TV Reviews Of Seriously Funny and Inside Story: Megan's Law

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The Independent Culture
"I'm a meat eater," said Howard Jacobson. "Does that mean I have to pick a fight with every vegetarian I meet?" Wandering through the stomach- clutching ranks of the evangelists of laughter, his lugubrious Deputy Dawg face was gripped by that give-nothing-away expression people wear when they suspect that they have sat in something unpleasant. "Can I," he says, in the throes of reflective gloom, "learn to love just one clown?"

Comedy loses its essence when analysed. Anyone who has had to explain a spur-of-the-moment quip ("No, no, it was a joke about Tory MPs. I wasn't actually saying a Labour victory would affect hosiery sales ...") will find this self-evident. Nonetheless, Jacobson not only had a stab in Seriously Funny (C4), but was mostly successful. He did this in two ways: by having the best gags and being absolute master of the deadpan delivery. I don't think anybody else could opine that "minge and mother-in-law jokes have a sacredness about them" and get away with it.

Last night's first episode, "Rude Health", attempted to explore the question of humour and the human psyche. Since Norman Cousins's Anatomy of an Illness claimed that the author had laughed himself well, stacks of people have been organising laughter conventions on the premise that those flavour- of-the-year chemicals, endorphins, can cure disease.

The problem, as became apparent as Jacobson walked us through the ninth annual Laughing Matters convention, with crowds of Americans wearing spatula- through-the-head gizmos, took us to the Gesundheit Institute, a healing centre run by a clown-guru called Dr Patch Adams, and stood around while proponents of the Toronto Blessing rolled around saying "Give us the oil of joy tonight, Lord", is that sincerity and humour don't necessarily go hand in hand. No workshop exercise where you force yourself to belly- laugh, in my experience, can give half the endorphin rush of the sight of Jacobson wearing a Groucho Marx mask and looking exactly like himself in glasses. An essential of humour is a good dose of cynicism, an attribute Jacobson appears to possess at healthy levels.

There were no laughs in Inside Story: Megan's Law (BBC1). The film concerned Maureen Kanka, whose seven-year-old daughter, Megan, was murdered in 1994 by a paedophile who lived over the road in their New Jersey suburb. The man in question had refused therapy during his previous incarceration and was, quite obviously, a walking time-bomb.

A chilling story, brought home all the more by the family's descriptions of the event itself, peppered, as tales of tragedy always are, with inconsequential detail of normal life: "I had sent my husband to get doughnuts for the kids ... and when he came back, I said, `Where's Megan? Tell her we're going to have doughnuts.'" But Maureen Kanka was different: she went on the road to drum up support for a new law, the Megan's Law of the title, stating that neighbours should be informed of the presence of sex offenders in their area. Although currently suspended for Supreme Court review, it was signed into national law in May last year.

And this was where the extra chill set in. Underlying all this was the spectacle of Maureen Kanka's tragedy, her understandable desire for revenge, for the death of her daughter's murderer, for some guarantee that such a thing could never happen again, being taken over by self-seekers: the attorney who drafts the legislation gets his shot at the Senate, Bill Clinton gets to show he cares.

It's not possible to find sympathy for someone like Megan's murderer, but surely the solution does not lie in axeing treatment programmes, pinning up posters which read "pedofile (sic) murderer identified. EB we know who you are" and applauding brutal rednecks like Curtis Sliwa, founding father of the Guardian Angels, as he opines that "therapists in general think they're going to be Mother Theresa in Reeboks". An image drifted repeatedly through my mind as I watched: early film footage of bodies dangling from lampposts.