Tag Archives: Graham Norton

Douze Points!: Why Eurovision Is Awesome

A couple of weeks ago, in light of the upcoming EU referendum, YouGov conducted a poll to find out the British people’s thoughts on one of the most pressing social/political/cultural questions of the day, with SHOCKING RESULTS: a majority of Britons, if given the choice, would leave the Eurovision Song Contest. What has this country come to?!?!?!

Actually, my summary of the results there is not strictly true. 47% of people polled (out of a sample of 2033) said ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Wouldn’t vote’, and the remaining split was 60-40 in favour of leaving Eurovision – that’s 646 people, or 32% of the total sample. Now, 646 people may not seem like much, but, assuming that YouGov conducted a stringent poll with a representative sample, the future looks bleak for Eurovision.

Those who know me will correctly surmise that I find this VERY upsetting. First of all, if you don’t like Eurovision, you don’t have to watch it – but that doesn’t mean that no one else should be allowed to watch it either. Why would you vote to stop other people enjoying something? I’m not a massive fan of organised sports, but if there was a vote on whether the Home Nations should leave UEFA, would I vote ‘yes’ just so I wouldn’t have to find something else to watch whenever matches were broadcast? Would I…? (Hold on, I’m thinking…) No, of course not. What nonsense.

Anyhoo, now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s discuss exactly why leaving Eurovision would be so terrible. There are SO MANY REASONS. The outfits. The choreography. The special effects. The body positivity. The chance to practice naming the capitals of Europe. The inexplicable subtitled translations of the songs not in English. The awkward switching between languages during the presenters’ pieces to camera. The moment of excitement when you discover which British celebrity (always unrecognisable to viewers in any other country) will be announcing our scores. The little videos of tourist attractions and cultural experiences in the host country, dubiously linked to whichever song is coming next. Did I mention the outfits?

And then there’s the fact that it’s one of the few things I actually prefer to watch with other people. I’d much rather watch a drama on my own, so that no one can see me alternately getting super excited when nice things happen to my favourite characters and bawling my eyes out when disaster strikes. With comedies, I’ll go either way – seeing other people laugh can make something funnier, provided there’s no unnecessary chichat that causes you to miss the next joke. But Eurovision – that requires camaraderie, companionship and concord (and preferably a few drinks). If your friends take the same view, then everyone can get together for that most enjoyable of television-based social events: the Eurovision Party.

Of course, the Eurovision Party is not a heterogeneous phenomenon. Such events may vary considerably, since there are, understandably, numerous ways to celebrate one’s love for all things camp and European. A couple of years ago, the party I attended was food-based, and guests brought along a selection of foodstuffs themed to one or more of the participating countries. (For reference, possible choices include French bread, Danish pastries, Swiss cheese, Belgian chocolate, Polish sausage, Greek yoghurt, Swedish meatballs and Turkey. Much eating was done that day.) A few years before that, we went for the sweepstake angle: each participant was assigned a random country around which they would theme their outfit and foodstuffs, and if their country won they’d get the kitty, to which everyone had contributed. (My country was Portugal. I dressed like Carmen Miranda and brought Nando’s. I did not win the kitty.)

This year (Saturday 14th March 2016, BBC1, 8pm – jot that down in your copybooks now), the theme is going to be Serious Scoring. The procedure is very simple: there will be a Master Scoreboard, upon which the countries will be listed in order of appearance; guests will score songs according to personal preference; and points will be totted up at the end in order to ascertain how far the mood of the room matches that of the good people of Europe. And lest you think that this doesn’t sound particularly spontaneous and fun, let me point out that we haven’t decided yet whether we’re going to score all countries as they appear OR wait until the end and use the official Eurovision points system (12, 10, 8, 6-1). We’re crazy like that.

What should be clear from all this is that Having A Good Time does not equate to Using Eurovision As An Excuse For A Party And Not Actually Watching Any Of It – no no! Rapt attention must be paid to the actual show, songs especially. Now, note that in my list of ‘great things about Eurovision’ above, I didn’t actually include ‘music’. After all, one man’s Elvis is another man’s scraping a rusty cat across an old barrel of chalkboards; and, it must be confessed, many Eurovision songs are really not very good (and I absolutely include a number of British entries in that). But this is not true of them all. Some of the winners have become astronomically famous (generally for the right reasons) – Lulu, ABBA, Celine Dion et al. – and don’t even try to tell me that Love Shine a Light wasn’t an absolute belter of a song. (Here’s a link to it, in case you need reminding.) Plus there’s pretty much guaranteed to be a few great poppy numbers to get you dancing, as well as at least one surprisingly impressive ballad sung by an unprepossessing woman from somewhere like Iceland or Malta. I mean, there are twenty-six countries in the final – you must be able to find something you like (especially since the range of genres is starting to open up since Lordi burst onto the scene with their ridiculous outfits and crazy heavy metal classic ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ – yes, I’m still impressed).

Plus, viewers in the UK will obviously need to be listening closely in order to catch Graham Norton’s snarky commentary gems, which have quickly become as legendary as Terry Wogan’s. I do occasionally wonder if Norton is occasionally too mean, which would be a slight affront to the jolly Eurovision spirit, but then I remember that he’s just as bitchy when it comes to guests on his show and elsewhere. Hell, he got in some zingers at the BAFTAs last week, in particular throwing shade at Aidan Turner’s hair (“A man bun at the BAFTAs. How very modern.”) and, indeed, at the whole of the UK’s television production industry (*deadpan voice* “Yay. Us. Aren’t we great.”). So really that’s just his way, and our way, and it is pretty damn funny, although if the other countries are listening in then that might explain why we always do so badly…

So, with the party organised and the food prepared, what are we expecting from the show this year? Well, Sweden are hosting, which is a promising start – their presenting game when they hosted in 2013 was exceptionally strong, in particularly Petra Mede’s fantastic half-time song ‘Swedish Smorgasbord’ (“Our people are cold but our elks are hot”; cue three girls dressed as meatballs). As for the actual songs, I haven’t watched the semi-finals so I really haven’t got the faintest idea what’s going to happen or who’s singing what. The only exception is the UK’s entry, Joe and Jake’s ‘You’re Not Alone’,  which I’ve heard on the radio – it isn’t exactly my cup of tea (I find the cross between ballad-y singing and a heavy beat a bit confusing) but is certainly much less appalling than some of the dross we’ve put through in the last few years.

Suffice to say that we probably won’t win, but then there’s no special reason that we should – we have a tendency to enter half-arsed generic songs, we never have any particularly eyecatching costumes or staging, and, oh yeah, we spend the other 364 days of the year complaining about those bloody Europeans. Quite frankly, it astonishes me that so many Brits spend so much time whingeing about Europe, its countries, its people, its governance, its food, its weather, its music and its languages, and then wonder why people don’t vote for us in Eurovision once a year. Honestly, the nerve of those Eastern Europeans / Scandinavians / Iberians / Balkanites, always voting for their neighbours with whom they share a border, a culture, a history, an outlook, a language and a tendency to actually be nice to each other! Why do they hate us so much?! What’s the point of even being a part of Europe if we don’t get to win automatically just for being British?!

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So in conclusion, Eurovision is great. It brings people together both at home and abroad. It gives Brits the opportunity to hear other languages and see other people doing stuff a bit differently. It has catchy music (sometimes). It’s a massive continent-wide party. And it’s an opportunity for eating lots of delicious food. I vote ‘In’.

One last treat: I shall leave you with my favourite Eurovision song of all time: Ukraine’s 2007 entry, Verka Serduchka with ‘Dancing Lasha Tumbai’. Good luck getting that out of your head for the next twenty years.

~

Gif credits:

Captain-America-In-The-Impala on Tumblr

http://gifsec.com/funny/gifs-anyway-david-tennant-doctor-who-so-anyway-gif/

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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…