The immensely popular — approaching cult status — BBC sitcom is very quotable, there’s no denying. Everyone’s got a few friends that rely on last night’s television to be charming. Unfortunately, I will be taking up such a role to pay homage to one of the greatest shows to ever grace the small screen. Black Books! It is intelligent without asking too much of its audience; it is hilarious without relying on repetition (as so many recent comedies have done, Catherine Tate take note). In this exploration of some of the greatest moments in Black Books — and this can be nothing but objective unless someone has a way to measure awesome — I will explore what it is that might — I repeat, might — account for the show’s greatness. Whatever it may be, the truth is simple: it is very funny with a unique cast of characters, deserving of our attention. So listen up!
The culinary delight of coaster biscuits
The culinary delight of coaster biscuits is often overlooked as one of the truly brilliant moments of the series. Unfortunate, given the natural logic of the humour (for, yes, coasters often do look like biscuits) which is often overlooked. Not only this, but it is a good representation of Bernard Black’s character: indifferent and obscure. In this early stage of the show, being the third episode, this is very significant and exhibits the craft of its writers to combine subtle character development with humour that is anything but subtle. And we love Bernard all the more for it! And we even consider trying a coaster or two ourselves.
A simple pun
What a wonderful build-up to a simple pun! The entire sequence is working off a stale method of humour that has little place in serious comedy (whether or not Black Books belongs in this category is a question unto itself). This works off Bernard’s idea that Manny is manic, for which he is constantly seeking evidence. The chicken stripping incident is the final straw! He is sent to a psychiatrist, who doesn’t speak one word but ends up helping nevertheless. Later in the episode, Bernard will visit her as well where it will occur to him that he treats Manny as if he were his son. Perhaps they are a little mad, but it’s functional. At least as comedy.
Like the pun, physical humor is another overdrawn comic method that we don’t see much of these days. It’s too close to slapstick and modern audiences like to think of themselves as better than that (although the more recent BBC comedy Miranda has shown how slapstick can be used effectively). In Black Books, although rare, slapstick takes on a unique flavor of escalating disaster, at the root of which lies the burgeoning tension between the protagonists: each one’s desire to hurt the other to expel some of their frustration. The very simple dialogue works wonderfully well here, as does the expression on poor Bernard’s pained face.
The wine lolly
The wine lolly has become a major feature of Bernard’s character, another of his odd tastes one might say. The nonchalance with which he asks for his “lolly” and breaks the bottle suggests this to be regular behavior in the shop. Not even Manny is phased by it. It is on this sort of humor, the divide between normalcy for the characters and normalcy for the audience, that much of the comedy in Black Books is derived. It is on account of this divide that people love the show; so, in a way, the divide actually brings audiences closer to the series.
Am I dead?
“Am I dead?” A typical question given the frequent references to long haired, peaceful and sandal-wearing Manny as Jesus. He doesn’t understand, but the audience does; an essential trope to successful comedy. “Who are you?” Bernard continues. “Have I joined a cult?” This works off the other Manny strand as a heavy metal dude and a little bit dangerous (only superficially though). The scene is one of many where characters wake up dazed in a cloud of illusion, but a favorite of mine as it is a little more understated than others. Sometimes, less is more.