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From Reeves and Mortimer to Psychoville
Author: Leon Hunt

The TV debut of Vic Reeves Big Night Out on Channel 4 in 1990 is often seen as marking a turning point for British TV Comedy, ushering in what is often characterised as the ‘post-alternative’ era. The 1990s would produce acclaimed series such as Father Ted, The League of Gentlemen and The Fast Show, while the new century would produce such notable shows as The Mighty Boosh, The Office and Psychoville. However, while these shows enjoy the status of ‘cult classics’, comparatively few of them have received scholarly attention. This book is the first sustained critical analysis of the ‘post-alternative’ era, from 1990 to the present day. It examines post-alternative comedy as a form of both ‘Cult’ and ‘Quality’ TV, programmes that mostly target niche audiences and possess a subcultural aura – in the early 90s, comedy was famously declared ‘the new rock’n’roll’. It places these developments within a variety of cultural and institutional contexts and examines a range of comic forms, from sitcom to sketch shows and ‘mock TV’ formats. It includes case studies of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and the sitcom writer Graham LInehan. It examines developments in sketch shows and the emergence of ‘dark’ and ‘cringe’ comedy, and considers the politics of ‘offence’ during a period in which Brass Eye, ‘Sachsgate’ and Frankie Boyle provoked different kinds of media outrage. Cult British TV Comedy will be of interest to both students and fans of modern TV comedy.

Mapping post-alternative comedy
Leon Hunt

This introductory chapter maps out the terrain of post-alternative comedy. It examines its relationship to alternative comedy (defined as both a specific moment in comedy history and a broader tradition of oppositional or cult comedy). It sets out some of the institutions that have helped to mark out a non-mainstream television comedy; the public service ethos of niche broadcasting, channels like BBC 2 and 3, radio comedy, Oxbridge Footlights, the Edinburgh Festival and Perrier Award. It argues that both the ‘alternative’ and the ‘post-alternative’ can be mapped onto notions of cult and quality TV, defined by circulation and reception (and the possession of cultural or subcultural capital), but also requiring some kind of notional ‘mainstream’ to define itself again. The chapter also provides a cultural-historical and institutional framework for the post-alternative era.

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Vic Reeves, Bob Mortimer and the cultification of light entertainment
Leon Hunt

This chapter examines the work of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, often seen as the starting point for post-alternative comedy, with their cultish reworking of ‘Light Entertainment’ forms, such as the variety show and the panel game show. It examines the interplay between the traditional and subcultural aspects of their comedy. The chapter focuses in particular on: their reworking of light entertainment forms, their regionalism, their status as a double-act (often described as ‘the postmodern Morecambe and Wise’), ‘surreal’ comedy, and their relationship to a British Art/Pop tradition.

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Graham Linehan – a case study in post-alternative sitcom
Leon Hunt

This chapter examines the sitcom work of Graham Linehan, writer and/or co-writer of Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. Like Reeves and Mortimer (but in a different way) Linehan’s work manifests a balancing of the traditional and the cultish. While his sitcoms display some of the anti-realist aesthetics of the alternative sitcom (cartoonish violence, occasional touches of fantasy), he has adhered to other stylistic practices that at the turn of the century were viewed as unfashionable – the studio sitcom filmed in front of a live audience. The chapter also considers the ‘Irishness’ of Linehan’s work (particularly in Father Ted) and The IT Crowd’s appeal to a ‘nerd gaze’ through the characters’ display of cultish acquisitions.

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Developments in post-alternative sketch comedy
Leon Hunt

Sketch comedy has been written about considerably less than sitcom and therefore the chapter provides an overview of the form – its traditions in Variety and (more recently) Footlights comedy, its mixed reputation as either superficial and uneven compared to sitcom or an anarchic, convention-breaking form (the legacy of Monty Python). Sketch shows locate their style either in the format of individual sketches (the surreal or the repetitive, for example) or in the method by which they link them together (the stream-of-consciousness of Python, the loose narrative integration of the League of Gentlemen). The chapter considers some experiments and variations in the form during the post-alternative era, from the accelerated catchphrase characters of The Fast Showto the naturalistic ‘surrealism’ of Big Trainand the animated darkness of Monkey Dust.

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From laugh track to commentary track
Leon Hunt

This chapter examines the role of two types of affectivity mediated through sound that can be seen as helping to position the comedy fan as part of a particular kind of audience formation. Recorded laughter has played a long and important role in broadcast comedy, simulating ‘liveness’, providing cues for the viewer’s laughter and locating them within an electronic ‘community’. Recorded laughter, however, was until recently largely seen to be in decline, its absence a marker of quality, its presence seemingly a deliberate and significant choice as opposed to a default mode. The DVD commentary, on the other hand, offers what Thomas Doherty calls an ‘imaginary friendship’ between viewer and artist, not community but ‘a new order of intimacy’. This mediated intimacy takes on particular force in comedy – as a League of Gentlemen fan comments, ‘it’s like listening to a great private conversation between best friends’. The commentary might constitute a comic performance in its own right, one that rivals the ‘main feature’ as a source of entertainment. Even when the commentary works against this – The Mighty Boosh’s are more like hearing a joke from which one has been excluded – the listener may still long for this affective inclusion. This chapter, then, examines these two technologically mediated structures of feeling – community and intimacy.

in Cult British TV comedy
Leon Hunt

According to Umberto Eco, the cult text must provide a ‘completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s sectarian world.’ While Eco was speaking of cult film, this ‘worldness’ seems better suited to the longer narrative forms on television. Nevertheless, ‘world-building’ is associated particularly with the expansive universes of fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror. TV comedy occupies smaller worlds, such as the still popular sitcom ‘trap’. This chapter examines the elaborate worlds developed in a genre more usually associated with restrictive spaces (the homes, workplaces and ‘traps’ of sitcom, for example). While the programmes discussed here largely do conform to these spatial constraints, they are extended in other ways, expanding their worlds through a richness of design detail and a dense intertextuality, drawing on horror films, pop culture and computer games. They are also characterised by their design intensive televisuality – ‘cinematic’ camerawork and stylised production design. The chapter also examines how transmedia content can further extend this world, looking at the example of BBC Comedy Online’s ‘Psychoville Experience’.

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From ‘cringe’ to ‘dark’ comedy
Leon Hunt

In 2002, Radio Times wondered whether comedy was ‘the new drama’ as it considered a range of shows that were ‘frequently bleak and often despairing, filled with unsympathetic characters’ setting them up in contrast with ‘cheery time-passers’. Two labels circulated in relation to these uncomfortable comedies. The ‘Comedy of Cringe’ pushed embarrassment (often prompted by inappropriate behaviour) to an almost unbearable level, while ‘Dark comedy’ also also pushed material in a more disturbing direction. This chapter locates these programmes within longer traditions of ‘black comedy’ and the tragi-comic, including Pinter’s ‘comedy of menace’ and Joe Orton’s wilful bad taste. It also applies theories of the grotesque to disturbing or horror-themed comedy. It examines a range of programmes and artists, including The Office, Peep Show, The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, and the work of Julia Davis.

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It nearly took my arm off! British comedy and the ‘new offensiveness’
Leon Hunt

This chapter examines the politics of ‘offensive’ comedy in two different contexts – the media response to Chris Morris’ Brass Eye (particularly its paedophile-themed Special) and the aftermath of ‘Sachsgate’, including the debates surrounding what journalist Brian Logan called a ‘new offensiveness’ in which ‘all the bigotries and the misogyny you thought had been banished forever from mainstream entertainment have made a startling comeback.’ It argues that there needs to be a critical position that avoids both Daily Mail-style outrage and the unreflexive assumption that ‘edgy’ comedy is by definition subversive, particularly during a period which seemed to invite a taking of sides. It looks at the new sensitivity created by ‘Sachsgate’, with particular reference to some of the controversial jokes told by Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle during this period. Given that some of these jokes, far from being subversive, ‘kicked down’, it asks: what is the difference between an ‘offensive’ comedy that can be recuperated as edgy or challenging and the kind of humour that is dismissed as simply reactionary and lowest common denominator?

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Leon Hunt
in Cult British TV comedy