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If it were just puerile, base, crude and entirely lacking in sophistication, there would still be much to applaud about the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-been-done-before simplicity of basing a sitcom around a group of sixth-form schoolboys.
The Inbetweeners movie is all the above combined but there is more to it than that. Sure, it has that gross-out, cringey element that makes sure people will talk about it around the kettle (the British equivalent of the water-cooler), but there are also emotional moments of fully drawn supporting characters (Greg Davies’s Mr Gilbert is to the show what Sue Sylvester is to Glee) and even the weird underplayed astute observation about society both inside and outside school walls (for all their sexist chatter, while the guys spend their lives desperately trying to be “cool”, the girls, who couldn’t care less about such things, are born to be).
With its main character, Will, the show also asks right questions: is a fashion show just a shallow parade of vain folks popular only for looking beautiful? If a person is an obnoxious prat, do you have to be nice to them just because they’ve had a life-threatening illness and are confined to a wheelchair? These are complex issues, and those you might not expect to see in a vulgar sitcom about schoolboys.
The success of The Inbetweeners full movie does not surprise me and neither is it any shock that its appeal stretches to people in my age bracket – surely not the target market when the show was in development. Because just as The Office was not necessarily any more hilarious if you had a job in one – it nailed as everyone recognized the type of man David Brent was – so The Inbetweeners does not rely on its audience having been to school lately. It is hilarious because you will probably met guys with touches of Will, Simon, Jay and Neil; beloved losers who use bravado and jokes to disguise the inner turmoil they are ill-equipped to face with.
But all of that is to intellectualise a show that works because it dares to try things that have not been attempted in a British sitcom before. The script is sharp at times, sure, but when all else fails let’s give audiences a zoomed shot of a hairy testicle. As films from American Pie to There’s Something About Mary to Meet the Parents have proved, there is a communal joy in watching the boundary of what is and isn’t considered acceptable in light entertainment stretched to breaking point. The Inbetweeners movie – though three series may well prove one too many and the feature film currently in production will almost certainly suck – consistently does this.
Most of all, though, buried beneath the jokes and the juvenilia, the show has a beating and wholesome heart of gold. Because in the real world, if a private-school snob like Will really was transferred to an inner-city state school, rather than being befriended by the group of boys who don’t fit into the “cool or nerd” stereotype, he’d be eaten alive within an hour of registration.
When The Inbetweeners first appeared on TV not many people watched it but I did, as I have huge nostalgia for my school days, I’d done gigs with Simon Bird (Will) – who’s a fantastic stand-up comedian – and I knew the other three who were working on the programme. Beyond that, I liked its intention to feature the kids at school who weren’t the nerds or the cool ones. This, I thought, is exactly the sort of programme I want to see.
And then I watched it and was baffled and disappointed. Of the four main characters, I couldn’t relate to one. Will had been reduced to someone who goes around doing a sub-Ricky Gervais “Brilliant” at every opportunity. Simon appeared to be no more than the leftovers for Will’s character and, beyond his crazy love for Carli, we don’t know anything about him. Neil is the archetypal “stupid” character and Jay is just about the worst character I’ve ever seen on British TV; as far as I can tell he is entirely based around his knowledge of synonyms for the word vagina.
Previously I made the excuse that I was failing to captivate its charm because my school, which was all boys, wasn’t like that at all. But then I bumped into some old school friends who told me that they could entirely relate to the show and had convinced themselves that we were exactly like that, which is not how I recall it.
Not all humor has to be smart; that’s fine by me, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms is Bottom. But The Inbetweeners uses the gross-out thing to offend people and that only works if we know the characters’ hopes, dream and motivations. For sure, the comedy of embarrassment depends on people having a delusion of grandeur that no one in The Inbetweeners movie has. These are sub-school play performances of cardboard-cut-out characters.
The Office and Peep Show relied on awkward humour, but because I don’t like any of these characters, the awkwardness is not amplified. Do I feel for Simon when his balls got exposed? No, as for all I know he may be a rampant exhibitionist. Do I get offended if they smash to death a fish to death? No, I’d just like some jokes. It’s also unforgivable to me that each episode is added with a highlights reel, so we witness them puke or punch the fish again. This is a 23-minute show. How do they get away with that?
But if one incident crystallises why I don’t like The Inbetweeners, it occurred in last week’s episode: there was a lot of talk about a teacher being a paedophile and I thought, this could be interesting and funny because I remember how rumours and innuendo would spread at school and you’d pick up on something that maybe wasn’t there or had got blown out of proportion. Here, I thought, would be a moment of subtlety. But no. It turns out the teacher is a paedo. Another wasted opportunity.
Once said Woody Allen of Groucho Marx which he had “a natural inborn greatness that defies close analysis as it does with any genuine artist … and I believe his outrageous unsentimental disregard for order will be equally funny 1,000 years from now. In addition to all this, he makes me laugh.” So while we can intellectualise about The Inbetweeners all day long, the bottom line is that it just doesn’t make me laugh.