For some time now I’ve had this idea for a running gag in a comedy sketch series.
For some time now I’ve had this idea for a running gag in a comedy sketch series. It would star a character called Unfunny Observational Comic. Each week we’d see him dying a death with his ‘Have you ever noticed...?’ comedy of recognition before an appalled audience. He’d say things like: ‘You know how it is, when you’ve broken into your neighbour’s house to rummage through her knicker drawer...?’ and ‘Gerbils. Just what is it about gerbils that makes us all want to shag ’em?’ The humour would lie, of course, in the Observational Comic’s tragic inability to apprehend the gulf between what he thinks is normal and what everybody else does.
Unfortunately, it’s not going to work any more, a) because I’ve explained the joke, and b) because Richard Curtis has beaten me to it with an accidentally unfunny sketch so awful that even if Little Nell were to toss all her kittens into the yawning mass grave of her entire family on a really sad, grey day when the world was about to end it would be a thousand times more amusing.
Before I explain exactly why it wasn’t funny, let me recap. There’s an environmental pressure group called 10:10 which scored what they innocently imagined was the coup of having Curtis — the comedy genius behind such classics as The Vicar of Dibley and Love, Actually — script their new campaigning video. It was called ‘No Pressure’.
The video — which you can easily find on YouTube, despite belated attempts by the makers to suppress it — opens with a nice, friendly teacher at an English primary school encouraging her class to think of ways of reducing their ‘carbon footprint’. One goody two-shoes suggests that she might cycle to school instead of arriving by car. The teacher is pleased with this and asks her class — ‘no pressure’ — to stick up their hands if they’re willing to participate in the 10:10 carbon-reduction campaign. All the kids bar two stick up their hands. The teacher smilingly reassures the two dissenters, Philip and Tracy, that this is not a problem — ‘no pressure’ — but then mutters to herself that there’s just one little thing she has to do…
The teacher removes a few sheaves of paper from her untidy desk to reveal a red button, which she presses. Immediately, Philip explodes in a bloody pulp, splattering his screaming classmates with gore. The teacher gleefully presses the button again. This time it’s Tracy who explodes, to similar hideous and terrifying effect. And so on.
The video went ‘viral’ — but not in a good way. The 10:10 website was deluged with protests, many from greens who felt betrayed. One fairly typical message said: ‘I have supported your campaign to date, am pro-green, pro-cutting carbon emissions, and generally very environmentally conscious. I also grew up in a country where people were blown up and killed by terrorists on a daily basis. I know people who died in this way, and from this video I imagine that no one at your office, or on your creative team, has experienced this.’ A planned cinema release of the film was cancelled; the film was pulled from 10:10’s website; and the makers were forced to issue a public apology after key sponsors including Sony began dissociating themselves from the PR disaster that bloggers were now calling ‘splattergate’.
But was it all an overreaction — a collective sense-of-humour failure, eagerly worked up and capitalised on by the evil climate-change-denial lobby? That’s what some environmental activists have been claiming — not many, but a few. The Curtis video was funny, they insist. It was, it was! It’s just that audiences were too leaden and po-faced, or maybe too biased and right-wing, to get it.
So let me explain for those die-hard defenders of ‘No Pressure’ why it wasn’t funny on any level whatsoever. And no, it isn’t because of the exploding children. Not per se. Sure, it’s a risky business, in the age of the suicide bomber, trying to extract comedy out of gruesomely atomised kids. But that doesn’t necessarily put such things beyond the pale. In comedy nothing ought to be beyond the pale, for that is part of its purpose, as the safety valve which allows us to say the unsayable. What matters is its context and its satirical point. Only then are we in a position to judge whether the sketch ‘works’ or whether it has failed horribly.
Richard Curtis’s ‘No Pressure’ video failed horribly for the same reason that my Unfunny Observational Comic’s ‘jokes’ fail horribly: because of what they unintentionally reveal about the creator’s mindset. The joke would only work if all reasonable people thought ‘Christ, climate change deniers are a pain. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could just — tee hee — kill ’em rather than have to engage with their tedious, action-delaying arguments?’ It is, as Curtis’s missus Emma ought to have been able to explain, a major Freudian slip.
I’m sure Richard Curtis is a nice, caring man. I’m sure he doesn’t reeeeally want to kill me or my children for thinking wrong thoughts. (Well, I say that...) But the sketch he scripted was nonetheless highly revealing of a certain mentality among the modern green movement’s more committed activists: that you can’t save Mother Gaia without breaking a few eggs.
Not all greens think this way: the reassuringly widespread revulsion at the ‘No Pressure’ video’s message has been proof of that. Plenty of them do, though. After all, when your movement’s key influences, from Rachel Carson through Teddy Goldsmith to James Lovelock, are telling you that the human species is a ‘cancer’ on the planet, what better solution could there possibly be than a spot of radical surgery?