TELEVISION / Not a laughing matter

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The Independent Culture
IT LOOKED like a Monty Python sketch: three comedians dressed in black sat in a row while a sober presenter outlined the principles of the experiment. Each would deliver a short routine, containing jokes which some among us might find offensive. Then, with the help of a large studio audience, we were going to try to analyse exactly where laughter stopped and indignation began. The task of adjudication would be a lot easier, you reflected after listening to the first victim's act, if we had actually started to laugh at any point. Lou Lewis, a club comedian, had clearly sussed that he was the fall guy in Nation's (BBC 2) first studio debate but soldiered on bravely none the less, delivering his material with the easy confidence of a man trying to serve an extradition order on a coke baron.

'You're not an audience,' he quipped desperately at one point, 'you're a jury.' In these circumstances the standard club life-saver was little more than the truth and, after an unpleasant gag about a boy who was half Jewish and half West-Indian ('I don't know whether to make him an offer or mug him'), the audience returned its verdict in a series of stony-faced cutaways. You could say it went down well but only if you had the image of a gently swinging lavatory chain in mind.

Jo Brand's material was less problematic - partly because of expectations (an inoffensive fringe act is as pointless as decaffeinated coffee) and partly because her targets - flashers and Judge Pickles - were broadly deemed to be legitimate. Her joke about a cheap Sudan Air flight involving a compulsory clitoridectomy caused a few sudden intakes of breath, but even then you couldn't quite tell whether it was outrage or wincing empathy. Leo Chester, a black stand-up, looked as though he had been sponsored by Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, with his white shirt and bow-tie, but produced an amiable routine about Trevor McDonald commenting on the news in a heavy Caribbean accent.

Trevor Phillips marshalled the discussion that followed with considerable vigour, blowing hard on the embers of people's indignation and then trying to shape the resulting smoke into some coherent shape. After a brisk trot through power-relations, comedy as social cement and the essentially aggressive nature of humour, we were back pretty much where we had started, though Lou Lewis had earned his first big laugh on the way. 'If I was to leave out Pakistani jokes,' he protested, 'I think it would be racist.'

That oppressed minority, BBC producers, had some cause to feel aggrieved after the first episode of My Dead Dad (C4), in which they were held up to opprobrium and ridicule for their accents (Home Counties) and education (Oxbridge). In the sharpest scene from a slightly lacklustre opening, Eck (Forbes Masson) attempted to get a job while hampered by the presence of his dead father - Roy Hanlon with a collar-lapping hairdo and floral tie. Overall, though, you were left with the feeling that the amount of complicated machinery at work here (revenant dad, connection of father and son with an invisible and unbreakable umbilical cord, visibility of the ghost to passers-by) was disproportionate to the number of laughs.

The True Adventures of Christopher Columbus (BBC 2) has been scheduled over four nights, which may be the Programme Controller's way of saying that he thinks it's the best thing since tobacco and parrots or might just be a way of getting it over with quickly while everyone is watching the Olympics. It comes with a great pedigree (it is written by Patrick Barlow, who scripted an Omnibus film on Van Gogh which was head and shoulders above the other anniversary productions) and a wonderful cast (in particular Miranda Richardson as an extremely seductive Isabella, lips flaring like a Flamenco dancer's skirt) but something has been left out of the mix.

It may be Jim Broadbent, whose sublime idiocy provides such a good counter to Barlow's pinched earnestness in the National Theatre of Brent. Or it may be that too much has actually been left in; several of the jokes seem to hang around like hopeful courtiers, pleading for an audience. Either way it doesn't look as if we're going to find gold on the voyage.