Can't they think of anything more original for TV comedy than panel shows?

Sometimes they can be brilliant, but there are only so many ways to make the pub quiz format funny

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Rohingya migrants in a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea last week  

Burma will regret shutting its eyes to the fate of the Rohingya boat people

Peter Popham
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor