Monthly Archives: August 2013

Have TV Your Way: How On-Demand Makes Watching Television Trickier

Note: spoilers for (old episodes of) X-Files, Grey’s Anatomy and NCIS.

Recently I had a very bizarre experience, one that I thought was lost in the mists of time… I watched a TV programme as it was broadcast.

I know, right? It wasn’t a topical programme, or even filmed live (all right, I confess, it was University Challenge), but nonetheless I watched it on the television at a time decided for me by official BBC schedulers. This came as a shock because less and less of my (and many other people’s) TV watching is done thus: in all honesty, I’m a catch-up junkie. I know I’m not the only one, but what with all the repeats, online players, +1 channels and TV subscription services, I sometimes feel like I’ve completely lost the ability to watch TV at the originally specified time.

Oh, it started off harmlessly enough. As a youth, I’d occasionally catch a repeat of Friends on Channel 4, not out of choice but because there was just nothing else to watch after Neighbours and The Simpsons. Soon I was seeking out repeats, then I started buying DVDs of my favourite shows, in order to relive my favourite scenes and jokes. At some point, it occurred to me that I could buy DVDs of shows that I hadn’t already seen, shows that other people had watched but I’d missed out on the first time. From there it was just too easy to put things off – ‘No need to watch it now,’ I’d say to myself, ‘I can buy it on DVD later’ – and the development of BBC iPlayer and 4OD just made things worse. Before long I was catching up on programmes from the last seven days like nobody’s business, filling my shelves with secondhand DVDs, watching things on +1 as if not+1 didn’t exist… And then, finally, the world came crashing down and I hit rock bottom: I joined Netflix.

Nowadays I treat the TV schedules with all the disdain and wanton disregard I can muster. This week, for example, I watched New Girl on E4+1, switched to Channel 4 for the second half of Rude Tube and then switched to Channel 4+1 for the first half of Rude Tube, just because I could. Oh, the humanity.

If truth be told, I’m already paying the price for this destructive habit. Sure, watching TV programmes at a time of your own choosing is convenient, but there are many reasons why pick-your-own-schedules TV may not be the way to go, and they’re mostly to do with the fact that people talk to each other (what are they thinking?).

First, obviously – spoilers. This is most clearly the case with the most popular TV programmes, and particularly when you’re far enough behind the rest of the world to be forever playing catch-up but not far enough for everyone to have stopped talking about it already. Take Downton Abbey. I missed the boat when it was first broadcast, but Netflix offered it to me on a plate; so I took a tentative bite, and have got as far as season two (2011). But because everyone on the planet has been obsessed by the Crawley family for the last four years, I already know that CENSORED and CENSORED get married, CENSORED is arrested for murder, CENSORED has a baby, and CENSORED dies*. Every episode is imbued with either a sense of inevitable dread (‘Don’t do it, don’t visit her, or when she dies everyone will think it was you…”) or a tragic poignancy (‘They think their love might be doomed… it is, oh it is!’). It’s the same when programmes are still ongoing and the cast continues to change – even if you manage not to find out exactly how their characters leave, you still know that their days are numbered. In my TV-watching world, Mulder and Scully have just made it through Mulder’s brief bout of insanity to emerge the other side and share a New Year’s kiss (X-Files season seven, 2000) – and now he’s leaving? How will Scully cope? How will I cope? In my world, Cristina seems to have forgiven Hunt for his affair and has just told him that he’s her ‘person’ (Grey’s Anatomy season eight, 2012) – but how will they get it properly together now before Cristina leaves in season ten? And in my world, Kate has just been killed by a terrorist and no one knows who her replacement will be (NCIS season two, 2005); yet apparently that replacement is already leaving the show. Slow down, man! I ain’t the Doctor – I can’t cope with this many time streams.

Of course, it’s impossible for people not to give spoilers away, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to keep quiet about major TV events, because people like talking about the TV they watch. (Hell, I like it so much that I’ve set up a really great blog dedicated to exactly that.**) Most of the time, people are only giving the plot away because they’re so excited by it and want to discuss it with other like-minded viewers – such as when I accidentally told someone the ending of the first series of The Killing, not realising they were only on episode four. (It’s OK, guys, I did an incredible cover-up, and she was even more surprised when the reveal eventually came along.)

Which is another reason why watching TV programmes months or years after everyone else is a bit of a bummer: you don’t get to discuss them with anyone. Things like Downton are OK, because the series is still going and people are still interested in the characters, but Teachers? Smallville? The IT Crowd? Not so much. I only saw The IT Crowd last winter (a mere seven years after it first aired), and I was finally able to discuss it with those of my friends who’d watched and enjoyed it back in the noughties – unfortunately, by the time I got round to the conversation, it went something like this:

Me: “Just been watching The IT Crowd.”

Friend: “It’s hilarious, isn’t it?”

Me: “Oh my God, yes. D’you remember that episode where Moss accidentally works as a barman?”

Friend: “Um, not really. Hey, you know what’s great at the moment? Happy Endings. Have you seen that?”

Me: “Ask me again in seven years.”

This is even worse now that interaction about TV is both global and instantaneous. I’m still slightly unsettled by the idea that you should tweet or text in to TV programmes while you’re in the middle of watching them (although so far it seems to be only with live current affairs, entertainment and other non-fiction programmes – when Call the Midwife starts running banners on the screen saying ‘Tell us which of the two babies Jenny should save, @midwivescanonlydosomuch #dontaccidentallypicktheevilone’, then pop culture as we know it is officially dead). But it’s increasingly tempting to pick up the phone/mouse and have your say, especially when you feel like you could contribute a damn sight more to the discussion than ‘really dont like huw edwards suit bro’. This is especially the case with The Last Leg, which asks viewers to send in their dubious questions about what’s appropriate to say or do on TV, because Adam Hills actually reads out people’s tweets and discusses them on the show. This week, I confess, I was overcome by the sudden desire to ‘get involved’ in the debate on exam results, and I very nearly made my first use of the #isitok hashtag – then I remembered that I was watching the programme on Channel 4+1, and that Adam Hills and everyone else involved in the show had probably left the studio some time ago.

So, really, watching things as the fancy takes you rather than when other people are watching them has its drawbacks – but it also has its perks. Sometimes it can give you a new perspective on a show or character. I only started watching Doctor Who in 2010, so Matt Smith was my first doctor; when I went back to watch Christopher Eccleston he seemed scarily dark and dour in comparison (and also better: see my Doctor Who post). Likewise, I’m currently catching up on The X-Files on DVD and Californication on Netflix; both star David Duchovny, which means that Hank Moody seems like Fox Mulder in an alternate universe where the absence of Scully has driven him to a world of booze, one-night stands, prolific use of the f-word and more cigarettes than the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The truth is out there, indeed.

What to do, then, dear friends? If we want to talk about programmes properly, if we want to keep the element of surprise, we need to be watching them at more or less the same time. On the other hand, now that we can watch TV whenever and wherever we want, it seems almost silly to watch a programme at 9pm on a Saturday just because someone you’ve never met thinks that’s the best time for it. It’s a conundrum that will probably sort itself out as more and more people start to use on-demand services. Or maybe we could decide by Twitter vote. #greattvscheduledebate, anyone?

~

*The censored parts are less for your benefit than for mine – if I don’t type the names out then maybe the events won’t happen, right…?

**That’s this blog. Just so we’re clear.

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Funny Business: Making People Laugh with Scrapbooks and Sausages

In Scotland’s capital city, the Edinburgh Festivals are drawing to a close. Since I live here, I’ve been spending every possible moment wandering about the city, searching for excitement – I’ve hummed along with improvised ditties about the Pope’s ‘no touching’ rule, learnt more about Marcus Brigstocke’s body than I ever wanted to know, laughed and winced at puppets singing about porn, and been dragged up on stage and kissed by a man dressed as a creepy superhero. Good times. But I’ve also been led to consider, at some length, the ins and outs of entertaining the audience, and, more specifically, of making them laugh. That doesn’t mean that this post is going to be a comedy masterclass – if it was, I certainly wouldn’t be teaching it. I present you instead with my musings on what makes a live comedy show work, and my spurious projections about how this relates to TV comedy. (You’ll definitely enjoy it, though.)

First, and perhaps most importantly, it seems clear that comedy is not all about jokes. This is despite what Dave (the TV channel) seems to think. Its list of the top ten jokes of the Fringe consists almost entirely of puns, including its number one, Rob Auton’s quip “I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar – could be a Chinese Wispa”. Now I saw Auton’s show, and I have absolutely no recollection of this joke. It’s faintly amusing, sure, but certainly no match for everything else he did: weather-related stage decorations and a hand-crafted scrapbook of the sky, humorous self-deprecation, quirky cartoons based on cult films, doleful audience interaction, and beautiful, moving performance poetry. I left the show feeling uplifted by Auton’s poetry and personality, not by his puns.

And this applies to other comedy shows, too. This year I saw two shows based on traditional ‘jokes’: one was an awkward affair, with the audience merely smiling politely rather than bursting into guffaws, and the other was abysmal – the actual opposite of funny. The less about the latter the better; in the former, the comedian in question was a retired medic, so most of the jokes were variations on the age-old ‘Doctor, Doctor’ scenario; even those that had some originality to them were very much in the same vein (pun intended, in order to demonstrate the sort of thing we’re talking about). Neither show was a great success. In contrast, most other shows in this year’s Fringe treated jokes, and in particular puns, with less respect. Take Henning Wehn, the self-proclaimed ‘German Comedy Ambassador to Great Britain’, who opened his show by waving a string of sausages at the audience and stating that this was his ‘wurst’ joke (cue enormous groan from the audience); meanwhile, the members of improv troupe Racing Minds go out of their way to make deliberately bad puns, before gently berating the audience for not finding them funny. Sometimes it seems as though ‘proper jokes’ just aren’t funny any more.

And TV comedy, I think, is going the same way. Shows where comedians get in front of a camera and present their material, like The Tommy Cooper Hour or The Two Ronnies (one of whose scriptwriters, incidentally, was our retired doctor friend), have long since been replaced by other, more subtle types of comedy. Take, for example, the Awkwardness Trope and its king, Ricky Gervais. My last post mentioned the hilariously painful-to-watch Extras, with its celebrity stars presenting themselves as the worst people on the planet; and the same thing happened in The OfficeDavid Brent says or does something idiotic, the other characters look at each other in embarrassment, and we laugh. There’s also the Pop Culture reference, where the viewer basically finishes the joke him- or herself: an excellent example comes from How I Met Your Mother, in which Marshall shows his friends a Venn diagram in which the two circles are ‘People who are breaking my heart’ and ‘People who are shaking my confidence daily’ – the area where they overlap is, of course, marked ‘Cecilia’. So overall, though we still have the occasional moment of punning (for example, Milton Jones on Mock the Week) or slapstick (Miranda, please stand up, if you can do so without falling over a chair), modern comedy has become more knowing, more subversive, more interactive, and less rammed-down-your-throat-with-a-rubber-chicken.

Related to this is the question of the audience and the part they play in creating the funny. Obviously this is differs between live comedy and TV, because in live comedy the audience is right there in front of the performer, who can converse with them, make fun of them, sit on their laps (if you don’t want that to happen to you, don’t go and see Paul Foot) or drag them up on stage and kiss them (see paragraph one, above). But a limited amount of audience interaction can be present in TV comedy, too. Certain programmes, such as panels shows and quizzes, still rely on a live audience during filming, and these audiences provide a cheerful background to the presenters’ comments without ever really making their presence felt (see for example Mock the Week, Top Gear and Pointless). In other shows, the audience members are practically performers in their own right: Graham Norton gets the people in his audience to take part in his opening sequences, as well as sending the occasional celebrity up into the stands to schmooze; the audience on Have I Got News for You once staged a minor uprising in the form of a silent protest against Piers Morgan; and audience members on QI have been known to get points for knowing answers, to the point where they’re named the winners of the episode.

In sitcoms, the presence of an audience is a less certain issue: The Big Bang Theory, Miranda, Two Broke Girls and The IT Crowd follow in the footsteps of Cheers and Friends by filming in front of a live audience, while Scrubs, Green Wing, Parks and Recreation and Gavin and Stacey leave the viewer to decide when to laugh. Thus the debate about laugh tracks continues to rage on, with some writers such as Graham Linehan staunchly defending the advantages of an audience in sitcom recording, and others clearly deciding that if we don’t have live audiences weeping over dramas, it makes no sense to have audiences laughing at comedies. The question, of course, is whether hearing other people laughing improves a comedy show. On the one hand, laughter is contagious. I only ever laugh at Family Guy if I’m watching it with my husband, who finds it hilarious; and a lack of laughter where you expect it is incredibly disconcerting, as in the silence following Victoria Coren Mitchell’s jokes on Only Connect (“That was funny! But… why is nobody laughing? Are Victoria and I the only survivors on a post-apocalyptic planet?”). On the other hand, a laugh track over a sitcom can sometimes feel a little bit patronising – I got the joke before you guys laughed, OK?

The final issue raised by the comedy performances of the Edinburgh Fringe this year is ‘Humour – art or craft?’ In other (less pretentious) words, can comedy be perfected beforehand, or is it better off-the-cuff? As well as Racing Minds (relatively new faces on the circuit but already the greatest improv troupe known to man – fact), the Fringe abounds with Whose-Line-Is-It-Anyway-style performers, both new (e.g. the Oxford Imps) and old (e.g. Paul Merton’s Impro Chums), plus improvised versions of Shakespeare, Jane Austen and musical theatre; and when these shows are on form, they’re astounding. Plus, the funniest bit of stand-up shows is often the audience interaction: Reginald D. Hunter’s show was distinctly average, except when he was rubbing the audience up the wrong way, Lloyd Langford had the (minuscule) audience in stitches as he lamented how few people had come to see him, and Stuart Laws’s (free) show was a gem of two-way humour and semi-voluntary audience participation.

And, again, it’s the same on TV. Maybe not in sitcoms, where a script is sort of a basic requisite (although a sitcom improvised live on TV could be a fun challenge – TV gods, are you listening?); but in panel shows, certainly, the ad-libs are the best bits. The chairman’s script on Have I Got News for You is usually fairly amusing, but the biggest laughs come from the riffing between the guests – take this fabulous exchange between Ian Hislop and Dan Stevens – and it’s the same on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which finds its forte in moments like Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins’ random outbursts, Preston from the Ordinary Boys walking out in a huff halfway through an episode, and John Barrowman’s gay-off with Simon Amstell. Indeed, Reginald D. Hunter’s quick wit on programmes like this was the reason I went to see him in the first place, to discover, unfortunately, that the stuff prepared in advance was much less funny.

So what have we learnt from this little romp through stand-up and screenlore? Mainly that I enjoyed the Edinburgh Fringe this year (if you didn’t come, you missed out. Try harder next time). But we also learnt (take my word for it) that comedy is a tricky business, that humour is changing, and that TV and stand-up have more in common than Live at the Apollo. So it’s goodnight from me, and it’s goodnight from me again, and tune in again next week for the one about the Englishman, the blonde and a horse who go into a bar…

The Rise of the Meta-Celebrity

Since film and television began, actors and other famous people have been paid lots of money to pop in unexpected places, say a few lines, and disappear again, leaving the audience going, “Wait, was that…?” Increasingly, though, celebrities are rendering the question moot by appearing as themselves, or at least grotesque, exaggerated versions of themselves. Of course, some of these Meta-Cameos* are egotistical puffery, but others nail it, pulling off the neat trick of proving themselves funnier and more likeable by pretending to be an awful human being. In celebration of the people in this second group, we now present a highly subjective, mostly arbitrary, vaguely ranked list of celebrities playing themselves on television: The Official and Definitive List of TV’s Best Meta-Cameos Ever!!!**

10. Trudie Styler in Friends

The appearance of Trudie Styler (AKA Mrs Sting) was brief but fruitful. Although Styler was a good sport, the storyline involving her was slightly underwhelming (mainly because it also involved the entirely forgettable Ben Gellar), and Styler herself wasn’t especially humorous. Nonetheless, her presence sparked hilarity anyway because it opened the gates to some eve-more-insane-than-usual behaviour from Phoebe, including a series of Sting-related puns (“Look, I just pressed a button triggering a silent alarm. Any minute now the police will be here.” “The Police? Here? A reunion?”) and a song that gave even Smelly Cat a run for its money.

9. Stephen Hawking in… well, pretty much everything

Stephen Hawking’s brain apparently works so fast that even explaining the universe only takes a couple of hours a week, because he’s played himself in more TV programmes than you can shake an event horizon at. Particularly entertaining appearances include The Big Bang Theory, where he causes Sheldon to have a mini-meltdown, and The Simpsons, where his wheelchair can fly, but perhaps the most notable is his appearance as a Star Trek hologram (of himself, so it totally counts) that plays poker with Data (Brent Spiner). It was, as Spiner himself put it, “the most notable moment in television history since Albert Einstein guest-starred on Gunsmoke”.

8. Emma Bunton in Neighbours

Neighbours has had its fair share of Australian celebrity cameos, from Shane Warne to the Wiggles, but British viewers had a field day when Karl and Susan came to London to get married (for around the ninety-seventh time). They ran into Michael Parkinson, Julian Clary and Jo Whiley – as I do every time I go to London – but cream of the crop was Emma Bunton, who found Karl’s lost engagement ring and was rewarded by Karl having no idea who she was. Fortunately Susan made up for it by screaming with joy at recognising her. After all that excitement, Dr K and Susie Q got on a boat and were married by Neil Morrissey, because why not?

7. Josh Groban in Glee

Just so we’re clear: I’m not a Gleek, but I am a Grobanite. Groban’s appearance on Glee was short and not-so-sweet: he turned up to an a-capella performance given by Mr Shue and his cronies, insulted everyone who took part and then left to seduce Mr Shue’s mother, all the while referring to himself in the third person. The fact that he didn’t sing is pretty infuriating, especially since everyone else in the programme sings non-stop; but we did at least get to look at him. In the words of Mr Ryerson:  “He is an angel sent from heaven to deliver Platinum Records unto us”. Amen to that.

6. Matt LeBlanc in Episodes

Matt LeBlanc is pretty damn famous now, so in a way it’s bizarre that his most successful post-Friends role has been playing himself. But he does it with flair. Opting squarely for the ‘sex-mad actor who also played a sex-mad character’ archetype, LeBlanc gives it a slightly sinister edge by getting rid of all of Joey’s puppy-like innocence and replacing it with cold calculation and world-weary cynicism. Do we like the Matt LeBlanc who sleeps with every woman he can get his hands on, including a slightly psychotic stalker and his best friend’s wife? Not as such. Do we like the Matt LeBlanc who plays him? Yes.

5. James Van Der Beek (and Dean Cain) in Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23

Ignoring for a moment the bizarre new trend of giving your show a title that can’t actually be spoken on air (see also: S*** My Dad Says), James Van Der Beek has been quite enjoyable as a slightly whiny version of himself who hangs out with normal, non-celebrity people. But the last few weeks have seen him shoot up the list due to his acceptance into (a fictional season of) Dancing With the Stars, the USA’s version of Strictly. For one thing, his main rival is Dean Cain, aka Clark Kent, aka Superman, who is already awesome. For another, Van Der Beek can actually dance. Very nice.

4. Wil Wheaton in The Big Bang Theory

One of many Star Trek actors to cameo in The Big Bang Theory, Wheaton made a stylish first appearance by enraging Sheldon, which is always funny to watch (see ‘Stephen Hawking’, above). Since then, the development of the rivalry between the two has worked really well, particularly when Wheaton’s horrible behaviour induces us to feel sympathy for Sheldon (because nobody messes with Sheldon’s meemaw). And for those of us who are familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the bitchy remarks about the whining and uselessness of Wheaton’s character Wesley Crusher are bang on the mark – he really was THAT annoying.

3. John Prescott in Gavin and Stacey

You might be surprised to find this one so far up the list (that is, if you’d forgotten that this list was (a) official and (b) definitive). Prescott only appears for a few seconds and barely says a word, but this appearance was brilliant for three reasons. First, it’s an unexpected but good-humoured (and probably quite savvy) move from a man who was the butt (no pun intended) of a lot of negative jokes at the time. Second, it’s a great moment for Nessa’s character development – the audience has always been a bit sceptical about whether she really did sleep with Richard Madeley and Goldie Loookin’ Chain, roadie for The Who and sing with All Saints, but this finally vindicates her. Third, it’s John Prescott. In Gavin and Stacey.

2. Shaun Williamson in Extras

Extras, by its very nature, was full of actors pretending to be themselves, which made this one a very difficult call. Other contenders were Kate Winslet’s cynical nun, Orlando Bloom’s miserable failure with women, and Daniel Radcliffe’s sex-mad teenager – but in the end the award must go to Shaun Williamson, primarily because he manages to hold his own against Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, both very talented people, by wringing every last drop of sympathy out of being constantly overlooked. Plus, Williamson’s character, Shaun Williamson, also responds to the name ‘Barry from Eastenders’, which make him the only Meta-Meta-Cameo on the list. Kudos.

AND THE WINNER IS…

1. Adam West in Family Guy

Let’s be clear – the man who played Batman in the original TV series is already a legend and can almost certainly do no wrong (if proof was needed, I offer you this clip of what can only be described as a surf-off). But Adam West goes one step further and hits the top spot because his character in Family Guy is genuinely inexplicable. He’s the Mayor of Quahog and therefore nominally in charge; but instead of going down the megalomaniac route, West produces the dippiest, most surreal and probably most heavily doped up character on television. Plus, he’s 95% helium.

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*Patent pending.

**30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, SNL and Entourage are excluded because, although they’re famous for exactly these kinds of shenangians, I haven’t quite got round to watching them yet…