Ronnie Corbett Christmas return: Puns upon a time

Image caption,
A glass act - the Two Ronnies

The pun, once a staple of mainstream humour, has been in terminal decline. But with the return of Ronnie Corbett to the Christmas Day TV schedule, Gareth Edwards says the comedy of word play deserves a revival.

I come from a punning family. When I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s we punned all the time, often to a theme, like dogs, or vegetables, or place-names.

I remember one seaside holiday when the air was thick with fish-themed puns, some of which were brill, others sole-destroying, but we didn't care, we did it just for the halibut.

This sort of thing passed in the Edwards household for top-class comedy.

One of my favourite books was Professor Branestawm's Dictionary, essentially an arms dump of awful pun-based definitions like "Catastrophe - Pussy has won the cup".

And my favourite TV show was The Two Ronnies. I loved their one liners ("Traffic news now, and a lorry of purple paint has collided with a lorry of red paint. The drivers are said to be marooned") and their daft, word-play based sketches.

Pun-k comedy

"How to Speak Swedish" where a meal is ordered using dialogue consisting only of letters and numbers ("FUNEX? S, VFX. FUNEM? S, VFM.") underpins the comic foundations of my brain.

Puns and I grew up together. For all its punk mould-breaking even Not the Nine O'clock News wasn't above a pun - "Oh, Ayatollah, Khomeni closer, and I will fall for your charms".

And I kept on punning too, even trying to use it as a way to impress girls. When one girlfriend at university went on an unsuccessful zoology expedition to find a rare toad, I told her it was a case of "Gone but not frog-gotten." Of which I am still oddly proud.

What's the allure of plays on words? I think it may be that a pun is a moment when the beautifully knitted cardigan of language catches on the nail of reality and ever-so-slightly unravels.

A classic pun-driven sketch such as The Two Ronnies' Four Candles is all about two people not being able to communicate because language, the language they rely on doesn't work properly. Ronnie Barker's customer wants to ask for fork handles, but the words won't let him do it.

And for those of us who find it hard to express ourselves the thought that it might not be our fault, that language may not actually be a very good fit for the world, is quite a relief.

A pun-net load

When The Two Ronnies finished on Christmas day 1987 the bottom dropped out of the TV pun market. The expanding alternative stand-up comedy circuit didn't really do puns. They somehow felt frivolous and not enough to do with the miners' strike.

And the new wave of sketch comics like French and Saunders, Harry Enfield and Lenny Henry were more into developing long running returning characters whose comedy was found in the way people speak and behave. They were about observation of human nature, exaggerated and made grotesque; more about the eccentricities of people and less about the underlying eccentricities of all communication.

Since then there have been a lot of brilliant character comics in some superb sketch shows. The Fast Show, Catherine Tate, Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen and Armstrong and Miller all are fundamentally shows built around funny characters, but I doubt there is a more than a handful of puns in any of them.

Vic and Bob venture a cheeky pun now and again, and That Mitchell and Webb Look, which I produce, will sometimes sneak in a pun here or there. But when we do it always feels like we're trying something slightly against the rules. Puns still have a refuge elsewhere.

Pun's people

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue is a paradise for pun lovers, and puns frequently grace BBC Radio 4's Bleak Expectations, which recently featured a sherry orchard. This got a groan from the audience, but there are other areas of life where a groan is a sign of enjoyment, so why not with puns?

Image caption,
Airport delays - not funny; add a pun and hey presto, smiles all round

Then there's all the tabloid headlines, still at the forefront of the pun industry.

But even here they are on the retreat. As newspapers focus their efforts online the pun is losing out to "search engine-optimised" headlines which are written with the sole intent of pushing a story up the Google rankings. Take yesterday's Daily Mirror lead story about comedian Frankie Boyle's latest controversy. The paper headlined it "Lance this nasty Boyle" while the Mirror website went for the less adventurous "Channel 4 urged to sack comedian Frankie Boyle in race jibe row".

So now Ronnie Corbett is 80, is there still a place for puns? Well this Christmas I've produced a one-off sketch show starring Ronnie that celebrates that old-school word-play comedy I grew up with. One sketch featuring Ronnie and Harry Enfield is about a man whose Blackberry's not working. They're in a fruit shop. There are puns by the punnet-load.

In fact it's the most pun-stuffed sketch in the show, or indeed on the TV anywhere. Wondering whether a 21st Century audience really wanted three minutes of fruit/technology mix-ups, we released it as a preview online. In two days it got a million hits. The pun has finally gone viral. So maybe that appetite for on-screen puns is back.

Or maybe it never went away. But either way I'm glad. After all, maybe we all deserve our puns in a lifetime experience.

Gareth Edwards is a BBC comedy producer and author of the blog Some Kind of Explanation

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