Wednesday, 30 March 2011

TV comedy doesn't think outside the box

The Guardian is running a series of articles on the state of British TV. Today's was Brian Logan writing about comedy.

It's no surprise that Logan dedicates most of the piece to stand-up, and the fact that the likes of Michael McIntyre and Mock the Week have managed to dominate the box. As Logan points out, most other comedy that doesn't subscribe to its norms suffers the fate of either being pushed off to the fringes or having all the charm removed from it in order to please the commissioners. Which brings Logan on to Fast & Loose, the Beeb's update of Whose Line is it Anyway.

'And when the BBC created a new impro show, Fast and Loose, they staffed it with standups not improvisers. The resulting show clung too closely to panel-show convention, while the unpredictability of impro was almost entirely edited out.'

Good to see someone from outside the impro community concisely nailing what disappointed so many when that show aired, with its inevitable whimper. Despite the abundant talent in the cast, it was like the show had taken all of what makes impro good and run it through a depressing Mock the Week filter. Which is about as effective as popping Lewis Hamilton in a 20p Noddy car ride outside Asda and going: 'now win the F1 championship, you knob.'

And it's not just impro that suffers. There's tons of other comedy out there these days that just won't get a look in on the telly schedules, which has to be annoying for its creators. Logan cites Tim Key, Tim Minchin and the Pajama Men among the principle victims – all of whom are amazing performers who deserve as wide an audience as anyone. As Logan puts it, 'given the chance, [they] could bring something unimaginable to the small screen'.

Logan also mentions Stewart Lee, who at least got recommissioned for his Comedy Vehicle series. And this whole debate reminds me of something Lee wrote in his memoirs (and I'm paraphrasing terribly here): that comedy audiences like one of two things, to have their world view reinforced, or to be shown something new. I'd say TV comedy largely caters to the former.

Finally, though, Logan leaves a note of hope – which should appeal to anyone who's ever got off their arse and staged a night in a cramped sticky-carpet sauna above a pub, or gone out and shot something ramshackle with their mates to stick on YouTube:

'"We're in the glam rock era of comedy," live promoter Mick Perrin suggested to me last year, "and the punk revolution is coming". Now that standup has proved it can work, and work well, on TV, it's time to let the many other species of comedy follow suit.'

But as cool as that sounds, I can't help thinking it's missing the point. Looking at Tim Key and his Invisible Dot production company, and the buzz of people at the Miller for last night's Hoopla gig, I realise there's so much to be gained by going for Stewart Lee's other crowd, the people actively seeking something new. Get them away from the TV and its self-imposed limitations, pop a beer in their hand in a room above a pub and go 'this is quality, and it'll blow your face off'.

The revolution may not be televised, but that doesn't mean it's not happening...

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