In its quivering excitement last week’s Radio Times didn’t seem quite sure if it was advertising the American remake of this comedy (picked up by Funny Or Die and set to star Will Ferrell) or the Australian original. Happily for UK viewers the accents gave us a clue. No Activity sees three pairs of colleges all trapped in classic sitcom situations, cleverly linked to create something much funnier than the sum of its parts. And those parts are pretty funny to begin with. There’s a clever use of the classic cop show opening credits – it looks like it’s going to be dark, tense and packed with bad-ass action. But from the title we know that’s not going to be the case.
On a stakeout outside a suspected drugs warehouse is Detective Hendy, a young and ambitious chap and his senior Detective Stokes, who seems a bit of a bumbling dreamer. They’ve spent far too much time together and will discuss just about anything that pops into their mind. The chief concern in episode one is the plaster dolphin statue in the back seat that just might stand out to any watching crims, but Stokes couldn’t bear to leave it sitting there on the street for the binmen. Their later chat about how Stokes has a vasectomy face made me laugh out loud.
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.
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.
I am worryingly out of fashion on the internet. As we all know by now it’s a place for spitting bile, name calling and generally being a dick. All happy, positive and sincere thoughts are banned. Despite fears that I might end up sounding like Professor Brian Cox or the fabulous theme from The Lego Movie (everything is either amazing! or awesome!) it turns out it’s easier for me to review things I like. If I enjoy something I watch I want to tell you about it. Simples.
And even though I promised myself a full year ago to get out of my tv comfort zone and try new things I still fail. If you can only stand to watch 10 minutes of a programme, it can’t be worth discussing can it? And is it fair to judge a show on such a short viewing? Probably not. But dear sweet baby cheesus, sometimes 10 minutes is more than enough.