Arts: Pulling its punchlines

Looks like a documentary. No gags. Disquieting deadpan performances. Welcome to Smack The Pony, the latest offspring of the Armando Iannucci school of comedy. Be careful where you laugh.
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The Independent Culture
The Armando Iannucci gang may sound like some particularly scary outfit from The Godfather, but in fact it's the most influential group of young comedians operating in British television. Everyone who has worked with Iannucci, the Scottish writer-producer-performer, has gone on to great things. It's no wonder Channel4 have just poached him from the BBC.

From The Day Today, the cultish BBC2 news spoof produced by Iannucci, Chris Morris has graduated to winning awards (and the even greater accolade of the enmity of Noel Edmonds) with Brass Eye on Channel4 and BBC Radio 1's Blue Jam. Patrick Marber has become a playwright so successful on both sides of the Atlantic he has been dubbed the new Stoppard. Steve Coogan has picked up a Bafta and sold out a West End theatre for several months as Alan Partridge. Rebecca Front has a starring role in Kavanagh QC on ITV, while David Schneider and Peter Baynham share the presenting duties with Iannucci on BBC2's Friday Night Armistice.

Now two more Iannucci-ites are making it big. Doon MacKichan (the financial reporter, Collaterlie Sisters, from The Day Today) and Sally Phillips (the mocking receptionist in I'm Alan Partridge, which is also produced by Iannucci) have joined forces with Fiona Allen from Goodness Gracious Me to make Smack the Pony, Channel4's new sketch show.

The Iannucci influence is clear; the three comedians' art lies in never letting on that they know what they are doing is funny. In fact, the more absurd the material, the straighter they play it. In a recurring sketch, the threesome play different women recording self-introductions direct to camera for a dating agency.

"I was nearly Miss Ireland," Phillips intones in one, "but I missed out because my left hand is massive. I keep it behind my back most of the time."

Later in the series, no one bats an eyelid when the people going on a factory fun day out all turn up - for no discernible reason - dressed as King Kong. In another sketch, Allen plays a distraught mother at a police press conference appealing for the public's help in finding her missing son. Suddenly the truth dawns on her: "Oh my God, I've just remembered. He's with the Scouts, he's camping." Despite its absurdity, the joke is not telegraphed or overplayed, and the integrity of the realistic world they have created is never broken.

Victoria Pile, the producer of Smack the Pony, explains the house style. "We've tapped into that brand of comedy which isn't gag-driven. It's quirkier and more surreal. The performers don't trumpet the jokes or spoon-feed the audience or nudge and wink saying: `You must laugh at this.' They're able to be believable even when saying something unbelievable. Viewers should be pushed to tell whether they're watching a documentary or a comedy."

The three comedians, who also wrote the majority of the material, are lolling on a leather sofa in a central London bar. Drawing on a cigarette, Phillips has tucked her feet up underneath her, MacKichan leans back contentedly, while Allen is lounging with her legs stretched out in front of her. Breaking into funny voices and feeding each other lines, they are a treble act off as much as on screen.

MacKichan expands on their approach. "We were very keen to avoid that face-pulling, here-comes-the-punchline type of humour. It was really liberating to be able to be very small. The tiniest facial movement might be the only laugh in a sketch. In that respect, The Day Today was ground-breaking. That's borne out by the number of shows since which have copied that documentary style of naturalistic acting. The Day Today came at absolutely the right time, because comedy needed to loosen its rigid, cliched form."

Like many close collaborators, the three have a habit of finishing one another's sentences, and Phillips quickly takes up the theme. "The Day Today was a milestone. You can't pretend that Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris never existed and go back to a comedy show in the style of circa 1989. They wrote a cross between The Simpsons and Dante's Inferno, which was then delivered by performers who managed to maintain their dignity and cool. I remember Rebecca Front once keeping an absolutely straight face as she improvised about how America didn't really exist and how it was in fact a warehouse in Wales that tourists visited. Also, because of the popularity of fly-on-the-wall documentaries, the public now have a nose for realism. They know that doing that big, over-the-top stuff now is implausible."

The Smack the Pony team are anxious to play down the fact that they are all female - after all, nobody remarked that the three members of The League of Gentlemen are male. "It's great for the members of the team not to have to play the token woman," says Caroline Leddy, the commissioning editor for comedy and entertainment at Channel4, "but this is not a girls' sketch show. The idea was: `Let's find the next bunch of funny performers,' and that just happened to be these three women. We've tried to say: `This is an interesting new sketch team,' rather than: `Isn't it time the girls had a show?'"

The makers of Smack the Pony are also eager to steer clear of a flag- waving feminist agenda. The last thing they want is to be seen as positive role models. Worthy gender politics invariably sound the death-knell for comedy.

"We weren't interested in drum-banging," says Pile. "People expect a girls' show to be concerned with diets and Tampaxes, but the feminist angle in Smack the Pony stops at the fact that they're female performers. We didn't set out to do something specifically `female'. You don't make people laugh about issues."

Allen adds that they do not wish to be perceived as ball-breaking man- bashers, either. "Things like The Girlie Show ridiculed men all the time. But we don't want to pick on men - or women. For us, it's first and foremost about being funny. It's not a gender thing, or an agenda thing."

There are two words which the team have avoided above all others: "Bridget" and "Jones." "Doing Bridget Jones-type material would feel like flogging a dead horse," says Phillips. "It's so boring now. That all-men-are-bastards line smacks of sour grapes. If you do material about why men have left you, it can be crashingly obvious why they have done so. So the joke rebounds on the woman."

After two and a half hours, I eventually make to leave, but Phillips stops me to make one final point: "What a relief that you didn't ask our least favourite question - `What's it like to be a woman in comedy?' Men are never asked that question. I always resort to stupid answers." Here she adopts her most earnest demeanour: "It's like being a metal rat in a blender, or a lion at an aerobics class. You could cause a fair amount of trouble if you wanted to."

Channel4's `Smack the Pony' begins at 9.30pm on Friday