When sitcom gets serious: The Power of Pathos in comedy

Upstart Crow’s Series finale with its undoubtedly remarkable performances from David, Liza and Helen, really proved what a special and truly remarkable show Upstart Crow really is. I had been lucky enough to see the episode for the first time back in February when it was recorded, and as the final scenes played out, you could feel the emotion in the studio all around you. I don’t think anybody would really have expected such an end to the series (although there were a few clues, much like another classic sitcom involving Ben Elton and Upstart Crow director Richard Bowden). However, even though this isn’t the last of Upstart Crow, this ending to the series was a huge shock! But thinking about it logically, was it really all that surprising? Ben Elton and David Mitchell have both been partly responsible for arguably two of the sadist endings in all of British comedy after all. The legendary Blackadder Goes Forth ending, and the incredible Sherlock Holmes sketch, which brought an end to the fourth series of That Mitchell & Webb Look. Thinking of that, and looking into Shakespeare’s life and the untimely death of his son-it seems like an all too logical direction for Upstart Crow.

Ever since I have been thinking about the power of pathos in sitcom, I came to realise that it hits harder within a comedy than in any drama series. Why is that? The element of surprise? The fact that unlike a lot of serious dramas, we share some really great times with these characters? Together with the fact that sitcoms tackle some of the most relatable sad moments…they are plain and simple and much truer to real life? Whatever the case, I’m raiding the comedy archives to bring you some of my all time favourites, which for me are the most powerful examples of pathos in sitcom:

The Fast Show – Very Drunk at the time

The final episode of The Fast Show gave us quite a different Rowley Birkin story. There’s a bit of genius in this, as the punch line remains the same-yet for the audience it leaves us with a totally different reaction.

The Vicar Of Dibley – Spring

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BH2nSpUr4yI

Over the course of the Vicar of Dibley’s run, we became familiar with the curmudgeonly parish council leader, David Haughton… who went from hating and scheming to get rid of the vicar, to eventually coming to like, admire and accept her. In this episode things went up a notch. After finding the vicar agreeing with him on several matters, he pops round one evening to see if there’s a chance they might get married! After listing some of the reasons Geraldine couldn’t see her way to accepting his proposal in these sweet and funny exchanges:

Geraldine: Number 1 you’re a Tory.

David: Doesn’t make me a bad person.

Geraldine: hmmmm…no. But it does mean you can watch William Hague on the TV and not giggle, therefore you’re not the man for me!

David leaves deflated. However, he turns up at the next council meeting wearing his interpretation of trendy clothes, whilst showing off his new Labour Party membership. When he sweeps Geraldine off her feet with a romantic proposal-she says yes out of sheer politeness and peer pressure…only to return later to try to let him down gently, after the enormity of what she had agreed to sets in. Just as they agree to call it off and David goes to leave, he tells her this:

‘I would like it noted, however, just for the minutes that at least I had the sense to
realise what an extraordinary woman you are…and whoever you finally end up with will be the luckiest of all men, however, sadly it cannot be me.’

The episode ends with Geraldine trying to make a few jokes with David at the
christening of Baby Geraldine, as things try to return to normal. What I love about this whole scenario, is how unusual it is. Whenever we usually see unrequited love portrayed, it usually ends with the partner who initially resisted, coming to the conclusion that they were in fact made for each other after all! Or, the other partner, a side character who is someone the audience isn’t being invited to route for-so when our hero rejects them,we feel vindicated. However, here there’s no vindication to be found as we love both these characters, but we also understand that Geraldine would never be happy with David. In the end the characters are left confusedly trying to continue a slightly tragic friendship – which is a much truer to life depiction of unrequited love than most TV shows and movies ever portray.

Ambassadors –  One Of Those Moments

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqaTKjAolQk

Although Ambassadors was sadly cut off in its prime after just one series, that didn’t stop it leaving us with an amazing, suspenseful finale. When Keith Davis (David Mitchell) is largely dismissed by everyone as an Ambassador that won’t take risks, who cares only about fence sitting and pleasing people in order to work his way up the political ladder, he finally decides he will do something about it. During an uprising where it is feared Tazbekistan’s leader, Karzac, will be toppled, Keith decides he will meet with the rebels. Whilst out gathering information, Keith’s wife (Keeley Hawes) discovers Karkac has ordered the rebel base will be bombed that night. However, this information comes too late for Keith, who has already headed out with Sergei to the remote location where they have no phone signal. After hours of waiting Sergei says they should turn back, but then a determined Keith delivers his ‘one of those moments speech.’ And the pair decide to go for it.

Father Ted – Going to America

After Ted stops Father Kevin jumping from a window to his death at the annual “It’s Great Being a Priest” conference, he is talent scouted by Father Buzz Cagney and asked if he will come to work with him at a parish in Los Angeles. Initially thrilled, Ted then realises he can’t bring himself to tell Dougal, Jack and Mrs Doyle he’s leaving them.

However, Ted has second thoughts after Buzz mentions the ‘gang culture’ and violence in his new parish! He therefore decides to abandon the whole plan reluctantly accepting he will end up staying in Craggy Island forever and ever, and ever!

The day after filming this final episode, Dermot Morgan tragically died of a heart attack making the ending – a montage of clips and the final ‘Night Dougal’…’Night Ted’ exchange especially moving!

It was always intended to be the final episode of Father Ted. However, the original ending script can be seen here in this extract from the Father Ted scripts book:

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The writers did say that they hadn’t changed the ending due to the death of Dermot Morgan the following day-saying that they were always planning to change it, as they didn’t feel that their original ending was right.

Expectations – Pip’s Death

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6sxm48

Bleak Expectations was one of Radio 4’s all time greatest sitcoms. The Dickensian parody of ‘Great Expectations’…among many other works, told the story of a young Pip Bin, and his constant battle with his evil Guardian, or later, ex-guardian, Mr Gently Benevolent. The whole thing was narrated by the much older Pip, to his daughter and son-in law.

In 2012, on Christmas day, the final episode was broadcast. One of my favourite aspects of this ending, was the gentle sigh the audience makes when Pip recounts dying in the past-only to be replaced by a raucous laugh, as Pip’s son-in-law interjects ‘Are you having me on?!’

Bleak Expectations was no stranger to it’s sad moments-pulling the ultimate cliff hanger in series 3, when everyone’s favourite, Harry Biscuit was ‘killed’ by Mr Benevolent.

Dad’s Army – Mum’s Army

Captain Mainwaring and sergeant Wilson decide it might be a good idea to invite the women of  Walmington-on-Sea to join the platoon. However, things take an interesting turn when Mainwaring  finds himself instantly smitten with one of the volunteers, Mrs Fiona Gray.

After meeting regularly in the cafe, Mainwaring’s behaviour starts to raise eyebrows with Wilson, who even suggests to him that he might be making a fool of himself-but Mainwaring doesn’t seem to care! A few days later, Mainwaring notices Mrs Gray has not joined them on parade. Pike informs him that she had been seen heading towards Walmington train station, with two heavy suitcases. Mainwaring makes a frantic dash for the station, and confronts Fiona, telling her of his feelings for her… she confesses that she feels exactly the same way, and that’s the reason why she’s leaving. Despite Mainwaring’s pleas for her to reconsider she leaves. As the train departs, Mainwaring is left standing alone on the station platform, heartbroken.

A very clever and touching parody of Brief Encounter, this was an episode that pushed Captain Mainwaring to his limits, in one of Dad’s Army’s most daring episodes. It was reported that Arthur Lowe did not wish to record it, and actually took a bit of convincing from his own wife! However, by the end of the recording, he couldn’t praise the episode highly enough.

According to Ian Lavender, Arthur Lowe insisted that Carmen Silvera, who had played Fiona Gray in the TV episode, should also be cast for the radio version, or else he wouldn’t record the episode.

Red Dwarf – All Those Rimmers

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qUmB0sUUSk

Red Dwarf had no shortage of poignant moments. Rimmer’s grief at the news of his Father’s death, and the clever and moving twist during Kennedy’s assassination. However, it was Rimmer’s, or rather, Ace Rimmer’s death that stood out for me.

After Rimmer discovers that he is in fact part of a long line of thousands of Rimmers from parallel universes all destined to take over the mantle of ‘Ace Rimmer’, Rimmer is unsure about taking over from the dying Ace Rimmer, who has just arrived to ask him to continue the legacy. After the the dying Ace has departed, and his light beam is all that remains… Lister and Rimmer take it to the ‘final resting place’, which turns out to be the rings of Saturn that are in-fact, made up of all the light beams of the previous ‘Ace Rimmers’. After this, Rimmer decides to leave, to take up the mantle – a great exit for Rimmer’s character… even if it wasn’t long before he returned again!

Only Fool’s and Horses – Grandad’s Funeral/ Rodney Gets Married/ Leaving The Flat

There are so many moments you could pick from Only Fools, I’m concentrating on these three, as what I love about them, is the fact that for most people they are not obvious in their subject: At Grandad’s funeral, what hurts Rodney the most is the impression of Del’s ambivalence to Grandad’s death during the Wake, which Rodney felt had the atmosphere of a party. When Rodney confronts Del about this, he just says, “he doesn’t know how to do anything else!”

At Rodney’s wedding, Del is delighted for Rodney, but now he’s lost his brother and things will never be the same again… so in one way he’s heartbroken! Not that anybody would notice, until we see him on his own, as ‘holding back the years’ gently plays in the background.

The last moving moment is a great one, because it’s so interesting. Del finally has everything he has ever wanted at long last. There’s a scene, earlier in the episode, where all the characters are back in the Nag’s Head. They all give Del and the family a standing ovation as Del announces that the drinks are on the house. I’d say most shows would have ended it there, but no! Del returns to the now empty flat one last time, and finds that ultimately he’s feeling unsatisfied, heartbroken, and grieving his old life! Del realises it was the chase…not the money that he lived for. He reconciles himself in the end with the thought that, “This time next year we could be billionaires!”.

The Royal Family – The Queen Of Sheba / Denise goes into labour

If Blackadder is widely considered the saddest ending in all of sitcom, then surely the Royal Family’s Queen of Sheba, which centred entirely around the deterioration and eventual death of Norma, is considered the saddest episode in all of sitcom. Amongst its many powerfully moving scenes, the one where Barbara sings ‘Que Será Será’ with Nana, sticks out for me:

Another fine, moving example from The Royal Family occurs in this beautiful scene between Jim and Denise, as she goes into Labour:

Count Arthur Strong – Katya’s Death

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6ruwn7

Series one of Count Arthur Strong, offered one of the most tragic, and brilliantly plotted story arcs across six short episodes in all of sitcom. This all in a series most people misjudged as a bright and breezy, knock about comedy!

As the story begins, Michael’s famous comedian father, had recently passed away – and as he’s a minor writer, he’s been tasked with writing a book about his father’s career. “I didn’t really know my father, he was just someone who popped by on weekends”, he says. To help Michael find out more about his father’s working life, his agent suggests he meets his former comedy partner, Count Arthur Strong. This results in Michael getting sucked into Arthur’s surreal and somewhat confusing world, which largely centres around a small London cafe and its eclectic clientele.

In the last episodes of the series, Michael, who at this point has become totally fed up with Arthur’s antics, takes himself off to A&E to get a tetanus shot, after one of the dogs from Arthur’s incredibly lack lustre dog walking business bites him. Michael is incensed that not only Arthur, but his biggest fan, Katya have joined him to wait at the hospital. Katya is the only person in Arthur’s life who still has time for his shows and anecdotes.

After a series of comedic misunderstandings, Michael has a heart to heart with Katya in which she tells him of all the good she sees in Arthur. Michael goes to leave the A&E department much later…only to find Arthur, still waiting patiently, in order to escort Katya safely home. The receptionist,who has overheard their conversation informs them both that Katya has sadly passed away.

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As the series draws to a close, the gang at the cafe try to come to terms with Katya’s unexpected death. Following a disastrous funeral, Arthur holds a seance to try and say his final goodbyes to Katya. Michael realises he’s finished his book and it’s time to leave but also finds he doesn’t want to…

At the end, after Michael has left, we see he’s left a parcel containing his finished book for Arthur. We see that Michael has changed the book to be about both his father and Arthur’s old double act. Inside the dedication reads, ‘for the Dad I lost and the one I found.’! It’s a beautiful, brilliant and touching series.

That Mitchell and Webb Look – Old Holmes

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pp02ubGuTIU

Mitchell and Webb spent the penultimate episode of, ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ teasing us. ‘We must do a sad ending, in a  bid to have our Blackadder moment!’ was their modus operandi, in what turned out to be an amazing prophecy from David. The punchline to all this involving putting Mitchell & Webb’s regular, James Bachman, into a “wood chipper” for ‘narrative reasons’, before fading to black-with the caption, ‘sod cancer’.

However, this was the ultimate double bluff, as the following final episode ended with a five minute sketch all about an elderly Holmes, and a loyal, Watson visiting him in a home. What began as a very traditional sketch, based around the tropes of old people becoming a bit senile turned quickly into a heartbreaking, and all too real portrayal of dementia. It was a shock, as this was unlike anything Mitchell & Webb had ever done before. It paved the way for Mitchell and Webb to unleash a powerful dramatic edge to their comedy that we hadn’t previously seen! What followed was Ambassadors and recently the sublime Back, and Upstart Crow (even the end of Peep Show had a bit of weight to it). I don’t believe that there’s ever been a double act more skilled at mixing pathos with comedy than Mitchell and Webb!

Blackadder Goes Forth – Good Luck Everyone

It’s hard to know what to say about the greatest sitcom ending of all time! Blackadder Goes Forth revolutionised the way comedy was made and thought about there after. I can’t add anything that hasn’t been said before… so I will leave it to the crew and cast themselves in this really interesting documentary clip they discuss how it all came together, and how it changed the way we think about comedy:

Thanks for reading! Thought of a truly brilliant, sad or poignant moment I missed? Tell me about your ‘favourites’ , if that’s the apposite word!

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2 thoughts on “When sitcom gets serious: The Power of Pathos in comedy

    • Yes that’s a great one! I didn’t go into American shows otherwise I thought I’d never stop!! But also Mother Simpson from The Simpsons with Homer sitting on his car looking at the stars with that incredible piece of music by Danny Elfman. Also there’s a fantastic episode of Futurama where he meets his mother again in her dreams. It’s really moving. Thank you for reading!!

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