Archives for posts with tag: comedy

Mental health has grown in prominence over the last few years. This can only be a good thing, so long as this change is permanent and not just a fashion. Awareness is becoming a fight for better funding, and open conversations about everything from anxiety to eating disorders are flourishing.

As part of this, Dave have partnered up with the charity CALM to produce a series of stand-up specials called Comedy Against Living Miserably where comedians present a set talking about their own mental health. It is essentially Live at the Apollo with a theme.

Interspersed across the episode are scenes of the comics talking backstage giving more context to their set and about their life in general. The chats are interesting and can be quite deep. For example, one saw the group discussing the ‘sad clown’ trope, asking themselves that if in hunting so hard for the funny things in life, they are also become aware of the sad.

The problem is in mushing these two concepts together. Stand-up sets discussing mental health – great. Group conversations that go beyond the sets – fantastic. But the group chats often interrupt the set the comedian is doing, making you wonder if you are missing a part of the story. On the flip side, the more frivolous sets feeling like they are crashing on top of the poignancy of the conversations.

You end up feeling as if the two concepts should be separated and become either a stand-up show or more of a chat show. Either would create a more consistent tone and become a rewarding watch. My personal preference would be the latter, as the chats are still funny in places but also allow for a feel of more real talk.

It may feel like I’m being churlish criticising a charity programme, like I’m expecting it to be something Bafta winning. But all I’m asking for is for something that is so worthy in its nature to become worthwhile watching. Mental health is a very important topic. It deserves for progammes about it to be the best they can be.

Teen drama is always something that America has excelled and Britain has lagged behind at. Shows like The OC and 90210 always carry that hint of glamour and melodrama lacking from something like Grange Hill or Byker Grove. Surely teens aren’t that different on either side of the Atlantic from each other?

Hurrah then for Netflix’s Sex Education. Set at a British sixth-form college, it focuses on Otis (Asa Butterfield) as he finds himself an unlikely relationship and sex guru to his fellow students whilst navigating his own sexuality. He is assisted by the resident bad girl Maeve (Emma Mackey) and gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). Things are further complicated by his relationship with his professional sex therapist mother (Gillian Anderson).

I adore this show for many reasons. Firstly, it is an honest look at teenage sexuality in the 21st-century. The stark truth is many kids are having sex at 16/17 and this programme is great at navigating the minefield. I particularly loved one of the plotlines in the second episode, where a teenage couple encounter problems because the girl wants to only have sex in the dark due to her disgust at her own body. Otis teaches her to love herself in order to be more confident with her boyfriend, enhancing both their lives.

If this sounds preachy, it isn’t. Ideas like respecting boundaries and consent are tackled with a light touch and warmth. In fact, it’s only at the end of the episode you realise that you have learnt something.

All this makes it essential viewing for those 15 and up, which makes the 18 certificate a little bit infuriating. When a show is so openly teaching valuable life lessons, those who need it most should be able to access it. The nudity isn’t pornographic, it is real. If anything, it is the counter-balance to the overly pornographic nature sex is often displayed as in other shows. This is healthy sex. Free-range, organic, ethical sex.

The only criticism I have is the Americanisation of the show. There’s the lack of uniform at the school for a start, the sports team culture, the Mean Girls clique. I’m almost expecting a crowd of cheerleaders to appear. In a show that is so British in its humour, this setting becomes an almost jarring note.

Nevertheless, you quickly forget this. This show teaches you all you need to know about finding joy in relationships, not least in the physical side. More importantly, it centres love and trust in that relationship, qualities that all too often are forgotten. I make no apologies for repeating myself – this is a must watch for anyone embarking on their first relationship.

There seems to be a trend of giving stand ups their own sitcoms, often regardless of if they have either the acting or writing chops to do it. To be fair, some are very good. Game Face by Roisin Conaty is genuinely funny and you root for the lead character, even when she is being self-destructive. Likewise, Aisling Bea’s This Way Up, although not always hitting the spot joke wise, was very investing.

The latest stand up-doing-dramedy is Mae Martin in Feel Good. Unlike Conaty and Bea, she is playing a fictionalised version of herself. As in, Canadian lesbian who is a recovering addict and works as a stand up. The premise focuses around her fledgling relationship with George, a woman who up to know used to be straight and can’t quite bring herself to introduce Mae to her friends.

There are several things of note in the show. It has a lot to say about recovering from addictions, not least the tendency to swap one addiction for another. In this case, Mae’s fixation is now George and a dependency on her. Sobriety isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and at the root of Mae is the need to lie to herself that she is fixed.

Also, Lisa Kudrow is impressive as Mae’s mother, although so far has been on the periphery of the action, merely issuing barbed comments over video call. She is one of those comic monsters – quick to rebuke the behaviour of others but oblivious to her own.

Balancing this though are two central problems. The first is the almost cartoon stereotype of ‘posh’ people represented by George’s friends. Obnoxious and toxic to the extreme, there is something flat about them. Compared to the more subtle cruelty of Mae’s mother, the portrait of the Chelsea types is of 2-d nastiness. I don’t buy why George is so afraid of telling them the truth – they are such unpleasant people that if they reject it can only be for the good.

The other issue is Mae herself. Everything about her wears a little thin after a while. The neediness, the self-deprecation, the outbursts; none of it is enjoyable to watch. Or at least, not if you are meant to find any of it funny.

And this is what it boils down to. The shows becomes another example of a dramedy that has forgotten the jokes. Where are the things that are supposed to make us laugh. For a show that is called Feel Good, it makes you feel anything but.

 

I can tell how much I’m invested in a show with how little I look at my phone when it is on. A poor episode of Doctor Who barely gets my attention for more than a few minutes at a time. A sterling episode of Taskmaster and my phone goes untouched. TV now faces so many rivals to our attention it has to be brilliant to win.

The reason why I’m discussing this is that I am currently watching the third and final series of This Country, the mockumentary following the lives of Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe. The boredom of small-town life is neatly depicted in episodes revolving around visiting a steam fair or fighting over oven space.

The first two series I watched on my laptop, which led me to perhaps not appreciating its brilliance at first. I did notice though getting more invested as the show went on and found myself paying attention to the minutiae that drives the humour.

The third series I’m watching the old-fashioned way on an actual TV and it does somehow make the show so much stronger. My phone goes barely touched throughout the episode as the writing is so sharp and the acting beautifully real that you can’t tear yourself away from it.

It’s not even as if the plots are that big most of the time. One of them revolved around the vicar giving Kurtan his first driving lesson whilst looking for a missing neighbour. Another followed Kerry’s doomed attempts at working at a recycling centre. This isn’t edge-of-your-seat stuff, yet you somehow care more about what the characters get up to than if it was.

There are also some touching moments. The vicar telling the story of how he became the people pleaser that he is has genuine heartbreak in it. Likewise, elderly Len’s brief online fling has a touch of pathos at the end as both the worst of humanity and the best meet in the smallest setting.

Whilst it is sad that this is the final series, it feels right. It is such a perfect world that has been created that stretching it further feels like handling a priceless antique once too often. You get the feeling that this will be a show that lives on long past the end. The jokes will be as funny in 30 years’ time as they are now, as they are simply about human behaviour.

This Country is that rare thing. It is a distraction defeater. The rivals to your attention are vanquished. If that isn’t testament to the show, I don’t know what is.

Some British viewers may be able to cast their minds back a decade to Come Fly with Me, Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ spoof docu-soap set in an airport where they played an array of staff members. It was obvious it was sketch show pretending to be a documentary, the lines distinctly unblurred. Yes, I know that isn’t a word, but bear with me.

But what do you do when the borders aren’t so defined, and the comedy sits somewhere between truth and fiction? This is the case with Meet the Richardsons. On the surface this is a documentary, albeit a funny one, following comedian Jon Richardson and his fellow comic, wife Lucy Beaumont. It has all the hallmarks of a standard of this genre at a more low-key level – simmering tensions, candid thoughts and eventful occasions.

But then it turns out it is actually a sitcom written by Beaumont, making it a mockumentary. So it technically belongs with This Country. But even that is more able to flag its genre more clearly. It is obvious with the innate level of daftness and the extremes of the characters. Meet the Richardsons feels very real.

In many respects this confusion is only a problem for us fuddy-duddys. It is funny whether you treat it as a true slice of domestic life or a fictional comedy. The image of Jon hiding from party guests upstairs feels as if it is does happen, and in fairness, probably does. And it is when they are being just a slightly turned-up version of their real selves that this show works best.

Where the show stumbles slightly is when there is more of a deliberate push to create a ‘situation’. The end of the episode included a very unfunny and obviously false appearance on Mr & Mrs. It was a jarring note to create something so manufactured when everything else appeared natural. It was also an anti-climax, as the previous scene at the disastrous kid’s party had much more of a payoff from the previously introduced plotlines.

I hope as the series progresses that it focuses more on the believable and very nearly true to life stories and less on the ridiculous. Both of them have the comic timing to make it work without the need to insert ridiculous scenarios. The show is too low-key for them to work. Comedy and truth can mingle, but they need to do so the right way.

There are certain sitcoms that can only be made at a particular time. They are informed by the current political environment and tell a story that is uniquely matched to it. Of course, this risks a lack of timelessness that is needed in order to become a classic, but a lucky few can straggle both.

Home is one that could make such a breakthrough. For those who missed my discussion of the first series, it follows a middle-class family who accidentally gain a Syrian refugee. For a comedy it can be incredibly bittersweet. The first series saw Sami, the refugee give up his family who had settled in Germany to live the life he wanted in the UK, while Katy and Peter struggled to keep their relationship afloat in the face of Peter’s intolerance.

Season two continues these themes with a few added complications. Both Katy and Peter become unemployed, the former the victim of unfounded sexual harassment rumours, the latter due to his company relocating to Sweden following Brexit. Both chime with current social and political themes.

Kudos to Rufus Jones playing out Peter’s breakdown in the office so brazenly, going for full-frontal nudity without a pixilation or flesh stocking in sight. Is 10 at night the cut-off point where genitals can go on full display I wonder?

Anyway, moving on from that distraction, it is hard to imagine the various plotlines being so central at another time. Immigration, Brexit, #metoo are all at play here in a way that they wouldn’t have been ten years ago, or ten years from now for that matter.

One particularly haunting scene saw Sami collaborate with Raj on a marmalade but was barred for not being British in the most genteel-yet-authoritarian way, leading to an outburst with Raj that raised the spectre of our hypocrisy to immigration. The way we treat more acceptable refugees as a token of our so-called tolerance whilst slamming the door in the faces of others is a wake-up call.

This all sounds very downbeat, but actually, overall, it’s not. It is warm and kind, and on occasions, very silly (see Sami taking someone hostage in a sauna for an example of this). Of course, it doesn’t quite attract the belly laughs, but you get the feel that they don’t care for these. It’s about making you want to be kinder, better, more caring people. The fact we need a TV show to tell us to do this says a lot about the times we are living in.

I’m going to be honest – I really wasn’t that bothered if Hypothetical got a second season or not. I mean, it was a pleasurable enough distraction for an hour, but it didn’t have anything about it that made it zing enough for me to be clamouring for more.

And yet here we are, a new season on air and a third already commissioned. Part of me wonders if this is Dave panicking after losing Taskmaster to Channel 4 (and well they should – TM is the closest thing it has to gold dust that isn’t a repeat). So they are now putting all their eggs in the Hypothetical basket. But is it wise?

Well, based on the opening episode of the new season, the answer is no. There have been tinkerings with the show that have actually made it weaker. The silly screen captions telling us what the rounds are. The wall of celebrities at the end. And what actually felt overall like a really limp panel. Which is strange, because at least a couple have been on other shows where I have enjoyed them.

Meanwhile, there still seems to be no decent explanation as to why this is co-hosted by Josh Widdicombe and James Acaster rather than just being a solo project for the latter, seeing as the strongest comedy energy comes off him. There is certainly no obvious comedy energy between the two of them. Acaster is able to ab-lib and read the autocue better than his co-host. It makes you wonder if Widdicombe has something on his television partner in order to keep riding his coattails.

I feel the need to make a caveat here. I am basing this off one episode, and the trailer suggests there are better panel selections coming up. And the small format tweaks could fall into the background given time. But there is still that big unanswerable problem I have identified above.

So here’s an hypothetical situation for the team behind the show: you must convince viewers that Widdicombe can stay on the show. You cannot sack Acaster or knock any edges off him, but what you can do to Widdicombe is unlimited. You have the remainder of the season to succeed.