Jokes tend to have a short shelf life. But this doesn’t make humour trivial. What we as a culture find funny is a question of cultural politics. The recent BBC News story that many fans of the 1990s sitcom Friends now find the humour sexist, homo- and transphobic, and fat shaming is testament to how jokes are not only “caught in time” but are also caught in the politics of the time.
Through comedies we learn to “grow up” and invest in the culture we’re born into. And, more importantly, comedies are how we “grow out” of this parent culture and leave it behind – sitcoms end often within a decade of airing. So what does it mean when characters return from the past and start saying things we’d really rather they didn’t? One particular sitcom to have faced this problem and handled it with pathos is The League of Gentleman.
The reboot of The League of Gentleman in 2017 was, according to Mark Gatiss, inspired by the Brexit vote, as today it feels that Britain is becoming “a local country for local people” – a reference to the catchphrase of the series’ sinister local shop owners, Tubbs and Edward.
The League of Gentleman’s comic sensibility, rooted in vaudeville, is impermissible today. Blackface. Sexist gags. Homophobic jibes. The fictional town of Royston Vasey, where the sitcom is set, is named after the politically incorrect comedian, Roy “Chubby” Brown.
Yet the dark comic genius of The League of Gentleman did not rest on vaudeville roots. Its sinister genius was that it was a pantomime grotesque of what parochial towns are “really like” under the veneer of respectable normality. What are shopkeepers really saying by wanting to “keep things local”? A polite way of being xenophobic? Possibly.
If by today’s standard we are opposed to the regressive politics of a “local country for local people”, our sympathy for comic characters comes from the fact that they are still “our” xenophobic neighbours. Our comic sensibility is such that they are our kin.
The League of Gentleman knows this and in the finale of 2017’s Christmas reboot the message is made very clear. When Cousin Benjamin says to his Auntie Val, “You know … sometimes you can’t go back. But you can visit”, the emotional result is movingly unsettling. Is this a line directed to the post-colonial melancholia of the Brexit vote, or the nostalgia of the sitcom, or our being complicit in both through past enjoyment?
The investments we make in culture at an early age, when repeated in adulthood, become the site of an uncanny experience. When we return to our comic pasts, we have a feeling of pleasure “in the wrong place”. Like many experiences from childhood, we’ve had to – for whatever reason – disown these pleasures. The pleasure we feel from nostalgia is pleasure we’re not sure what to do with. Rewatching all of Fawlty Towers, Britain’s best-loved sitcom from the 1970s, will unsettle most viewers in its less than subtle racism (and not just from the drunk Army major).
Millennials and the politics of nostalgia
It is worth thinking about why these reactions surface. Prior to the rise of digital media, people would return privately to past pleasures via their VHS machines. They could be secret. Now we return to them publicly and share our experience via social media. The experience is very different: the first offers you a “guilty pleasure”, whereas the second experience is one of shame – and shame is a public revelation. You’ve lied about yourself – and the lie is now exposed for all to see.
It is important to notice who voices their outrage at homophobic, sexist and racist traces in sitcoms that were once so innocently enjoyed. The “straw-group” are represented as “snowflakes” or “millennials” – a far from flattering media image. But we need to move beyond this cartoon of millennials.
For the “millennial” generation, their coming-of-age coincides with a “postmodern condition” of culture and the rise of web 2.0: broadcasting that you can search, archive and repeat. Postmodern culture is a reboot culture: what is new is a recycling of previous stories, characters and universes. To invest in this requires us to be nostalgic – often for an experience we’ve never had or originally witnessed.
For millennials, this is the only experience they’ve had of cultural consumption. Notably, the heroes of so-called “millennials” are re-boots: from Jeremy Corbyn’s “impressive archive” of leftist activism – easily searched online – to Doctor Who’s lesson that “time is not linear, the past can be changed”.
When sociologists write about generations or “generational mentalities”, they don’t really mean clearly identifiable and empirically “real” groups. Generational thinking concerns the sociology of knowldge: it refers to how particular birth cohorts come to “think about themselves” – or can be understood as distinct from others.
A shared cultural repertoire is one way of doing this. When so-called “millennials” get upset about Friends being homophobic, or feel uneasy about the “local country, local people” politics of The League of Gentleman, the response should not be to view this as a reaction of young people being unable to face up to the realities of the world. An alternative understanding would be to think about what forces are at work that provoke such reactions, namely the fact that we live in a world which values digging up our pasts and uses nostalgia as a selling point. The value placed upon nostalgia sits uneasily with an equally important value found among young people: the dream of a better future, often understood as one radically different to the past.
So-called “millennial” upset is the consequence of what happens when a progressive desire for the future clashes with a culture rooted in nostalgia. Outrage at reading the past in light of the present is a lesson for realising you’ve grown up and you can’t go back. But you can visit – there is no shame in that.