Comedy Showcase/Lab: The Results Part II

Almost a year has passed since the first half of Channel 4’s Comedy Showcase and E4’s Comedy Lab completed their concurrent runs. And a lot has changed since then. Inexplicably, the only one 4 picked up out of the original six thus far was Anna & Katy, far and away the worst offering of the initial half-dozen. Chickens though will go to series, albeit for Sky instead. For the others, everything’s either gone quiet or has been confirmed dead (e.g. The Fun Police).

But back to the final six. Once the announcement came through that Comedy Lab was to be cancelled after 13 years (roughly round the same time that they launched the online-only Comedy Blaps, perhaps as an indication of where the training ground for new comedy talent will lie in future), the scheduling went a bit haywire. The final three Comedy Lab instalments were practically sneaked in under the radar later than they were originally due to be broadcast, and the last of the Comedy Showcase episodes has only just found its way to our screens as part of 4’s current Funny Fortnight. Were they worth the wait?

COMEDY LAB

The Mr and Mrs Hotty Hott Hot Show

This is not comedy trio Pappy’s first foray into the Comedy Lab, having created a more conventional sketch offering in the previous series, but in the wake of Shooting Stars’ cancellation, it seems if Vic and Bob aren’t able to keep their surreal over-the-top games show on air (though they are back this week, again for Funny Fortnight, in a one-off special Lucky Sexy Winners), this rag-tag absurdist beauty pageant pastiche doesn’t stand much of a chance either. Through a series of rather pathetic fairground-style challenges, audience members are whittled down to see who will be crowned Mr or Mrs Hotty Hott Hot. There’s very little else to it, but the energy (and peculiar karaoke renditions of popular hits) from the Pappy’s gang just about keeps it going, but only just, with the live studio fun only vaguely translating through the TV screen. Popstar Jamelia once again proves to be an unsung comedy genius, but for all its naughtiness and tomfoolery, it’s decidedly ho-hum. 2/5

The Warm-Up Guy

Initially, alarm bells rang that this would be a rip-off of Ray Peacock’s wonderful short, a behind-the-scenes peek at the life of the warm-up act who gets the studio audience going before filming a TV recording. The Warm-Up Guy takes a different approach, following in the fine British comedy tradition of deluded failures. However, it’s always a tricky thing to focus on a deliberately unfunny comedian funny and an unlikeable character sympathetic, but Tom Davis as Ian Bodkin largely fails to achieve either. There’s a desperation to it all that rings true (his vlog attempts in particular), and his job search meetings have an unexpected heightened tension being that his coordinator is played by Kill List star Neil Mallarkey. But Bodkin is so annoying, you barely care where he ends up at all. 2/5

Kabadasses

The final Comedy Lab episode (in history), and probably the most obvious pilot (being that it is largely character introduction and plot establishment), also just so happens to be one of the weakest. It’s another east meets west culture-clash comedy (i.e. a Goodness Gracious Me cast member has to appear, in this case Kulvinder Ghir), this time focusing on slacker Bobby’s attempt to put together an all-white team to play the traditional Indian wrestling sport of Kabaddi. Shazad Latif is an affable lead, and Tony Jayawardena as a legendary Kabaddi player hired to train them is entertaining, but there’s very little else to recommend about it. The superhero-style character profiles are naff, and the assembled oddballs and no-hopers (including a seemingly lost Josie Long) are as cookie-cutter as can be (Fatso, Hippy, Geek). The worst of the worst though is Vin (The Fun Police’s Jack Doolan), Bobby’s supposed best mate but for how and for why is baffling considering he is a horribly sweary oaf who uses his working class background and lack of education as an excuse for his hugely misguided racial slurs. Kabadasses tries to have it both ways to some extent, but why it’s okay to resurrect the spirit of Bernard Manning with “Ramadama-ding-dong” jokes here is beyond comprehension. Or perhaps its just “ironic” stereotyping a la Come Fly With Me. Kabadasses wants to be a British Dodgeball: An Underdog Story. In the end, it’s just balls. And ass. 1/5

 

COMEDY SHOWCASE

The Angelos Neil Epithemiou Show

It’s interesting that the only Comedy Showcase or Comedy Lab pilot in the 2011-12 offerings to go to series before even being screened is a vehicle for a character first introduced to the masses through the aforementioned recently cancelled Shooting Stars. But in gifting Angelos Epithemou his own show (which has already completed its first run!), at least something survives. Naturally the show lives or dies on whether you find the character amusing or not, and I do, but whether he can hold a half-hour variety mix of chat, quiz, interviews, audience participation, sketches, and song-and-dance numbers is another issue. As a means of comparison, you could look at Da Ali G Show, and likewise with Borat and Bruno, so too does Dan Skinner play other characters, but whereas Ali G was already established as a ‘yoof’ reporter on The 11 O’Clock Show and therefore presenting in a studio was not such a stretch, Epithemiou is perhaps not quite as well-placed in a format such as this. Yet, the deliberately shambolic anything-goes nature of the show, and the addition of the wonderful Adeel Akhtar (from Four Lions) as his even more inept sidekick, it gets away with it. Though it says something that I actually didn’t bother with the series itself. 3/5

Milton Jones’s House of Rooms

Though Milton Jones is by no means a newcomer, this was my first introduction to his work, and a very fine one it was too. A pretty conventional setting and situation (a ‘house’, owned by his mother who lets out ‘rooms’ to tenants) is merely the framework for an introductory episode filled with some very funny jokes and a wonderful set of performances, particularly Jones and Colin Hoult as charismatic Australian charmer, new tenant and love rival Paul. What’s more, House of Rooms is really impressively shot, in a highly stylised, near-cinematic fashion not really seen in either director Ben Palmer or director of photography Ben Wheeler’s previous work (having last collaborated on The Inebetweeners). Sometimes the comedy feels more like stand-up one liners and plays on words forced into a sitcom framework, but they are often so good, it doesn’t matter. And there are enough reveals, sight gags, surreal asides, and slapstick for it to be the most enjoyable episode of the second six. Yet, the cruelty of tellyland strikes again as a series is not in the offing. 4/5

The Function Room

It’s taken many many months, but finally Daniel Maier’s pilot and the last of the Comedy Showcase run has aired. Boasting a cast featuring more familiar faces than any of the others (including Kevin Eldon, Reece Shearsmith, Daniel Rigby, Simon Day, James Fleet, Marek Larwood, Blake Harrison…), The Function Room will surely serve as an excellent step for any future British comedy Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-style pub conversation starter. But as a piece of comedy, it’s somewhat wanting. The characters are flat and the situation (locals attending a police meet-and-greet in the titular Function Room) uninspiring, which would be fine if it were all just a cipher for decent jokes, but these are few in number. Instead, we have running gags that go nowhere, puerile double entendre, and faecal matter. It manages to tie itself together a little better in the second half, but it feels more like an overlong skit that’d fill some time on Comic Relief night than a prospective opener for a full-blown series. 2/5

Homeland Series One: The Debrief

THERE BE SPOILERS!

There’s something about Homeland that just doesn’t sit right. Throughout the whole of the first series, it never wanted to settle into a groove, or tow the party line, which is fine for what the show is, a tense psychological ‘war on terror’ thriller in which nothing can be trusted, even the main protagonist’s own senses. But at the same time, its fidgetiness soon became exhausting, and exhaustion bred dullness, encapsulated in its headache of a title sequence. It felt like 5 different dramas all competing against each other at once, the various characters and plot strands all pulling and pushing in different directions, never quite gelling as well as it should. So much plot and so many revelations were crammed into just the pilot episode it’s a wonder it didn’t all buckle under the strain sooner.

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TV REVIEW: Black Mirror – 15 Million Merits

With no Twilight Zone, Outer Limits or Tales of the Unexpected to go around in recent years, there’s been a gap in the stand-alone off-kilter drama series market for some time. There must be hundreds of scripts out there, with concepts too big for a short film, too small for a feature, which would fit this kind of series, but it naturally takes a recognisable name attached to convince channels to put up the cash for shows which change cast and location every week, yet don’t have the cross-generational appeal and branding of Doctor Who. Mark Gatiss’ spooky three-hander Crooked House was a recent success, and now comes Charlie Brooker’s thematically linked trilogy of dark tales, Black Mirror.

15 Million Merits is the second episode (it kicks off with The National Anthem on Sunday 4th December, and  the third, The Entire History of You, is written by Peep Show and The Thick of It’s Jesse Armstrong), but while they all share similar strands of techno-paranoia, they are entirely separate stories.

The setting: a sarcastic version of the near future. Society exists in a drone-like state, cooped up in cell-like rooms, the walls giant TV screens, only to join the masses for seemingly pointless exercise bike cycling while crummy reality programmes and game shows play on a loop. The more you pedal, the more ‘merits’ (or cash) you earn. Into this bleak existence, we follow Bing (Daniel Kaluuya), gradually running out of patience with everything his life entails. However, an encounter with newcomer Abi (Jessica Brown-Findlay) gives him a fresh sense of purpose, to give her the chance to escape the daily drudgery through the sole remaining goal to aspire to in life: appearing on TV talent show ‘Hot Shot’.

Considering Brooker is someone who takes such pleasure in words, relishing the chance to create new amalgamations of insults and spew delicious bile at the drop of a hat, what is most striking about the start of 15 Million Merits is how it is very light on actual dialogue, focused primarily on establishing the word in which it is set. The story is all very contained, but you get enough of a flavour of society at large thanks to impressive design, belying the budgetary restrictions, and some first-rate concepts employed expanding on contemporary technology and taking it to its next natural stage of progression. Everything is operated through Kinect-style gestures and movements, people exist through and purchase items for their Xbox Avatar-esque ‘dopplers’, and everything seems to have a paywall attached – you even have to pay to skip adverts. Exposition is kept to a minimum, allowing the actions of the characters and the imagery speak for itself, with skilled and measured direction from Doctor Who and Torchwood: Children of Earth (i.e. the only good Torchwood episodes) director Euros Lyn.

It helps though that the performances are mostly excellent too, with Kaluuya and Brown-Findlay compelling and believable leads. There is a genuine sweetness in their interactions with each other, which while Brooker has deflected to being his wife’s touch (Kanak “Konnie” Huq is co-writer of this episode), he was certainly capable of achieving amidst the satire and gore of Dead Set. However, although Huq hosted a series of The Xtra Factor, don’t expect the inside track on talent show TV, as there’s nothing particularly revelatory here. In fact, despite an engaging setting, a sci-fi slant, and hilarious turns by Rupert Everett and Julia Davis on the ‘Hot Shot’ panel (Ashley Thomas aka Bashy is less convincing as the third judge), the …Got Talent parody is already a worn premise. Some of the other side-swipes also fall short – references to a social hierarchy built around obesity don’t hang together as well as they should, and the other pastiche TV shows and video games on offer are poorly handled. And a passionately delivered but clunky speech towards the end, while undercut nicely afterwards and leading into a satisfying, self-reflexive conclusion, still feels like a step too far into “stating the obvious” territory.

Yet, 15 Million Merits still has enough juicy ideas, neat touches, and novel twists on the perils of omnipresent media and the problems of consumer culture to see it through, and is further evidence that Brooker is as much a vicious vital voice in dramatic writing as he is in comedy.

7/10

Black Mirror – 15 Million Merits screens on Channel 4 on Sunday 11th December

Comedy Showcase/Lab: The Results Part I

Channel 4 and E4 have just completed the first half of runs of both Comedy Showcase and Comedy Lab respectively, a useful training ground for both established and upcoming comic acts to test out pilot episodes for prospective full-length series (examples that have made it include PhoneShop, Campus, School of Comedy, Fonejacker, Modern Toss, and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret) or just one-off exercises to introduce new talent (Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, Jimmy Carr and Peter Kay all made early forays into telly through Comedy Lab). Let’s take a look at them one by one…

Chickens

First out of the gate and, having received most of the publicity and, most probably, the budget too, Chickens is set on the Home Front during the First World War. Inbetweeners Simon Bird and Joe Thomas, and Edinburgh Comedy Newcomer Award Winner Jonny Sweet write and star as a trio of young men who have declined the call of duty for various reasons, and are left to be made a mockery of by the far more capable women that remain. Beyond the by-no-means-infallible Blackadder, period comedy is still a novelty, perhaps due to budgetary restrictions, but the set-up certainly has enough comic potential, and the pilot makes a fair case for it. This is in large part to the likeable Sweet, who despite playing the most detestable character (preying on the widowed and likely-to-be-widowed) balances his unsavoury preoccupations and selfish attitude with an effortless charm and great comic timing and delivery. Bird and Thomas are fine, if undefined, and the toilet humour jars somewhat, but with all the attention heaped on it, especially given the success of The Inbetweeners Movie, it would be a shame if Chickens didn’t make it to series. 3/5

Anna & Katy

Though both Anna Crilly and Katy Wix have appeared together and apart in a variety of comedy shows in recent years (including Not Going Out, Lead Balloon and Tom Basden’s play turned radio comedy Party), this is their first chance to make one of their own, the imaginatively titled Anna & Katy. Though a sketch show format is perhaps the simplest way to demonstrate the range of one’s talent, it usually takes more than one episode to really get going. However, on the basis of this, it’s a case of dead on arrival. The five or so sketches in the first half of the show (including a German hospital soap with Lee Mack, a quiz show with a twist hosted by Eamonn Holmes, and a corrupt W.I. awards meet) raise barely a titter amongst them, so to basically repeat them all in the second half shows a real lack of ideas. The best of the bunch is Congratulation! – a daytime telly piss-take with viewers phoning in to be congratulated for minor triumphs. It’s a nice concept, even if the cod-Jamaican accents leave a little more to be desired. Crilly and Wix are undeniably fun performers in other work, but this first attempt going it alone is unoriginal and uninspired. 1/5

 

Coma Girl

Perhaps the situation comedy with the least potential in its situation, Coma Girl focuses on three former school friends (Him & Her‘s Sarah Solemani, The I.T. Crowd‘s Katherine Parkinson, and Katy Wix – again), visiting the fourth member of their group, Lucy (Anna Crilly – again), currently comatose in hospital. There’s not really a lot more to it, though we do get the odd dream sequence of Lucy trapped in her subconscious. These brief segments are nicely shot and break up the episode, even if they would be better served doing more to subvert convention a la Living in Oblivion rather than simply sticking to the clichés. At least there wasn’t a ‘spirit guide’, though it would have given the titular Coma Girl someone to interact with. Overall it’s not bad, with okay performances all round, but it’s a brief interlude with a sarcastic nurse and the always classy Julia Deakin (Marsha in Spaced) as Lucy’s mum who actually bring the funny. 2/5

Totally Tom

Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton are Totally Tom, and they offer a much stronger if decidedly different set of sketches than Anna & Katy. While there are familiar set-ups (a police interrogation, two bitchy coke-addled party girls, a pastiche of Skins), they often end up in more grotesque territory than you’d first expect. The final sketch is a perfect example, taking a pretty straightforward T4 link format, sending up youth TV culture, and twisting into something smarter, darker and cringe-inducing. It’s by no means consistent, the sketches are perhaps overlong and its attempts to shock sometimes overpower their attempts to raise a chuckle. However, as a first chance to enter the warped minds of Palmer and Stourton, Totally Tom suggests that in some shape or form they will be ones to watch. 3/5

 

The Fun Police

Perhaps the most “star-studded” of the showcase so far, with The Flight of the Conchords‘ Rhys Darby and Vic Reeves (under his real name, Jim Moir) amongst the cast, The Fun Police positions itself as an I.T. Crowd-esque studio sitcom with mismatched characters in an off-kilter place of work (here, a seaside town’s Health and Safety Department). Reeves’ brief appearances as a brash swaggering town-planner are the clear highlight, and Darby is entertainingly incompetent, adorably proud of the terrible new mascot he’s devised. Nice suit too. But the rest of the cast are less successful: Jack Doolan (Cemetery Junction) is a drippy lead, Clive Rowe appears utterly superfluous as his counsellor, and (once more) Katy Wix’s robotic arm is a daft gimmick too far. It all amounts to a whole lot of nothing – aimless and shallow and simply not as funny as it should be. Best title sequence though. 2/5

Rick & Peter

Writer, comedian and occasional Coward Tom Basden ropes in T4 presenting chum Rick Edwards to play a version of himself, opposite Hollyoaks actor Peter Mitchell (also as himself), in the best of the run thus far. After making a series of unfortunate on-air ‘retard’ jokes, the producers pair Rick up with disabled Peter for a lesson in political correctness, understanding and sensitivity – even though neither participant is particularly enthusiastic about the project. The beauty of the show is not just in the deft performances, the naturalistic style and witty script, but that Edwards himself is host of Channel 4’s 2012 Paralympic Games coverage, making it a far more targeted skewering of tellyland personality clashes than your average self-reflexive mock-doc. Add in the scene-stealing Joe Wilkinson (Him & Her) as ‘The Sheriff’, Edwards’ free-loading buddy, and a couple of delicious cameos, and Rick & Peter is an example of Comedy Lab delivering the goods. 5/5

 

Channel 4’s Comedy Showcase and E4’s Comedy Lab return on 14th October.