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European Report #5: Comedy Calls


It’s not often I spend a late Friday night indoors by the TV, especially in the UK. But such was the case in Beverley, when we found ourselves home from Cerutti 2 in time to take in the best – or is that the worst? – of British entertainment. I mean, how did Charlotte Church sink so quickly from quality teen singing star into this pathetic attempt at reality variety? I know we Brits love to cannibalize our famous youth, but really, this was shocking. And at the other end of the spectrum, why does someone as gifted as Stephen Fry need to lord it over something as awful as QI? I quote from the show’s own web site: “none of the stellar line-up of comedians is expected to be able to answer any questions, and if anyone ends up with a positive score, they can be very happy with their performance.” Only in Britain, folks.

Charlotte Church: growing pains

The same applies to the Catherine Tate show, and obviously so, given that it’s a spin-off from her starring role in Little Britain. Though I hated what I saw of that particular and highly popular series, I couldn’t help but laugh at parts of Tate’s own show (on repeat), especially Essex couple Paul and Sam, whose celebration of the mundane is something universal(ly annoying). Just don’t expect it to travel.

Equally British on the surface, but ultimately very American in structure, was Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. I understand why some dislike Ross so intensely – envy that someone with such a lisp should become so successful surely plays a part – but give him credit for this: he’s fast. I watched him engage Take That’s Gary Barlow in a surprisingly sympathetic conversation, then wrestle verbally with Gordon Ramsay and, perhaps because the celebrity chef’s only media trick is to swear violently, Ross came out on top. Late night TV hosts gets paid big bucks because they need to think on their feet and be ready with a quip, a put-down or a sympathetic riposte at a moment’s notice. Ross fulfils on all three, usually in rotation, and that’s why he’s as safely installed in his late night seat as David Letterman is in his. And just as with his American late night counterparts, Ross closed out with a live performance, Snow Patrol featuring Martha Wainwright. Come Sunday morning, the Observer newspaper was advertising the Snow Patrol album and referencing that very performance. There’s influence for you.

That left only Da Ali G Show, the American rendition. Back when Sacha Baron Cohen’s cultural send-up first launched in the States, the question on everyone’s lips was, “But, will he translate?” The answer was an immediate “yes,” but not as white rapper Ali G; rather, it was Baron Cohen’s preposterous fictional Kazakhstan reporter Borat who became the immediate hit – leading, in case you haven’t noticed, to an American-based movie, out any day, that has been receiving serious advanced mainstream coverage on both sides of the pond.

Following his starring role as a homosexual Formula 1 driver in Nascar send-up Talladega Nights, Sacha Baron Cohen butchers the National Anthem at a rodeo in his new movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Yet the night I watched, it was neither Ali G nor Borat who had me cracking up, but rather Cohen’s gay Austrian TV host Bruno, who planted himself in Fort Lauderdale during spring break to easily encourage a beached Winnebago full of semi-naked college wrestlers to make complete pricks of themselves before informing them that their bared chests and bums had just been filmed for (his fake) Gay TV. Their offended and offensive reactions were so vile, so bordering on the violent, that you would love to believe they were scripted. They weren’t. The mark of a great comedian then, is not just the ability to perform a sketch, play to a live audience or interact with a studio guest. It’s the ability to keep a straight face in public while encouraging others to make fools of themselves. And that might be why Sasha Baron Cohen was the only truly international star amidst the whole Friday night line-up.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. snotty moore

    26 October, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    The ability of the crew to keep a straight face is surely the key to fine comedy Tony. I’ve interviewed enough ‘comics’ to know how they love to stay in character and avoid proper questions.
    Jonathan Ross is paid six million quid a year to attract under three million viewers once a week, hardly value. The reason that particular late night host gets ‘big bucks’ is because the BBC didn’t tell his comically aggressive agent where to get off when they could have. But such stupidity brings the death of the licence fee ever nearer and thank god for that.

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