Even thinking about writing this review makes me uncomfortable so I’ll keep it short. It feels disloyal to dislike Action Team given how much I adore Murder in Successville, how Vicky McClure and Jim Howick both are well on their way to becoming national treasures, and how I absolutely fancy the pants off Tom Davis. But putting all this aside, I offer you this warning. Guys, it’s not good.
On paper it’s got bags of potential – who doesn’t love a silly spoof spy comedy? Austin Powers is a cultural touchstone (if people don’t curl their pinky fingers when they say one million dollars, are they even worth your time?) and more recently Kingsman and Spy with Melissa McCarthy have been doing big box office business. So why not transfer it to the small screen? James De Frond and Tom Davis are surely the right men for the job, given how masterfully they combined cop show, comedy, improv and celebrity quiz show in Murder in Successville? And they’ve only gone and got Vicky McClure from the all-conquering Line of Dutyto keep a straight face as the straight woman. ITV were extremely confident, given the huge advertising campaign pumped out last weekend with posters everywhere, adverts on all commercial breaks and Vicky and Tom’s arses adoringing sofas at The Last Leg, Sunday Brunch and probably more besides.
Comedy roast are not all that common in the UK, despite this being the home of the Archbishop of Banterbury, Bantom of the Opera and the Bantersaurus Rex (lads! lads! lads!). While we’re very much at home with taking the piss out of each other in the pub, the playground and all-office emails, this kind of vicious verbal sparring in front of an audience is a format that we’re just not used to in merry old England. We leave that to the Americans, and a proud history they have of it too. Instantly this new Comedy Central show is a bit out of step for the British audience looking for funnies, with a post-apocalyptic set, macho gunshot sound track, and the studio audience expected to shout and point as well as drink and laugh. It’s all a bit too much to believe we can multitask like this.
I love stand-up comedy, on tv and especially live (shout out to the excellent Fat Penguin club nights in Birmingham – if you’re in the Midlands check them out), but I turned this on and watched it through my fingers. I didn’t was this format to fail, but it was bound to be a disaster, right? As The Guardian said “Roast battles and insult comedy? No thanks, we’re British”. But despite the silly gunshot noises and the heavy reliance on Paper Planes by MIA, the battles themselves were not as aggressive as I’d thought. If anything the style is collaborative; usually solo comics acting as a team, building on each other’s jokes, laughing at themselves and visibly enjoying the experience. I was all set to hate it but the four comedians in the first episode did such a good job they quickly won me over.
I’m Dying Up Here was on my to-watch list for a long time before I took the plunge. I’m sorry I hesitated, because it’s exceptional television. It’s American comedy-drama television series created by David Flebotte and set firmly in 1970s Hollywood. It was made for Showtime in the US and picked up in the UK on Sky Atlantic (exactly where you’d expect quality imports to pitch up). It has comedy pedigree in its backbone as it’s based on a book by William Knoedelseder detailing the excesses of soon-to-be household names such as Jay Leno, Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman on Sunset Strip in the 70s. It’s also executive produced by Jim Carrey, and at the time of writing, the less said about him the better.
While based in reality, this is a fictionalised account of the premier Los Angeles comedy club, and the denizens who inhabit it, honing their craft to make it to the big time. That way real-life anecdotes can be revised, tweaked and magnified, much like the way a stand-up takes real life and makes it funny, constantly revising their act.
The comedy club is Goldie’s, owned and run by businesswoman and matriarch Goldie Herschlag (played by Melissa Leo, and loosely based on Mitzi Shore the founder of The Comedy Store). She has very little tenderness in her heart and is all about business. She cares for her comics in a way, but is very strict with them, and this tactic has proved extremely successful. What she says goes (even insisting one comic change his name after daring to play in another LA club). Goldie’s is only place where the talent scouts come from Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’, the big coast-to-coast American talk show. That slim chance at stardom is what keeps her comics loyal.
The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and suddenly there’s a bunch of new comedy series on tv. Here’s your guide to great things returning this week, and one show that we can really do without…
Yonderland (Sky 1) Sunday 16th October 6pm
Written by and starring the cast of Horrible Histories, this show now returning for Series 3 is unrestrained by facts or learning and transplanted to a fantasy land on Sky1. Nice and normal Brummie housewife Debbie Maddox (Martha Howe-Douglas) is the saviour of this strange and silly land. She tries to impose some order on the chaos (fighting inept demons, going on mystical quests, dealing with the totally insane ruling council) while keeping her unbelievable double life secret from her husband Pete (Dan Renton-Skinner – brilliant in everything). If you’ve not seen the first two series, treat yourself because they’re all on Sky Catch Up right now. It’s the kind of show you need to watch recorded as Series 1 especially would make you laugh so loud and hard that you’d miss the next punchline and have to rewind it.
As part of BBC sitcom season, last weekend the BBC’s flagship science show Horizon covered the topic of laughter and comedy with familiar telly star and hard-working stand-up comic Jimmy Carr in the host’s chair.
It began as an awkward panel show with documentary sections and a little stand-up twirl on a tiny mini-stage that Jimmy seems to favour on tv. It was a consciously crappy set littered with generic science props, like they’d rifled through the dumpster from 1990’s-era Room 101. Jimmy should have been good at working in a strange hybrid situation (8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown is usually spot on) but this wasn’t good, despite his best attempts… so more like 10 o’Clock Live then.The studio audience were nervous, and nervously laughed at how nervous they were.
Once the science started it was pretty interesting, if no less awkward. Sticking three Professors on a little sofa is not going to make the evening any less ungainly. Fortunately Jimmy asked incisive questions of the academics and showed his own comedy intelligence. No surprise here as he has co-written quite a scholarly work on the subject of comedy with Lucy Greeves called The Naked Jape – I got a second-hand copy off the internet last year and was thoroughly entertained and learned a lot. If you can get hold of a copy I heartily recommend it, whether you’re a stand-up comedian or just a lover of comedy.
This week the force of nature that is my daughter announced she had (free) tickets for a recording of the new series Harry Hill’s Tea Time (as yet un-aired).
Harry defected from ITV to Sky and now he he has this new spoof cookery/interview with a celeb show with elements of TV Burp and references to You’ve Been Framed.
Girl applied for priority tickets to see it made and to her surprise got them. Excitedly we headed off to Osterley Park. Now, we live east of East London. This destination was west of West London. So to me it might as well have been Australia.
I read a really inspiring blog post last week about the importance of tv comedy. Sarah at Gracefully Falling Upwards wrote about how comedy changed her life; how it helped her laugh and feel ok during a particularly dark and difficult time in her life. She says:
“Comedy was there for me when I didn’t have the words to tell anyone how I felt. Comedy was there to make me laugh on the days that I didn’t even want to get out of bed. Comedy made me feel like the world wasn’t always so dark and painful and that eventually it does get better.”
This really resonated with me. When I was little I was pretty awkward and quite lonely. I found solace in books, rather than tv. I still do. Along side trying to keep up to date with great tv shows, and finding the time to write about them for you folks, my challenge is to read 70 books this year! (You can follow my progress at GoodReads). Basically I’m going to spend so much time sitting this year I might develop DVT!