Crystal Ball Comedy Axis – Yesterdays Jokes, Todays Reality

Whilst I am always the first to mourn and moan that the 21st century has lacked the cultural colour of the preceding decades – something that doesn’t see any improvement when removing my ‘rose-coloured glasses’ – time and distance has helped me see that the opening decade of this millennium were defined by a trio of cutting-edge and completely different comedy creations. Distance has been necessary for different reasons – two of the three suffered from over-saturation and endless repeats on digital station whilst the third has been left to accrue it’s own cult status having only been granted one showing (possibly due to the bite-the-hand-that-feeds nature of that beast), but together all three capture what it both wrong and right with UK television and culture as we stumble aimlessly through this new decade.

Casting aside for the sake of this discussion the majesty that is Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge – rightfully in pema-rotation circa 2003 but very much a 90’s creation – there are 3 comedies that have collectively captured the zeitgeist of the ‘noughties’, and all that is both right and wrong in UK society with the gift of comedy.

The Office, which arrived on our screens in the summer of 2001, was the brainchild of two annoying and self-congratulatory comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. In the flesh these two seem to represent all that is wrong with the ‘people of the noughties’ and yet, as with their recent An Idiot Abroad series starring the laconic Karl Pilkington, their ability to craft and develop truly original television – always with serious structure laced with the under-current of comedy, and yet never  far from a belly-laugh – is unsurpassed in recent times, despite their own  “acquired taste” forays into stand-up. In my opinion, The Office succeeded due it pillorying the lamentable (and still sadly common) cheaply-made reality tv shows that grant a millisecond of fame to self-important ‘everymen’ in the execution of their day-jobs and in which these people are led to believe by the makers of these shows that they are ‘important’. It worked because it was true, these characters may seem on face value to be caricatures but the fact remains we all know real-life David Brent’s (I’ve had to misfortune to work with at least three), Finchy’s and Gareth Keenan’s (plenty of those at the Humber Bridge, I can assure you) and there’s plenty of us who could emphasise with the long-suffering Tim Canterbury (played expertly by Martin Freeman). That, ten years later and in spite of the show’s over-exposure, we still have to endure reality television programmes full of smug policemen waxing lyrical of how they always think this, that and the other etc speaks volumes about just how right Gervais, Merchant & co got The Office – they kept it to two series in order to nullify overkill, and still it sums up reality television – people who cringed at David Brent are still making their colleagues cringe without so much as realising it. That general workplace roles are becoming more and more benign as time goes on also emphasise just how ‘on the button’ the series remains.

Leigh Francis’ Bo Selecta captured the zeitgeist of post-millennium vacuous celebration of celebrity worship by resolutely taking the piss out of most of them. It helped that the show was blessed with such originality that it was unlike any comedy before it, and the characters were so massively absurd (accents, mannerisms, catchphrases) yet steeped in real aspects of the celebrities satirising that it was either going to disappear without a trace or take-off. Such was the irony of post-modern C4/E4/T4 show-bizzy emptiness, Francis and his latex semi-human profane creations were welcomed into the mainstream with open arms by most of the fly-by night starlets who were the subject of the surreal lampooning (barring Craaaaiiiiig David of course, who never forgave the show for derailing his ‘serious soulman’ career and making him a figure of ridicule). The subjects of such lampooning were, in the main, fair game. I was late on the Bo Selecta bus, it was the summer 2003 when I stumbled upon the show and what I first saw – the latex “Mel B” talking in a broad Leeds accent about how she ‘fooked a tramp once’ saw me instantly hooked. The glue that linked the show together was the main character Avid Merrion – a ginger celebrity stalker. I always found Avid to be the weak link in the show, much as I find Keith Lemon to be somewhat overstated. The show eventually suffered from over-exposure (in the same way Lee Francis’ current comedy personality Keith Lemon has now) but the first three series are sufficiently barbed and genuinely funny as to stand the test of time well – the caricatures were absolutely ridiculous – David Beckham as an eternal toddler, Mel B dressed in leopard skin ‘loooking for a fooook’, Michael Jackson as a foul-mouthed Richard Pryor-alike etc – and yet therein lies the comedy genius (or ‘comedayyy’ as Michael Jackass would say) and yet quickly fell into the mainstream in spite of pillorying that very strand of entertainment. It was as if TV producers and the celebrities all adopted a ‘if you can beat em join em’ approach that continues to this day with people lining up to be on Celebrity Juice.

Over-exposure was never going to be an issue for the third genius comedy. Created by the dark lords of satire Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker Nathan Barley was shown on Channel 4 in early 2005 and destined never to be repeated. Despite featuring high-profile comedy actors Nicholas Burns and Julian Barratt, it came and went with a resounding whimper despite having wealth of talent behind it and an extraordinary attention to detail in its execution. There is probably a reason for this low profile – the show satirising the growing ‘post-ironic’ media set of the Shoreditch and Camden scenes, and these very people were the ones entering the word of television at that point, and the ones taking a hold of television right now. If you think television is bad now, these people are the reason. Nathan Barley himself is a self-aggrandising prick of epic proportions and developer of his own website (complete with faux-Banksy photography/graffiti) and collection of stooges amidst the shows other characters. His nemesis on the show, and effectively Barley’s hero too, is a writer called Dan Ashcroft who works for a trendy Vice-type magazine “Sugar Ape” (again with amidst a load of post-ironic trendy idiots who worship Barley) and who is credited at the beginning of the first show with writing a superb Brooker piece of “The Rise Of The Idiots”.  The series ends with Ashcroft being driven mad by Barley – and indeed we now find the mainstream media is now full of such characters. The series itself is dark genius, and I recommend it to anyone who appreciates ‘that sort of thing’ – it could well be the greatest thing either Brooker, Burns or Barratt have put their name to thus far, though with Black Mirror Brooker came very close to eclipsing NB (the jury is out with Chris Morris though).
All three comedy series represent a glimpse of a sad future – The Office as a tragic unironic glimpse of cheap reality television and the self-aggrandising of the ordinary prole in their execution of duty in their everyday jobs (opinions like arseholes one might say), Bo Selecta in it’s celebration of stupid celebrities and the absorbing of such stupidity into the mainstream – what price pride? – and Nathan Barley in it’s absurdist and yet uncannily accurate portrayal of the pricks now taking controlling our media and seemingly unable to take control of themselves. And yet, probably because of this not in spite of, all three series are – 7 to 10 years on – timeless comedy gold and shining examples of originality in comedy.