Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Something wicked this way comes.

I know I'm not the only one awaiting Psychoville's return to the BBC with baited breath, but I also feel extremely aware that it's been a long time since I had this feeling. You know, those butterflies you get when you see a trailer for a TV comedy you know is going to be good. Something you can safely invest the time in.

Some of the best new comedies take me by surprise. The Trip, for example, I was aware of mere days before it aired, and I was truly thankful that I didn't miss out. Roger and Val Have Just Got In, too, I just caught on the off-chance due to its clever, but still odd broadcast time of early evening. I mean, I love the continuity and real time element, but I can't be the only person who writes off that part of the day as the domain of dull 'lifestyle shows' and programmes about animal cruelty.

Nevertheless, it feels like whilst there's truly some good stuff still out there, I feel like there's something happening in the way things are getting commissioned. And not something positive. Whilst the BBC for its part is holding its own, it is not entirely immune. In fact, the main source of the trouble seems to be Channel Four. As we enter the years where we're desperately awaiting someone to take the baton and write some comedy the likes of which we were spoiled with in the nineties and early noughties, the broadcasters are losing their way trying to identify with what people want to see. In short, you can still have the odd bit of magnificence like The Thick of It, there's also an increasing number of shockingly bad examples of comedy forced down our throats as 'the next big thing' as the broadcasters try to fill the increasing number of gaps in their schedules. No evolution, just repeated revolution.

It feels like sometime about five years ago, somebody decided that funny wouldn't register unless it was needlessly controversial. Probably around the time Frankie Boyle began to gain popularity on Mock the Week, coincidentally. I've always furtively disliked the show for the very reason that it's relies on a concept with so woefully little substance. A group of mediocre comics poked with a stick and forced to be funny under the glare of spotlights. A poor man's Shooting Stars, if you will. 'Freestyle comedy' beset by rules and 'format' that instantly prevent it from existing.

It was around that point, I feel, that someone, somewhere inexplicably decided that this is what the public wanted. Or rather, a small section of the public. The ones who thought the joke about the Queen's haunted pussy was funny. Which, in all probability, is noone. Laughing at inappropriate social behaviour, after all is little more than an automatic response. Like insignificant electrical impulses and twitches after death. It doesn't mean it's particularly welcome or enjoyable. So as Frankie Boyle found his infamy through courting the tabloids, he started to cement his place as 'something for the young'uns'. Fast forward a couple of years and the resulting product is Tramadol Nights, the most appalling excuse for a sketch show I have ever had the misfortune to watch.

And what are we meant to do? Clap and applaud? Comedy may be controversial at times, but that should be a by-product, not the main purpose. At the very least, it should have a reason for being there. The worrying thing about Tramadol Nights is not that it's insulting to its audience (if there is one). It's that someone thought we'd like it. I don't think I'd be going out on a limb to say that someone followed the train of thought that Channel Four needed to maintain its relevancy with a younger audience when considering this as a pitch. And as one of the people they were looking to court with this idea, I won't be the first to say that it didn't resound with me. At the very least, it's comedy at its most patronising. That simply to say something offensive without reasoning or context will be funny to anyone is a fundamentally flawed strategy.

I would be more prone to let this whole business go if I wasn't convinced that Tramadol Nights wasn't Channel Four's 'next big thing'. After all, is there anything else in the pipeline? It doesn't feel that way. Maybe this is why I still feel raw about something that finished in December 2010. Because it's one of the last things I remember coming out of Channel Four that was meant to make us laugh. As if they really considered it a springboard for a new decade of entertainment.

I feel a similar, if less acute sentiment towards Ten O'Clock Live when seeing the manner of execution there. Whilst it still has the veneer of a current affairs show, the inexplicable inclusion of Jimmy Carr suggests to me a point towards controversy over substance. Are we meant to be amused as Carr breaks character repeatedly, proving his inability to handle live television broadcasting? I tired of it during the Alternative Election Night. It all smacks of badly-planned TV given to 'the kids' in the hope it'll float for its kitsch value.

There are lessons to be learned here, but surprisingly, I don't think the viewing figures of half a million by the last episode of Tramadol Nights will deter Channel 4 from commissioning things like this for the future. We'll just have to settle for series 56 of Peep Show, I suppose.

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