Tag Archives: panel

The catastrophic TV comedy show pilot I saw recorded last night at the BBC

(This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post)

Some pilots swim... some pilots sink

Some pilots swim… some pilots sink… some pilots stink…

Last night I did something I have only very very rarely done.

I went to the recording of a TV show as a member of the audience and queued up with the audience. It was a pilot for a possible comedy panel show series and was being recorded by an experienced independent production company at a BBC studio site for (it seemed) possible transmission on a non-BBC channel.

It was very cold last night.

The tickets said Doors Open 6.00pm – Show Starts 7.00pm.

We arrived just before 6.00pm and stood in an increasingly long queue until after 6.30pm because people with ‘Priority’ tickets had to get in first and no-one knew how many of these would turn up. People with ‘Priority’ tickets were people who had failed to get into recordings of previous shows made by the company.

Having tickets to see a TV show recorded is never a guarantee you will get in, because all TV shows are overbooked on the correct assumption that many people who do have tickets may not turn up.

When this happened at old ITV station LWT, I seemed to remember there was an overflow room, where people who failed to get in could watch the recording on TV sets. In fact, I am told by a close friend who was involved in organising audiences at LWT:

“They were always overbooked but there was rarely an overflow so it would be up to staff to decide on the night.  If, for example, an organised group had been invited, travelled some distance and hired a coach then you could not leave part of the group wandering around the South Bank so it would be reasonable to try to arrange something for them – but difficult to have staff to look after them and ensure security outside of the studio area.  VIP/press guests who arrived late or found that some pathetic, untalented, hysterical, inadequate bastard of a director had given away their clearly reserved seating would have a host with them and so they would have to be taken to the Press Room or other area with monitors.”

Last night at the BBC, though, a lot of people – I would guess around 50 – were turned away after queuing up with their tickets and, as they were turned away, their e-tickets were stamped with ‘Priority’ so they would be able to get into the next show they queued for.

The man in the queue in front of us told me: “I’m going to stop coming to TV shows. I’ve been to a couple where almost no-one with ordinary tickets for the show got in because so many people with ‘Priority’ tickets turned up who hadn’t been able to get into previous shows.”

I went with three friends, two of them highly experienced comedians (one male, one female).

When we were eventually allowed through the BBC gates, we had numbered stickers put on our e-tickets. I worked out later that there were 300 people in the audience. The sticky numbers were rolled-up starting with 1 at the centre of the roll. This meant that the first number stuck on the ticket of the first person in the queue was 300. The last person allowed in was No 1.

When we were eventually seated, they called people by number. So they seated people with tickets 1-50 first… This meant that the last people in the queue were seated at the front; the first people in the queue were seated at the back. The only way to get the best seats at the front would have been to be at the back of the queue, but you could not do this without a high risk of not getting in at all.

Later, my non-comedy friend said: “The people who didn’t get in were the lucky ones.”

When we did get in, we were herded into the canteen where you could buy drinks for £1 or a palette of chips for £1.20. As a devout BBC Licence Fee payer, I am all for this. Eventually, we were taken into the studio. As we were about 30 from the front of the queue, we were taken in last and ended up in the back rows of the tiered seating.

As is often the case with TV shows, there was a well-meaning warm-up man who miscalculated.

I am perhaps spoiled because doing warm-up for TV shows is a very difficult art and most of the entertainment shows I was involved in were at LWT in its heyday where the truly great warm-up man Bill Martin plied his trade. He did the same schtick every show… but it was great schtick. He made people feel welcome, comfortable, part of a family in the studio.

Last night’s warm-up man thought he was being a loveable cheeky chappy, but he created a them-and-us atmosphere.

“Why,” my non-comedian friend whispered to me during the warm-up, “is he insulting the audience?”

And he was. His attempts at We are all chums here cheerful friendly banter fell flat and overlapped into the area of What am I doing here with the likes of you? material. He was not bonding with the audience, he was putting them down.

He also miscalculated the audience with overly frequent adjectival ‘fucking’…

“Would you fucking believe it, there was this…” etc etc he would say. Four times during the seemingly endless recording, he asked the audience: “Do you want my clean joke or my dirty joke?”

The first time, he got the fairly cheery response: “Dirty joke!”

By the fourth time, he got silence because he had miscalculated the audience.

He also committed the cardinal sin of warm-up men by saying he was going to “rehearse” their laughter. The implication when this is done is that you are there to laugh out loud whether or not you are entertained. If you have to rehearse laughter, it implies the production team believes there is nothing in the show that will make you genuinely laugh. You can tell the audience you are rehearsing clapping; you can even tell an audience to rehearse whooping and whistling (it can be said to be “for the sound man”); but, if you tell them “Laugh now,” you are dead in the water.

The job of the warm-up man is to create an atmosphere in which the audience is laughing before the show starts, not to ‘rehearse’ laughter.

“He treated the audience like fodder,” my non-comedian friend said to me afterwards.

One of my comedian friends remembered: “The old LWT shows were good as far as I remember. I went to lots of them. They certainly made the audience feel they were in for a good time. They told them what things were for, introduced the floor staff and apologised in advance for any hold ups and having to do things twice and just generally informed them about what was happening.”

That did not happen last night.

On the tickets, it said the show would finish at 9.30pm. It eventually finished at 10.30pm. And, starting at around 7.45pm, it was a long almost three hours.

The least said about the show itself, the better. It was a horrible dog’s dinner of a slight idea expanded with irrelevant side-formats into a rambling half-hearted mess. The performers were superb. There had been money spent on set design and misconceived filmed inserts, but the show itself was a mess. It looked like a half hour show but they must have recorded getting-on for 90 minutes worth of material and had outros/intros for three commercial breaks, which makes me think they may have been touting it as an hour-long show with two breaks and were going to chop out an entire section.

The audience could watch what was happening live on the set or watch the overhead monitors on which the faces were inexplicably out of lip-sync: a surreal experience.

During the slight pause for a third commercial break, rather a lot of people made a break for the exit. I reckoned around 20 people but my two comedian friends, who had to catch a train, were among them and reckoned there were about 60 people who left.

As I sat through the final section of the show, at 9.56pm, I got a text from one of these comedian friends saying:

We had an interesting time on the way out.

I texted back: Email me for my blog!

Eventually, the show ended at 10.27pm.

“That was endless,” my non-comedy friend said to me afterwards. “The set and everything else was well-produced, but there was no substance to it.”

“It was well-produced,” I agreed, “but it didn’t have a format.”

“It was boring,” my friend said, “The performers were very good and kept you entertained, but the basic idea was just boring. The show is pointless.”

When I woke this morning, an email was waiting for me. This is what happened to my two comedian friends when they left the studio recording last night:

It was Back to School with the BBC and a very self-important ‘prefect’.

We were shouted at and asked to form two orderly queues… Presumably one for abuse by prospective paedophiles and the other for those too scared to stay. 

“It’s not finished yet,” we were told. “Go back in.”

After one of the female ‘students’ said (very politely) “Please let me leave. I’ve got to catch my train connection,” one of the prefects said: “Get back in. You have no right to talk to me like that.” 

Several ‘children’ then actually got scared. “Go along with whatever they say,” I heard one say to another, “otherwise we’ll never get out.” 

Honestly, John, we were treated like escaped convicts and a couple of the female members of the ‘escapees’ got a little bit nervous about the way they were being treated. The only reason there wasn’t a little riot was that everyone wanted to get out and not spend a minute longer in that atmosphere. 

What amazed me was that, considering the concerns about the BBC at the moment and their treatment of the public, the BBC have not taken that on board at all. They really are behaving as if they are above the law. 

It would not have been tolerated in any other public service industry.They would have been inundated with complaints. It is mystifying as to how they can carry on like this… And, as you asked me… 

A lot of the people that we left with were dismayed at the material in the programme which seemed to be perpetuating the image of sleazy sex and distasteful habits. It was old-fashioned, old-hat and excruciating to watch.

I can only think that this is just an aberration . The management should really get a grip on public opinion and understand they are servants not masters!!

I enjoyed the experience but really, John, I was gobsmacked. I cannot imagine that this attitude can survive much longer. 

The two guys escorting us out really did treat us like shit and as if we were criminals for not bowing down at the altar of puerile entertainment. 

Apart from that, thanks for the chips. 

Please tell me – Is this really what it is like each time you go to watch TV?

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Has British comedy stagnated since Monty Python, Hardee and Tiswas?

Beware. This is my blog. These are my very highly personal opinions. You can object. Please do.

People have said Alternative Comedy is not dead, it has just ceased to be Alternative. It has become the Mainstream. But they seldom talk about the next new wave of British comedians who will replace the now mainstream Alternative Comedians.

I desperately want to spot any new wave for the annual Malcolm Hardee Awards, which I organise. Our avowed intent is to try to find “comic originality”.

We do find admirably quirky individuals to award the main annual Comic Originality prize to – last year, the one-off Robert White; this year, the one-off Johnny Sorrow.

And their one-offness is as it should be. You cannot have comic originality if 37 other people are doing something similar.

But where are the new style comedians performing a recognisable new type of comedy genre? There has not been anything overwhelmingly new since so-called Alternative Comedy arrived in the mid-1980s – over 25 years ago.

As far as I can see, there have been four very rough waves of post-War British comedy, most of them comprising overlapping double strands.

The first double wave of ‘new’ comics in the 1950s were reacting partly to stuffy mainstream 1930s Reithian radio comedy, partly to the necessary order of the 1940s wartime years and partly they were rebelling against the dying music hall circuit epitomised by John Osborne‘s fictional but iconic Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1957).

The Goon Show (1951-1960) on BBC Radio, at the height of its popularity in the mid 1950s, was the antithesis of the ‘old school’ of pre-War comedy. The Goons were a surreal comic equivalent to John Osborne’s own rebellious Look Back in Anger (1956) and the kitchen sink realism which surfaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Osborne was ultra-realistic; The Goons were ultra-surreal.

But Osborne’s plays and The Goons‘ radio comedy were both reactions to the rigidly ordered society in pre-War, wartime and immediately post-War Britain and The Goons‘ new anarchic style of comedy (although it owes some debt to the pre-War Crazy Gang and although the Wartime radio series ITMA was slightly surreal) really was like the new rock ‘n’ roll (which was not coincidentally happening simultaneously). It was startlingly new. They were consciously rebelling and revolting against a clear status quo which they saw as stuffy and restrictive.

Hot on the heels of The Goons came a different form of rebellion – the satirists of the 1960s – with Beyond the Fringe (1960) on stage and That Was The Week That Was (1962-1963) on TV. These two slightly overlapping Second Waves of new post-War British comedy were again reacting to a stuffy status quo.

The First Wave, the surrealist Goons wave, then reasserted that it was still rolling on when a Third Wave of influence – Monty Python’s Flying Circus – appeared on BBC TV 1969-1974 and – as satire declined in the 1970s – it was Monty Python‘s (and, ultimately, The Goons‘) comedic gene pool that held sway for a while – also epitomised, oddly, by the children’s TV show – Tiswas (1974-1982).

The Goons, Beyond The Fringe and That Was The Week That Was had been rebelling against something; Monty Python was surreal and Tiswas was anarchic just for the sheer sake of it. Monty Python and Tiswas were one-offs, but they have pale imitations trundling on even to today.

After Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, a Fourth Wave of new comics arose in the early and mid-1980s – a generation influenced by the satire gene not by the Goons/Python gene. These mostly-university-educated young left wing things rebelled against Thatcherism with their often political-based humour which became known as Alternative Comedy.

But again, just as there had been a second overlapping wave of comedy in the previous generation, this mostly ‘serious’ comedy was paralleled by a different wave possibly more low-key but epitomised by the decidedly fringe appeal of the hugely influential Malcolm Hardee, whose release from prison and subsequent comedy career coincided with the start of and overlapped with the future stars of Alternative Comedy.

Malcolm’s strand of mostly non-political comedy was spread by the clubs he ran and the acts he managed, agented, booked and/or nurtured: acts including the young Paul Merton (performing as Paul Martin when Malcolm first managed him), Jenny Eclair and later Keith Allen, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavaré and Johnny Vegas.

While London’s Comedy Store nurtured future mainstream acts (some progressing there from Malcolm’s clubs), the more bizarre and original new acts continued to flock to Malcolm’s gigs and clubs including his near-legendary Sunday Night at the Tunnel Palladium gigs and later his lower-key but just as influential Up The Creek club.

These two strands of 1980s comedy – the alternative political and the Hardee-esque – successfully came together in a Channel 4 programme – not, as is often cited, Saturday Live (1985-1987), a mostly failed hotch-potch with different presenters every week, but its long-remembered successor, Geoff Posner‘s Friday Night Live (1988) which supposedly firebrand political polemic comic Ben Elton presented every week in what was supposed to be an ironic sparkly showbiz jacket.

Political alternative stand-ups mixed with strange variety and character acts, oddball comics and cross-over acts like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield and many others nurtured by Malcolm Hardee.

This was both the highpoint and the start of the decline of Alternative Comedy because serious money was spent on the relatively low-rating Saturday Live and Friday Night Live on Channel 4, both ultimately shepherded by Alan Boyd’s resolutely mainstream but highly influential Entertainment Department at LWT.

Since then, where has the next giant New Wave of British comedy been? There are random outbreaks of originality, but mostly there has been a barren mediocrity of pale imitations of previous waves – and the desolate, mostly laugh-free zone that is BBC3.

At this point, allow me an even more personal view.

I thought I spotted a change in Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows around 2003 when Janey Godley was barred from consideration for the Perrier Award (despite a very lively verbal fight among the judging the panel) because it was decided that her seminal show Caught in the Act of Being Myself did not fall within the remit of the Awards because it was not a single ‘show’ repeated every night: she was basically ad-libbing a different hour of comedy every performance for 28 consecutive nights.

That same year, Mike Gunn performed his confessional heroin-addict show Mike Gunn: Uncut at the Fringe although, unlike Janey, he lightened and held back some of the more serious details of his life story.

It seemed to me that, certainly after 2004, when Janey performed her confessional show Good Godley!,  Fringe shows started an increasing tendency towards often confessional autobiographical storytelling. Good Godley! was one of the first hour-long comedy shows at the Fringe (though not the only one) to use material that was not in any way funny – in that case, child abuse, rape, murder and extreme emotional damage. Janey did not tell funny stories; she told stories funny. Viewed objectively, almost nothing she actually talked about was funny but audiences fell about laughing because it truly was “the way she told ’em”.

Since then, too, there seems to have been a tendency towards improvisation, probably spurred by the financial success of Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard. The traditional 1980s Alternative Comics still mostly stay to a script. The 21st Century comics influenced by Janey Godley, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble often do not (to varying degrees).

So it could be argued there has been a tendency in this decade away from gag-telling (apart from the brilliant Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine) towards storytelling… and a tendency towards improvisational gigs (bastardised by the almost entirely scripted and prepared ad-libs on TV panel shows).

But long-form storytelling does not fit comfortably into TV formats which tend to require short-form, gag-based, almost sound-bite material – you cannot tell long involved stories on panel shows and on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow type programmes. So a tendency in live gigs and certainly at the Edinburgh Fringe – a tendency away from gag-based comedy to storytelling comedy – has been unable to transfer to television and has therefore not fully developed.

Occasionally, a Fifth Wave of British comedy is sighted on the horizon but, so far, all sightings have turned out to be tantalising mirages.

One possibility are the Kent Comics who all studied Stand Up Comedy as an academic subject in the University of Kent at Canterbury. They include Pappy’s aka Pappy’s Fun Club, Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, Laura Lexx and The Noise Next Door. But they share an origin, not a style.

Whither British comedy?

Who knows?

Not me.

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What is success? Global fame, Simon Cowell or a big fish in a small pond?

Yesterday, 20-year-old American comedian Bo Burnham started a two-week tour of England. He has his first album out, has been commissioned to write a movie, MTV recently ordered a television pilot from him and, in January this year, he finished Number One in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown in the US – a public vote on the twenty greatest Comedy Central performances. But he is still mostly unknown in the UK, despite being that new phenomenon ‘an internet sensation’ and winning the much-publicised Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe.

I wrote a blog a while ago about Ken Dodd which started off “Morecambe and Wise were not famous” and mentioned, as an aside, that “fame is relative and mostly regional

One response was from Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally performing farter. He has performed all over the place and, at various times, been fairly famous in Sweden and in Japan because of his television appearances there. Far more famous than in Britain, where farting in peaktime is still frowned on.

He responded to my blog by saying: “I always find it interesting when I go abroad and do a TV show with a person who is that country’s Steve Wright or Jonathan Woss – a big fish in a small pond but none-the-less raking it in. My problem has always been that awareness of Mr Methane is spread globally rather than condensed in a certain geographical area which makes it harder to get bums on seats and make some serious money.”

The Scots comedienne Janey Godley has had a Top Ten bestselling hardback and paperback book in the UK and regularly (I have seen the figures) gets over 500,000 worldwide hits per week on her widely-posted blog. But if she were to play a theatre in, say, Cleethorpes in England or Peoria in the US, she would not necessarily sell out the venue’s tickets in the first half hour they went on sale, because she has had relatively little English TV exposure and her fame and fanbase is spread worldwide not concentrated locally.

To be a big ‘live’ star in a country, you still have to be on that country’s television screens fairly regularly. A massive internet following may not be enough for you to make shedloads of money on tour. I would lay bets that some amiable but relatively talentless British stand-up comedian who appears on a BBC3 panel show will make better box office money on a UK tour than the equally amiable and immeasurably more talented Bo Burnham who is, indeed, that legendary beast ‘an internet sensation’.

In 2009, Mr Methane was on Britain’s Got Talent. Several clips of that appearance have been posted on YouTube and, at the time of writing, one of those clips

has had over ten million hits. But those ten million plus people are spread across the globe, so how does Mr Methane, in that awful American phrase, ‘monetise’ the awareness of his existence? He can market products online, which I know he does very successfully but, if he were playing a live venue in Peoria, would he fill the auditorium?

The result is that, as Mr Methane observes, you can often make more money and be more ‘successful’ by being a big fish in a small pond rather than being an internationally recognised performer. Financially, it is usually still better to have 10 million fans in the UK than 30 million fans worldwide.

iTunes, YouTube and other online phenomena are still in their infancy and may well change all that and Bo Burnham may be one of the trailblazers.

The now-dying record business created international stars selling millions of discs worldwide who could tour on the back of that success. But without television exposure and with only a few exceptions, that has not yet happened for comedy acts. You still need local TV exposure.

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