Britain has always prided itself on the rich diversity of its comedy output, from trouser splitting farce to cerebral satire but our genius for tickling the world's funny bone has reached a crisis point - something has gone terribly awry. A new report on the BBC's TV output from regulator Ofcom has classed comedy as an 'at risk' genre.
Over the last decade, the amount of original comedy on BBC channels has dropped by more than 40 per cent. This is partly to do with the cost and risk factors involved in making such a subjective art form but the problem runs deeper than mere economics. Comedy has hit a brick wall, and I don’t mean in a comedic way.
Producers, writers and performers appear to be all out of ideas especially when it comes to creating daring satire. TV comedy in particular has become increasingly generic with a seemingly endless round of tedious panel shows hosted by the same old sneering agitprop comics taking self-satisfied pops at the same old easy targets. With Brexit done and Trump on indefinite golfing leave, snarky comedians have run out of barrelled fish to shoot.
What's needed now is an 'alternative comedy' moment, where the washed up old guard is swept away by an incoming wave of fearless young mavericks who dare to question stale orthodoxies. This seems unlikely however. Any new kid managing to make it onto the block tends to have all traces of individuality squeezed out of them; most are simply younger, brasher versions of the hyper politicised mob we already have. Originality is a risky business of course so networks tend to stick with what they know. Interestingly many of the comics still pounding the panel show circuit are about the same age that Tarbie and Manning were when the cool Comedy Store kids booted them into the history books back in the early 80s. So shouldn’t we be giggling at Jimmy Carr's strange haircut and unfashionable suits rather than his outdated gags by now? Too many TV comics feel like yesterday's men (and yes, they are mostly male) but because comedy has failed to move on, they have managed to stick around, taking up valuable space in the green room. We seem to be caught in a perpetual mid-naughties time warp. It hasn’t always been this way of course. Comedy, like popular music, used to go in eight to ten year cycles. We had golden ages when new talent suddenly burst forth laying low all that had gone before - think The Goons, TW3 and Monty Python.
The consensus amongst many comedians today is that the last golden age of comedy satire blossomed over twenty years ago - a couple of lifetimes in comedic terms - beginning in the early nineties and ending in the early 2000s. Back then, with Mrs Thatcher out of the picture, the founding fathers of alternative comedy such as Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle had themselves become old hat. TV more broadly seemed puffed up by its own self-importance, nowhere more so than in the sober corridors of news and current affairs. And it was into this fertile arena of grandiosity that a group of writers and performers set their stall in what many now consider to be the last great flowering of English comedy.
Not since the glory days of Peter Cook's Establishment Club had there been such a delirious outpouring of silliness underpinned by painfully sharp satire; enter David Schneider, Armando Iannucci and Patrick Marber, three bright young things fresh from the well-worn comedy trail that leads from Oxbridge to late night radio via the Edinburgh Fringe. Second tier university outsiders Steve Coogan and Chris Morris joined them in 1991 for what would be their first collaboration. Radio 4's On the Hour took a surreal hammer blow to the pomposities of network radio with Chris Morris' delightfully dotty anchor hosting an array of familiar radio types including poptastic DJ Wayne Kerr (pronounced Carr) and overweening sports commentator Alan Partridge. A couple of years later the series moved from Radio 4 to BBC2, allowing the writers to broaden their pallet by skewering the cosy assumptions of the TV newsroom.
Many viewers, me included, were unsure at the time whether what we were watching was actually comedy. The Day Today looked and sounded just like the thing it was satirising. The genius of the writing meant performers could walk a delicate line between hyperrealism and utter absurdity. Actors such as Rebecca Front and Doon Mackichan played their roles with such straight-faced panache during guerrilla style location reports that it was sometimes hard to tell whether they were actors or genuine members of the public. One supremely silly but remarkably convincing news story about an invasion of horses into the London underground ends with the facially hirsute correspondent Ted Maul announcing gruffly that the only way to rid the tunnels of the equine plague was to 'kill the horses with hammers.'
This subtle blurring of reality's edges seemed revolutionary at the time, influencing a whole generation of comics including Ricky Gervais whose stand out series 'The Office' bares an uncanny resemblance to a Day Today sketch of the same name. Such was the critical success of the show that the main protagonists had the media world at their feet. Iannucci and Coogan went on to develop their prized Partridge character into the international colossus of local radio we all know and love today while Marber honed his theatre and Hollywood chops with cutting edge dramas such as Closer and Notes on a Scandal. But it was Chris Morris who remained true to the original form. In 1997 he took the Day Today template and expanded it into what many comedians still view as the peak of comedy perfection from which the only way has been down.
In each of the six episodes, Brass Eye honed in on a particular societal concern such as Crime and Animal Welfare. Morris was once again at the helm guiding us through a grimly paranoid Britain in terminal decline. The tone was altogether darker than the all out silliness of The Day Today meaning the results were more hard-hitting.
In an episode about drug addiction Morris was able to convince well known TV personalities to expound on the dangers of 'cake', a new 'made up' drug composed of 'artificial chemicals'. Unaware that he was being taken for a ride comedian Bernard Manning informed viewers that one unfortunate cake user had 'vomited up her own pelvic bone'. Conservative MP David Amess earnestly warned viewers about 'the nightmare of cake', referring to it as 'a big yellow death bullet'. The fact that the drug in question resembled an enormous plastic pill the size of a twelve-inch dinner plate wasn't idiotic enough to prevent Amess from taking the matter to parliament.
By convincing fame-hungry politicians and celebrities to read out any old nonsense in return for a few seconds on TV, Morris exposed the overarching vanity of so many in the public eye. Meanwhile poor old Noel Edmonds never really recovered from the sombre 'Channel 4 News Report' of his deadly run in with Clive Anderson. Grainy footage shows a bare-chested Edmonds hurling a severed head out of the window of his mansion. All cleverly faked of course but that didn’t stop the ex host of Swap Shop from threatening to sue.
It was Brass Eye's controversial 2001 "Paedogeddon!" special however that would eventually seal the fate of what seems in retrospect like satire's last hurrah. Perhaps Morris went too far by exposing the mad hysteria surrounding paedophilia at the time. Was he unkind to dupe Gary Lineker and Phil Collins into endorsing the spoof charity Nonce Sense? Undoubtedly but by trusting the fearlessness of creative geniuses like Morris, producers were able to take satirical comedy to exciting new heights of originality. Ironically, the controversy surrounding the Brass Eye special ended up being the death knell for Morris's style of brutal, daring satire. The then Channel 4 head Michael Grade delayed transmission of the cake episode because of political fallout and eventually cut a sketch featuring a west end musical about Peter Sutcliffe. Networks across the board chose to play it safe after that allowing comedy to slide into the dull, inoffensive conformity we see today.
Now, more than ever, we need the fierce intelligence of a Chris Morris to hold a mirror up to our fractured society. Imagine what delicious mincemeat he would make of the wearisome culture war or the limp ineptitude of our current batch of politicians. As for Covid and the whole vaccine palaver, he'd probably just shrug and say 'let them eat cake' in his best Ted Maul drawl.