Even though it’s more television chat, I wanted to compare and contrast three comedy programmes from different terrestrial channels and their relevance to each other. Get A Grip, with Ben Elton, on ITV1; Ruddy Hell! It’s Harry and Paul, with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, on BBC1; and Peep Show, with David Mitchell and Robert Webb, on Channel 4.
When I was a teenager discovering comedy, Ben Elton was my comedy hero. He co-wrote The Young Ones and made Blackadder funny (two of my top five sitcoms). He was the compere for Saturday Live with his spangly suit. His stand-up spoke to me. I won’t say he was a genius, but he produced a lot of material I liked and still remains with me.
I’m not sure when that changed. Was it when he started writing more novels than anything else? Was it when his only TV output was the ‘Dad’s Army As Police Station’ sitcom The Thin Blue Line? Was it when he started to write the words for We Will Rock You? Or was it when he worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber? Or was it when he had Ronnie Corbett as his regular guest on The Ben Elton Show? I don’t know. All I know is that I can’t believe he’s not funny anymore.
It was this reason that made me watch Get A Grip, his new show on ITV1. Co-hosting with Alexa Chung (a thoroughly annoying and uncharismatic young lass who presents something for ‘yoof’ on Channel 4) but writing it all himself, it is essentially his most recent stand-up tour, also called Get A Grip, but in television form and with someone to bounce his ‘jokes’ off and do the self-deprecating for him. And it was horrible to watch. Ben uses the same type of routine and style as he did over 10 years ago, only with lots more jokes about babies (as that is all the reference he seems to have now – see, or rather don’t, his recent sitcom with Ardal O’Hanlan, Blessed) and, more embarrassingly, jokes about mother-in-laws. I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears. People have accused him of selling out before, but to do jokes about mother-in-laws? Ben, what’s happened? Entertainers have to adapt to the times, or they get rightly mocked by the new boys on the block, as Ben did before him with his attacks on Benny Hill and Bernard Manning. Ben Elton hasn’t and he seems to have got worse by not realising he is doing the jokes he used to rail against in his youth. Truly sad.
Compare this with Ruddy Hell! It’s Harry and Paul, a new sketch show from Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. Harry Enfield hasn’t really done anything since the sitcom Celeb, which came out exactly the same time as The Osbournes and thus negated its existence. Enfield has never been a particularly gifted comedian, although he does have some small talent for impersonation and accents, and he always looks incredibly smug and like he is about to corpse all the time when performing sketches. He has been more lucky than anything else, getting on Saturday Live at the right time with his Stavros and Loadsamoney characters, and then turning the comic book Viz into a television series (without Viz having anything to do with it) with Harry Enfield’s Television Programme/Harry Enfield and Chums.
Some of his work has been rather good (the Cholmondley-Warner stuff was particularly satisfying), and some of the characters were worthy of the repetition. His best comedy was probably Sir Norbert Smith: A Life, and shows what he can do mimicking styles. He has mostly been supported by the more talented Whitehouse, who was main creator of characters for him, and who had his own success with The Fast Show. So it is quite surprising to see them together after so many years apart.
However, although they haven’t reinvented the sketch show or developed the scope, they have remembered that the point of a comedy show is to be funny. For the most part, they succeed. Starting off mocking football with Jose Arroganta and Peskowitz, it is just about laughs – Abramovich buying somebody’s son, the very funny piss-take of Bono and The Edge, and the belated-but-still-funny (particularly the bouncing from side-to-side to escape congress) Laurel and Hardy Brokeback Mountain – which makes for a pleasant change. Not all of it works – the Polish girls in the coffee shop and the South African man in the gym are pretty woeful and very London-centric; the Bill Gates/Steve Jobs sketch was rather obvious and easy; and the juxtaposition of enlightened discussion between builders before sexually harassing a women seems to have been done before, if not by themselves – but at least they are giving it a try and not having to succumb to Little Britain-style antics. Anyone who has a sketch with Nelson Mandela selling his own alcopops can’t be all bad. Not brilliant stuff but not bad either.
Compare with the new series of Peep Show and those two programmes are instantly forgotten. I have long been a fan of both Mitchell & Webb and Peep Show and am really happy to see them doing so well (even if they are doing adverts). Their radio show, That Mitchell and Webb Sound, became the most enjoyable sketch show of recent time, That Mitchell and Webb Look, which was a sketch show that was actually funny and not requiring the crutch of the well-known characters; yes, there were some repeated characters, like the snooker commentators and being themselves between takes, but it wasn’t just catchphrases. They even ridiculed catchphrases with the Numberwang sketch. These were smart, well-written and performed sketches to entertain and amuse. It was a breath of fresh air (the two Nazis talking to each other, which admittedly they had done on the radio show: ‘Are we the baddies?’).
Peep Show, back for its fourth series, is still as blisteringly funny and painful as ever. Mark is marrying Sophie, even though he doesn’t love her, so it’s a challenge as they go back to meet her family for her birthday. (She picks out trendy things to wear for him. On picking out a t-shirt with Chairman Mao on it, Mark complains: ‘He killed 60 million people.’ Sophie: ‘That’s more than Stalin.’ Mark: ‘It’s not a contest.’) Mark brings Jez with him for moral support, which backfires terribly when Jez sleeps with Sophie’s mum, after helping Sophie’s Dad firebomb the barn of someone he believes is sleeping with his wife. The beauty, as ever, is in the first-person narrative, as we see people’s faces and hear the thoughts we don’t want to. It is funny and real and unreal and it is a crying shame that it only gets just over 1 million viewers.