Splitsider

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Spaced and the Mechanics of the Perfect Comedy Team

Fans of the Three Flavours Cornetto / Blood and Ice Cream film trilogy did a spit-take when Nick Frost revealed last month that production on the long-awaited third entry could start as early as this year. The news is especially poignant considering its been a little over ten years since Frost's first project with Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, the short-lived cult sitcom Spaced, went off the air in the UK. And although the trio went on to become international stars together with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and on their own in various other film projects, their work on Spaced, about two down-on-their-luck Londoners (played by Pegg and co-creator/writer Jessica Hynes) pretending to be a couple in order to rent an apartment, is still regarded by many as a master class on comedy writing and performance. Just consider the elite roster of comedians, writers and filmmakers who contributed commentary on the show's 2008 DVD release: Patton Oswalt, Bill Hader, Diablo Cody, Matt Stone, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino.

But what is it about a show that only produced 17 episodes within two seasons that attracts so much admiration a decade later? As Wright, Pegg, Hynes and Producer Nira Park muse on the DVD's foreword about their initial misgivings: "People from such far flung places would never be able to relate to the day-to-day minutae of a mismatched band of North Londoners living their life through a cracked mirror of pop culture absurdity. Boy, were we ever wrong."

People might argue the sharp one-liners or all the pop culture and geek references contributed to the show's popularity. Sure, that made it fun. But why such a devoted cult following among people worldwide? You can point to the show's emphatic characters for that…and the people behind them. As suggested in various places in the DVD's commentary and retrospective documentary, the quick, colorful repertoire between cast-members Pegg (as comic book artist Tim), Hynes (slacker writer Daisy), Julia Deakin (drunken landlady Marsha), Mark Heap (abstract artist Brian) and Katy Carmichael (fashionista Twist) was a perfect match for the show's mile-a-minute writing and frenetic editing. That the characters seemed to genuinely care for each other amidst their oddball personalities and absurdist adventures is another plus. This is not a coincidence.

As the documentary explains, Wright, Pegg and Hynes pulled the main cast and supporting players from previous projects and personal connections. It's telling that on the show, Pegg and Frost, old friends in real life from their days as struggling comics, played childhood buddies Tim and Mike. Hynes and Carmichael, former college roommates, brought that same relationship to their on-screen characters Daisy and Twist. And the male-female tension brought on by Pegg and Hyne's relationship ruse mirrored the strong collaborative partnership between the two young writer/actors who were "inseparable," according to Hynes, after meeting on a British sketch program in the mid-90s. On the DVD, Wright explains the importance of the close friendship among the cast, saying: "If Spaced was made with six actors who had never worked together before, it would be completely different. No matter how good those scripts were…it would be a completely different show."

It's also worth mentioning that, with the exception of Deakin, each member of the main cast was an emerging talent when they started on the show. With each of the young actors playing aspiring "somethings," they brought a sense of genuine empathy to their characters. Hynes muses in the documentary: "I'd been living in various states of squalor and doing various shitty jobs and I wanted to write something that reflected my experience."

Thus, it's this natural cast dynamic and characterization that brought the warmth as well as the facility in wordplay and interaction between the characters. And it's also this dynamic that makes the characters resonant to viewers of the show — many of whom could very well relate to at least one of the characters and feel as if they too could hypothetically belong among the group of friends in Spaced. As Pegg says, "what is important is that if you do get it, you feel like you've been spoken to on a subconscious level and it's very gratifying."

Aspiring comedy writers and performers could learn a lot from Spaced. Rather than relying on clichéd character tropes, it's important to bring out elements from the performer and from his or her relation to the other performers. Seasoned improv comics understand this. And having the audience relate to the material is also critical. As Louis CK recently found out, being honest with your audience can be truly rewarding. And thus, maybe there's a degree of irony in the success of Spaced and the hype for anything made by Wright, Pegg, Frost and their friends: that beneath all the Star Wars and genre references, there is some truth in the stories they tell. We can all relate to the plight of the underdog and the friendship and love that guide us through our struggles. And so we laugh.

Patricio Chile is a writer/media wonk in Philadelphia. He tweets here.