In an episode of the second season of the acclaimed dark BBC comedy Pulling (up for an attempted remake in the States any moment now), drunken slut primary school teacher Karen takes a revolting-looking cat as a pet. Turns out the animal is sickly (great cat casting by the way, very convincing), and her friends Donna and Louise tell her they'll help pay the veterinarian bill.
So the cat has cancer and needs a £700 operation. Which the girls all consider far too expensive, and Karen asks the vet to kill the cat - and that's too expensive as well.
Cut to a scene where a crying Karen holds the cat down in the garden, while Louise is going to bash its brains out with a brick. Except she misses, and has to hit the cat several times.
Since when did this become funny? Killing a sick, suffering creature in a painful, protracted way? We are supposed to laugh because the clumsy slags don't succeed in putting the cat out of its misery straightaway? (For the record, the scene doesn't show the cat killing, there is no blood involved, nor are there any sound effects of the cat yowling in pain - it's put on screen as tastefully as possible).
I've been in a similar position twice in my life - I've had to kill two blackbirds which had been mortally wounded by cats. The first time, I tried to smash its head with a shovel and missed - and the resulting situation was horrific, very painful for the poor bird I was trying to help and totally upsetting for me. The second time I went for a hopefully swifter decapitation approach, and while that worked, it took far longer than I expected.
Point is, neither situation was remotely funny. And I'd NEVER think of using them as material for comedy, because doing that would not be 'true' - it would not be true to how I experienced the situation, and there certainly wasn't anything remotely amusing about the suffering the birds experienced - mercifully brief though it was.
But apparently I'm becoming more and more of a living fossil in this regard. And no, this doesn't mean I only enjoy twee, safe, innocuous comedy - which is the immediate counterattack you get from fans of pitch-black comedy. As if there isn't an ocean of shades of grey between the two extremes!
No, what bothers me is that the element of empathy has been all but 'exorcised' from modern cutting-edge comedy series (and stand-up as well, but that's not relevant to the current discussion). Bullying, hurting, insulting and humiliating people (and occasionally animals) is presented as funny in and of itself. There's no criticism of society anymore - except perhaps that people who try to be polite and civilized to one another deserve everything they get.
I simply happen to dislike bullies very much - one of the reasons why don't like Abbott and Costello much, beyond their wordplay sketches. All too often, Abbott bullies Costello succesfully, and the little guy has no defense against the manipulations of his mean 'older brother'. Funny? No, tragic.
The perpetrators of these transgressive behaviours are rarely if ever punished for them anymore. Sure, they're basically unhappy, they're stuck in their self-destructive ruts and do not and cannot change for the better (or the series would be over), yet the audience is invited to laugh with them at their victims as much as they are invited to laugh at them. Many of the lead characters in these series are invulnerable, almost - yes, they're damaged goods, but the events which they encounter in the series don't seem to affect them beyond the moment in which they happen.
And the people who are on the receiving end of their shenanigans quite often are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's no retribution involved (as there was when Fawlty 'accidentally' smacked the snotty kid, for instance) - to use a deliberately inflammatory metaphor, they're like mugging victims. They get assaulted through no fault of their own, and the perpetrators don't give a rat's ass about the damage they do - in fact they revel in it.
Of course, we must put this in perspective: cutting-edge comedy series generally have minute audiences. They do very well in the media and in awards, however - because they are innovative, they do stretch the boundaries of the genre and they are often (though not always) quite well-written and acted. Pitchblack comedy isn't the mainstream (yet), but naturally it influences the mainstream gradually.
Now, once again, I'm not saying that this new approach to comedy has no value or should not exist. I just regret that it has lost almost all sense of empathy and humanism, and that this very lack is often applauded as a great step forward.
And it's really, fundamentally not.