• Ricky Gervais in Life on the Road. Ooh, edgy! (BBC)Source: BBC
People don’t laugh at jokes they’ve heard before...
30 Aug 2016 - 3:20 PM  UPDATED 31 Aug 2016 - 3:00 PM

You may see a problem if you enter a cinema showing David Brent: Life on the Road, Ricky Gervais’s attempt to move his character from The Office forward.

Remember how funny Brent was running an office, with all his awkward banter and dodgy racist jokes? The first 15 minutes of this movie have him in an office doling out awkward banter and racist jokes!

Recall how he fancied himself as an entertainer, right down to bad dancing and rubbish songs? They’re back too! And then the series ended with him somehow gaining the respect of those who previously scorned him despite him changing his behaviour not one bit?

Well, you’ve got to leave some surprises.

But David Brent is merely the latest victim of a tide of nostalgia that’s killing comedy – well, the high-profile, pop culture-defining kind of comedy – stone dead.

At least the Ab Fab movie feels like one final victory lap for the fans; the recent Ghostbusters reboot managed to satisfy pretty much no one. Nostalgia fans were outraged that Hollywood was messing with their childhoods; comedy fans were less than impressed that some of the funniest people working today had to contort their style to fit into a 30-year-old action-comedy formula.

And the less said about Zoolander 2 the better. Sometimes even 15 years isn’t long enough to come up with a new batch of gags.

So while Gervais – whose career has been increasingly fixated on the twin poles of mawkish sentiment and punching-down playground humour for years now – is hardly alone in trying to revive old comedy for new laughs, he’s also hardly alone in failing.

But rather than turning to new things, movie distributors are doubling down on blockbuster sequels, reboots, remakes and revivals – and that’s not counting the comic book franchises that all feel like follow-ups even when they feature all-new characters.

Television isn’t much better, with 2016 seeing the BBC reviving a swathe of past sitcom hits like Keeping Up AppearancesPorridge, and Are You Being Served. Over in the US, Full House revival Fuller House was a major hit for Netflix (there’s a second season coming soon). It even beat out the streaming service’s equally nostalgia-heavy drama series Stranger Things to be their most watched show so far this year.

There’s plenty of plausible reasons why we’re increasingly looking backwards, ranging from audiences wanting to retreat to childhood comforts to an Internet culture where people simply don’t have the time to investigate new things. But while nostalgia is always with us, its current rise in pop culture has come about just as comedy – especially the movie variety – has taken a serious fall.

Barely a decade ago Judd Apatow was one of the biggest names in Hollywood, with comedy performers like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler massive box office stars. Now they’re past their prime, and the next generation is struggling. This year popular sketch teams The Lonely Island and Key & Peele both put out all-new feature films in the US; both tanked at the box office and failed to make it to cinemas in Australia.

So how can comedy survive when retreads are all the rage? Those looking for clues could do a lot worse than check out the current career revival of UK comedy character Alan Partridge, 25 years from debut.

Originally created by a team of writers (including Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham) and then-impressionist Steve Coogan for comedy news radio show On The Hour in 1991, Partridge was initially just an addled yet bombastic sports presenter.

But he rapidly spun off into his own radio chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You, then moved to television with ensemble news show The Day Today, a television version of KMKY (aha!), and two series of cringe comedy pioneer sitcom I’m Alan Partridge.

The final I’m Alan Partridge aired in 2002; Coogan shifted focus to Hollywood and for close to a decade Partridge was as good as dead. Some suggested this was in part due to the rise of The Office (which first aired in 2001), with David Brent ramping up the cringe factor of Partridge.

But when Coogan brought Partridge back in 2011 with the online series Mid Morning Matters, it wasn’t a nostalgia act. Partridge had moved on, becoming less cringe-worthy while remaining a master of tactless blather.

The success of Partridge’s return seems due to a number of factors. His return was small at first, so it never felt like a shameless cash grab. Coogan brought in new writers (brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons) that kept him unpredictable. And Coogan had improved as a performer, making Partridge a much more rounded character.

Coogan and company have since trotted out Partridge in a biography, a mockumentary, a second series of Mid Morning Matters, and the 2013 movie Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (read SBS Movies' review here). It opened with US$2.8 million in the UK; in contrast, On the Road made roughly US$1m less there in the same period.

Then again, the Ab Fab movie made over US$5m in its first week and the Mrs Brown’s Boys movie US$7m, so clearly comedy is dead any way you look at it.


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