Following my post on “Laughter and Civility” several months ago I have been trying to deconstruct what makes us laugh and build a convincing argument that it is appropriate to identify Doc Martin as a dramedy with an emphasis on comedy. For me this was a worthwhile endeavor because I am fascinated by the various philosophical views of humor and laughter. (I also find it important to place shows in the proper categories because I believe we don’t give enough recognition to the impact comedy can have on our views of all sorts of topics.)
In writing about Doc Martin I have often referred to other TV shows that combined serious topics with intentional efforts to be comedic. These included M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad. In the above mentioned post one important commenter (DM) noted an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that deserved to be included. Every one of these exceptional shows addressed very important issues while also making us laugh. While there is an argument to be made that The Sopranos and Breaking Bad leaned more toward drama than comedy, the others were definitely designed as comedies first, and I believe strongly that Doc Martin was too. My position on this does not in any way diminish the significant contributions to our discourse on socially relevant concerns addressed by these shows.
In my effort to develop a convincing argument on this subject, I used my usual academic resources and I watched the recent series on CNN about The History of Comedy, and I checked out some other discussions on YouTube. What follows is my attempt at collating all of this information and providing you with a few references to my sources.
My “go to” source is often A Handbook to Literature because it distills terminology into its basics. It seems pertinent to note that in this reference book comedy is identified as “a lighter form of drama that aims primarily to amuse and that ends happily. It differs from farce and burlesque by having a sustained plot, weightier and subtler dialogue, more lifelike characters, and less boisterous behavior.” Furthermore, the Handbook states “in general, the comic effect arises from a recognition of some incongruity of speech, action, or character…Viewed in another sense, comedy may be considered to deal with people in their human state, restrained and often made ridiculous by their limitations, faults, bodily functions, and animal nature…Comedy has always regarded human beings more realistically than tragedy and drawn its laughter or satire from the spectacle of individual or collective human weakness or failure.”
The Handbook also defines comic relief as “a humorous scene, incident, or speech in the course of serious fiction or drama…that are used to provide relief from emotional intensity and, by contrast, to heighten the seriousness of the story.” (We can easily see how in S6 Penhale’s survival exercises were inserted for that purpose. [IMO the story had gotten so somber that Penhale’s antics ended up simply being intrusive and tiresome.] In S7 Mrs. Tischell’s preparations for a romantic dinner relieved the lack of intimacy between Martin and Louisa and heightened the seriousness of that absence. And those are just two of many instances where comic relief is used in this show.)
CNN’s series of episodes that looked at the history of comedy broke it down into 9 episodes so far, with each having a particular theme. The one named “The Comedy of Real Life” seemed the most pertinent for my use and really reaffirmed what the Handbook had to say about comedy dealing with people in their human state. CNN asserts that comedy consists of real life events just twisted a bit, and that comedians bring everyday experiences to the front burner. In addition, it declares real life funny because it’s relatable and viewers realize that many of these situations have happened to them too. They quote Norman Lear as saying “there’s nothing more interesting than the foolishness of the human condition. It takes the comedian to find the moment that helps people laugh at themselves.”
In this episode they also declare that being likable is not believable and there’s no comedy in likable. Furthermore, they contend that outcasts can be lovable. Thus, flawed characters are the essence of comedy.
Insofar as subject matter is concerned, they quote Jerry Seinfeld as saying that romance gives people instant vulnerability and that marriage is rife with comedy because it strains credulity that two people want to make a commitment for life. Apart from that, relationship material is never finished because there are so many ways to be with somebody.
So when Doc Martin begins with the flight to Newquay in which Martin Ellingham quickly reveals his social ineptitude by staring at Louisa Glasson, they are immediately taking advantage of the comedic aspects associated with relationships, and the show continues to build on that quality. Soon they add conflict between these two characters as well as physical humor.
We may experience some sympathy for the pain associated with much of the bodily abuse suffered by several of the characters in the show, but the fact remains that humor is often derived from misfortune including pain. We also often laugh at someone’s clumsiness, including in real life. To substantiate this position I would refer you to President Gerald Ford and his actual falls down (or up) stairs and what fun we all had watching Chevy Chase exaggerate his clumsiness in SNL skits. This brings me to a YouTube video TED talk of a TED talk that stood out to me in that it condensed the study of what makes us laugh into a short presentation. In particular the speaker’s reference to falling down the stairs clarifies what turns that into something we laugh at. As long as the fall is benign and does not involve a violation (as defined by the speaker), the act is funny, and meant to be funny. Of course we can extrapolate from a fall down the stairs to any action that might injure someone but turns out to be harmless, e.g. hitting one’s head, being shot at, jumping through a window or climbing out of one, getting a foot stuck in a trap, slipping off a chair, etc., etc. I would add that feeling nauseated or having any sort of benign illness fits that category as well. It’s funny when the headmaster runs into the water with Martin chasing after him because no one gets hurt; it’s not funny when Holly slips on a wet rock and injures her back. (Then again the aftermath of both events are funny, i.e. Martin being dripping wet while Edith drives by and Holly staying at Louisa’s and Martin attempting to show some sympathy.)
To augment this position I give you a segment of a Dick Van Dyke Show episode If you don’t laugh while also understanding the points he’s making about comedy, I will be surprised. Moreover, I don’t think any of this has changed in the last 50 years. It’s been true from the earliest days of comedy and remains true today. I am quite sure the writers of Doc Martin and Martin Clunes himself are aware of all of this and use it to make this show satisfy the characteristics of a comedy.
The whole premise of Doc Martin is supposed to be funny. A surgeon with haemophobia who is also socially inept and clumsy and decides to move to a small town and practice as a GP is immediately filled with absurdities that would make us laugh. I like to think that the hedge of defining comedy as a lighter drama is sufficient to satisfy us all.