Father Ted, Son and the Holy Ghost: Comedy with a Surrealist Twist

“Won’t you have some cake, Father?” Mrs Doyle asks. It’s the mid-1990s and Father Ted is being shown on Channel 4. ”It’s got cocaine in it.” A pause. Father Ted looks alarmed. “Oh no, hang on,” she says, ”it’s not cocaine, is it. What do I mean now? The little things…raisins!”

And that’s it. That’s as far as the joke goes, and it never endeavours to makes any particular sense. Cocaine and raisins aren’t, after all, known for their similarities. There are little moments like this strewn across Father Ted, and you’ll find them too in Graham Linehan’s other notable works Black Books and The IT Crowd. 

They’re a type of surrealist comedy that exists somewhere between The Mighty Boosh and the more “regular” sitcoms that ground themselves in reality. In order to produce their particular brand of comedy, Linehan et al create pseudoworlds in which these events can legitimately take place and in which their characters (particularly the caricature-like Dougal (Father Ted) and Bernard Black (Black Books)) can behave in ways that would seem improbable otherwise. With the backing of their imaginary reality, the creators can provide an individual kind of comedy that doesn’t have to adhere to the same rules as the world in which the audience exists. Manny (Black Books) can indeed swallow The Little Book of Calm, Father Jack (Father Ted) can fall off a cliff without significant injury, and Jen (The IT Crowd) can mangle her feet in shoes several sizes too small and be fine by the next episode. It’s a kind of comedy that works by subverting our simplest expectations of the world (notably physics) and doesn’t mention it, which performs a kind of comedic function in itself.

There are certainly problems that lie in Linehan’s comedy (often at the expense of others who have been the butt of jokes in less accepting times) and these can’t be overlooked, but it can also be looked at as something that began to pave the way for more surrealism in Britain’s programming and for more mainstream acceptance of surrealist humour that didn’t have to explain itself. Even if it sounds strange at first, I can see Ted Crilly and Dougal Maguire in the portrayal and execution of Howard Moon and Vince Noir, a decade later.