Sunday, 28 October 2007

On Comedy: Not The 9 O'Clock News

Today is the debut of what I hope will be a new feature of this blog. It's called On Comedy, and in it I will look at classic comedy sketches and analyze what works.

Today I'm looking at some sketches done by Not The Nine O'Clock News a show that was not only devised by the 'TV Generation' but also a show about TV, that could only be done on TV.

First a little history.

Most sketch comedy was done in the form of a stage-bound revue show, with a studio audience, musical acts, and they didn't go out much on location.

Monty Python
changed all that with their quickly changing sketches, and while they did a lot of 'stage-style' material, many sketches were shot on location, a radical move at the time.

In fact they were so successful that many thought sketch comedy was dead without them.

Well some folks at the BBC thought differently. They pieced together a new sketch show starring up and comer Rowan Atkinson, Oxfard Revue veteran and director Mel Smith, Australian actress Pamela Stephenson, and Welshman Griff Rhys-Jones, whose sister was dating the producer at the time.

Now what made them radically different was that they rejected the 'stage show on TV' format that had made a comeback since the debut of SNL and made a show that could only be done on TV.

But enough of the history lesson, let's look at the material. First up is Rowan Atkinson and an off-screen Mel Smith in The Judge.

This sketch works because it follows a basic rule of comedy, use the unexpected and if possible, make it naughty.

The set up: Rowan is a judge, and appears elderly, out of touch, stuffy and possibly senile. Since that is the stereotype of British jurisprudence, it's is what's expected. The audience is lulled into thinking that it will be a sketch about him being stuffy, senile and out of touch with the modern world.

The punchline: Despite not knowing about digital watches, video recorders, and whatnot, he knows exactly what the deluxe inflatable woman is. This is the unexpected. He may be out of touch about most ordinary things, but he is very knowledgeable about sex toys, introducing the element of schoolboy naughtiness that cannot help but inspire a giggle.

Then there's a quick edit, and they're out of there and onto another joke.

There's not wasted time working on catchphrases or trying to stretch it out in order to score a movie deal, like a certain other sketch show that will remain talentless. They do the job and they do it quick.

It's called efficiency.

This same efficiency can be seen in this sketch also featuring Atkinson.

Now this operates on the principle of absurdity. He's stealing, but he's still looking for the best price. Such blatant illogic is where it comes from, and they don't waste time with speeches about the issue, they just let the camera show it.

And that's why it works. The sort speeches found in a stage-bound production would give the audience time to ponder the situation, and in sketch comedy time is the enemy. You have to get the laugh done quick and be on the next sketch before the devil knows it's dead.

Also shooting it on location at a real store, lends some credibility to the sheer silliness inherent in the sketch. Punctuating the laugh.

Now they also brought this same efficiency to their longer sketches. Take for example this parody of long running British quiz show University Challenge.

First, an element of absurdity. The top-level students are all from two of Britain's toughest prisons, and despite their educational qualifications, (another absurdist element) they're not there to discuss science or the arts. They're there to snitch or 'grass' on their associates to win early parole or a slot in witness protection.

Having the policeman pop up right beside the host is an excellent addition. Also look at how he pops up. He appears out of nowhere, gives a suspicious quick look-round, then takes out his notebook to start scribbling away. In less than a second he encapsulates that this is a rather shady deal all round, but does it anyway.

Also, the use of the camera is important to the sketch. On a stage they would all be at a distance from the audience. Their appearance would have to be exaggerated to make it obvious to a stage audience that they're criminals. But on TV they're able to go with a more realistic thuggish look, as a counterpoint to the absurdity of the sketch itself.

They also don't waste time, getting through the questions and answers quickly, and the 'help' the host offers, isn't a clue, but a bribe. It uses comedy to show the problems arising from Britain's program of parole for snitching becoming so widespread.

Now when the show wrapped, they wanted to go out with a laugh, and they did, using this blend of sentimentality and bawdy humour.

If you don't know why it's funny, you don't get out enough.

Or maybe you do get out enough and that's why...

That's all for now.

I hope to do this again soon, let me know what you think.

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