Anyone ancient enough may find the title of this post evokes misty memories of a half-remembered comedy series from a good 35 years ago; the truth is I nicked the title from the programme, though the title sticks in the head more than the content. From what I can remember, the satirical sketch show in question starred Robbie Coltrane before he became a ‘serious actor’, and followed a similar path to a predecessor called ‘A Kick up The 80s’, which had given an early break to Tracey Ullman. These BBC2 shows from the first half of the 80s essentially revamped the format of mid-60s TW3 sequels like ‘Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life’ and ‘BBC-3’, produced at a time when Alternative Comedy had gatecrashed the Light Entertainment fortress. TV welcomed it with open arms and an open mind.
If you perused yesterday’s post, you may have also viewed the video tagged onto it, which was my ‘satirical take’ on the upcoming General Election, using the well-oiled vehicle of the party political broadcast. Some of the comments that accompanied the video on YouTube repeated a complimentary phrase I’ve received on previous occasions, one I mention not to boost my ego, but because it has a relevance to this particular post – ‘You should be on the telly.’
The telly’s comedy schedule the day I posted this video on YT consisted of Keith Lemon and Paddy McGuinness on ITV, whereas BBC1 offered Michael McIntyre and Mrs Brown. Of course, comedy is subjective; what causes one person to soil their Y-fronts causes another to reach for the remote, but the view I personally have of these comedic offerings from the mainstream is that they are today’s equivalent of the Bernard Manning/Jim Davidson/Frank Carson working-men’s club school that Alternative Comedy reacted against at the turn of the 80s. If ‘comedy on the telly’ is what ITV and the BBC were serving up on Saturday evening, and that’s the company I’m supposed to crave, I’d rather not bother.
It’s hard enough trying to get a book published, so I’m certainly not prepared to promote what I consider to be a sideline by bombarding TV producers and then having to be funnelled through focus groups and committees; neither am I prepared to go to the Edinburgh Festival and spend a fortune playing to three or four people in a tiny theatre. The comedy circuit in terms of live performance remains a provider of new faces for television, but those who make up the numbers on endless panel shows are the Ed Sheeran’s of comedy; their ultimate aim is to play arenas, and it’s evident in their routines. For Irishmen and mothers-in-law as subject matters, substitute ‘My girlfriend/boyfriend said to me the other day…’ It’s what Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer referred to as comedy for parties of office workers – comedy intended to make the audience echo George Osborne’s belief that we’re all in it together.
This is the kind of comedy TV commissioners want. Nobody in their position today would commission something as alien to the ‘communal comedy’ mindset as ‘Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out’, let alone Spike Milligan’s ‘Q’, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ or even later ventures into the surreal such as ‘The League of Gentlemen’. Every generation once had its comedy series, though just as the music scene seems to have abandoned its old practice of ripping it up and starting again, the expectation that each decade would produce one defining comedy series no longer applies. And the reason appears to be that television has lost its bottle. Even when it tries to do something moderately daring, such as the ‘Real Wives of ISIS’ sketch that appeared on the BBC’s ‘Revolting’ earlier this year, the conservatism of an audience raised on the lame comedy of the last ten years produces a hostile reaction that causes commissioners to stick to playing it safe. The fact that an established home for unconventional comedy such as BBC3 is now solely online speaks volumes.
Yet this situation has only really arisen in the past decade or so. As recent as 2002 and 2005, BBC2 produced ‘Look Around You’, the brilliant parody of firstly 70s schools programmes and then early 80s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ from Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper. I can’t remember the last time I saw either on mainstream TV; but they’re active online. Another occasional compliment I’ve received in the comments section on YT has been ‘Are you Peter Serafinowicz?’ – which is incredibly flattering, but perhaps reflects the fact he and I are operating in a similar area, the area being not merely making videos cut from the same cloth of humour, but the fact we’re online and not on TV.
Yes, there are undoubtedly many amateurish and pretty unfunny attempts at comedy on YT as there probably are on the telly, if not more; but at the same time, there are some very talented comic performers whose work is only available online; you rarely, if ever, see them on the goggle box.
Steve Riks is an impressionist who specialises in impersonating rock stars and putting them in unlikely situations; one of the most recent videos of his I watched was a short sketch in which Jeff Lynne rings up both Roy Wood and Noddy Holder, neither of whom want to speak to him. It was funny and simultaneously supremely silly, and Riks played all three parts. He’s also a dab hand at John, Paul, George and Ringo; but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him on TV and I don’t really expect to. How would he even pitch a premise like that to a TV commissioner looking for the next Michael McIntyre? The days when Galton & Simpson would be offered 13 weeks in a prime-time slot to write whatever they wanted are long gone.
Opinionated news reporter Jonathan Pie, who launches into a rant on politics when he imagines the camera has been switched-off, is another comedian whose work is only known to me via YouTube. The Russia Today/RT logo always appears on his videos, so his shorts may well be broadcast on the channel; but it’s not exactly the mainstream, is it? As with music, I no longer believe television is the definitive showcase for comedy today; by relying on the tired modern-day music hall-in-its-death throes vacuum of the comedy club, TV commissioners are looking in the wrong place.
© The Editor