Laugh masters

You can’t beat the Bri­tish when it comes to cere­bral banter. And now, finds James Belfield, they’re nail­ing slap­stick too.

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Weekend Puzzles -

On New Zealand telly’s comic bat­tle­ground be­tween US and Brit hu­mour, it seems Blighty has de­cided that a boots-on-the­ground strat­egy will win the day. Tune in day or night and you’re con­fronted with end­less re­runs of cere­bral ban­ter­fests called some­thing like Would I Lie about 8 Out of 10 Quite In­ter­est­ing Echo­ing Ducks?, an­other lineup of standups bray­ing at theatre au­di­ences pep­pered with G-list celebs, or sepia-toned archival footage of tweed-clad pen­sion­ers muck­ing about on t’ moors or speak­ing in shock­ingly un-pc French and Ger­man ac­cents.

When it comes to the drone wars of an­i­ma­tion and the mother-of-all-hit­coms, Mod­ern Fam­ily, the US gains comic ground, but no mat­ter how many laser-guided, main­stream, prime-time, au­di­ence-pleas­ing mis­siles they fire, their style of hu­mour never makes quite the im­pact as one dev­as­tat­ingly barbed Stephen Fry put-down or awk­wardly self-ef­fac­ing story from David Mitchell’s younger days (if, in fact he had any).

If there’s one area of clas­sic Brit comedy that’s largely miss­ing from the mod­ern panel-show-based-on-a- Vic­to­rian-par­lour-game, it’s slap­stick. Thank­fully, Taskmas­ter, which starts a fifth se­ries on Duke on Novem­ber 2, uses the same ba­sic cast of fa­mil­iar funny-faces as the other shows, and then makes them do ridicu­lous things.

In the US, this would ei­ther be as cringe-in­duc­ing as an MTV roast or as cruel and dumb as Im­prac­ti­cal Jok­ers, but, in­stead, Taskmas­ter man­ages to be as ir­rev­er­ently mad­cap as a class­load of 11-year-olds un­su­per­vised in a cus­tard fac­tory.

Child­ish­ness is the key. Even the “tasks” have an air of end-of-term play-day about them: the first episode in­volves cud­dling, get­ting a row­boat to shore with­out a pad­dle and find­ing odd ways to get pieces of fruit into a fish­bowl with­out throw­ing them.

But the hu­mour – as with most suc­cess­ful UK comedy – comes from how self-aware they are, most no­tably the taskmas­ter him­self Greg Davies and his as­sis­tant Alex Horne. As a for­mer schoolteacher, Davies knows the id­iocy of what he’s do­ing and hands out points as if he is a me­di­ae­val lord. The show is his do­main (he even asks the au­di­ence to ap­plaud the first ad break of the se­ries), the con­tes­tants are vy­ing for his favour, and Horne is his jester. The se­ries prize, of course, is a gold statue of Davies’ head.

Horne, who is ac­tu­ally the show’s founder (hav­ing cre­ated it for the 2010 Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val) dead­pans his role as he leads this sea­son’s con­tes­tants – Sally Phillips, Mark Wat­son, Bob Mor­timer, Nish Ku­mar and Ais­ling Bea – through the pre-recorded tasks (cue the slap­stick) and then the on­stage re­plays (cue the banter).

It’s a magic for­mula – be­cause, yes, watch­ing Sally Phillips stuff out-of-date cho­co­late cake un­der Alex Horne’s armpits is funny, but it’s not as funny as watch­ing Sally Phillips then watch her­self do it in front of a live theatre au­di­ence.

Taskmas­ter has been enough of a hit to be fran­chised out to Ger­many, Bel­gium and Swe­den… and it’s ap­par­ently on its way to the US, too, where Horne will play crazy fool to Reg­gie Watts’ roy­alty. It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see how it plays out.

The beauty of Brit hu­mour is that it crops up in un­likely places – like the new se­ries of Rick Stein’s Long Week­ends on Food TV.

There’s al­ways been some­thing Basil Fawlty-ish about the slightly awk­ward, kind of book­ish, oc­ca­sion­ally grumpy TV chef’s world jour­neys but the first episode of his lat­est jaunt has mo­ments of pure Monty Python.

Stein’s long-time direc­tor David Pritchard pre­vi­ously worked with Keith Floyd and knows the value of un­scripted hu­mour – even in cook­ery travel pro­grammes. In the first episode, which is os­ten­si­bly a stom­ach-stuff­ing trip to Bologna, he has our hero dressed in a bin-liner and hair-net, tak­ing self­ies in front of a gi­ant old cheese, stood in the cor­ner of a pi­azza talk­ing to a wall, dis­cussing tat­toos with law stu­dents and mea­sur­ing the di­men­sions of tagli­atelle against the 12th cen­tury Asinelli Tower.

Sure, there are recipes and the odd bit of ad­vice for foodie trav­ellers – but it’s this in­scrutably dry hu­mour that makes for the best Bri­tish TV. And you can bet you wouldn’t get Anthony Bour­dain tak­ing cheese self­ies while the cam­era was rolling.

Wayy ay back when I first started out on what passes for my “cca “ca­reer path”, I picked up an in­valu­able les­son re­lat­ing too to a au­di­tions. If you haven’t been there, au­di­tions for young ac­tors are gen­er­ally hor­ri­ble things, es­pe­cially if you ei­ther re­ally want, o or fi­nan­cially re­ally need, the gig. (I’m sure “proper” job in­ter­view in­ter­views are ex­actly the same, but I never did any of those, so bear withh with me.)

You spend all day ob­sess­ing over your lines, your out­fit and your at­ti­tudde at­ti­tude, only to ar­rive in a small room filled with a dozen other per­form per­form­ers, to wait. And wait. Un­til you fi­nally get five min­utes to tr try and make what, in your in­ex­pe­ri­enced mind, is an ab­so­lu­teely ab­so­lutely life-chang­ing im­pres­sion on a cast­ing direc­tor who has been watw watch­ing fools like you do ex­actly the same thing for about seven sevenn hours al­ready.

So this piece pie of ad­vice has stuck with me. I can’t re­mem­ber where I heaard heard it, so I apol­o­gise to its un­cred­ited au­thor for in­evitably ppa para­phras­ing it as this: “Don’t make your whole day re­volve arouun around one prob­a­bly stress­ful (and almost cer­tainly un­suc­cess­fuul) un­suc­cess­ful) au­di­tion. Plan to do some­thing you en­joy af­ter­wards.”

That’s some­thing somm that Michele and I con­stantly try to do in our lives, although al­thouug we’ve given it a longer lead time and re­phrased it as: “Al­wayss “Al­ways make m sure you have some­thing to look for­ward to.”

For us, it usu­ally in­volves travel. We just came back from a long week­end in Mel­bourne which we booked af­ter look­ing at our diaries and as­sum­ing (quite rightly) that the month lead­ing up to it was go­ing to be more stress­ful than usual. Now that we’re back, we’ll start plan­ning our next so­journ. It may be in a month, it may be in a year; the point is we’ll have some­thing up our sleeve that we can count down to when life’s te­di­ums be­come a bit too much.

We’re very lucky that our sched­ules and in­comes al­low us to do it this way, and that we can do some of our paid work (say, writ­ing a weekly news­pa­per col­umn) from any­where we may be. But it’s the gen­eral con­cept that I’m en­am­oured with. The idea of look­ing ahead and think­ing: “Thurs­day looks like a dog’s break­fast,” and plan­ning a walk on the beach, or meet­ing an old friend for a drink, once it’s over.

Or ret­ro­spec­tively think­ing: “Well, yes­ter­day’s dead­line/ un­ex­pected bill/health is­sue/elec­tion re­sult did my head in.” And de­cid­ing to treat your­self to a night at the movies, or fish and chips, or a nap.

It isn’t al­ways easy to see, but there will be other days, and other au­di­tions, for bet­ter roles, in bet­ter sto­ries. May as well re­hearse for them now.

There are var­i­ous ways to read this story – the anx­i­ety of the aban­doned wife, the mis­ery of a sis­ter who missed him and pre­sumed him dead – but I like the boy’s-own-ad­ven­ture of it. When I was a kid, I was en­thralled by fairy­tales that be­gan with a prince (I imag­ined a princess) throw­ing a ball of twine be­tween a horse’s ears and em­bark­ing on a jour­ney in what­ever di­rec­tion it landed. There would be bread and cheese wrapped in a ker­chief and tied to a stick rest­ing over his (her) shoul­der. This is why I pic­ture Mal­colm Ap­ple­gate with a bun­dle of bread and nd cheese. And Win­ston clutch­ing bis­cuits.

I am writ­ing this as we wait to board a plane e home. It is our tra­di­tion that, on each jour­ney home, we deal with the melan­choly of a hol­i­day ay be­ing over by plan­ning the next trip. I re­alise we are priv­i­leged to be able to do this – we have jobs that take us places and pay us well enough to keep us in the air. But I’m not re­ally y talk­ing about the par­tic­u­lars of the des­ti­na­tion, n, just the idea that you keep con­sciously cre­at­ing g some­thing to look for­ward to.

Maybe a spot of gar­den­ing, or a bike ride that doesn’t last 10 years. Th­ese things are specif­i­cally noted on my list: a baby shower on Sun­day, chicken nib­bles on Mon­day… and our cat on the bed tonight.

Taskmas­ter Greg Davies en­joys lord­ing it over his lackey side­kick (and keeper of the scores) Alex Horne.

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