British TV Comedy Is No Laughing Matter

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Imagine for a moment you’re in charge of a major TV broadcaster’s entertainment output and have at your disposal an established comedian whose calendar is blank for the next few weeks. Assuming that the star isn’t suddenly available because of certain indiscretions on a social networking site the question is: What do you do with them?

Do you, A) Give them a stage, microphone, studio audience and let nature take its course; B) Hand them interim custodianship of the Have I Got News For You hot seat; Or C) Build a spiral staircase, hire a gospel choir, book guests like Fern Britton and Shane Richie, do everything to try to distract Saturday night viewers from your lousy script, and over-inflate the programme title? If it’s C), well done! You’ve just created Lee Mack’s All-Star Cast, BBC1’s latest vehicle for a comedian (airing on at 9.50pm on Saturday).

So what’s the problem? Well, aside from the fact that it’s largely dreadful and unoriginal (a shame, because Mack is a decent stand-up/actor), this series is but a tiny link in a seemingly eternal loop of contrived “formats” that TV executives feel compelled to give comics in a bid to fill airtime, when funny jokes and witty banter are often all you need.

Alan Carr and Paul O’Grady have both made the transition from the stand-up circuit to hugely successful chat-show host (how the already proven Dara O’Briain is still awaiting his chance remains a mystery to us). They are accomplished at what they do, blending savage one-liners with a warmth that encourages guests to open up, often to be shot down affectionately. But they are exceptions. You see, TV executives have created a quandary for themselves that doesn’t actually exist--what “vehicle” should they give the next big comedian on the scene?

This question misses the point spectacularly. And it’s one that US networks struggled with two decades ago when Whoopi Goldberg introduced Billy Connolly to the American audience in an HBO special stand-up performance in New York. Knowing they had a star on their hands and anxious to sculpt him to their vision, the vehicle they gave him was the sitcom Head of the Class (axed after one more series), followed by spin-off Billy (canned after half a season).

As Michael Parkinson said in a subsequent British documentary about the comedian (memory fails us, but it was almost certainly The South Bank Show): “Billy Connolly doesn’t need a vehicle. Billy Connolly is the vehicle.” But have UK broadcasters taken note? Sadly not.

UK TV channels have been churning out pointless format shows for our funny men and women for years. Unfortunately, this terrible trend shows no sign of abating. Coming to a small screen near you this summer is BBC1’s new game show Epic Win: , in which Alexander Armstrong, a man whose forte is sketches and comic acting, introduces members of the public with unusual powers. This includes a blindfolded fishmonger who can apparrently identify species of fish by having them slapped in his face.

Controllers just don't seem to believe comedians can have a hit show with their own material and under their own steam. Series two of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle was buried after Newsnight in the schedules, Al Murray’s Happy Hour has vanished from ITV’s thoughts, and BBC4’s We Need Answers, a panel game that began life as a live comedy-club show, has also quietly disappeared.

Of course, live comedy has to be adapted for television--it would be naive to think otherwise--but you only have to look at the recent BAFTA nomination for Mrs Brown’s Boys, which is in essence the original stage show, to realise the odd tweak here and there is often all that’s necessary. The lesson that broadcasters should learn is this: giving a comedian a “vehicle” results, nine times out of ten, in the same model off the production line: A hearse.

What kind of comedy show would you like commissioned next? And what tips would you give our broadcasters?

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