Sunday, 9 August 2009

What's So Funny?

I've just been watching Scrubs, the American TV medical sit-com. For my money, this is possibly the best comedy show EVER.

I'll try to explain why. Yes, I know talking about comedy is difficult – it's not usually that funny itself, for a start. Stick with me though if you can, and maybe I can pass on some of my enthusiasm.

The writers have not relied on making the characters stupid and incompetent to get their laughs. The doctors and nurses (and, of course, the Janitor) can do their jobs. OK, Ted the Lawyer's the exception, but not all the humour based on him is about the fact he's not an especially good lawyer.

I always feel cheated when comedy writers resort to just having their characters be stupid – this is lazy writing in my book. One of the worst examples of this in British comedy in my opinion is the "classic" sit-com Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em which centres around a character called Frank Spencer who manages to screw up royally each week. I get that Michael Crawford, who played Frank, is a talented performer who did his own (sometimes quite hairy) stunts, but to base a whole series of shows on just one lame gag really is insulting to the audience's intelligence. The character never grew, never learned and never changed. In Scrubs, on the other hand, we see the characters progress through their lives and careers and, while they retain most of their core characteristics, they do mature and become more "real".

The writers on Scrubs mix the mundane and the fantasy worlds very artfully. The main character, JD, often daydreams bizarre consequences arising from ordinary situations, and we see these things played out. Played out, that is, until he is snapped back to reality by an exasperated colleague a few moments later. As a card-carrying daydreamer myself, I have a habit of drifting off into reverie during boring meetings – usually to be suddenly yanked back to stare wide-eyed and clueless down the loaded barrel of "So, what do you think we should do?" I completely identify with JD.

There are several levels of story in Scrubs. There are series-spanning stories – like Turk and Carla's relationship though to marriage and beyond. There are 2 or 3 episoders like Jordan's brother's leukaemia and there are silly little one-offs like JD having to memorise everyone in the hospital's name for a bet with the Janitor. I think the writers can do this because they have built strong, multi-dimensional characters whose back-stories can be mined almost endlessly. Also, because it's a hospital setting, there are always new patients with their own stories to weave in. It never gets old.

So where's the funny? Well, we have much to choose from here. There are running jokes, like the Janitor's long-standing animosity towards JD which began in episode 1 and continues all the way though. But get this: just like in real life, this is not at a constant level and there are sometimes truces. It is the endlessly varied and inventive way this is played out, though, that stops it getting stale. Another running joke is the way Dr Cox always addresses JD by a different girl's name (I bet there's a website somewhere where someone has listed them all [I checked, there is]).

The characters' dialogue is often very witty. I really envy the writers on this show: they've kept up the standard of writing through seven seasons. Now, I just love witty banter and word-play so this is meat and drink for me.

There are some clever set-pieces like the Janitor's use of a crane for practical jokes on the hospital's aging Chief of Medicine and the main characters bullying their interns into making a space invader formation in the car park and then water-bombing them from the hospital roof (this one's on YouTube)

There is slapstick humour, but this is sprinkled lightly enough not to be tiresome. Slapstick is very hard to rely on as a mainstay, I think. The Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy are shining examples of how to do it properly. Scrubs includes it really well – but you'd really have to see it.

Music plays a big part in setting the mood. If there is a trace of formularity in this show, I guess this would be where it is. There's nearly always a really cracking music track playing in the second half of the show. Whoever chooses the tracks, though, is almost always on the money and the songs often add in a few moments what it would take pages of dialogue and action to say otherwise.

And then there's the turn-on-a-dime agility of this show. Like all the great books, shows, films and whatnot, it can go from laugh-out-loud funny to heart-rendingly moving in a heartbeat – and back again. I don't know how they get this to work, I really don't, but if I had to guess I'd say it was because the characters and situations the writers build up are so well-rounded and we do get to care about what happens to them.

So, there it is: the strong characters, the clever writing, the music. What's not to like? If you have not seen this show, then what the hell is wrong with you? Go see it now, now, now!

(There are loads of clips on YouTube as well).


  1. I have never seen Scrubs - or have no memory of having done so. Perhaps one day i will see one

  2. I've seen a few episodes, but it never stuck for me.

    Maybe I'll have to give it another shot.

  3. Now I enjoyed this post about Scrubs more than I enjoyed scrubs when I watched it. It always seemed sort of unreal to me. Possibly because I've been in and out of the hospital and am seeing so many doctors it is not an area I can laugh at.

  4. we get about four channels.. on a day when the aliens don't interfere with the satellites.... none of them include scrubs as part of their schedule.... will catch it in about five years time!

  5. OK now I wanta be your friend because I agree with you about Scrubs being great. My husband doesn't like it. at. all. There should be a Scrubs personality test. I'd be interested to know how we'd all turn out.

    Congrats on your award at Toastmasters!

  6. @DTFP - If you can get comedy Central on Freeview, they're always running Scrubs-a-thons.

    @Justin - Do give it another go, it really grows on you after a while.

    @DrJohn - I can see how your experiences might put you off. Mind you, I found Scrubs surprisingly comforting when my hubs was critically ill in hopsital. You'd think after visiting him there all day, I wouldn't want to see more hospital stuff, but Scrubs cheered me up enormously.

    @Watercats - You should petition RTE to get it for you.

    @Lydia - Any friend of Scrubs is a friend of mine. I like the personality test idea. Wonder if someone's done it.


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