I always like seeing the germ of a joke. Usually, the grain of sand in the comedy oyster is most discernable in observational humour. For me, it’s far more enjoyable to recognise in a sketch or routine what must have prompted the idea in the writer’s mind. This has its downside, of course, in seeing the lowest-common-denominator cynicism from which so much of the comedy genre springs.
In this episode, for example, we were treated to The Mrs Patricia Wilberforce Programme. This clearly had its origins in someone lazily wondering, ‘What if we did The Jeremy Kyle Show in the 1940s?’ It was an unfunny, unimaginative filler sketch, punctuated with the eponymous presenter hilariously swearing. Other tossed-off ideas were the horse sketch (‘What if we did a man and his wife arguing, but the wife was a whore?’ ‘This is the BBC.’ ‘Okay, what if the wife was a horse?’; ‘What if we satirised hysterical news coverage by doing something where every headline was that everything was fine?’ ‘Great, can the Daily Mail be the punchline?’, etc.).
The lack of imagination going into these routines is also evident in their self-loathing meanness. The only joke in the horse sketch was that the woman was a horse; it was otherwise a straightforward misogynistic argument in which the woman wasn’t even given a voice. The idea about the librarian who abuses visitors didn’t even attempt to disguise its cruelty. The visitor, a woman, was simply guilty of middle-of-the-road tastes, not much of a crime. For this, she was victimised by the librarian in a not particularly funny way. We’re meant to be complicit in the librarian’s contempt for women’s magazines and so on, but surely the existence of boring people doesn’t vex anyone that much? As if to salvage it all, the woman breaks down and agrees to a date with the librarian. Again, a woman denied a voice and conceding that she is worthless.
If you can’t skewer worthy targets, you should at least skewer undeserving targets in an intelligent way. There’s lots to be said about patronising people you consider thick, but it wasn’t said here. Likewise, the newsreader who reported only that things were okay needed better setups. If the punchline’s weak, have a great premise. Here, the programme’s typical verbosity could have helped, but instead it was just stuff like, ‘The sky lit up with a big red bang, but everything’s normal now’.
Where the inspiration for sketches wasn’t so blindingly base, it was derivative. The show seems to have settled on the sketch with the two guys sitting opposite each other as their token esoteric, smart Fry & Laurie set piece. The fathers abducted at Flamingo World was pure League of Gentlemen. The explorers giving new lands inappropriate names was quite Lee & Herring.
Lee & Herring territory seems to be the best suited to Mitchell & Webb (as Richard Herring observes every so often). They share the same high status/low status dynamic and are capable of intelligent comedy. They are clearly aware of this dynamic, and were enjoyably playful with it here in the Stalingrad and ‘not as clever as you think’ routines.
The show is at its finest when taking inspiration from its writers’ own lives. Peep Show delved into the boredom of being at home all day and the inexorable will to wank, and here that idea provided by far the best sketch. The idea was fun, its glimmer of truth was funny, and it was executed with some great lines (rewarding yourself for a good call, itself funny, with masturbating). If only they could do more of this.