The Hunt for Tony Blair vs Holy Flying Circus

Posted on October 23rd, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

Recent days in television have brought us two resurrections of once-feted comedy group, one recreated by new actors, courtesy of a script from The Thick Of It scribe Tony Roche, the other with many of the old team reassembled for another jog around the track.

Taking The Comic Strip’s The Hunt for Tony Blair first, it can certainly be said that this is better by far than the almost entirely uninteresting Sex, Actually. It also runs true to that strand’s usual form, in tone, structure and approach. The team that satirised the miners strike in 1988 (three years after it ended), The Professionals in 1984 (three years after it ended) and The Fly in 1988 (two years after the film was released) now tackles the Prime Ministership of Tony Blair four years after he left office.

Structurally, the film resembles several other Comic Strip efforts including War (the second-ever), South Atlantic Raiders and Spaghetti Hoops, being essentially a series of sketches, related only by the fact that the same protagonist turns up to each situation in turn. Here that protagonist is Comic Strip newcomer Stephen Mangan whose wide-eyed optimism suits Blair nicely, and the recurrent trope of Blair’s blithe optimism and ruthless rationalisation is probably the film’s best joke. “It’s never pleasant strangling an old man with his own tie,” muses Blair in a voice-over, “but what’s done is done and we move on.”

However, the secondary focus of the satire is all over the place. Lurching from decade-to-decade the piece spoofs The Thirty Nine Steps, The Fugitive, Sunset Boulevard and others, never really skewering any of them. From the steady aim and clear focus of Five Go Mad In Dorset, we are now dangerously close to Scary Movie territory. It’s when Blair turns up at Mrs Thatcher’s mansion (with Jennifer Saunders reprising the role with far less wit than in GLC) that things completely fall apart as tone, taste and even basic plotting are jettisoned in pursuit of cheap laughs.

Elsewhere, Robbie Coltrane and Nigel Planer prove once again that they are the best actors in the team, but are never given anything funny to say. Rik Mayall is reduced to face-pulling and falling over. Harry Enfield is very funny but only on screen for sixty seconds and Richardson himself is embarrassingly poor as George Bush. Technical standards have slipped too with several shots overexposed, ruining the film noir look and several mismatched shots just stuck together hopefully when surely a cut-away could have been found somewhere.

Overall, this feels laboured, plodding and rather uninspired. Holy Flying Circus at least had energy, taking the smart decision to tell the story of the release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian by focusing on a manageably short period of time – the few months between the film’s American release and Cleese and Palin’s appearance on TV opposite Malcom Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark. Whereas the Comic Strip film shows a shaky hand, falteringly guessing at what effect these various choices might have on an audience, Tony Roche’s script has a very clear intent – to play fast-and-loose with time, space, reality and truth (to the ire of many of the real Pythons).

This is only partially successful. Some of the tropes are fun, like the same actor playing both Terry Jones and Mrs Michael Palin. Others just seem pointless, like Darren Boyd apologising to camera for basing his portrayal of John Cleese mainly on Fawlty Towers or Jason Thorpe’s ludicrously manic TV director Alan Dick screaming absurd insanities in the manner of Matt Berry in The IT Crowd. The trio of Christian protestors lead by Mark Heap get a bit too much screentime for my liking, and their rejection of the Bishop is too pat to be convincing. Far more telling, I think, is the story oft-told by the Pythons but omitted here, that back in the green room after the show was over, a genuinely angry Michael Palin was staggered to see Muggeridge and the Bishop genially passing around drinks and congratulating all concerned with having pulled off such a lovely piece of television.

Hats off to some of the other cast members though, including a spookily accurate Michael Palin from Charles Edwards, a hilarious Malcolm Muggeridge from Michael Cochrane and a brilliantly sappy Tim Rice from Tom “PC Andy” Price. A worthily experimental telling of a fascinating moment in English comedy history, told with brio but with enormous self-indulgence, and that probably only needed an hour to be just as effective.

The Why of Funny #6: Sounds-A-Bit-Rude

Posted on August 1st, 2011 in Culture | 2 Comments »

In Chris Morris’s Jam, a plumber is informed by a housewife that her baby is right upstairs. “Did I say boiler on the phone? I meant baby, sorry.” As the plumber’s confusion deepens, the housewife explains. “The doctor says he’s dead or something, but I know he can be mended, it’s just tubes really, isn’t it? I’m sure you could have a go… for a thousand pounds an hour.” Just daring to deal with the taboo topic of cot death in the context of a comedy show makes us giggle nervously, and the dark juxtaposition plus the shift in status occasioned by the plumber’s greed keeps this groundbreaking sketch just the right side of sick.

The previous theories have all dealt to a greater or lesser extent with structure. This time, we are looking entirely at content, for which reason Sounds-A-Bit-Rude can be added to any of the preceding elements at almost any time. The extent to which you use it depends largely on your target audience and the mood of the times. Comedy has always pushed at the boundaries of acceptability. Recently, a screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera created protests outside the BBC. In the 1970s Monty Python’s Flying Circus was prevented from presenting a sketch about an undertaker arranging for the deceased to be cooked and eaten, unless they also filmed the audience walking out in disgust. And the last word of a quiz-show contestant’s list of hobbies was cut altogether (“Golf, strangling animals and masturbation”).

In the 1960s, radio show Round The Horne delighted in filling its scripts with filthy double-entendres and then denying the fact (double-entendres of course, combine Sounds-A-Bit-Rude with Oh-I-See). Hence, Julian and Sandy (one of radio comedy’s first depictions of homosexuality), posing as barristers, could turn down a case commenting “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most our time,” without being taken off the air.

In America, however, on his radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, Groucho Marx was faced with a woman whose only excuse for her prodigious brood of children was to say “I like my husband”. Groucho responded “I like my cigar too, but I take it out once in a while.”1 The remark was never broadcast.

In the theatre, of course, there was somewhat less restriction (notwithstanding the Lord Chamberlain’s best efforts). Max Miller would walk onstage and stride directly towards the most attractive woman in the front row of the stalls, while peeling a banana and counting the peelings aloud: “One skin, two skin, three skin… here, lady, want a bite?” And no doubt the same testing of the boundaries can be found back through the ages. Swift’s A Modest Proposal also springs to mind, as do some of the easy-to-miss death jokes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Well!” thought Alice to herself, “after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (Which was very likely true.)

Most comedians know this, which is why material about sex, death, disease and so on is so popular. Faced with a dog, Larry David doesn’t get bitten on the hand or the ankle, he manages (through some contrivance) to be bitten on the penis. And then treated by the gay Doctor his choreographer is trying to set him up with.

Including taboo material can make the audience start giggling even before the real comedy begins, and thus is a very powerful tool. Also, Just-A-Flesh-Wound can make it possible to deal with important issues more honestly in a comic form than in a dramatic form. Doctor Strangelove, a brilliant black comedy, tells the truth about nuclear deterrence: that in all likelihood whichever side launches a nuclear attack first will exterminate the human race. Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, a tense drama released in the same year, for all its committed acting, leaves the audience with the weak reassurance that one almighty act of contrition will bring us back from the brink. Many doctors have commented that, despite its surrealism, Scrubs is a more accurate portrayal of hospital life than the overwrought ER or the soapy Grey’s Anatomy.

However, just as surprise, bathos and surrealism on their own can lead to weak comedy, so including shocking material for its own sake can drag a piece of comedy down rather than elevate it to new heights. Constantly including taboo material has a deadening effect. If it’s the truth that your characters would swear and curse, then you should include that and hope your intended audience understands what you are aiming for. But if you think a joke about a bunch of flowers will automatically become funnier if it’s a joke about a bunch of fucking flowers, then you’re mistaken. Pushing the boundaries is about more than choice of linguistic register. American 90s comic Bill Hicks certainly set out to shock, but he also wanted to provoke thought as well as make his audiences laugh.

By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself. Just a little thought. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day, they’ll take root. I don’t know. You try. You do what you can. Kill yourself.

Seriously, though. If you are, do. No, really. There’s no rationalisation for what you do, and you are Satan’s little helpers, okay? Kill yourself. Seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good, seriously. No, this is not a joke, if you’re going: “There’s going to be a joke coming.”

There’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked, and you are fucking us. Kill yourself, it’s the only way to save your fucking soul. Kill yourself.

Planting seeds.

I know all the marketing people are going: “He’s doing a joke.” There’s no joke here whatsoever. Suck a tail-pipe, fucking hang yourself, borrow a gun from a Yank friend – I don’t care how you do it. Rid the world of your evil fucking machinations.

I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too. “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, he’s very smart.” Oh man. I am not doing that, you fucking evil scumbags! “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing now? He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. Lot of people are feeling that indignation, we’ve done research. Huge market. He’s doing a good thing.” God damn it, I’m not doing that, you scumbags. Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!

Hick’s refusal to release the tension here is key to the routine.

  1. This story has attained the status of myth, and every telling of it is slightly different. Sadly the tapes of the show in which it is most likely to have occurred have been lost, although as noted it would have been cut before transmission in any case.

The Why of Funny #3: Just-A-Flesh-Wound

Posted on July 12th, 2011 in Culture | 4 Comments »

King Arthur faces the fearsome Black Knight in mortal combat, and through superior swordsmanship, manages to slice his opponent’s arm clean off. Assuming that the fight is his, Arthur prepares to continue his journey, only to be told by the Knight that “It’s just a scratch” and “he’s had worse”. The fight continues until all four of the Black Knight’s limbs are removed at which point, he reluctantly agrees to call it a draw. The pain and dismemberment is presented unrealistically and we feel able to laugh at it, and not withdraw in horror. (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

This theory presents two opposite strategies for dealing with emotion in comedy. The first, and most common, is to minimise emotion – particularly negative emotion – for the simple reason that we won’t laugh if we sense real pain.

Consider again the oldest joke in the world, the king falling over. One additional reason why the old lady falling over is not funny is that there is a much higher chance of genuine injury in the case of the old lady. We are amused by the king’s humiliation much more than his hospitalisation. If the King staggers to his feet and then collapses, his legs bending impossibly under him, and blood spewing from his lips, then all comedy is gone: we are horrified or disgusted. Clowns appear to suffer appalling injuries, but bounce back to their feet again (although they may be very disoriented, to heighten the effect of having their status lowered). Cartoon characters are the apotheosis of this technique, being essentially impossible to kill or even injure severely.

A promotional film made to publicise the James Bond film Thunderball and called “A Child’s Guide To Blowing Up A Motor Car”, showed Dennis Norden taking his young nephew to see a stunt being filmed. At the climax of film, Norden returns the boy to his home and drives away, only to discover that the boy has learned his lesson too well and has rigged the car to explode. After the flames start to subside, we cut to Norden in a hospital bed, covered in cartoony bandages, and a look of mild irritation on his face. Without that final shot, this is a horrific story of an innocence destroyed, a horrible death, a senseless loss of life. With the final shot we establish “only joking”, due to Norden simply having to be bandaged up in order to recover, and in particular due to his emotional suffering being very minor. The comedy sound effects added to shows like You’ve Been Framed, which depict possibly life-threatening accidents, serve a very similar purpose.

John Cleese realised the importance of this, working on Fawlty Towers. Basil can say anything he likes to Sybil provided that the insults never seem to strike home. If Sybil were genuinely to be wounded by Basil’s bitter sarcasm, we would lose all sympathy for him as a character and the engine of the plot would be destroyed – we would no longer want Basil to succeed.

However, as has been noted, characters reacting to events is a major plank of good storytelling, and so the over-use of Just-A-Flesh-Wound, particularly in the form of bathos, can wreck good comic stories. If characters drift through plots where major events take place, and are only minimally affected, the overall effect is brittle, remote and superficial. It lacks the universality of great international comedy, and is very reliant on constant invention. Just-A-Flesh-Wound is generally better suited to sketch comedy than sit-com, when used in this way.

Here’s how Dave Allen brilliantly uses a combination of Just-A-Flesh-Wound and Saw-It-Coming to play with the audience’s expectations and create a classic piece of sketch comedy.

A little girl, playing with her toys in a clearing, is juxtaposed with a Frankenstein-style monster, lumbering through the forest. As we sense him getting closer and closer, we introduce a third character in yet another part of the wood: a mother, calling out for her 7-year-old child. “My baby! My baby! Where is my baby?” Finally, the monster approaches the little girl, who looks up at him with innocent wonderment. He reaches out a hand, and just as he is about to grab her, the mother also bursts into the clearing, rushes over and scoops up… the little girl into her arms. She turns to go and then turns back to the camera and, pointing at the monster, demands to know “Okay, how many of you thought I was going to take him home?” Very slowly, with a crestfallen expression, the monster raises his hand.

Notice that by the end, the whole world of the sketch has been dismantled. In order to dilute and make the threat acceptable (and comic), everything we were being asked to believe in has been removed, including the fact that the “fourth wall” has been broken. This is dangerous stuff for a sitcom, which depends for its success on the audience buying into the story and the characters – although some sit-coms can get away with it (The Young Ones) or even make a virtue of it (It’s Gary Shandling’s Show). What I particularly like about this sketch though, is the flash of genuine emotion at the end and I think that’s why it stuck in my mind.

Which brings us onto the other use of emotional juxtaposition. Whereas over-use of bathos to make dark material palatable can render a sit-com dry and low-stakes, a great many sit-coms rely on exactly the opposite approach to create stories and comedy: picking a low-stakes situation and having the characters over-react. Thus, when Joey Tribbiani reads “Little Women” for the first time in Friends, he doesn’t scoff at it – it reduces him to tears. When George Costanza loses at Trivial Pursuit to a boy in a protective sterile bubble in Seinfeld, he isn’t annoyed, he is enraged (to the point where the bubble bursts!). Taken to extremes, this procedure again can result in a “dry” feeling as the plot disconnects with reality but it has the advantage that the characters are genuinely affected which tends to open up storytelling possibilities, which a lack of reaction shuts down. The hardest version of Just-A-Flesh-Wound to get right is Black Comedy. In Black Comedies, people really do get hurt and die, and the challenge is to make that funny. In classic Black Comedies like Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove (wherein the world is brought to nuclear armageddon due to the sexual inadequacies of American generals) the forces are exactly balanced, so the viewer is appalled one moment and laughing the next. Modern American “gross-out” comedy movies exploit this plus Sounds-A-Bit-Rude for most of their effects.

The Why of Funny #2: Mangoes-In-Syrup

Posted on July 7th, 2011 in Culture | 3 Comments »

If an instructor is teaching a self-defence class, then there is nothing in the situation which is inherently funny. However, if the class revolves around the defending oneself against the threat posed by soft fruit, the juxtaposition of the nature of the class and the harmlessness of the fruit creates comic possibilities, enhanced by the instructor’s total commitment to the fatality of mangoes in syrup, correctly wielded. (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, season 1, episode 4).

Mangoes-In-Syrup can represent total surrealism at one extreme. In the “Across the Andes by Frog” episode of Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns, the substitution of frogs for more common beasts of burden is the principal comic idea. Because this seems an arbitrary choice, and it is never questioned or justified within the context of the story, it stands out as surreal. This kind of choice can mark a programme out as being very original and different, but may isolate those who feel they “don’t get it”. The Goon Show, Vic Reeves Big Night Out and Bo’ Selecta all provide numerous examples of this, what we might call “zero tolerance” Mangoes-In-Syrup – creating odd juxtapositions simply for the sake of it. It is far more common, however, to see juxtapositions with some kind of non-arbitrary choice (which can develop very satisfying satire) or where an apparently arbitrary juxtaposition is questioned by a “straight man”.

So, what governs choices of juxtapositions? Even when the choice is arbitrary, it is clear to see that the more different from the expected item, the better (up to a point). Self defence against mangoes is more satisfying than against paper-knives, since while a paper-knife is not much of a threat, it is closer to the anticipated flick knife (or pointed stick!). Similarly, a frog is about as a different an animal from a horse or camel as it is possible to get, and so “Across the Andes by Frog” is an amusing prospect. A frog is still an animal, however, so the nature of the substitution is clear. “Across the Andes by Biscuit” is more obscure, and may be more confusing than funny. There is also the risk that this will be a funnier prospect than it will be when played out. Only if the idea can be continually developed in new ways will it sustain a long sketch, let alone a sit-com episode or comedy film. For this reason, “pure” Mangoes-In-Syrup humour may not travel well.

Very visual surreal humour can be the exception, as Mr Bean proved. The juxtaposition here lies in the extraordinary lengths that Mr Bean goes to to achieve perfectly ordinary ends. Faced with his train reading disturbed by a noisy fellow passenger, he doesn’t simply leave the carriage, he hunches over, sticks his fingers in his ears, and then has to turn the pages of his book with his elbows or his tongue.

Bean carries on the tradition, not I think of Charlie Chaplin, but of Harpo Marx. So, when Chico whispers “Hide!” to Harpo who quickly scampers to the middle of the room and stands on his head (Animal Crackers) we laugh out of sheer confusion. Less arbitrarily, when a hobo asks Harpo for a cup of coffee and Harpo produces a steaming hot cup full of coffee from his trouser pocket (Horse Feathers), we laugh at the juxtaposition of the physical reality we know and the event just depicted. (Also at work here are Saw-It-Coming and Oh-I-See.) Surrealism is threatening, however, and it is interesting to note that when the Marxes moved to MGM, who were after bigger audiences and more accessible comedy, Harpo’s “magic powers” were scaled back. So while in Horse Feathers (Paramount, 1932), he accedes to the request to “cut the cards” by producing an axe from a hidden pocket and severing the pack in two, by the time of A Night At The Opera (MGM, 1935), although he still uses an axe to slice a salami, now it is lying handily on a barrel instead of being secreted mysteriously about his person.

Most juxtaposition is not arbitrary, however. The sight of King Arthur’s knights “galloping” about the place while making “clip-clop” noises with two halves of coconut (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) is undeniably surreal, but the reason is clear. The On The Hour headline “Headmaster uses big-faced child as satellite dish” is a wonderfully surreal image but rather more accessible than the sheer madness of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts:

SEAGOON: He was a tall, vile man, dressed in the naval uniform of a sea-going sailor. Under his left arm he held a neatly rolled anchor, while with his right he scanned the horizon with a pair of powerful kippers.

Making purposeful juxtapositions can open the door to some brilliant satire. When South Park depicts a lone head-louse desperately warning his arrogant fellows that the end of the world is coming, they brilliantly juxtapose the themes of disaster movies, the environmental movement and the mundane treatment of head-lice as a medical condition (see also Just-A-Flesh-Wound). When That Was The Week That Was presents a buyers guide to religions, they juxtapose the triviality of consumer magazines with the reverence in which belief is generally held, and satirise both brilliantly (“The best aspect of the Church of England is that it doesn’t interfere with the essentials. All in all, we think you get a jolly good little faith for a very modest outlay, and we have no hesitation in claiming it the Best Buy.”)

Another way to make surrealism more palatable is to provide a non-surreal point-of-view within the story. The difference between these two approaches can be seen by studying the difference between Father Ted and The League of Gentlemen. Father Ted creates a self-contained surreal world, in which – generally speaking – the characters accept that certain things which we, the audience, know to be abnormal or impossible are normal and everyday. This extends to characterisation as well as to plotting. Father Jack is not a pitiable alcoholic, he is a man pickled in drink, reduced to a few repetitive guttural utterances (in fact, better than that – he’s a priest pickled in drink, adding a further layer of Mangoes-In-Syrup plus a level of Sounds-A-Bit-Rude). Father Dougal is not a bit slow, he is monumentally stupid, unable to work out the difference between small, toy cows near to him and full size cows far away from him. The surreal world allows the writers to use Just-A-Flesh-Wound to include potentially serious elements like alcoholism and mental illness without falling into the trap of bathos. However, it is rare for any of the surreal elements to be seriously questioned by the characters. They are the “norm” and so the “out of the ordinary” has to be built on top.

The League of Gentlemen is far more likely to present bizarre characters whose behaviour is juxtaposed again with the reaction of a straight person. Tubbs and Edward, whose insistence on “a local shop for local people” is a juxtaposition in itself become far more effective when their lunatic behaviour is questioned by someone the audience can identify with. Note too, that further layers of weirdness are revealed in Tubbs and Edward over the course of a number of episodes, again dealing with the “Across the Andes by Frog” problem.