Last Night's Viewing: Michael Grade and the World's Oldest Joke, BBC4
Anna & Katy, Channel 4
Parks and Recreation, BBC4
Old Roman joke: "That slave you've sold me has just died." "My God, he never did that when he belonged to me!" Ah well...perhaps you had to be there...and by "there", I mean a tavern somewhere in the Suburra around 40BC, because the gag didn't exactly bring the house down in Michael Grade and the World's Oldest Joke.
In fact, it died, along with a startling number of other historical jokes and quite a few contemporary ones, the producer of this otherwise intriguing exploration of the history of the rib-tickler having taken the perverse decision to give the job of telling the gags almost exclusively to people who weren't very good at it. What Michael Grade was interested in was the embedded human need to crack wise. What the director seemed to be interested in was getting in the way as often as possible, quite often with members of the public mangling perfectly blameless jokes.
To be fair, it was hard to imagine anyone being able to revive some of these vintage gags. Take this, from a Tudor compilation of humorous quips – Q: What is the cleanliest leaf? A: The holly leaf, because no one will wipe their arse with it. Or the jokes that depended on the reliable hilarity involved in beating your wife. And once the programme had calmed down a bit – and got away from the philosophising about the nature of comedy that also bogged down the opening – it proved interesting. It was good to learn about Poggio Bracciolini, a papal employee who compiled the Liber Facetiarum, an early joke book full of stuff that only a cardinal could read without blushing. And I liked the revelation that the Greek passion for lettuce gags was dependent on the belief that it was an aphrodisiac. Substitute Viagra for the little gem and most of them would (half) work now. The oldest joke in the world, incidentally, was a fart gag, which seemed somehow comforting. A warm, gently rising fug of carnality.
By coincidence, Anna & Katy, a new sketch show from Anna Crilly and Katy Wix, included a skit about a dinner party at which no one could recognise a joke until it was laboriously pointed out to them, at which point they roared completely out of proportion to the feeble quip that had been made. It was quite an interesting sketch but not terribly funny, which was also true of most of the programme, though some sketches made a little interesting go a very long way, including an interminable Countdown pastiche and a baffling spoof of daytime telly. These people can deliver a funny line, but they were struggling with a serious shortage of that particular commodity.
The received opinion about Parks and Recreation is that it doesn't get really good until the second series, which is promising because the opening two episodes of season one were pretty damn funny. Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, a civil servant who treats her modest job in the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee City Council as if it's a senior post in the State Department. She's also quite impervious to reality, possessed of a blithe can-do spirit that is more than a match for the cynics, moochers and outright saboteurs (her boss is an anti-government Tea Party type) she shares an office with. And Poehler is great, very adept at the little tremor in facial expression that is the stock material of the mockumentary, as pretended control gives way to unconcealable panic.
The plot concerns her plan to convert a local eyesore into a new park, an ambition she pursues, as her disgusted boss puts it, "like a little dog with a chew toy". I was reminded more than once of Alexander Payne's excellent film Election, though Leslie is sweeter than Tracy Flick, possessed less by personal ambition than a fantasy of public service. At last I laughed.
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