Topical humour: enough already

On Thursday night, if you’re so inclined, you can watch Frank Skinner’s Opinionated at 10pm on BBC2, then turn over and watch Russell Howard’s Good News on BBC3 straight afterwards.  On Fridays you can tune in to The Now Show on Radio 4 at 6:30pm, then stare blankly at the wall for two hours before settling down in front of Have I got News For You on BBC1 at 9pm.  If you’re busy on weekday evenings, not to worry: you can catch the extended Russell Howard’s Good News Extra on BBC3 at 9pm on Saturday, and Sunday at 10:30pm on BBC1 is your chance to catch the extended Have I Got A Bit More News For You.  If you’re a dedicated aficionado of topical radio humour you can listen to The Now Show Extra on Radio 4 Extra (BBC 7, as was) with your bedtime cocoa at 11pm on Mondays.*

When The Now Show is off the air, Radio 4 replace it with The News Quiz (and The News Quiz Extra on Radio 4 Extra), and Mock The Week is cleverly threaded through the TV schedules in such a way that it doesn’t clash with Have I Got News For You or interfere with the Edinburgh Festival ambitions of the panellists.  Mock The Week also has to avoid clashing with The Now Show, because of the overlap in personnel: Hugh Dennis appears on both shows; Steve Punt is lead joke writer on both, and appears on the radio (thus denying the TV viewing public of their opportunity to turn to each other and remark, “I say, Marjorie, that Punt fellow’s the spitting image of Ben Goldacre, what?”).

Steve Punt on the left, Ben Goldacre on the right

In at least one case, these BBC programmes have spawned copycat shows on commercial stations – Stand Up For The Week on Channel 4 is an attempt at a hipper version of Mock The Week (suitably adjusted for Friday night drunkards).

So, have you spotted the common denominator in all these programmes yet?  I’m sure you have – they’re all topically based.  There are variations between them, of course.  HIGNFY and The News Quiz are more-or-less straight satire; The Now Show is a curious (and sporadically brilliant) amalgam of satire, broad sketch comedy and novelty songs; Mock The Week and Stand Up For The Week offer opportunities for stand up comedians to slightly modify their pre-existing material in the light of contemporary events (the same material, repeatedly, for years on end, in the case of Andy Parsons); Frank Skinner’s Opinionated uses news events as a springboard for wider ranging semi-humorous discussion; and Russell Howard’s Good News seems to be the lovechild resulting from an unexpected liaison between Rude Tube and Newswipe with Charlie Brooker.  (And presumably ought, therefore, to be called Charlie Brooker Wipes His Rude Tube With Russell Howard…)

But at their core all of these programmes are topically based, and because there are so many of them, and they all feel the need to take on ‘the major topics of the week’, we quickly arrive at a situation where they’re all trying to find amusing things to say about the same two stories.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this leads to a lot of overlap.  It also doesn’t take a genius to work out that these programmes tend to appeal to the same people (in some cases; I’d guess there aren’t many people who’d enjoy both The News Quiz and Russell Howard’s Good News), with obvious effects in the levels of audience satisfaction with each individual programme when they find very similar jokes being made across several of them.

I understand why broadcasting executives like topical comedy shows.  They’re cheap to make, and they can be dusted off and shoved forward whenever senior management feel the need to make a point about programmes that simultaneously inform and entertain.  They attract audiences in several ways – the satire fans, the people who get attached to a familiar ‘brand’ (Have I Got News For You – 21 years and running; The News Quiz – 34 years and running), and because they have a rotating panel they can catch the casual audience who’ll flick past and think, for example, “Ooh, there’s that John Bishop, I like him and his native Scouse wit”.  They can apparently be endlessly re-shown on Dave, to be watched by people who find their enjoyment of the shows unaffected by the fact they can’t remember the things people are joking about.

I don’t want to overstate this.  I like topical comedy well enough myself, and I’ve watched/ listened to all the programmes I mention here (albeit with varying degrees of pleasure…).  But there is such a thing as saturation point, and by now we’re so far beyond it we can’t see it in the rear-view mirror.  It’s time, I think, for a new idea among the people who commission comedy, if only because this endless cavalcade of samey humour is distracting attention from the other, better parts of the comedy output.

Because at the same time that the BBC is flogging the topical horse to death with all these shows, it’s also showing the second series of Mongrels – that rarest of things, a funny comedy on BBC3 – and the second series of Rev., which are two of my favourite current comedies.**  A little while ago, too, Radio 4 was broadcasting Warhorses of Letters – in the words of The Guardian’s radio reviewer, ‘like Ladies of Letters but with gay horses in love’ – which I would currently rate as the second funniest radio comedy series of all time (behind the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – only the passage of time will reveal if Warhorses stands up to repeated listenings, or plummets down the list with familiarity).  Despite the ongoing fall-out from the Ross/Brand affair, and broadcasters’ gradual drift away from risk-taking in general, TV and radio comedy’s actually not in a bad place right now – if for no other reason than they finally, finally cancelled My Family.  But it can be hard to spot the upswing when so much comedy output is taken up with overlapping groups of people making the same jokes in slightly different formats.

* – Does anyone actually take a hot milky drink at bedtime these days?  Or is it just one of those stock phrases that’s stayed in the language because it’s useful to hack writers (like me) trying to create an air of faux chumminess (like now)?  A bit like a weather forecaster still saying ‘time to dig out those hot-water bottles’ when most people actually use an electric blanket.  Or, you know, have sex.

** – Although I worry liking Rev. is a sign my comedic tastes are going soft and saggy as I race hell-for-leather towards the bitterest dregs of my 30s.  I mean, a secularist settling down to watch a whimsical show about a C of E vicar: there’s clearly something not quite right about this picture.  I’d argue it’s saved by the blatant cynicism of the lead, and the wonderfully sinister archdeacon, but I’m not certain my 19-year-old self would have agreed.  But then, what did he know?  His favourite drink was Dry Blackthorn and he used to dress like someone’s granny, so the poor, misguided boy was clearly no arbiter of taste.

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2 Responses to Topical humour: enough already

  1. J.Wibble says:

    Steve Punt also looks a lot like Eric Idle – probably contributed to him playing Eric Idle in Holy Flying Circus. Oddly I do not find Steve Punt or Eric Idle attractive but Ben Goldacre is hot (it’s okay, Dorothy agrees :P)

    I agree that there is a major overdose of topical comedy. I stopped watching Mock the Week a couple of years ago, but then I used to read the news every day and almost never do now, if something I should care about crops up then about 10 of my activist friends on Facebook will post about it. News seems to be cyclic anyway – you can watch The New Statesman and Drop the Dead Donkey and Not the 9 O’Clock News, or even decade-old reruns of Have I Got News For You and just change some of the names. Eric Pickles sparked a lot of references to Rowan Atkinson’s Conservative party conference sketch when he talked about his “curry college” idea. Same poop, different decade.

  2. Hi J, and thanks for commenting. I reinstated an angled bracket that had gone missing in your comment, and was messing up the link – I hope that was ok. (I never normally edit comments, but since this was a technical change and didn’t alter what you’d actually said, I thought it would be alright to do it.)

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