On sketch shows, the wisdom once was that you needed a punchline. That is, a slightly hammy, summative sign-off to let people know that they had come to the end of any given bit, to help the audience keep its bearings. The rules changed when the team behind Monty Python, who hated writing that mugging final joke, discovered that you could simply cut to Graham Chapman wearing a dress in a field and saying in a stern voice: ‘And now for something completely different’ — and it turned out that this was not only just as good, it was actually quite a lot better.
This is the problem with sketch shows: you can hear the aching labour of the actors and the writers trying to be funny (and when they’re particularly bad, you can hear them praying for it too). Humour thrives on the effortless, the rapid, the improvised elements of speech and gesture. Really funny people can’t help provoking laughter; there’s an element of it that is beyond their control. The sketch show, by contrast, tends to limp with spiritless enthusiasm from scene to scene. Even the better ones embarrass, slightly, with their insistent advances. It’s like a sincere, charmless, unrelenting come-on. They’re trying so hard you almost feel bad for them.
I admit this is a personal hang-up, so John Finnemore shouldn’t feel too offended when I say that I can’t recommend seasons one to eight of his sketch show. (It’s not you, John, it’s me.) Season nine, by contrast, offers the listener something more unexpected and stimulating. If I can’t quite recommend it either, I’m still glad I listened. Each episode focuses on conversations in the life of a single figure, beginning in the present day and moving backwards in time towards their youth.