Did the final episode of The Agony of Life just go to air? Even if it didn’t – and let’s face it, this series will probably be back soon as The Agony of Topics We Haven’t Covered – then we’re going to pay tribute to it anyway, because getting eight more episodes out of this concept is an achievement…of sorts.
Let’s re-cap: the premise of the show is that various well(-ish) known people talk about how different stages of life can be difficult and embarrassing, which is obviously something we can all relate to. And these people appear to have been asked to be honest and/or funny when they tell their anecdotes, which seems like a more than reasonable method of presenting their stories. Cue eight weeks of hilarious heartache from some of the nation’s most slightly known personalities!
Actually, whether the people involved are well-known or not isn’t actually the point – what was always going to make this show successful was whether what they were saying was funny or interesting, and generally speaking it wasn’t. There were some alleged “break out” stars of the Agony series (John Elliot and Mirka Mora), but what made them break outs was that they were old enough and frank enough to say the kind of things that most of the rest of the people involved weren’t saying – which made them interesting by default.
Most of the people involved hadn’t been through any genuine agony. Almost none of the things they talked about involved the death of humans or animals, getting in to major financial difficulties, or resulted in them having to serve time in prison – you know, stuff that actually would be agonising to go through. What this series actually was, was a bunch of anecdotes from relatively well-off people who exaggerated some minor embarrassments which hadn’t really affected their lives.
Exaggerating the truth is, of course, the stuff of comedy – every human knows this – but what most humans don’t seem to know is that there’s a bit more to comedy than exaggeration. When you’re telling others about something that happened to you, you need to do more than exaggerate the facts if you want people to laugh: you need to position yourself as the hapless victim, or position someone else in the story as an idiot, or suddenly mention something weird and unexpected, or throw in a fart joke. Your story won’t be funny because it’s true, it’ll be funny because it’s funny!
It’s no real surprise that the people who were best on this series were either the shockingly frank older folk or the genuinely good comedians, people like Judith Lucy, people who can spin a good yarn. If more than 10% of the people involved had been like that, this may have been a watchable series. As it was, it was yet another series involving comedians that’s too hell bent on not alienating the mainstream audience with something as divisive as a gag, meaning people went around hailing its quasi-seriousness as one of its key strengths. You won’t be surprised to read that we disagree with this. In our view this only would have been a good series if it were either a serious, intelligent look at the issues involved, or a non-stop gag fest that just wanted to make us laugh. The middling compromise we ended up getting was, well, agonising.