I watched two minutes and 38 seconds of the first episode of Ben Elton’s new sitcom Upstart Crow (BBC Two). In that time I did not laugh, and I did not smile, which seemed portent enough not to carry on with the remaining 27 minutes of it. It goes without saying that I still hold Ben Elton in high regard for writing, or co-writing, The Young Ones, Happy Families, Filthy Rich & Catflap, and the second, third and fourth series of Blackadder, plus all the stand-up routines he delivered when he was a lightning rod for the shifting tectonic plates of comedy in the 1980s and early 1990s, and his first novel Stark. (I suspect of all those, the novel will stand up least well to the passage of time, although I gobbled it up on publication, when I still thought he was a visionary.) But that all seemed a long, long time ago when I switched on Upstart Crow in good faith, as it looked for all the world to be a return to the fertile comedic ground of Blackadder. I was dissuaded of this Panglossian notion during the tortuous first two minutes and 38 seconds.
That is my review. I voted with my feet. Comedy is subjective, so I hope others enjoyed it more than I did. A large part of my own comedy writing and script-editing CV took place within the world of audience-based studio comedy, so it is not the form that’s the thing, it’s the mismatch between how funny I felt a line being said out loud by talented actors was, and how funny the studio audience thought it was. I’m sure many people find a similar discrepancy, for which there is no known cure, in Not Going Out. Making a comedy with a studio audience is the opposite of the old stand-up complaint, “Tough crowd.” But it’s a mighty long way down rock and roll, from the Thames TV studio to your remote control.
As David Mitchell said just before I switched off, “It’s what I do!”