Thursday, October 05, 2006

Is he having a laugh? Extras, That Mitchell and Webb Look and Lead Balloon

It is ironic that Ricky Gervaise, who saves his sharpest barbs for what he dismisses as catchphrase comedy, has unleashed a catchphrase himself: in the last week I have heard at least three broadcasters say "Is he having a laugh?", in contexts where it is clear that the phrase has risen from their subsconcious, without any deliberate attempt to reference its source. So people are watching the new series of Extras. It's hard to see why exactly: the three main jokes are repeated each episode:
1. people are more prejudiced than they are allowed to admit these days, and this may be revealed in extreme situations
2. celebrities famous for their amiable image are in real life obnoxious in various ways
3. people (particularly Andy Millman) will sometimes have to deal with the conflict between what they want to do and social norms of behaviour

We haven't yet seen the last variation on the celebrity joke- Jeremy Paxman, Julie Burchill or Richard Littlejohn revealed as mild-mannered and indecisive in private.

But although I have laughed from time to time, the truth is that Gervaise's school of the comedy of embarrassment can get a bit wearing. In the most recent episode, Millman storms into a high-price shop to revenge Maggie's hurt feelings, boldly promised to buy the dress regardless of cost, and then attempts to wriggle out of paying for it once he finds out the price. This is quite funny at first. But watching five minutes of wriggling is painful, or boring. Now that Millman has lost his status as an Everyman figure, since being shown up at a BAFTA awards ceremony is unlikely to chime with many of the audience, the reliance on accuracy rather than gags that made The Office compulsive viewing is unavailable as a fall-back.

I have seen it suggested that putting on sketch-based That Mitchell and Webb Look immediately afterwards was tempting fate, but it bears up well, mainly because unlike most sketch shows its hit rate is close to 100%, probably because it is writer-driven. Some of the recurring sketches, such as the snooker commentary, worked better on radio, but the razor-sharp parodies of pointless gameshows, docusoaps, and lifeswap programmes are both accurate and funny.

Lead Balloon, Jack Dee's new comedy, isn't bad either. It was instructive to compare its first episode with last week's Extras, since both featured an accidental humiliation turning into a media frenzy despite the best efforts of the main character. There were some graces of omission: the tearaway teenage daughter was dealt with in passing in a matter-of-fact way, rather than forming a whole episode as it would in My Family. The foreign au pair was a bit unwelcome; the American agent was the major pain, along with the recursive 'I'm a comedian trying to write comedy' segments which comedians seem to love despite the indifference they inspire in everyone else. Strangely enough, in the light of my comment on Extras, Jack Dee is portrayed as being a nicer person 'offscreen' than in his usual persona.

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