, what's better than that?

Introduction: Welcome To Royston Vasey—You'll Never Leave
If you have ever watched an episode of the (now classic) BBC dark comedy series The League of Gentlemen and it left you feeling dirty and disturbed—about the world we live in, the characters of the show, the writers and actors on the show, and (hopefully) even yourself, then that's probably a good thing.
I distinctly remember the first time I watched the show, also being the first time it aired in America, premiering on Comedy Central sometime in 1999. I was into British comedy even then and was excited at what appeared to be a new, unique looking show. But I was not prepared for what I was about to see. Monty Python or Mr. Bean this was not. 

From the very first moments of being introduced to the characters Edward and Tubbs I genuinely felt dirty, like I had just seen something transgressive. I didn't really watch the show after that except for a few smatterings of scenes. It was just too too much. But like a massive car crash or a grossly disfigured person it was hard to look away. A few years later I ate up every single episode of the show after it re-appeared on BBC America. I have watched it a few more times since then and though it grows no less disturbing with age its depth of meaning shows itself to be more and more profound as the years go on. To me The League of Gentlemen is one of the great all time masterpieces of comedy.

Episode 1: Welcome To Royston Vasey

The Louis C.K. quote at the beginning of this article reveals something essential about comedy, that the skill of the comedian is to take what is uncomfortable to us all and poke at it till we find the funny in it. The subject itself might still be awkward or painful but at least we can learn to laugh about it, and in laughing perhaps we can overcome it. As a standup comedian as well as on his television show Louie, C.K. does this well and has for years pushed his audience to discomfort. His approach though is nearly always gentle or he at least figures out a way to take us with him, even when he's doing something as awful making us hate (and possibly want to kill) a delinquent kid or in getting us to think about our inescapable mortality. In other words, C.K's demeanor, which essentially a weary self-deprecating but wise Everyman, always softens the comedic blows for us.

But is there a justifiable type of comedy that serves up a seven course meal of discomfort and then makes us eat it all in one sitting? Or what if that comedy then knit us an entire wardrobe of twisted repugnance and made us wear the clothes without ever allowing us to wash ourselves or change into something different? That is, can a comedy's permanent dwelling place be on disturbing, upsetting, and repulsive subject matter and still be called "comedy", still make people laugh?

Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, and Reece Sheersmith

This is exactly the kind of humor The League of Gentlemen employed during their 3 series and a Christmas special which ran from 1999-2002 (they also did a less well-received 2005 film), by creating a modern day circus freak show using the form of sketch comedy.* Drawing on Vaudevillian grotesquerie, 50's B-movie horror, and noir tropes, writers/performers Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, and Reece Sheersmith**   (along with writer Jeremy Dyson***) took quaint small-town English country life and made it strange. The show depicts a series of bizarre, depraved, and monstrously deformed people (on both the inside and out) living life together in the fictional town of Royston Vasey. Whereas The Vicar of Dibley and Keeping Up Appearances dismantled the hypocrisy of quaint English smalltown life, middle class English snobbery, and the underlying xenophobia present to them both by playfully making a mockery of it, The League of Gentlemen stripped them down to nothing and made them run naked through the streets yelling "I've been a very naughty boy! I've been a very naughty boy!" in the dead cold of winter.

One might be tempted to immediately recoil at all the hideousness on display in the show (both moral and physical), but if you choose to keep looking you come to realize through these discomfiting characters the Gentlemen are forcing us to look at the darkness of the human soul, the evil that dwells within us all. And within that darkness is a deep longing for justice, to make right this twisted world that has gone horribly horribly wrong.

Key Characters
Generally speaking there are 4 types of characters on the show:

The Sad Lonely Misfit: almost every character on the show would fit in this category. They find themselves somewhere on the spectrum of pathetic and depressed to actually physically grotesque or mentally deranged.

The Corrupt Oppressive Authority Figure: there are significantly less of these kinds of characters, and essentially even they fall into the "Sad Lonely Misfit" category as well, except none of them have realized it yet. These characters make life miserable for everyone, lording their supposed need for power over everyone within their influence.

Neutral, somewhat normal folk: there are a few characters who seem basically normal, if perhaps a bit depressive, and are basically present to act as comedic foils to the Sad Lonely Misfits or the Corrupt Oppressive Authority Figures.

The Cartoonish Sketch Character: there are a few characters that get their own sketches who seem to be there for the gags and punchlines (like Dr. Chinnery the veterinarian) but even they nearly always fit into the Sad Lonely Misfit category as well.

As actors, Pemberton and Gatiss are able to powerfully portray utter pain, dejection, and despair, while Sheersmith is able to channel a kind of unhinged rage. Together, they all help us as viewers to truly enter into the psycho-social misery the characters are experiencing. It is easy to look away when things get unpleasant, but if you keep watching you cannot help but feel what each character is going through.

All the characters follow a similarly simple narrative arc: the evil tendencies that lie within them will consume them entirely until they are utterly destroyed. Indeed, the town of Royston Vasey itself acts as a collective single character, a "person" who cannot help but be a self-destructive masochist, maniacally writhing in its own agony. 

Much of the series dwells on how the evil and destruction comes from within Royston Vasey with a brief respite in the second series where the evil comes from without. In other words, through the show we see that sometimes the evil lies within us, in our own vices and our inability to overcome them, and sometimes evil comes attacking as a real tangible threat from the outside.

Let us now take a brief look at just a few of the show's cornucopia of characters:

Edward and Tubbs: The League of Gentlemen does not start out with any amount of subtlety, having Edward and Tubbs, a piggish husband and wife who own a curiously remote "local shop" filled with useless touristy souvenirs, sadistically and merrily kill people within the first episodes through disturbing bacchanal rituals. Every time someone enters their shop Tubbs asks in utter fear "Are you local?!" and Edward declares "What's going on? What's all this shouting? We'll have no trouble here!" And no matter the visitor's response, whether they are local or not, they always somehow manage to execute them, viewing them as a threat from the outset.

In fact, there is cruel irony in the characters of Edward and Tubbs, acting as an example of what happens if puritanical ideology remains unchecked. That is, if a people are absolutely convinced their understanding of morality is the truth, they can be capable of unimaginably horrible atrocities in the name of that morality. As a result, they become perpetrators of great immorality. 

The other cruel irony of Edward and Tubbs is despite seeing themselves as great bastions of tradition and a certain way of life, they are always utterly alone in their pursuits. There are no followers of their cause. This can only mean they are nothing but psychopaths acting under their own disturbed understanding of reality. Their "local shop" is isolated and outside of town. They view themselves as the guardians, gatekeepers, and true citizens of Royston Vasey when in fact they are the outsiders. Tubbs and Edward are indicative of people who so adamantly think they are normal—and thus in the center of society—when in fact they are on the fringes. Their striving for normalcy capitulates into extremism; they so obsessively desire to be the "right" kind of people they in turn become the "wrong" kind of people, grotesques no one actually wants to be around.****

Edward and Tubbs stand as supreme images of those held captive to the fear of change and of difference, of those who would kill whatever is different from them, destroying any perceived fear or threat.

Uncle Harvey and Auntie Val: the couple in this next family who lets their nephew come stay with them for a walking holiday
are a prime example of the injustice and cruelty of hypocrisy, of those people who oppressively expect others to maintain the highest standards of morality (a morality of their choosing) and yet apply those same rules to themselves only when it benefits them. They seem to take cruel delight in giving their nephew Benjamin an impossible set of rules to uphold and then changing those rules on him randomly, either shaming him for his gaffe or boldly encouraging to embrace a Bohemian freedom, only to change the rules back on him once again, shaming him again for his bestial impropriety. They are all about control and keeping order, again—like Edward and Tubbs—at all costs. Rules upon rules upon rules. They lord the law over others and yet when it comes to them they have the strangest most disturbing behavior, as if the rules don't apply to themselves (e.g., their "aqua vita" beverage, nude day, and the curious habit of keeping toads)  

Note how strange Uncle Harvey's behavior is toward Benjamin in addressing his assumed propensity toward masturbation—he manages to unmercifully shame his nephew for his (again assumed) base desires while also seeming to take great pleasure in describing the act itself:

Uncle Harvey and Auntie Val are a warning about systems of rules that run amok, of rules that no longer benefit anyone but the corrupt leaders at the top. Their system is oppressive and destroys everyone around them, and in the end even they fall prey to it at the hands of their creepy anal-retentive-in-training twin daughters.

"You're my wife now!"
Papa Lazarou: leader of a traveling circus, this shapeshifter of a "man" is the face of evil itself. His evil is inexplicable and absurd. There is no reason for it; it is destruction personified. He is the Devourer. He is Discordia and Loki, a god of chaos and trickery. A literal trail of filth follows him wherever he goes.

At the beginning of series 2 Papa Lazarou breaks into Royston Vasey and literally steals as many people's wives as he can. He captures them, declares "You're my wife now!", locks them up, and they are never seen again. Lazarou is the evil that invades the town from the outside. He is an outsider bent on the destruction of whatever lay in his path.

And yet there are some things even Papa Lazarou cannot abide. There is this utterly bizarre moment at the end of the episode in which he first appeared (series 2 episode 1) where Lazarou, along with his circus troupe, declares the people of Royston Vaysey are themselves too freaky for him and decides to up and leave town. 

Hilary Briss, corrupt Butcher, provider of
the "special stuff".

And what made him leave? In the middle of his circus act (where he again steals another wife for himself) the noses of everyone in the audience starts to bleed profusely, a result of the whole town consuming town butcher Hilary Briss' "special stuff", a kind of taboo meat he either makes himself or acquires through illicit means. In earlier episodes the meat is so dangerous it's treated like a forbidden drug, with only certain men in the "know" able to obtain it from the butcher. However, with the advent of the nose bleeding epidemic it becomes apparent the one or some of the men who received the "special stuff" in secret were sharing it with their families at home. The meat creates an insatiable addiction in anyone who consumes it, and the abundant bleeding acts as a manifestation of the people's lust and gluttony and addiction eating away at the town from the inside out. Even the god of chaos himself Papa Lazarou, the disgusting new force to have invaded the town could not take this. He vacates Royston Vasey in fear and disgust.

A Key Episode

All the themes of the show cohere at once in series 1 episode 4, "The Beast of Royston Vasey", with each skit expressing in some manner or other the utter cruelty of life:

There is Mr. Foot, the annoying and ignorant old man who won't shut up and keeps badgering the blind man trying to relax at the park. By the end of the skit Mr. Foot stands there babbling on, the blind man having left a minute ago, showing he is the one who is blind, except his blindness comes in being completely unaware of the needs of those around him.

Then there is the Legs Akimbo crew, a pathetic drama troupe of aspiring actors, who supposedly put on liberally minded feel good skits to inspire young people. They are led by Olly, who is bitterness personified. The irony lies in the fact that he and his troupe make it a point to portray love and tolerance in their skits and yet the bitterness of Ollie isolates him from everyone in his life, from his girlfriend to his drama troupe, to the audience he is supposedly trying to inspire.

Next is Charlie and Stella a bitter married couple who utilize any means possible as a way to bite into each other. Sat at a restaurant waiting for their food they use "Luigi" their host and waiter as a way to get back at each other for all the hurt they have put each other through. They represent a couple who no longer knows how to communicate, their love long ago having grown cold, their bitterly cruel insults standing as the only remaining means of expressing their love. They are a testament to how good it actually feels to hurt others, to dig at someone till they bleed emotionally. Look how much catharsis they receive through their insults, and how easily they use someone else ("Luigi") as a pivot to land each successive blow.

Tubbs and Edward along with Uncle Harvey and Auntie Val also make their typically oppressive appearances in this episode, along with a pitiable scarecrow who is not what he seems on the surface. Sure, the episode is full of laughs, but every one of these characters are inflicting some kind of pain on others and having it inflicted back on them. To be sure, it is a wincing laughter.

A Key Scene
A couple of characters who basically appear in only one scene in the series (series 2, episode 3), is the sad sack Iain Cashmore, who is looking for love through a dating agency, and Olive Kilshaw, the attractive agent who enters Iain's info to the system and cannot help but berate him at every turn for all his flaws. Who knows what ridicule this poor man has had to endure all his life or what his home life was like growing up? Imagine the social isolation he has experienced over the years and the implied transgressions he has committed in his desperation. More than anything he just wants to love and be loved. I am sure it took him a long time to gather the courage to walk into that dating agency office and yet here again all he finds is more rejection and ridicule. The scene is painful to watch but it is also very funny.

Conclusion: Looking Horror in the Face
Though it only lasted for 3 series, many of the same themes and genre homages found their way into the Gentlemen's later work, especially Pemberton's and Sheersmith's Psychoville and Inside No. 9 (the latter of which makes an excellent and sometimes superior companion to Black Mirror) as well a Gatiss' renowned work as writer/producer/actor on the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock.

But the quality of the show significantly diminished toward the end of it's run, which includes a decent part of season 2 and nearly all of season 3. Towards the end they seemed to indulge too much in the hyperbolically macabre. The characters and situations became over-the-top cartoons. The writers and actors seemed to be enjoying themselves in creating increasingly melodramatic genre send-ups (horror, noir, psychological thrillers, supernatural thrillers) but the characters became even less sympathetic and their life circumstances more extreme and the humor dwindled down to sparse dribbles. This meant we cared even less about an already disturbing set of people and we weren't even laughing about it. In other words, the show lost its heart, which was in creating strangely compelling societal freaks put in hilarious circumstances. If the freaks become too freakish (as well as cruel!) and there's nothing to laugh at, the show becomes hard to watch. 

So, for instance I find the Mr. Foot scenes from earlier in the series, despite the character being a glorified cartoon with his obligatory repeated catchphrase, where he attempts to talk first to a blind man and then to a wheelchair bound man with gloriously offensive ignorant awkwardness, a much more wince-inducing and yet also emotionally engaging sketch than say, the overwrought scenes in series 3 where bed and breakfast owner Alvine Steele attempts to disperse of his wife's body with his new lover, Judith Bickle. 

To me, the show is at its most powerful when situations are kept simple and human emotions are easily relatable. Mr. Foot, in showing how little he knows about interacting with other humans, demonstrates he is the one blind to the needs of others, he the social, emotional, and intellectual cripple. Despite being a bit of a cartoon, there is something in Mr. Foot's vulnerability we can all relate to. But when Alvin Steele turns into a murderous jaded lover, not only does it play against the spirit of his character up to that point, it also turns him into a mere genre parody, a cartoon we can no longer a character we can relate to.

But as I said, at its best The League of Gentlemen simultaneously manages to be sad, horrific, and yet still funny. It calls out its characters as the hideous freaks and unjust monsters that they are and yet somehow causes us to sympathize with them, even seeing ourselves reflected in their terrible image.  All the vices are on display in Royston Vasey and in the most blaring tone imaginable: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride (the so-called 7 deadly sins) as well as a significant amount of bitterness, cynicism, despair, nihilism, and revelry in cruelty. Much of the time the show seems to morally go off the rails, where no character's debauchery or brutality is held accountable—in fact, series 3 seems to end in this very way. But I would argue The League of Gentlemen's amorality or immorality is in the eye of the viewer.  If there is something worth critiquing and excoriating in the moral universe the Gentlemen created, then it is up to us to start a discussion about it. If we find the show not only revolting but also perversely funny, then perhaps we got the point. 

In his essay "On Fairy Stories" J.R.R Tolkien posits that in fairy tales the reason apples are always made gold is to remind us of how awestruck we were when we first realized apples were green. Out of necessity then, "fairytales", according to Tolkien have to have happy endings, in order to show that in the end good will eventually always be the victor. Well what if the opposite were true? What if fantastically horrific tales like The League of Gentlemen exist to remind us how horrified we were when we first came in contact with evil, when we were first exposed to the ugliness of sin, both ours and that of others? Then it would only be fitting for these stories to have beautifully horrible endings where it would appear evil had won. These endings should upset us and hopefully force us to see evil as something to be reckoned with, something to not only recoil from in great horror but also rise up against with great force. Viewed in the right frame of mind, a show such as The League of Gentlemen, though on the surface a seeming celebratory display of human depravity, should stir us up in this very way.

You can read much more about the show on this excellent website: http://www.leagueofgentlemen.co.uk/
You can stream Series 1 of The League of Gentlemen on YouTube
And for the time being the entire series is available on Netflix.
It is also available on Amazon, of course.
*I think it should be noted I believe it was no accident the circus came to town at the start of the second series. I believe doing so was a nod to the genre roots of the show, and acted as a kind of parallel universe or a kind of competition between freak shows. That circus, run by the maniacal Papa Lazarou was filled freaks and shady characters. Still, in the end the actual town of Royston Vasey proved to be even more freaky than the freaks.

**Of the three, I find Steve Pemberton to be the most brilliant. He consistently manages to trick me into thinking he is different actors playing different characters and not the same actor. Honestly, in watching Tubbs, Pauline, Uncle X, and XXXX I often think "is that the same guy?"

***It is evident there were writing partnerships within the sketch troupe, with Pemberton and Sheersmith penning more scenes and characters explicitly together (Edward and Tubbs, Pauline and Ross, Charlie and Stella) and Gatiss having more stand alone characters (Dr. Chinnery, Les McQueen, Hilary Briss).

****All this is to say nothing of the implied abusive relationship between Edward and Tubbs. Edward has kept Tubbs as little more than a house prisoner for the duration of their marriage. Anytime she wishes to better herself, go somewhere new, or change anything in any way he immediately squelches her desires. He must have absolute control of her. Thus along with the being xenophobic, Edward also acts as a critique of patriarchy and spousal abuse.

No comments: