What is the nation’s favourite comedy? Is it The Vicar of Dibley, The Office or Mrs Brown’s Boys? What really gets us rolling on the floor? Is it Basil Fawlty’s goose-step, Michael McIntyre’s man drawer, Alan Partridge’s “Dan!” or that bit where Del Boy falls through the bar? It might be all or none of these but to judge from the Radio Times, the thing that makes our couch potatoes howl louder than anything else is a group of men engaged in an artificial banter battle on a cheap set before a hyped-up studio audience.
The TV panel show is the comedy vehicle of our times – as ubiquitous and reliable as a Ford Fiesta. Turn on the television at primetime on any night of the week and there will be a Buzzcocks or a QI, an 8 Out of 10 Cats or a Big Fat Quiz. On smaller, digital channels, whole evenings are filled with a dispiriting carousel of wacky new stabs at the format – Questions about slebs! Questions about funny words! Questions about questions! – and re-runs of topical panel shows where, if you’re lucky, you might catch a whole episode of putrid gags about Turkey Twizzlers and Sven-Göran Eriksson. This week alone two new shows have thrown their hat into the crowded ring – C4’s Was It Something I Said? will focus on celebrity tweets while The Dog Ate My Homework on CBBC will be the first panel show made for children.
Last week Charlie Higson, star of The Fast Show, bemoaned the lack of a decent mainstream sketch show on television. Since Little Britain ended in 2006, there has been nothing, he said, that has captured the imagination, its catchphrases ringing out in playgrounds and offices across the land. The reason, he added, is that “they are quite expensive to make and panel shows are cheaper.” To make a sketch show, one must write and refine a script, cast characters, make costumes, find locations, shoot and edit for months on end. And at the end of all that effort and expense, you might end up with a Catherine Tate megahit, or a Horne and Corden mega-flop. It’s a risk. Even more so in the Twitter age when anyone with a smartphone is a critic and a show can jump the shark before the opening credits are up.
To make a panel show, on the other hand, is low-risk. Cobble together a few funny types in a studio, make sure there are some scripted jokes to keep the laughs flowing and then set them waffling until they say something hilarious for the edit. This week David Mitchell defended the “bantering comics” format. Allowing witty types to freewheel on screen, he said, “can produce funny TV in a way that you could never write into a sitcom or a sketch show”. As a veteran host, panellist and team captain on Would I Lie to You? , The Unbelievable Truth, QI and Mock the Week, to list but half of his CV, he would say that.
In fact, both he and Higson have a point. Panel shows can be brilliant – think of Simon Amstell-era Buzzcocks, Shooting Stars or those glorious weeks on Have I Got News For You when the right alchemy of guests makes for an unmissable 30 minutes. There are still, though, only so many ways to make the pub quiz format funny. As for panellists, they must tread a tricky line between improv – never as much fun for the person watching it as it is for the person doing it – and shoehorning in old material about mother-in-laws at the first mention of Carole Middleton. Neither tactic shows a comedian at their best.
The main problem is that there are far too many panel shows. Does it matter if they are mildly amusing and watched by millions? Yes, because as long as time and money are spent thinking up ways to get new panel shows on television, there is less time and money to spend on thinking up ways to get new comedy on the television. For every three knockabout buzzerfests that get greenlit, a Harry Hill or a Hunderby might slip through the net.
Watching the primetime comedy offerings, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is little more to the current UK stand-up scene than bequiffed, middle-class, white men in skinny jeans or flowery shirts making strenuous quips about Miley Cyrus and iPhones. In fact, live comedy has never been better, more alive or more diverse. Having spent the summer judging the best of it for the Edinburgh Comedy (previously the Perrier) Award, the question of how the young stand-ups on stage might fare on a TV quiz show never crossed my mind. They were all far too interesting for that.
And yet, the pressure on them to prostitute their talents on a panel – as the only place to get their jokes heard by millions – is immense. Many will find that their face or humour doesn’t fit. Many will not care – Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee are two of the finest comedians working today and neither has played an Odd One Out round in their life. In any case, television should represent the true breadth and depth of the scene; viewers are happy to take risks, even if commissioners are not.
There are reasons to be cheerful. Cardinal Burns is one of the most original sketch shows to emerge in years; Lee is giving young oddballs a leg-up with his Alternative Comedy Experience; James Corden’s new BBC sitcom/ Bourne thriller The Wrong Man shines with glossy ambition. So while the Seventies has Fawlty Towers, the Eighties, Blackadder, the Nineties, Ab Fab and the Noughties, The Office there is hope yet that this won’t go down as the decade of QI, or Quite Interesting, to give it its full, uninspiring name. Britain can do far better than that.