Magazine article The Spectator

Funny Business

Magazine article The Spectator

Funny Business

Article excerpt

The other day, I interviewed Paul Whitehouse out of The Fast Show. One of the big problems with being a comedian, he told me, is that you stop being funny in real life. And when somebody tells you a joke you don't laugh any more. Instead you just say out loud, `That's funny,' and start trying to work out how you can best use it in your next routine.

I think something similar has started happening to me. I'm so busy analysing what makes good and bad television comedy that I hardly ever laugh out loud any more. Which is why I was so terribly surprised this week when I found myself giggling for a good 20 seconds over a sketch on Big Train (BBC 2, Monday).

The sketch was a spoof on those documentaries about migrating wildebeest that we've all seen a million and one times. Except, where the wildebeest should have been you saw a herd of jockeys. `Because they prefer the weeds of the plain,' intoned the solemn voice-over, `the jockeys spend long periods in the open, risking attack from hunters - like the Artist Formerly Known As Prince.'

What made it so good were the performances. The man playing the Artist Formerly Known As Prince behaved exactly as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince would if he were a lone predator on the African savanna: the stealthy, crouching approach; the sudden sprint towards the herd of jockeys; the dogged pursuit of the weakest specimen; the pounce for the kill. The jockeys, too, got it just right: the bovine stupidity as they grazed; the nervy head-tossing as they sensed the predatory Artist's presence; the panicky stampede; the near-instantaneous return to bovine grazing mode, once they knew that one of their mates had bought it and they were safe. And, finally, the killer punchline: `After feasting greedily on the carcass, the Artist will sleep. It will be two days before he hunts again.'

Ah, well. Guess you had to be there. But if you ask me it was bordering on genius. So too was the one based on the sort of impassioned exchanges that take place when the boss walks in and announces that from now on there's to be no more smoking in the office. Except in this case, the soon-to-be-proscribed activity was 'wanking'. One worker spluttered that the main reason he'd joined the company was because of its healthy wanking policy. Another, the office's despised non-wanker, whined that he didn't like it and how could he fax the latest figures to accounts when all the pages were stuck together? And so on.

Again, though it did go on a bit, the sketch worked because of the acting. …

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