When the jokes die, let farts fly

Jasper Rees the week on television
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The Independent Online
With only minimal use of a VCR, you could watch three hours of sitcom last night and then round it off with an edition of Dani Dares (C4, Fri), in which the eponymous braveheart attempted to become a stand- up comic in a week. As she prepared to play the Comedy Store armed with only a couple of gags about the menstrual cycle, Dani Behr insisted with characteristic humility that she was "rubbish at telling jokes". Which puts her in the same boat as the entire crew of pirates in Captain Butler (C4, Fri). This is another miserable product from a perilously inconsistent comedy department now reeling from the announcement that Father Ted's writers want to move on. Channel 4 has a brief to cater for minorities, but which one did they have in mind this time? The Jolly Roger Society, which annually re-enacts notorious piratical raids? One of the things Behr learnt in her researches is that comedy is a "good laxative". In this all too common case, it looks like the result of a laxative.

Now halfway through its voyage towards what will surely be a merciful scuppering, Captain Butler is only worth mentioning because its lead is Craig Charles, who also returned in Red Dwarf (BBC2, Fri). Each sitcom is set in distant centuries on board ships manned (literally: no girl gagsters allowed up either gangway) by comicstereotypes. In both, Charles plays the sceptic with the 20th-century take on things. Inevitably, the show taking off for its seventh series gives him better material than the one about to sink after its first. Red Dwarf, in a weird echo of Dark Skies (C4, Mon), ran a witty plotline about the assassination of JFK. His only funny line as a pirate came when asked whether he'd say a few words at the funeral of a shipmate. "No," he said, surprised at his own scorn for procedure, "I can't be bothered." If only the scriptwriters had been as indolent.

Dressing For Breakfast (C4, Fri) confirms that there's nothing like a sitting room and a collection of modern anxieties for shortening the comic odds. Like Dani Behr's routine, it's a sitcom that equips itself with a contemporary set of gags about the condition of girldom: chocaholism, aversion to exercise, the endless folly of boys - this is the fertile furrow which scriptwriter Stephanie Calman ploughs. Some of the material is deplorably weak: "You can't play squash," Holly Aird's wonderfully classy Carla tells her boyfriend, who wants to get her in shape for a charity disco, "it's a drink." The feeble joke may conceivably be in character, but Calman might have worked harder to distance herself from it. At least it belongs to an overall gameplan, though. Unlike Captain Butler, with its stale assumptions about male humour, Dressing for Breakfast is a sitcom that aspires to be about something.

There was another joke about charity in Roseanne (C4, Fri). Our heroine has won the state lottery and the family was plagued with appeals to their well-known philanthropist instincts. "We've already committed to a charity," Darlene told one mendicant. "We've just bought 500 jars of Paul Newman salad dressing." In its 199th episode, the show ought to be in the advanced stages of rigor mortis, but it's still capable of the odd spry move. Having spent its entire life doing punchlines about being poor, it's plainly planning to go out on a bunch of jokes about being filthy rich. To remind themselves where they come from, though, Dan reassured Roseanne that they'll always be able to joke about farts. (Clearly a staple in the lingua franca of humour, because Jenny Eclair advised Dani Behr to open her set with a fart joke.)

With Roseanne lumbering into its dotage, the snappy new US import is Spin City (C4, Fri). Overlook, if you can, the almost heroic implausibility of a scenario in which Michael J Fox plays Michael T Flaherty, the deputy mayor of New York whose journalist girlfriend is assigned to report on the misdeeds perpetrated by his administration.

Underneath, there's a snappy comedy about office politics and the tug of war between bed and desk, one that's sassily alive to popular culture. This week, Mike had been dubbed New York's sexiest man by Manhattan magazine, and couldn't erase a picture of the whole city standing bedside as he performed. His girlfriend encouraged him to narrow the imaginary audience down to Chinatown, then Little Italy. Eventually they tried Houston, but to no avail. "Houston," said Mike, "we have a problem."

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