Escapism is an important part of life, particularly in these times of uncertainty, and for the vast majority of people one of the best forms of escapism is comedy television shows. Whether they’re sketch shows, sitcoms or stand-up comedians, shows that make people laugh will always be a critical cornerstone in the televised entertainment industry. I grew up watching shows like Red Dwarf, Spaced, Mock the Week and Monty Python, so these comedy shows are as much a part of the pantheon of my favourite shows as Doctor Who, TNG and Voyager are.
Something that sets a comedy show up above all the rest is when the writers and creative minds behind the scenes understand that their audience is as much attached to the characters in the program as they are to the jokes that they tell, and often the most memorable and emotional moments in TV come from comedy shows that will briefly lift the levity that cloaks the story and deliver a scene that, although not designed to make you laugh, is every bit as integral to the program as any of its funniest jokes.
Perhaps the most famous example of what I am talking about is the final few scenes from the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, the Fourth Blackadder series that is set in the trenches during World War 1. It is understandable that some might find the setting of this series to be somewhat distasteful – after all, making light of the senseless slaughter of entire generations that took place during that conflict is difficult without coming across as callous, and the creators of the show clearly understood this.
Throughout the course of the series, Captain Blackadder desperately tries to come up with cunning plans to avoid going over the top, and his rival Captain Darling (who for the majority of the show holds a position behind the front lines in the safety of the General’s office) often attempts to outwit him. In the show’s final moments, we see that Captain Darling has been reassigned to the front line just as the order to go over the top has been given, and the four main characters of the series share a poignant scene together in which they discuss their predicament.
There are several lines here that hit hard. The usually upbeat George confesses his fear of what is about to happen, lamenting that he is the last of his schoolfriends left alive. We get a rare insight into Darling’s character, who tells us for the first time that he had a sweetheart back home. Baldrick and Blackadder share one final exchange about cunning plans before Blackadder, in a sobering moment of genuine compassion, wishes his friends luck. Then, they all go over the top and they don’t get very far. This sequence makes the entire series worthwhile – the true horror of the conflict is reflected in this episode, as these characters that we have come to know and love do their duty and die in the process, as so many brave people did during WW1. Such is the power of this scene that the episode famously once aired on Remembrance Day – and it received not one single complaint.
This is not the only example of a comedy series taking a serious approach to a topic that demands it – another great one hits us at the very of the sketch show That Mitchell and Webb look. At the last moment of this usually light-hearted and jocular series, Robert Webb and David Mitchell deliver an incredibly poignant and emotional scene in what is perhaps now their most infamous sketch, known simply as ‘Old Holmes’. The premise is simple. Sherlock Holmes is now an old man living in a care home, suffering from dementia. John Watson pays him a visit and, with the help of Chief Inspector Lestrade, they create a simple fake mystery for him to ‘solve’.
As it deals with the topic of dementia, this sketch can come across as facetious, but it is only when the other characters have gone and Holmes and Watson are alone together that this scene suddenly takes a turn. Holmes admits to Watson in a moment of lucidity that he in fact knows what Watson is trying to do for him, and that he is aware of his situation and that there is nothing he can do about it. What sells this scene is Robert Webb’s phenomenal acting, Watson’s face as he realises what is happening, you can see that he desperately wants to say something to his friend but he just cannot find the words.
Opinions on this sketch may differ. Unlike the previous example, there is not a clear-cut consensus on it, as although many agree that it delivers a heavy-hitting moment there are those who are less comfortable with the concept of making light of a serious condition like dementia. Early in the sketch the studio audience seem to take the sketch at face-value, laughing at the depiction of Holmes as a sick old man. However, the laugher soon dies as the audience realise what this scene represents. Whilst I would never condone making light of dementia, and I would seriously advise against any attempts to make a comedy sketch dealing with this topic, the sincerity of the final scene of That Mitchell and Webb Look combined with the fantastic line delivery from the actors means that, in spite of everything, it works.
The final scene we will discuss today comes from one of my favourite science fiction series of all time – Red Dwarf. A classic sitcom set on a mining ship stranded 3 million years away from Earth, Red Dwarf has always dealt with serious themes of depression, loneliness and self-worth, and nothing illustrates this better than the interactions between Lister and Rimmer. The friendship between these two characters is one of the most interesting ever put to screen, as although they loathe each other and appear to be polar opposites the underlying truth of their situation is that they both need each other and depend on each other for emotional support, even if it clothed in insults and petty banter.
There are half a dozen exceptional scenes that I will mention here – the scene in the Observation Dome after Rimmer discovers that his father died in Thanks for the Memory, the conversation between the two about their friendship in The Promised Land, and the short scene that they share talking about Kryten in The Last Day. But the moment that never fails to bring a tear to my eye is the final sequence of the last episode of Series 6, Out of Time. In this story, the Dwarfers discover a time machine, and are soon confronted by versions of themselves from the future who want to copy elements from the time machine to repair their own damaged drive. Unfortunately, the crew discover that their future selves are twisted versions of themselves who use the time machine to socialise with some of the most evil figures in history, and they are soon forced into an epic showdown with their future selves.
This scene is incredible for many reasons. For a start, the Dwarfers each individually commit to fighting a battle that they cannot win, even the cowardly Rimmer declares his intent to fight with the iconic line “Better Dead Than Smeg.” What follows is a great sequence in which the main characters are killed one by one as Starbug is ripped apart – Lister dies locking weapons onto the enemy ship, Cat dies because he takes the time to check to see if Lister is alright, and Kryten dies attempting to tell Rimmer what he needs to do to get them out of the situation. Then, in a climactic moment that represents the pinnacle of Rimmer’s subtle character development, he grabs a mining laser and rushes to the cargo hold.
The music, sound effects and set design emphasise the desperation as Rimmer charges heroically through the disintegrating ship to destroy the time machine and save the day. You can actually sense the live studio audience hold their breath as they witness this sequence, and although the episode ends with Starbug being destroyed and an infamous ‘To Be Continued…’, this episode could have been a satisfactory end to the series. This scene is less about words and more about the actions of a character, and admittedly it does perhaps lack the emotional depth of the other two scenes listed here if you haven’t seen Red Dwarf and so don’t know the characters, but at the very least it is a moving depiction of a coward facing his fear and bravely saving his friends.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about three of my favourite moving scenes from comedy shows – are there any other poignant, emotional or moving scenes from comedy shows that you like, feel free to post them down in the comments below as well as any opinions you might have about these three scenes. Thank you very much for reading my thoughts on why comedy shows should make you cry as well as laugh, follow our blog to see more content like this!