David Frum

03.08.13

Father Ted: Comedy as Liberation

Tom Doran, our Welsh friend, will be writing a regular Friday post on comedy. Here's his first submission. Give it a read, and feel free to abuse him with across-the-pond humor in the comments section.

The latter half of the twentieth century was unkind to the Catholic church, at least in the developed world. Sexual liberation and cultural modernity were on the march everywhere, leaving this most hidebound of institutions decidedly on the defensive. At first it tried a rapprochement with the twentieth century by convening the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”), which instituted a number of liberal reforms.

When this failed to arrest the decline, Pope John Paul II swung in the other direction with a renewed focus on doctrinal orthodoxy. Still, the atrophy continued, as did the collapse of Vatican-backed dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Latin America. In the West, Catholicism was and is rapidly becoming less a force in the land than a thing people lie about doing on Sundays; just another Christian denomination, in other words.

For a time, there seemed to be an exception to this trend: Ireland, where religion continued to play a dominant role in national life. Notoriously, the Church, in collusion with the state, ran the infamous “Magdalene asylums”: essentially concentration camps for women who defied the patriarchy. Most Christian countries had homes for “fallen women”, of course – but Ireland's last one only closed in 1996. The full extent of the abuse was only recently acknowledged by the government.

American readers will likely know the rest. In the decade that followed, an endless series of child abuse scandals (and some blessedly old-fashioned sex scandals) would destroy the clergy's claims to be arbiters of morality; indeed, “evil” would hardly be a stretch. Once the whole picture emerged, the Church could no longer look the Irish people in the face, and rightly so.

Be in no doubt: the decline of Catholicism in Irish life is chiefly the result of the Church's own actions. Nevertheless, I contend that a special place in this story belongs to, of all things, a situation comedy: Father Ted. Bizarrely for a culture so hungry for anything Irish (St Patrick's Day was a solemn religious occasion until American brewers discovered it), this peerless series is almost unknown in the United States. This is a great pity, which I hope to rectify in some small way.

Running for 25 episodes from 1995 to 1998, Father Ted at first seems the model of Britcom convention: small cast, limited number of sets and locations, surreal humor and a live audience. The setup is classic “ship of the damned” territory. Fathers Ted Crilly, Dougal McGuire and Jack Hackett have all been exiled, for reasons that remain eternally vague, to a parish on the remote (and fictional) Craggy Island off Ireland's West coast. Ted is the “normal” one (relatively), Dougal the stupid one, Jack an elderly and violent alcoholic who communicates almost entirely in barked monosyllables (“Drink!” “Feck!” “Arse!” “Girls!”, etc.). Their earthly needs are tended to by Mrs Doyle, the downtrodden, eccentric and pathologically dedicated housekeeper. They have funny adventures and even funnier non-adventures. That's about it.

The challenge Ted posed to the established order is hardly apparent from the above description; I'll get to that later. First, it needs to be said that the show fulfils the first and only necessary test of any great comedy: it's funny. Its creators, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, served their time on legendary sketch comedy The Fast Show, which shows: Ted is built on a scaffolding of elaborate running jokes, each one carried past the point of absurdity without becoming grating. One example: Mrs Doyle likes making tea for people:

Video screenshot

When a houseguest plays music loud enough to drown out her voice, she turns to index cards. When the parochial house hosts a recuperating sheep (don't ask), Father Ted jokingly asks if she has any special “Sheep Tea”; the answer, of course, is an immediate, deadpan “Yes”. Why wouldn't she have special Sheep Tea? What self-respecting housekeeper wouldn't? In another episode, some delivery men pay a call and this exchange occurs:

Mrs Doyle: Would you like a cup of tea?

Man: No, thanks. I have an allergic reaction to it. It's very rare. If I drink tea, there's a 70% chance I'll die.

Mrs Doyle: I'll make you a cup anyway... in case you change your mind.

When, in the Christmas special, Ted presents her with an automatic tea-making machine, she's heartbroken, her life's meaning suddenly gone; she ends up deliberately sabotaging it to restore the status quo. By means such as this, Father Ted achieves what all good comedy does and establishes its own little universe with its own set of bizarre yet consistent rules.

Another example: there are no normal priests in the world of Father Ted. That is, virtually every one of the many other Catholic clergy who appear as supporting characters has a single, defining eccentricity or character trait, like a living children's book. Just from memory, we have a sarcastic priest, a dancing priest, a boring priest, a melodramatic priest, a sex-crazed priest, a conman priest, a DJ priest, a laughing priest, a Cuban priest... More prominently, TV host Graham Norton has a recurring role as the psychotically jovial and energetic Father Noel Furlong, usually accompanied by a troupe of completely cowed youth volunteers. Then there's Ted's eternal nemesis, Father Dick Byrne of “Rugged Island”, engaged with him in a neverending and childish vendetta, along with counterparts for Dougal and Jack (a “Barren Island” is also mentioned at least once).

I said “Britcom” earlier; Father Ted is only that on a technicality. When the show was first pitched, Linehan and Mathews were living and working in the UK, so it ended up commissioned by Channel 4 and made by a British production company. For all this, Ted is Irish to the very core. Apart from the cast and writers, it featured cameos from just about every Irish comedian of note at the time (and there were many: like the Jews, the Irish have always punched massively above their weight in this field).

Beyond this, much of the show's humor has a whimsical, philosophical quality that is distinctively Irish (to this colonial philistine, anyway). The best illustration of this also happens to be Father Ted's most famous joke and one of the most celebrated moments in British television. I'm almost loathe to spoil it if you've never seen it before, but here it is:

Video screenshot

This clip also happens to showcase an aspect of the show that got its creators into some trouble: the running joke of Father Dougal's superhuman stupidity (in another episode, he needs a diagram to remind him of the difference between dreams and reality). With numbing predictability, the collective knee of certain humorless culture warriors jerked at the depiction of an Irish simpleton. Didn't Linehan and Mathews know they were perpetuating antediluvian blah blah blah... You know the drill.

Luckily, this was only the reaction of a tiny fringe; Father Ted was, in very little time, warmly embraced by its mother country, precisely because a new generation of Irish people felt confident enough to laugh at themselves rather than wallowing in the ancestral inferiority complex. This roughly coincided with two other seismic changes in the Republic: the explosion of economic growth and the decline of the Church. This is where we get to the heart of the program's wider cultural impact.

If Linehan and Mathews had created a sitcom depicting Catholic priests as sadistic perverts and agents of evil, I doubt it could've been nearly as effective. The Church is quite used to being attacked in those terms; righteous martyrdom is their comfort zone. No, what Father Ted did was much, much more devastating: it depicted the Church as completely irrelevant to everyday life.

One absence you might notice from any of the above descriptions or clips is any reference to the main characters actually working as priests. We never see them giving sermons or visiting sick parishioners or even praying. We occasionally see them say mass, but only as part of a larger joke (see the episode “Speed 3”). One episode opens with Ted lightheartedly relating the lurid details of an unknown person's sex life to Dougal, who then asks “so when's his next confession?”. There are occasional references to offscreen funerals and Christenings, but that's about the extent to which religion permeates the action.

The very worst these characters can be convicted of, then, is hypocrisy: though the darker side of the Church is often referenced (particularly in reference to Father Jack's past), the atmosphere of the show itself is thoroughly benign. The overall impression given of the Church is as a parallel world living alongside but separately from our own, peopled entirely by overgrown children who get free room and board and never seem to have any work to do. Coming at the time it did, this was a revelation: why did we ever need these people?

The emerging, modern Ireland found in Father Ted the perfect companion and avatar, a comedy that affectionately mocked the old ways while simultaneously, mercilessly exposing them. I don't think it could be made today. What we now know places the Irish Church beyond the domain of comedy. That's exactly why we should be so glad it came along when it did. The social context that gave the show life will soon be a distant memory, but we'll be left with a treasure trove of inspired, timeless comedy that stands among the very best the British Isles* have ever produced.

I have deliberately only included a few clips from the show in this piece: I want you to watch it yourself. All of it. As soon as you can. It's that good. Go on. Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on...

*A geographical designation used mainly when British people want to take credit for Irish work.