Great comedy isn’t simply slapstick routines or a good catchphrase – it also revolves around compelling but flawed characters facing testing predicaments and whom the audience can empathise with and root for.
And for some of the most memorable of these characters, those predicaments are accompanied by an undercurrent of social, cultural or political challenge.
Following the rise of kitchen sink drama in the 1950s, a strand of social realism also found its way into comedy.
This is particularly true of television where many of the UK’s most popular sitcoms of the past 50 years have featured predominately working-class characters embroiled in blackly and often bleakly farcical situations – set against a resonant backdrop of real social issues.
Like The Suicide’s Simon Simpson, many of these characters face disenfranchisement, buffeted by forces beyond their control and in a landscape that has become increasingly alien to them.
Alf Garnett, the belligerent anti-hero of Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part, is constantly confused and tearfully frustrated by shifting social sands which manifest themselves in the widening chasm of attitudes between the generations.
In Open All Hours, miserly grocer Arkwright keeps the changing world at bay by cocooning himself in his own old-fashioned corner shop empire. Conversely his younger ‘errand boy’ Granville longs wistfully for excitement and exotic encounters.
And in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? when Geordie electrician-turned-squaddie Terry leaves the army he finds life – together with best mate Bob – has moved on in a direction he neither likes nor understands.
Like Simon and his wild plan to revive his fortunes by becoming a famous musician, many of these characters also share a strong self-belief and vaunting ambition.
They are gloriously heroic in their vision, or, perhaps more accurately, their delusion.
Just as with Till Death Us Do Part, Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe & Son is anchored in intergenerational conflict, but with the added dimension of son Harold’s social aspirations and pretentions.
His endless attempts to better himself, reading improving books and imbibing fine wines, are regularly thwarted both by his cunning dad – Oil Drum Lane’s ‘dirty old man’ – and by Harold’s own haplessness.
In Rising Damp, seedy landlord Rupert Rigsby lives in slum conditions but is obsessed with social status, and yearns, without success, to be seen as suave and sophisticated.
Meanwhile Only Fools and Horses’ market trader Del Boy is the natural aspirational successor to Harold, with his ill-fated attempts to better his situation concluding in a succession of failures, although he surpasses Steptoe in ambition, and indeed Rigsby in a flare for cultural faux pas. Mangetout Rodney, mangetout!
It’s an archetype that made the leap into the new millennium too in the form of Peter Kay’s Brian Potter, the stingy, wheelchair-bound working men’s club owner who is resolute in his plans to make the Phoenix the best nightspot in Bolton.
When misfortune strikes, as inevitably it does, the endlessly optimistic Brian bounces back with another scheme.
These are the characters who embody Rudyard Kipling’s lines: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster – and treat those two imposers just the same.”
Disaster and disappointment, and social failure, are constant comedy bedfellows for these characters, life’s underdogs who muddle along from one mishap to the next.
And just sometimes, their persistence is rewarded with triumph.
After years of ducking and diving, Del Trotter finds an antique watch in his garage which makes him a millionaire overnight. In Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? class warrior Terry may be cast adrift, but Bob achieves his ambition to escape the factory floor for a white-collar future and suburban married life with the boss’s daughter.
And even inside Slade Prison, while Porridge’s wily old lag Fletcher may not enjoy large triumphs, he and his ragtag band of criminal cohorts are the unparalleled masters of ‘little victories’ against the system. Morally, their success shouldn’t delight us, but it does.
Because while these characters may often live a dog’s life – and manage to make a dog’s dinner of things, in this nation of animal lovers perhaps it should come as no surprise our favourite comedy breed remains the plucky underdog.