Very Little Point to a Bunch of Muppets Acting like Bullies; TV WATCH

The Evening Standard (London, England), July 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Very Little Point to a Bunch of Muppets Acting like Bullies; TV WATCH


Byline: VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH

Crank Yankers ITV4

IHAVE done many unusual jobs in my time (Arthur Mullard's fashion designer, long-distance lorry driver on the Isle of Man, a brief stint as Her Majesty's Bird Turglar), but one of the oddest was my time as a dancer. Oh yes, I was quite a hoofer in my prime, but I had to give it up due to terrible trouble with my burning balls, because everywhere I went (London, Paris, New York), my balls were always burning, and I could not be helped by the medical profession.

"You have burning balls, I'm afraid, and that's all there is to it," my doctor told me grimly, and dated my condition back to the time I'd joined the Tiller dancers, when the balls of my feet first started pummelling the stage on a daily basis. But when I'd beg Miss Tiller to give me time off to soothe my burning balls, she'd just snarl and say: "Forget it love, now ... kick step back step, one two three step ..."

An even odder (and genuine) job was my stint as a Radio 1 presenter, making spoof phone calls (a disgraceful load of balls they are too, yet a selection of them will shortly be available on iTunes). Like all forms of practical joke, making successful spoof calls is a harder process than it seems, requiring targets who deserve to be lampooned, and a mixture of careful planning and inspired improvisation in their execution; and above all, the results need to be funny, because humour is ultimately the only justification for the deception.

Ame r icans have long excelled at this craft, with Howard Stern, Captain Janks and The Jerky Boys being some of the best exponents, but, by contrast, the contributors to Crank Yankers (made in the US by Comedy Central) must be among the poorest. Why?

Because the end of each bogus call leaves you without even the ghost of a smile on your face, and a feeling of sympathy towards the bemused recipient, and when that happens, you know that something must have gone very wrong indeed.

It may be a cliche that the pictures on radio are better than on television, but in the case of spoof calls, that's undoubtedly true. Yet TV's greater financial resources inevitably tempt ambitious comedians to put wholly unsuitable material inside the magic rectangle, even if the result is the group of Sesame Street-style puppets we encountered last night, acting out their crank calls in the fictional town of Yankerville.

Admittedly, the mouth synchronisation of the muppeteers was near-perfect (no mean feat), but what use is that if the speech is devoid of wit or purpose, failings that are hubristically denied in the title song, which misguidedly promises that "we'll all be doubled up with laughter at the expense of others"?

And when serious satirical targets (celebrities, politicians and big corporationsfor example) are avoided, in favour of calls to ordinary unsuspecting people whose natural instinct is to be polite when they answer the phone, what you witness is the glum equivalent of a self-satisfied bully arm-wrestling a Thalidomide victim. …

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