A Sketchy Business

Posted in TV
By Mansoor Iqbal on 4 Dec 2010

Sketch shows have always seemed to me to be a bit of a throwback. One thinks of Monthy Python, Kenny Everett and perhaps of Fry and Laurie. More pertinently, for people of a similar age to myself, the genre is epitomised by those stalwarts of our formative years, The Fast Show and Harry Enfield’s Television Programme. Sure, you can look back at any of these and grimace – the format has never seemed to lend itself to sophisticated comedy, but you do feel a certain sense of warmth when thinking back to them.

It is the joy of seeing a joke acted out, the potential for absurdity and – perhaps the reason they provide so much joy during one’s formative years – the repeatability of the skits that give the sketch show its charm. But each of these assets contains a latent liability – if the joke is bad than to see it actualised is no blessing; without care absurdity can easily be employed in lieu, rather than in support, of humour; and a favoured sketch will often be repeated ad nauseam until all of the possible humorous incongruity is sucked clean out of it (the bane of all sketch shows – Monty Python’s Flying Circus excepted, with an honourable mention going to A Bit of Fry and Laurie).

Indeed these problems have sullied many a sketch show over time, and have completely soiled recent big hitters like The Catherine Tate Show and the massive steaming shite that is Little Britain. It makes you question the right of the genre to exist in this heady modern age, now television has dragged itself nearly entirely clear of the theatrical roots on which the sketch is founded, leaving us only with a tawdry 21st century shell (is this what it’s like to be an adult?).

Channel 4 has set us up with one and a half new ones. Contender one: The Morgana Show. My expectations: low as a Barry White number on Ketamine – Channel 4′s hyping makes me suspicious. Problem one: are we still doing canned laughter? Really? I know I said sketch shows were a throwback but it’s not the ruddy 90s anymore. Now I did a cursory check, and it seems that canned laughter is still the done thing for a sketch show. But why does it seem so jarring here? Oh right, because this programme ISN’T FUNNY AT ALL. It plays out a bit like a audio visual version of Heat magazine. Mostly  it’s celebrity parodies, of the most uninspired ilk. We have the startling notion that BoJo is a toff and a bit of a tit, we get to see Lady Gaga doing ordinary things in those oh-so-kerazy outfits (oh the jollity!) and worst of all, there is a bleeding X Factor sketch that actually features jokes about the current contestants. The last one made me cry a bit. Lame. And then there’s the other sketch – some awkward and weird kid, possibly he has mental difficulties, making his own show at home. This just left me feeling awkward really, particularly as if this show’s a hit that’ll probably be Morgana’s “am I bovvered?” (yuk). The programme as a whole has the vibe of something someone made in their bedroom at home, because I just can’t envisage anyone actually commissioning this. Why would you do this to me? Avoid please.

Now if you were going to commission a programme without even checking the quality, you’d do well to ensure that Frankie Boyle was involved. He is genuinely one of the funniest stand-ups in a scene that is becoming increasingly banal and pedestrian. He has that rare quality, shared by Sarah Silverman, of being to make horrendous disgusting bigoted jokes but still have you know he’s on the right side. He’s a good lad. Anyway, his Tramadol Nights is the half sketch show, with the other half consisting of stand-up. This is a welcome development as it means I can watch the man every week. The beginning was a little pedestrian, just him ribbing the audience; although you could sense his satisfaction in taking it out on the public that gave him so much gip over down’s syndrome-gate, even though these were clearly adoring fans. Eventually he hits his rhythm though, leading me to breathe a sigh of sweet relief. The sketches are a little hit and miss, but one towards the end (watch it, I don’t think explaining it will do it justice) is a work of genius. Boyle is a genuinely subversive and intelligent comedian, and if TV is going to be his chosen medium now (post gip) then TV has just gotten much better. Tramadol Nights isn’t the finished article yet – he’ll certainly need to get to grips with the faster pace of the format – but it certainly bodes well for Boyle’s televisual future. Rise sketch show, you’ve been given a stay of execution.

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