Thursday, 28 February 2008

That Mitchell and Webb Look: Thursday 28 Feb 2008

I don’t know what this show wants to be, but it has two illustrious forebears in erudite sketch comedy. I would love it to be Monty Python, but it’s more Fry & Laurie. If Mitchell and Webb don’t accept those two shows as inspirations, it’s because nothing about the show is inspired. Monty Python conveyed its members’ overwhelming compulsion to share their ideas. The compulsion driving Fry, Laurie, Mitchell and Webb always seems more commercial. They have a certain number of minutes to fill with sketches each week and they dutifully choose their lazy targets. Their material is stretched rather than bursting at the seams.

As if their contempt for their audience wasn’t evident from the pedestrian material, the canned laughter screamed it. From the first sketch, the laughter served as a giant pointing finger. In case it wasn’t obvious, the joke is that the man is waving his arms about.

One line between Monty Python and Fry & Laurie is their shared love of verbal dexterity. Mitchell and Webb obviously recognise that this should be a throbbing artery of sophisticated comedy, but get it wrong. Monty Python understood that verbose wit could perfect a funny idea. Fry, Laurie, Mitchell and Webb think elaborate word play on its own will suffice. In this episode, both semantics (the ‘on three or after three?’ routine) and loquacity (the super-villain chap) were engaged. Neither were wed to particularly funny jokes, despite or because they were so unoriginal. An evil genius’s interior decorating being ruined by health and safety; ‘rotate upon its axis, round de round’, etc. Some brash men in the 80s; ‘damn’, etc. A man returning a dead parrot to a pet shop; ‘hello, miss?’, ‘long squawk’, etc. A timid man named Mr Pewtey takes his cuckolding wife to a marriage counsellor; ‘it’s only as comparatively recently as recently’, ‘on account of her feet’, etc. Sigh.

Mitchell and Webb’s poor use of language is emphasised by their reliance on swearing for a punchline. This marks them as lucky student comedians, just as Fry & Laurie never seemed more than lucky Footlights because of their overwritten ideas. Larry David might have claimed that you can double your laughs with a fuck, but he also knows that the best climax to a joke can be a look. Where Larry’s facial punchline is normally open mouthed, just about every great comedian will make you laugh with a raised eyebrow.

When Monty Python satirised academics, it picked out their pretensions. Mitchell and Webb laughs at their quirks. A sociologist lists professional careers to aspire to, adding, ‘Who knows, perhaps even a sociologist’ before falling down an open manhole. Two documentary academics accidentally meet in a field and fight over one microphone, never taking their eyes off the camera. A historian gesticulates. Sigh.

Similarly, why do Mitchell and Webb feel the need to mock Five and Sky? Claiming Sky cannot get any cheaper from a BBC pedestal could only be funny if deeply ironic, but this wasn’t. Parodying Shark’s predictable stereotypes is only going to be resonant if none of your own ideas are derivative. The real problem with Shark isn’t that it’s a House spin off or that it follows the basic tenets of courtroom procedurals, but that it insists on casting models as crack addicts. It’s James Woods versus Hollyoaks.

Watch online
Buy now: That Mitchell & Webb Look - Series 1 [2007]

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