Tag Archives: Look Around You

The Gang Goes Insane and Other Stories: The Top Ten Most Brilliantly Bonkers Comedies That Have Existed

My my, Sunday nights will be dull for the next few weeks – not only has Downton finished for another season, but the current series of Rude Tube, complete with the lovely Alex Zane, has also come to a close. Thank goodness, then, for Toast of London, the last brief spark of Sunday night hilarity (until the inevitable post-Christmas return of the Big Fat Quiz of the Year). Broadcast so late that no one appears to be watching it – it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page!!! – Toast is nonetheless a delightful piece of nutty comedic programming, calling to mind British surreal humour at its best. How best to commemorate its barely noticed existence…? Sounds like it’s time for another definitive top ten list!

The Top Ten Most Brilliantly Bonkers Comedies That Have Existed

DISCLAIMER: This Is Jinsy doesn’t appear because I’ve only seen the bits with David Tennant, but it looks like it would qualify for this list. In contrast, Peep Show is excluded by being insufficiently bonkers, and The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen by being insufficiently brilliant. In my view, of course. (My definitely accurate view.)

10. Fortysomething (2003)

Just squeezing into the list at no. 10, Fortysomething wasn’t out-and-out absurd, its main attraction being the glorious casting of Hugh Laurie as the main character and Benedict Cumberbatch as his eldest son. Most of the humour came from gentle digs at the middle class (Cumberbatch’s opening scene involves Laurie telling him off for eating all the luxury seafood goujons), but two key elements push it over the line into wackiness: the constant chop-and-change of who’s sleeping with whom (the teenage boys’ girlfriends being swapped back and forth between the brothers as if they were Pokémon cards), and Peter Capaldi (yes, he’s in it too) as the semi-antagonist who is an angry thorn in Laurie’s side until his horrifying descent into madness in the later episodes of the series. Good times!

9. Family Guy (1999-present)

One of the most mainstream programmes on the list, and more ‘occasionally amusing’ than ‘pee your pants hilarious’, Family Guy nevertheless deserves its spot because of the sheer abundance of moments that make you say, “What just happened?” Primarily responsible for these moments are the show’s cutaway gags, cued in by Peter Griffin’s chorus of “This is worse than that time I…” (“went on a blind date with Gary Coleman to Mexico” / “forgot how to sit down” / “swallowed that midget who played Mini-Me”), with additional weirdness contributed by supporting characters like Adam West, the town’s dippy mayor; Ernie, the man-sized prize-fighting chicken; and the Kool-Aid Man, a large jug of red liquid who periodically bursts through walls and shouts, “Oh yeah!”. No, I don’t know why either.

8. A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1989-1995)

Hugh Laurie’s second appearance on the list*, and he’s back where he belongs, in cahoots with (and frequently being punched in the face by) Stephen Fry. All sketch shows have an element of bonkers to them, and Fry and Laurie are adept in the art of off-the-wall moments – see for example Fry demonstrating the fine art of quantity surveying – but A Bit of Fry and Laurie handles the madness with style and with substance; this is absurdity with intent, the primary victim of Fry and Laurie’s pointed wit being the English language (what’s in a name?).  Sketch shows don’t get more erudite than this.

*You’ll notice that this kind of recurrence becomes a running theme in today’s entry.

7. Black Books (2000-2004)

Black Books is a comedy set in a bookshop that has nothing to do with books and everything to do with wine, shouting and creepy house cleaners. Dylan Moran scowls his way through every episode, alternating lazy insolence with furious rage, while Bill Bailey and Tamsin Grieg’s half-hearted attempts to get on with slightly more normal lives result in bee homicide, ruining other people’s wine cellars and inappropriate responses to the Shipping Forecast. Despite all three of the main characters being egotistical, obnoxious and barking mad, the true tour-de-force of Black Books is making you like them anyway, and there are even a couple of genuinely moving episodes in the final season. RIP bees.

6. Toast of London (2013-?)

Despite its lack of recognition from Wikipedia, and being broadcast at 10.40pm on a Sunday night, Toast is a ripping yarn, with Matt Berry (best known as Douglas Reynholm from The IT Crowd) carrying the whole show on his well-moustiachoed shoulders (you know what I mean). The premise is slight – a semi-successful actor takes on a series of semi-successful roles – but the madness abounds, with a potential girlfriend who collects beaks, some really small champagne glasses, and an acquaintance whose botched face lift has made her look like Bruce Forsyth. Each episode also has a single musical number, for no earthly reason. Finally, Matt Berry has the best hair of any actor working today.

5. Friday Night Dinner (2011-present)

Another programme that isn’t as well-known as it should be, Friday Night Dinner works on the fairly normal premise that two grown-up sons come home to their parents every Friday for a family dinner. (Un)fortunately, patriarch Paul Ritter is nutty as a fruitcake, with a penchant for topless dining, conversations in the toilet and drying his own fish, which drives wife Tamsin Grieg (cf. Black Books) and sons Adam (Simon Bird) and Johnny (Tom Rosenthal) up the wall. And yet Dad seems quite sane next to Mark Heap, the family’s next-door-neighbour; creepy and pathetic in equal measure, he’s scared of his own dog (“Down, Wilson… Argh!”) and madly in love with Mum, to everyone’s increasing discomfort. Hello, bambinos!

4. Look Around You (2002-2005)

Look Around You, which I’ve talked about in a previous post, is a simple idea brilliantly executed: a spoof of educational science programmes that is chock-full of lies and nonsense. Fronted by Olivia Colman (also appearing in Green Wing and now well on her way to national treasure status), Josie D’Arby (of CBBC fame), Peter Serafinowicz (the voice of Darth Maul) and Robert Popper (writer of Friday Night Dinner**), Look Around You teaches us about the newest inventions that are sure to improve our lives: the fast-food casserole outlet, the invigorating sport of gonnis, and a cure for that life-changing disease, cobbles. Plus, spot a vast array of celebrities in silly cameos: Simon Pegg, Matt Lucas, Adam Buxton, Harry Enfield… Thanks, Look Around You. Thook around you.

**It’s all very incestuous, isn’t it?

3. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2005-present)

Probably the most offensive show on the list, It’s Always Sunny takes five awful people and puts them into ridiculous situations that allow their worst qualities to shine through: episode titles include “The Gang Finds a Dead Guy”, “Frank Sets Sweet Dee on Fire”, and “Mac Fights Gay Marriage”. The plotlines are barmy and not one of the characters is an acceptable human being, with the possible exception of Charlie, described by my dictionary (Wikipedia) as “the least morally bankrupt member of the Gang”. So, really, it’s all about mocking those who mock others, and not at all about laughing at people with monobrows or poor spelling. Not at all.

2. Green Wing (2004-2007)

Set in a hospital but with a cast of characters you wouldn’t trust with a sticky plaster, Green Wing treads a fine line between wacky comedy – such as this classic example of the hilarity of helium – and actual pathos, most obviously in the ongoing love triangle between Caroline (Tamsin Grieg in her third appearance in this list), Mac and Guy, none of whom deserves not to get the girl/guy at the end. The combination of actual issues like friendship, family, pregnancy and terminal illness with batty moments like people falling out of windows and the occasional appearance of a camel or motorbike traversing the wards takes a bit of getting used to; but whose life wouldn’t be improved by being able to name all the bones in the skull and having a thorough knowledge of the rules of Guyball?

And the winner is…

1. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)

What can you say about Monty Python that doesn’t involve the phrases ‘lumberjack’, ‘dead parrot’ or ‘Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and Spam’? The dream team of surrealist comedy need no other description than to note that the sketches produced by their combined minds are the most abstract and random on the entire list; and that, good sir, is saying something.

All hail the masters of laughter and nonsense! And go and watch Toast.

Puns, Plot Points and Puppets: A Guide to Spoofing

This week I finally got round to watching A Touch of Cloth, which has been on my DVD shelf since approximately the dawn of time. It’s a film-length parody of TV crime dramas, written by Daniel Maier and Charlie Brooker (he of Screen Wipe, 10 O’Clock Live, angry-ranting-about-a-variety-of-subjects and punching-well-above-his-weight-by-marrying-Konnie-Huq fame) and the cast includes John Hannah (hilarious in The Mummy, heartbreaking in Four Weddings and a Funeral), Suranne Jones (Scott and Bailey, plus two different programme with David Tennant – well played), Navin Chowdhry and Adrian Bower (Kurt and Brian from Teachers) and Julian Rhind-Tutt (understated hero/sometimes obnoxious jerk Dr Macartney from Green Wing).

Given the afore-mentioned cast and crew, I was quite looking forward to watching A Touch of Cloth – especially as I still get pangs of sadness that Kurt and Brian are no more – and it didn’t disappoint. As well as the near-destruction of the fourth wall over the course of the show, elements of hilarity included WPC Cardboard Cut-Out, the various jokes that popped up in the background (such as a hospital sign directing you to the ‘Shayne Ward’) and the increasingly painful puns on the hero’s name, DCI Jack Cloth (“Thanks to you, the entire department is losing face, Cloth”). Perhaps my favourite moment was DC Asap Qureshi (Chowdhry) welcoming Cloth to the crime scene and Doing Exposition:

Victim’s name is Aidan Matthew Hawkchurch, successful chef, 39 years old, six foot, 180 pounds, got his own TV show, now in its fourth season, been married for thirteen years, all in a row, lives in this house, estimated resell value £1.9 million, desirable catchment area, would suit professional couple or recently murdered man, black front door, entrance hall, Orla Kiely stem print mat, recommended retail price £29.99, six-peg coat hook, price unknown, walnut frame mirror, purchased 2006, grieving widow Claire Hawkchurch, 37, GSOH, Sagittarius, 34C.

This tickled me because obvious and unnecessary exposition is one of my pet peeves in crime dramas, with the various incarnations of CSI being the biggest offenders. Apparently, Jim Brass from the original series is known in the fanbase as “Captain Exposition”, while this blogger lists cheesy exposition as one of the reasons she despises Horatio Caine from CSI Miami (a view with which I have some sympathy) – but at least it makes sense that these guys would know the facts and need to tell them to someone else. In contrast, the worst examples of ‘Here’s what’s happening, viewers’ come when characters are giving information to people who would already know it, and especially when the viewer’s already worked it out anyway. Check out this absurd exchange from CSI Miami, in which two characters are talking about a crashed car:

A: “There’s damage here in the quarter panel and bumper.”
B: “She did impact at over 60 miles per hour. It could have happened then.”
A: “Well, there’s also paint transfer. [Ah! So there was another car that ran her off the road!] Now, it could be incidental, or it could be road rage.” [And therefore another car that ran her off the road. Maybe sample the paint and find out who it was?]
B: “We need to get these paint samples to Trace, have them analyzed. [That’s what I said.] Every paint has a distinct signature, so…” [Yes, so you can find it who it was that ran her off the road.]
A: “We find the collision car, we find a witness.” [Or whoever it was that ran her off the road.]
B: “That’s right. Or a murder suspect.” [I KNOW!]

And they always take themselves so seriously, too. This is apparently one of the reasons why Brooker and Maier decided to spoof crime dramas rather than murder mysteries, because the latter are already, as Brooker put it in an interview, pretty much parodies of themselves: the focus is on tea and cakes and village fêtes, and the actual murder barely comes into it. Other programmes with a light touch would presumably also be pretty hard to parody. Take Neighbours – sure, there are all sorts of ridiculous elements to Neighbours that are just begging to made fun of, but Neighbours does that itself. This week, for example, Toadie, Sonya and Susan invoke the soap trope that two people talking in the kitchen can’t be heard by anyone in the living room, despite the fact that the latter is about six feet away with a paper-thin interior wall between them; but Toadie and Sonya keep having to pause the argument whenever they go to the fridge because that end of the kitchen is in Susan’s eye-line. You get the feeling, with Neighbours, that everyone involved recognises the absurdity of the programme and tries to make it work for them, not against them.

A good spoof, on the other hand, takes an earnest programme and makes it nonsensical. Look Around You did a bang-up job of doing this to educational science programmes in its two series of non-stop lies and gibberish. The presenters (Robert Popper, Josie D’Arby, Peter Serafinowicz and the now deservedly ubiquitous Olivia Colman) play it absolutely straight as they tell us interesting facts about the world around us: the largest number is 45,000,000,000, ghosts can’t whistle, and baby birds are called ‘bees’. The Office did the same thing: yes, workplace documentaries will usually fixate on the office oddballs, who really do exist and are often more than a bit strange – but they’re not generally quite so strange as to start an office singsong during a corporate training session or entertain their colleagues with mimes of being shot by a sniper. This is why it’s so difficult to parody talent shows – you’re already watching a dog dance in front of an audience of people apparently brainwashed to cheer and boo exactly on cue. Where can you go with that?

And it’s in this context that Family Tree, which started last week on BBC 2, isn’t quite hitting the mark. The programme is based on the format of genealogy programmes like Who Do You Think You Are and it has a number of mockumentary features, such as characters talking to the camera as if being interviewed and lines of dialogue that imitate the pauses and stumbles of real speech. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to class it as a parody (many sources simply refer to it as a sitcom), but, come on, it’s written by Christopher Guest, co-creator of officially the best mockumentary that has ever existed, This Is Spinal Tap, so I was expecting some gold-standard piss-takery: people bursting into tears at the slightest mention of sadness in an ancestor’s life, a long-lost relative who turns out to have been a human taxidermist or the person who draws the faces on Jelly Babies – you know the kind of thing. And yet… Family Tree is just not that stupid: the only amusing occupation uncovered so far is a man who was the back end of a pantomime horse. And the single truly surreal element is the main character’s sister, who due to some traumatic past event talks through a monkey puppet – she’s played by Nina Conti, so the ventriloquism is pretty spot on, but it isn’t really spoofing any particular element of genealogy shows, which makes it weird in an aimless way.

The monkey-puppet aspect also doesn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the programme, which is mainly down-to-earth and quite sweet. Chris O’Dowd is lovely as the main character Tom Chadwick, doing his trademark stunned-disbelief face at his sister and the other slightly eccentric characters around him, including a blind date who thinks that the dinosaurs are still alive – this scene was actually pretty funny. Not that there’s not really anything wrong with a pleasant and (dare I say it) watchable show that raises the occasional laugh and also works in some bittersweet moments – the moment at the end of the second episode when a camp theatre manager reveals something unexpected about Tom’s great-grandfather is one example. I suspect that I will grow to care about the characters and get interested in what Tom finds out next. But so far, Family Tree is definitely not turned up to 11 – it’s a seven or eight at best.

So when it comes to parodies, I suppose what I really want is out-and-out stupidity: subtle-as-a-brick puns, knowing absurdity, recognisable archetypes grotesquely metamorphosed into insane caricatures. I want David Brent, DCI Anne Oldman (get it?), Synthesizer Patel, Nigel Tufnell. I don’t want subtlety and nuance – I want in-your-face proof that something, somewhere is being mocked. Proof, reader.