‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.’
When I turned on BBC2 one Tuesday night in 1994 under the influence of, well, not steroids, a new programme came on and a smarmy looking newsreader with slick hair read out the headline, “What now for man raised by puffins?” I nearly fell off the floor I was lying on. Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s The Day Today made all news unwatchable from that day on. Although it only ran for 6 episodes, RTE News continued the format for the following 19 years. It was also the introduction of the all-consuming Alan Partridge.
The influence of Morris and Iannucci can be seen all over comedy since. Although Iannucci’s turns on TV weren’t amazing, he has been the driving force behind The Thick of It and now has hit America with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep. Both men have made it impossible to take the media and politics seriously. The surreal nature of their output pales in comparison to reality which is much weirder. (Boris Johnson!) Many of the same actors appeared on everything from Brasseye, Blue Jam, and Knowing Me, Knowing You up to The Thick Of It.
The writing was so good and clever that it makes the current output on the BBC seem pathetic. Sanitised family shows are all the rage, but we grew up watching comedy without boundaries. I met my wife due to my ability to repeat lines from the Fast Show, that and I spilled a pint over her. Jesus, even Johnny Depp tried to get in on the action (not with my wife!) before he became a woman. But what happened to these types of comedy? What scared Channel 4 and the BBC? Why did they create BBC3 where the dumb Russells (Howard and Kane) hold court to adoring adolescents who need to hear the word ‘cock’ as a punchline for unimaginative jokes? It’s a station designed for young people in the same way DDT was designed to sort out your crops. Kids watching Russell Howard might think being funny has to be qualified by the squeezing out of a tear. Fuck him, he’s a cynical comedian, playing on the audience’s inability to distinguish him from a wealthy cross-eyed teddy bear.
Since genre building shows like Father Ted, Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, Black Books and even the demented Nathan Barley, Channel 4 have fitfully produced proper sitcoms. The best they managed was yet another Graham Linehan vehicle, the IT Crowd. It is something that they are so good at, yet the space is filled by increasingly stupid true-life documentaries, if the woman with the man’s engorged appendix stuck to her ovaries is true-life.
There is a sketch on the US show Portlandia where two of the characters try, with the help of former anchors, to take back MTV. This is what I want to do. I want to bring back Eddie Izzard before he started running all those fucking charity marathons. Comic Relief always annoyed me. I’m not such a bastard that I don’t want children to get the money they deserve, but as a kid, watching my favourite comedians dumb down for a night seemed almost treacherous. Chris Morris wandering around with Pudsey the fucking bear? Too obscene to think about. Now, all these comedians are running races for charity, swimming the seas for charity. David Walliams swimming the English channel is deadly serious. Drowning in it however, would have a certain vibe of black comedy to it. What they are not doing is writing one line of edgy comedy.
The Live at the Apollo genre, for example, is worrying, because it has gone full circle back to just before the alternative comedy revolution in Britain of the early 80s. Then, established comedy was extremely trivial and sanitised or just racist, usually toward Irish or Asians. To counter, rebellious British comedians spawned a new fresh scene. This has been watered down to the extent that now Live at the Apollo resembles a meeting-house for uninspired comedians who know how to play the game. Many have the same agents and many are English. Stand up is a stepping stone to money-making prime time slots.
The plague of the panel show means that on a certain day, you can flick through stations and it’s possible to see David Mitchell on at least 14 different panel shows. Frankie Boyle, another panel-show regular, can be surprisingly enjoyable doing stand-up, but there’s always a feeling that he needs to throw in a joke about a handicapped, deaf, single mother midget just to appease his own legend. Of the current crop, I do like Mickey Flanagan, but almost immediately he has been subsumed into that industry of mediocrity. I saw him once on a boat with Richard Herring and thought he’s really good, but he’s no Richard Herring. Richard Herring is not on my television. I say it again, Richard Herring is not on my television.
There was a recent Michael McIntyre routine he did a hokey Irish accent talking about what Paddies were like. A willing Dublin audience soaked their pants at his brand of comic japery. Apart from one line the rest of it was rubbish, but that’s not the problem. What if it was Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning up there? What paradigm exists that causes an Irish audience to laugh at an English comedian when throughout our history we have taken vicious offence at the mispronunciation of Paul McGrath’s name?
Actually, I’ll pull back from this xenophobia to say that many of my favourite comedians are, bless myself and pray to Holy Virgin Mary of the 1980s, English. If it wasn’t for Have I Got News For You?, the Fast Show, the Two Ronnies, Alexei Sayle, Lenny Henry and Eddie Izzard, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, even Chelmsford 123, I would have had no sense of humour at all. But to see the brilliant Ross Noble slumming it with Loose Women makes my normally confused mind reel in an ectopic manner.
People today forget that growing up in early 1980s Ireland, we WERE in the shadow of the hilarious Holy Virgin Mary who blotted out everything that was good and funny by manifesting not as a moving statue, but perpetual drizzle. She also appeared more times in this country than even the fucking National. With a few exceptions, quality comedy was rarely seen, despite efforts by Gay Byrne and Shay Healy. Comedians like Billy Connolly and Lenny Henry appearing on the Late Late were a highlight counteracting the comedy hole that was Noel V. Ginnity.
Regrettably it was also the time of Jim Davidson, Bobbi Davro and Freddie Starr. These were the standard 1980s television comedians, whose safe routines often were at odds with their off-television stand-up. Davidson’s regular pieces about Chalky, a black Rastafarian, were down in the gutter racist diatribes masked as comedy. Davidson was box office, and bizarre as it seems he was able to perform on the same channel that broadcast Lenny Henry’s show. This was considered acceptable fare and an unenlightened audience found it funny, until it stopped being funny. Society was moving on from this type of comedy.
That’s when Alexei Sayle arrived like a shot of rum in the eye. His level of angry comedian crossed with my first real taste of surrealism opened my mind to something different. This was a man who would look at a post box and say, “I can’t believe that’s not butter.” From then, the way led to the Young Ones, the Comic Strip and the surrealism of the Paul Merton show, coupled with his regular slot on Have I Got News For You? That political satire was so engaging in a time when the evil Tories ran everything in Britain and to see them lampooned by Merton, Ian Hislop and Angus Deayton felt like justice. They made them look like the stupid fuckers they are. Nowadays, the show is completely irrelevant despite the brilliant Hislop. If only Deayton hadn’t had a predilection for prostitutes, hotel rooms and cocaine. It reminds me of Dylan Moran’s question: “What else are you supposed to give hookers in a hotel room? Yogurt!?”
The difference between today’s content and that of the previous 30 years is that the cult of celebrity has taken over. The young guys from the Inbetweeners get pushed into doing an ill-advised movie rather than continue to develop their craft. Comedians are no longer in the business to innovate comedic forms, they are in the business solely for the business. The production budget on the Young Ones wasn’t exactly financially draining, so why not push towards that paradigm. Superstar comedians are not cheap and many aren’t that funny. The marketing of these comedians is more about pushing DVD units for overblown soulless shows which resemble that skit in The Day Today where Question Time is filmed at Wembley Stadium. It’s embarrassing to watch. Shows like the Young Ones prove that something small can become legendary. I doubt there will be too many people talking about Mock the Week down the pub in twenty years.
The commercial interests of the channels have pushed quality down a notch or two. The tube of comedy is thinning, and though the talent is there and a new generation gap is in place, the constant need to sell reality as a product is pushing people away from traditional broadcasters. The channel that took a chance on Monty Python (shown at prime time in the seventies) would shit if that surrealism appeared after The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing. It is strange that Spike Milligan was allowed a vehicle for his comedy and is lauded by the same people who would have panic attacks at the idea of his presence now.
The opportunities are dwindling. Ricky Gervais produced The Office, but now there are reality shows with David Brent characters knowingly hamming it up for the cameras. The ever-present ratings wars that ensure the survival of a station have also destroyed the possibility for diversity. Of course Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a mock hospital drama, is not going to generate the cash, but the identity of Channel 4 was once as important as its commercial viability. That has obviously changed since the days of The Tube and may be the death of them. Can the BBC sustain BBC3 despite it being on many levels more immature than Ceebeebees? These stations can broadcast brilliant dramas like This is England and The Killing but completely disregard comedy as an art form.
It’s time for a television comedy to got through some sort of revolution, something to inspire writers to stop courting the middle-class market and to destroy Russell Howard and his acolytes once and for all. Actually, it is probably simple. Look at what worked in the past and ignore trends, youth culture and market research because they lead to a comedy black hole. Simple ideas work better than high concept disasters every time. Otherwise they might just miss out on that crazy idea about three priests living on an island in the west of Ireland.