It's the comedy, stupid

Steve Coogan's new creation, The Sketch Show, is trying to reinvent TV comedy. What is it that keeps driving such successful comedians to push the boundaries? Gerard Gilbert asks him
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The Independent Online

Next Monday, after Coronation Street, Soapstars, DIY Disasters and the 10 o'clock news with Trevor McDonald, ITV will unveil one of the most radical comedy shows in years. We're not talking Chris Morris lampooning paedophilia, or The Fast Show's love that dare not speak its name between the landowner Ralph and his groundsman Ted, or even Armando Iannucci's surrealist ramblings on the human condition.

No, The Sketch Show involves a bunch of fresh-faced comedians performing, as it says on the tin, sketches. These are jokes you wouldn't mind your six-year-old daughter watching – and visual gags they'd understand in Moscow and Tokyo. There hasn't been a series like this since the 1970s, when Who Do You Do kept the nation in stitches. It's radical – or antediluvian, depending on where you're coming from.

Returning briefly to Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci, the biggest surprise about The Sketch Show (there's something so purist – so back-to-basics about the title) is that it is the brainchild of their erstwhile colleague on The Day Today, Steve Coogan. It's a series from Baby Cow, the production company set up by Coogan and his writing partner, Henry Normal.

Having attempted to make the leap from TV to the big screen in the heist caper movie, The Parole Officer, Coogan is arguably putting the remnants of his credibility on the line by attempting an even more difficult stunt: the creation of a genuinely funny ITV comedy.

"You have to go back as far as Rising Damp – or perhaps The New Statesman, for one of those," agrees Coogan, although his points of reference were BBC shows, The Two Ronnies and Not the Nine O'Clock News. But there's no reason why comedy can't thrive on ITV as well as BBC1.

"We wanted to pioneer a new mainstream sketch show because of the absolute neglect in this area. So much critical attention has gone to esoteric comedy on BBC2 and Channel 4, with broader comedy seen as being somehow second class."

He has a point. The Fast Show – whatever its critical and cultural impact – was not a hit in terms of viewing figures. There are tens of millions of Britons for whom Ted and Ralph, Ron Manager and the rest might never have existed. Some of the cast of The Fast Show are now, however, percolating into the real mainstream – John Thomson in Cold Feet, for example, while Paul Whitehouse, has been able to step out of the shadow of Harry Enfield.

Coogan hopes opportunity knocks for the cast of The Sketch Show. "These are people who should be on television," he says, "but it's hard for single artists to make it on ITV and BBC1." Harder, indeed, than breaking into the Manchester United first team. Patrick Kielty, the Belfast comic whose steadfast support from BBC1 smacks somewhat of tokenism, and Alistair McGowan, the "new Mike Yarwood", who does a David Beckham impersonation but mostly just looks like a dark, saturnine chap called Alistair McGowan, are the only examples that spring to mind.

As it happens, The Sketch Show regular Ronni Ancona is a graduate of Alistair McGowan's Big Impression. She's the one who impersonated Victoria Beckham. Another regular is Jim Tavare, a deadpan comic in the Tommy Cooper mould, more often seen on the comedy circuit in the company of a double bass. Tim Vine and Lee Mack (a former stable lad turned Perrier Award nominee) are also veterans of the Edinburgh Fringe, while newcomer Karen Taylor's stage act has more in common with Bernard Manning than Jo Brand.

"All these people have done stand up and can hold a stage in their own right," says Coogan, who hand-picked the team with Henry Normal. "And we wanted performers who could generate their own material – not actors who just turn up and read out other peoples' scripts."

Coogan and Normal claim that 80 per cent of the material is written by the five performers, with dud jokes being ruthlessly weeded out. "We wanted to see if we could do it properly," says Normal. "If the sketches didn't make me or Steve laugh, then they didn't go in. If there is one thing in there that's not funny, why have it?" As a further quality control, and to make sure they weren't becoming too esoteric, Normal screened the show to his girlfriend Angela and their young son. "There were only two sketches they didn't like," he says.

That the performers are genuinely funny people in their own right was evident from the off-the-cuff quips they made at The Sketch Show launch last month. In a classic moment of comic one-upmanship I asked Coogan whether ITV executives would have touched the show without his involvement. Maybe not, was the gist of a long answer, after which Tim Vine, standing beside him, said, a propos of my original question, "He was talking to me." The room erupted, and when the laughter died away, Coogan, in his best Alan Partridge cadences, says: "You see, that was funny – because it's ridiculous." The natural order had been resumed.

An example of Coogan's paternalism was arguably his guest appearance on Marion and Geoff, Baby Cow's series of ten-minute comedies about a cuckolded and self-deluded cab driver, Keith (played by Rob Drydon) that became a surprise hit last autumn. By appearing as the hitherto unseen Geoff in last Monday's opened-out sequel, A Small Summer Party, Coogan, the show's producer seemed to be giving his blessing to a show he and Normal had largely taken a back seat on.

But why do Coogan and Normal want to pioneer an ITV comedy sketch show and resurrect that most moribund of movie forms – the British heist caper? Is this world domination gone mad, or some sort of warped altruism of the save-endangered-comedy-genres variety?

Normal already has two far more contemporary-feeling mainstream hits under his belt, in The Royle Family and The Mrs Merton Show, while Coogan could probably turn out variations on his Paul Calf/Alan Partridge personas until the end of days. Precisely the point, says Coogan, who was reported recently as saying that he was fed up inventing characters and writing for himself. "We want to do things that challenge us. Something that's not Alan Partridge." Henry Normal, at one point, refers to The Sketch Show as "an exercise".

It's worth noting that Coogan and Normal have had their failures. Tony Ferrino, the flamboyantly macho Portuguese crooner they essayed in 1997, didn't inspire audiences. Ferrino seems to be an example of them writing beyond their own experience (something critics accused the "middle-class" Normal of doing with The Royle Family; actually, he's from working class Nottingham stock). Normal claims Ferrino actually won a Silver Rose of Montreux for his music, which, whether true or not, is funnier than the character himself.

The boring answer to the question why these co-writers and producers seem to branching into all sorts of different directions is that Coogan and Normal are serious and passionate about comedy. They are steeped in its traditions and possibilities. The Parole Officer and The Sketch Show may or may not turn out to be wrong-turns, but look at what they have already created: that terrifying Mancunian brother-sister act, Paul and Pauline Calf, while Coogan's Alan Partridge is up there with those other British comedy grotesques Basil Fawlty and Albert Steptoe. That would be enough for some comedians. Not for these two; not by a long chalk.

'The Sketch Show', ITV Monday 10.30pm