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


  1. The problems with mainstream broadcast comedy are twofold – firstly, it’s all about pursuit of audience volumes, a pursuit of quantity which, in any field, is only ever resolved by a descent to the lowest common denominator of quality.
    The second issue confronting the commissioners is the fear of offending the ‘snowflakes’, and not only the younger millennial snowflakes, but also the wide range of older ones who should know better bearing a far bigger weight of imagined chips on their shoulders than they have sense of humour, then using that perceived ‘offence’ for self-aggrandisement of their victim status.
    Almost all the ‘classic’ comedy of yesteryear provided opportunities for someone to be offended, whether than was Irish folk, mothers-in-law, dwarfs, immigrants, disabled, pooftahs, The People’s Front of Judea, whatever – I’m sure some were indeed offended, but at that time most simply applied the ‘sticks and stones’ rule, smiled and moved on. Now, it’s a completely different matter and it must be desperately difficult for a mainstream gag-writer to deliver any volume of humour which was not capable of provoking a disproportionate reaction of perceived offence by someone.
    In practice, it would not be the writer who was most seriously pilloried, more likely the commissioning producer and/or company – rather tricky when you‘re dependent on a compulsory tax-levy for funding if you embarrass those you rely upon for next year’s increase, or if your advertisers fear a Facebook-triggered boycott by whichever interest group you may have upset.
    In that environment, only the independent world of YouTube now provides the platform for delivering unfettered and unfiltered humour – but being unfiltered, some will be gems, much of it will be dire, some of it will be genuinely distasteful, but at least it’s still the free expression of the writer/performer . . . . . . . for now. Long may it continue, but I fear that it won’t.

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    1. It is indeed true that the TV comedy groundbreakers of old often provoked the archetypal ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ complaint; there’s an infamous line in Python’s ‘Summarise Proust’ sketch when Graham Chapman’s contestant describes his hobbies as ‘strangling dogs and masturbating’. Though subsequently reinstated, I’ve read initial repeat screenings edited out mention of the latter hobby (strangling dogs was apparently not considered offensive in the 70s). I suppose the irony today is that the younger members of the viewing audience are the ones who will take most offence and, as the outrage over the ‘Real Wives of ISIS’ proved, they have a platform far wider than the letters page of the Radio Times, as well as the campaigning clout to strike fear in the heart of broadcasters.

      For the moment, YT has the freedom TV no longer appears to possess, but even in the short time I’ve been using it as a vehicle, that freedom has been chipped away in terms of copyright clampdowns. In fact, I now anticipate such problems with every video I post, and was amazed I got away with it when it comes to my most recent one – so far, anyway. I suppose like any infant medium, as television essentially was on a popular scale in the 60s and 70s, we need to make the most of the buccaneering era before the corporations move in and the YT of old goes the same way as the pirate radio stations, leaving us with the online equivalent of Radio 1 in its place.


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