After seventeen years and more than 200 episodes, the cackling and sniggering is finally over for the panel show Mock the Week. As the BBC announced yesterday: ‘The next series of Mock the Week will be the last, we are really proud of the show but after 21 series we have taken the difficult decision in order to create room for new shows.’
What could be behind this decision? Its veteran presenter, Dara Ó Briain, sought to apportion some logic to the matter. ‘The storylines were getting crazier and crazier – global pandemics, divorce from Europe, novelty short-term prime ministers,' he said. 'It couldn’t go on. We just couldn’t be more silly than the news was already.'
Far more honestly, and revealingly – to judge by tweets from its makers – it seems that the BBC just wanted rid of it. ‘Desperately disappointing but hopefully we will resurface again soon,' said its creator, Dan Patterson. Angst Productions, the company behind the programme, added: ‘We’re naturally hugely disappointed that Mock the Week is coming to an end and hope that we will be able to resurface somewhere some day in the future.' This clearly wasn't a decision made by mutual consent.
No wonder the BBC has had enough. The show is well past its time. At its height of popularity in 2008, Mock the Week drew an audience of well over a two million viewers and regularly exceeded three million. By last year this number was hovering at a million and half.
As a long-time viewer, and erstwhile huge fan of the show who still partly enjoys repeats of older episodes on Dave, I can tell you why viewers started to switch off in the last decade. The cause came in two waves. First, in 2014, the BBC issued the injunction that its comedy panel shows could no longer have all-male line-ups. The result, as with all anti-meritocratic mandates, was that the quality was compromised, and consequently, in this case, the humour.
This is not to say that women aren't intrinsically as funny as men. It's just that the specific form of comedy that Mock the Week embodies, stand-up, is particularly suited to the masculine temperament: it's competitive, aggressive, cruel, rude, crude and offensive. And to be fair, Mock the Week had no choice but to change with the times. Even ten years ago it would routinely feature seven white males. That would be unthinkable today.
Indeed, a sign of changing mores has been the humour of Frankie Boyle himself, the comedian who was the face of Mock the Week at the height of its powers, the man once held in infamy for his spectacularly offensive jokes. But hurting people's feelings has since become the worst social transgression one can make. Boyle has accordingly had a volte-face: in his stand-up he's now a pious guardian and solemn scolder of others. No wonder he's also not funny any more.
The second event was the Brexit referendum of 2016, when, in unison, the makers, guests and whooping audience of the show exposed their snobbish Remainer tendencies. Every week that year, and for some years afterwards, there were jokes about Nigel Farage (and Donald Trump) and how moronic and ill-informed the British unwashed masses were. It became tedious. Relentless, partisan, moralising comedy is risible – and not in the good sense of that word.
The Brexit vote was not a one-off. The mid-2010s witnessed an overclass, and indeed woke, emergent tendency that was enveloping comedy, culture in general, and this programme in particular. So cliquey and chummy had Mock the Week become towards the end of the last decade, and smug in its liberal grandstanding, that when the Brexit-voting conservative comedian Geoff Norcott appeared in an episode in 2018, his exceptional opinions became a source of nervous humour itself. A programme with this level of complacency, so blasé to its own bias, was evidently in trouble.
Television comedy by the beginning of this decade had already become consumed by conformist, left-wing politics, with obligatory jokes about the Daily Mail being a signifier. Have I Got News For You and Live At The Apollo have gone much the same way as Mock the Week, with their second-rate hosts and guests often there, everyone knows, to satisfy the diversity imperative. No wonder conservative comedians like Andrew Doyle or Simon Evans have increasingly shifted away from stand-up, and towards journalism, writing and broadcasting, using these platforms to speak out against today's conformist cultural hegemony.
'Cancel culture, this cancelling, this punishment, it's everywhere,' said Maureen Lipman in December, lamenting censure in comedy: 'It’s in the balance whether we’re ever going to be funny again.' Well, Mock the Week hasn't been very funny for a while. How ironic now that it has literally been cancelled.