Brian Donaldson finds a rash of shows which prove that comedy can still thrive on the box
The state of TV comedy has been a subject of much negativity among critics, audiences and telly executives for a long, long time. Where’s the great sitcom? What happened to the solid tradition of sketch shows? Will we ever see a programme which treats stand-up comedy with anything less than pity? Well, fair enough, there really hasn’t been a classic show in any of those genres for a while now, but it really isn’t all doom and gloom. The lunatics many not yet have taken over the asylum (in a good way), but there’s enough very decent comedy on the box right now to at least put a smile on the faces of telly bosses.
Probably the pick of the bunch is 30 Rock (Five, Thu 11 Oct, 10.45pm - 4 stars) which last month walked off with the Emmy for Best Comedy, along the way disproving another hoary old myth that women can’t be funny. Tina Fey is the show’s creator and star and is far from afraid of making a darned fool of herself if the opening episode proves to be any kind of guide. Fey plays Liz Lemon, the writer of a TV comedy called The Girlie Show, who seems relatively happy with her lot until a new studio boss enters the fray, played with suave vacuity by Alec Baldwin. When he insists that she recruits a washed-up wild man of showbusiness called Tracy Jordan in order to save the show, she is all set to quit. But instead she ends up doing a lap dance at the club Jordan frequents and sobers up just in time to see him making a bravura entrance to the show. Dafter than Studio 60 and a firecracker to Extras’ slowburner, this is an excellent addition to the media satire sub-genre.
The dark netherworld of daytime telly as inhabited by the spectral likes of Jeremy Kyle and Trisha Goddard is another media zone which, depending on your view, is ripe for lampooning or just an over-easy target. The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle (BBC2, Thu 4 Oct, 9pm - 3 stars) was dreamed up by Dr Tanya Byron (she of The House of Tiny Tearaways fame) when she turned her irritation at the cavalcade of morning freak shows into a positive by writing about it. Convincing Jennifer Saunders that she had a role to play (in the scripting and performing sense) she has now aired those frustrations. The result is an often spot-on dissection of abhorrent lowest common denominator broadcasting and has given Saunders another monstrous character to get her teeth into. Whether Byron is better at controlling kids or writing comedy remains to be seen.
With their jubilee celebrations getting underway, it’s worth noting that the only funny thing on Channel 4’s debut day back in ‘82 was Carol Vorderman’s nest of hair. Yet, this month C4 gets stuck into the humour game with a fresh batch of Comedy Labs (including shows by US pottymouth Doug Stanhope and Ricky Gervais’ silly sidekick Karl Pilkington) and with Comedy Showcase (Channel 4, Fri 5 Oct, 10pm - 3 stars), more established names have come to the fore for this series of comic vignettes. Later on, the likes of Adam Buxton and Reece Shearsmith will get all Victorian in ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’, Green Wing’s Stephen Mangan and Pulling’s Sharon Horgan get ‘Bitter and Twisted’ and Duncan from Blue is the man at the corner of a love triangle in ‘Plus One’.
The opening showcase, ‘Other People’, features Martin Freeman as a children’s magician from the late 80s who is now best known for being at the end of an abusive phone call on a Saturday morning kids’ programme. When a confrontation with a fan lands him in court, only a hotshot lawyer can save him. Unfortunately he is assigned Nicholas Burns aka Nathan Barley and all hell breaks amusingly loose. However, the finest British comedy treat of the fortnight is The Peter Serafonowicz Show (BBC2, Thu 4 Oct, 9.30pm - 4 stars). You may recognise Serafonowicz from such comic affairs as World of Pub and Shaun of the Dead, but you probably won’t have known he was such a top notch impressionist. His Alan Alda and Chris Tarrant are especially brilliant but he’s no one-trick Bobby Davro. The sketches are often hilariously off-kilter with fresh life blasted into familiar subjects as the quiz phone-in, Holmes and Watson, and Europudding entertainment shows. He’s a big man is Peter Serafonowicz, with a massive talent to boot.