Supposedly, we’re in a golden age of TV comedy. Like all golden ages, though, it doesn’t seem much like one when you’re living through it.
We’ve had a bunch of new comedy series starting in the last couple of weeks, manly because it’s six weeks till Christmas, so all the channels are sticking series on now to get their runs out of the way before they have to show the Christmas specials.
The most ubiquitous of all the new series has been the third outing of Little Britain, a show plucked from the obscurity of Radio 4 and BBC Three to effectively become the BBC’s flagship comedy show, thanks to Ricky Gervais’s insistence that Extras should go out on BBC Two. Unfortunately, while Gervais seems to be deepening and widening his repertoire to avoid overmining the same comedic seam, Matt Lucas and David Walliams seem to have become victims of their own hype. While Little Britain was never the subtlest of comedies, there was a sense that their characters were – like those that inspired them in The Fast Show – not too far from ordinary life and just exaggerated for comic effect, but now they’ve become little more than grotesque caricatures, devoid of any sense of reality or pathos. Given that their audience seem to have developed Fonz syndrome – hooting and cheering the appearance of a favourite character in a scene as though it was the Second Coming before they’ve even done anything – watching Little Britain is like a Pavlovian experiment in comedy, with bells repaced by stock catchphrases.
What with having to appear on stage, pose in character for photoshoots, do interviews, record novelty ringtones, approve tatty merchandise and all the other paraphernalia of comedy success, it seems that there’s little time left to actually come up with jokes, so instead we get a parade of predictable punchlines, fat suits, old women urinating in public and comedy ethnic characters who could have walked out of a Jim Davidson routinem that are only shocking in their laziness.
Talking of recycling old ideas leads us neatly onto Broken News, a comedy based around a succession of news channels reporting surreal events with a straight face. As with a comedian’s fake plea of ‘stop me if yo’ve heard this one before’ it too hopes the audience haven’t seen The Day Today or The Daily Show and hopes they can get away with this ersatz version. Taken on its own, Broken News isn’t too bad, with some amusing moments and interesting ideas such as the Adrian Chiles-esque business reporter who speaks in a stream of nonsensical metaphors or major European news reduced to a humorous ‘and finally’ moment on American channels, but its general attitude is one of mildly amusing satire rather than the eviscerating contempt of Chris Morris, Armando Ianucci and Jon Stewart.
There seems to be a law that in any mention of Channel 4’s Peep Show the word ‘underrated’ must be used, despite the fact that no one can actually find someone saying anything bad against it. I’m not going to try and make a name for myself by becoming that negative person because it’s not a bad bit of comedy, with enough going on to keep you laughing throughout. I think the use of ‘underrated’ comes about, though, because there’s no one raving about it and saying how wonderful it is. Though perhaps this is a welcome sign of a developing consistency within Channel 4’s comedy output which seemed to veer wildly between near-genius and utter rubbish with no middle ground.
However, the producers of all these shows, and anything in the pipeline at the moment, can rest easy as the title of Least Funny Supposed Comedy Inflicted On The British Public has been won hands down by Blessed. From a writer of Blackadder and featuring a star of Father Ted it’s handy proof that the real talent that made those series so successful obviously weren’t Ben Elton and Ardal O’Hanlon. It’s devoid not just of humour, but anything that might even vaguely resemble a joke, features stereotypical characters that would have been rejected as dated in the 1980s and can only be on our screens as a result of some top-level penetration of the BBC by moles from ITV determined to make their comedy output look good by comparison. In fact, it’s so bad, it’s not even worth watching in a ‘so bad it’s good’ ironic manner, with more laughs likely to come from swtching over to whichever World War Two documentary the History Channel happens to be running at the time.
In short, Britain is suffering from a comedy drought. Luckily, America looks set to help us out with emergency imports of My Name Is Earl beginning on Channel 4 next year. More on that another time, as I’m still trying to find ways to scrub the memory of Blessed from my memory.