The Carry-On films are an odd bundle of affairs – 31 films (the largest number of any British series) of homophobia, misogyny, and casual racism, to name a few. They’re horrible in how outdated and casually offensive they are, and yet, ironically, hilarious. When I laugh at a joke in a CarryOn film, I’m not laughing with them, not at all – I’m laughing at how bad they are. Much like how I may laugh at a Christian mum’s minion meme page or simply a horse, the humour comes in the subversion of intention. The excessive nature of the films in their original context simply becomes more fodder to laugh at. The outrageously camp characters ogling Barbara Windsor’s exposed breasts is comedic for how over-the-top it is in its poor portrayal of women and gays, to name just a few casual victims of the show.
Carry On Girls is an example of the film series’ incredible excess, both in terms of plot and politics. Mocking feminism and objectifying women all in one – it’s almost impressive in how poor it is. A group of protesting feminists speak of “squatting on this erection” (for clarity, the premises of the building – mind out of the gutter!) until their goals are met. What follows is a smorgasbord of nudity, women fighting over stolen bikinis and a pesky feminist plot to ruin everyone’s good old-fashioned fun. That’s possibly the most obviously excessive thing about these films – the passing off of ‘old-fashioned fun’. You know the type: private school showers, randy old men, big breasts, gays being gay and just gay-ing out everywhere.
Yet Carry-On raises a lot of interesting cultural questions. How has our society changed since they were made? Could they have been made today? And how should we interpret films made in ‘the good old days’ of excessive, woeful prejudice? Kenneth Williams, a staple of the Carry-On franchise, struggled immensely with his homosexuality: yet in every film he’s part of the same joke. He’s gay. That was unacceptable at the time. That’s the punchline. Yet his presentation is persistently one of camp characterization and, arguably, excess. He’s also one of the funniest characters. There’s a reason he was in so many of the films.
When we laugh at him, are we indulging societal homophobia? It’s a strange situation that I, as a gay man, find myself in. I’m not sure we’re being homophobic. His presentation is one of stereotypical homosexuality, yet it’s left unmentioned in the films. This makes the Carry-On films strangely metatextual. What did the scriptwriters think? How did he get along with his fellow actors? From this angle, the Carry-On films are an exercise in self-aware excess. The women and gays are willing solicitors in their own mockery.
And it’s something that comedy ran with. From the Carry-On films, writers gained a springboard where they could turn the tables and make characters so excessive that we’re laughing at them, not with them. Absolutely Fabulous’ Eddie and Patsy, for example, are fun, excessive stereotypes of the rich, vapid, and conceited in the fashion world. We’re not supposed to relate to them. Yet I love them. After all, they got to meet 90s-era Naomi Campbell. God, I wish that were me.
The nature of excessiveness is a peculiar one. We assume excess to be a bad thing, and sometimes it can be, but need it always be? I’m an advocate of comedic excessiveness as much as I am comedic restraint. Some films work best by restraining the over the top comedy that they could include within them; others work best by going all out. I think the most interesting things in comedy are the excessive restraints and restrained excesses of films such as Napoleon Dynamite or The Greasy Strangler. I love both of these films. They’re both incredibly odd, idiosyncratic approaches to comedy which will either be loved or hated. Napoleon Dynamite is excessive in its restraint of basic human emotion whilst The Greasy Strangler is excessive in its excess of grease. These sentences may not make sense if you haven’t seen the films – I recommend them immensely.
Comedy, as an art form, is always centered around this balance between restraint and excess. Too much excess and the audience gets bored, too much restraint and the audience get bored. Where do the Carry-On films lie? Very clearly within the overly excessive bracket – but that’s why they’re funny now, in an ironic way. Because of the excess of offensive jargon and bawdy comedy, I can find them funnier than they have the right to be.
It’s confusing, but comedy is confusing. Some people will love the unbounded excess of shows like Family Guy, and some will find the restraint of things like Napoleon Dynamite to be frustrating. But I think that a midway point is the safest place to be. That’s where the Carry-On films reside. In the middle.