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Three-Time Loser

I got the Black Adder series. All four seasons, plus a fifth DVD of supplemental material, are available in one box at our local public library. I’d seen a couple episodes before, and never understood what all the fuss was about. But it’s certainly popular in the geek crowd, so when my eye fell across it on the shelves at our local public library, I figured what the hell, give ’em a try. Maybe in context, with a chance to know the characters and learn any running gags I’ll learn what I’ve been missing.

I haven’t been missing anything. Watched the whole first season and an episode from each of the other seasons, and didn’t laugh once. Sorry, geek crowd: Black Adder is stupid. And here’s why:

It always, always makes a beeline for the cheap laugh. By “cheap laugh,” I don’t mean potty humor, although there’s plenty of that, too. I mean the most obvious punchline directed at the most obvious target. Atkinson’s Adder, originally Prince Edmund, is supposed to be vain and venal, a schemer ultimately skewered by his own cunning schemes. The problem is, he’s vain, and venal, and ugly, and cowardly, and clumsy, and vapid, and sexually inadequate, and infantile, and disorganized, and flatulent and transparent, and held in contempt by everyone, at all levels of society, and, and, and… He can’t fail grandly because he never gets the chance; eager to get to the quick joke, the writers bury him beneath a dozen small failures before he even gets close to a grand one.

Were the Black Adder to approach the Earl of Blenchwick with the intention of enlisting his aid in assassinating an heir with a higher claim to the throne, the Earl is likely simply to turn on him and announce, “Get away from me, you horrible little tit! I never liked you, and you smell of horse dung.” (Ha, ha.) Preferably within earshot of a half dozen onlookers. After which Edmund, thoroughly humiliated but too craven to retort, makes a face, agrees, and minces away. Well, okay. Abuse, done right, could be funny…but only if it’s done right. An insult like that requires (at a minimum!) shock value, which is impossible when the Earl is the seventh nobleman in a row to abuse Edmund on sight. Worse, it squelches the “cunning plan,” which we’ll never see it crash in ruin around the Black Adder because it never gets launched in the first place.

If comedy is timing, then surely the build-up is a vital part of comedy, and there’s no build-up to a joke in Black Adder, just a straight dive into humiliation, over and over and over again. It gets old fast, especially when it wasn’t funny in the first place.

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