British Comedy: A Guide (Part IV: The Panel Show)

You see that I’ve done away with the Tier system for this.  That’s because there are relatively few shows here and I, somehow, have come up with rather elaborate things to say about some of them.

Have I Got News for You (1990-)

This is a topical news quiz. When the show started, Angus Deayton was the regular host. Having watched the Best of HIGNFY, I know that Angus was absolutely terrific at the job. His understated jabs and transitions were masterful. Sadly, he ran into a sniff of bother and he was dropped from the show. That’s pretty ridiculous, I think, for a sometimes-satirical program to buy into the kind of media judgment they lambaste for being ridiculous. Another casualty of Irony. To their detriment.

There are two permanent panelists: Paul Merton, a comedian, and Ian Hislop, the editor of a satirical newspaper. I’m not exactly sure why, but Merton has taken on this persona of extreme vagueness that can be funny but unreal.  Ian, on the other hand, plays it straight commenting on the events and typically being a snob (which is always fun).

The non-permanent panelists that join Paul or Ian’s team are comedians, news people, or public figures (like musicians or politicians). More often than not, some kind of dig will come up as to the public figure’s current topicality. On the Best of DVD, there were a pair recently accused of bribery that joined the show and they “paid” them on the show in brown envelopes. That’s the kind of nerve this show has–sadly, they completely lost their backbone with regards the Angus. That’s what snarky people are like, though. They can dish it out, but they usually can’t take it.

Who, you ask, is the host after Angus was dropped? They had different guests take up the role as a interim measure, but then found that to be popular enough to keep as a regular–if I can call it regular–device. That’s a dangerous move considering a bad host–and they usually aren’t that great–basically knobbles the whole show.

What they lose is someone who is so used to reading the prompter and the cut and thrust of things.  Therefore, they can’t branch out on their own and make the show an organic whole, which is what Angus did.  Instead, they get someone in that almost always stumbles on the prompter and, when things get too hectic, will blow right by a comic opportunity.

There have been grumbles about how the show isn’t actually improvised. From what I understand they (Merton and Hislop) see the pictures before hand or something. I don’t think it matters all that much. A scripted or prepared (or semi-prepared) show is only a flaw if it’s obvious.

It’s obvious on MSNBC or CNN when these expert panels spew out the same old drivel that constitutes what they expect to be the narrative without and hasn’t a drop of spontaneity (or insight) to it. HIGNFY doesn’t really fall under that category. This is comedy performed by professional comedians, they can handle it. Though professional blatherers, the news show hacks are not talented performers.

You might think that a topical news program would be about as interesting as reading an old paper, but you’d be wrong. Is watching The Daily Show as interesting as reading the day’s paper? Unless you’re a humorless zombie, you probably think The Daily Show is a more enjoyable pastime. And, as with The Daily Show, you can watch old episodes without too much trouble.

After all, when you’re watching a show about British news, chances are you have not nor ever will hear the story upon which the jokes are based. That doesn’t matter.

Mock the Week (2005-)

Back Row (LtoR) Frankie Boyle, Hugh Dennis, David Mitchell, Russell Howard. Front Row (LtoR) Some Guy, Dara O'Briain, Andy Parsons

This show is somewhere between Whose Line is it Anyway? and Have I Got News for You. It has some news quiz segments, but it is largely about stand-up/improvisational comedy.

The Host is Dara O’Briain, a regular on QI, who tries his best to keep some seriously outrageous characters under control. This show is the most dominated by regular panelists–most of whom are fantastic.  Hugh Dennis and Frankie Boyle on one panel, Andy Parsons and Russell Howard on the other.  To these regulars, as you might spot in the picture (left), each panel gets an extra member.  I see David Mitchell was in that one.

The level of comedy tends to be regular and low brow.  That’s not to say broad.  It’s too rude to be broad.  Frankie Boyle, in particular, is probably the funniest, rudest individual I’ve ever heard in my life.  It isn’t just the swearing.  After a while, you get used to that.  For the strong of heart.  There’s a running gag, when he was on the show, where they’d comment on the likelihood of it making it on the air.  He gets real dark.

Russell Howard is great.  He’s got a great sense of humor and for people under 30, he’s clearly the most resonating observational comic up there.  Hugh Dennis is also typically quite funny, but not always.  Andy Parsons I almost never enjoy at the stand-up segments.  He just isn’t as inventive as the others can be.

Never Mind the Buzzcocks (1996-)

This show is about the music industry.  I have seen exactly one episode, and that’s because it had Stephen Fry in it.  Usually, though, the panelists include Bill Bailey (right) and Phill Jupitus (left) and hosted by Simon Amstell who’s like a British Jesse Eisenberg after 2003.  I’m not really big on pop music stuff and that’s seriously understated.  That means almost all of the jokes are lost on me and the references mean nothing at all.  That makes it tough to gauge the level of the show.  But, like all Panel Shows, there are enough jokes about naughty things to keep it sweet.  It’s got the personnel to be great, so I’ll assume that it is.  Music fans should feel free to give me a clue.

QI (2003-)

The show is called Quite Interesting (QI) and points are awarded for giving interesting (if not accurate) answers and penalized for giving the obvious (and wrong) answer. The show relies upon the legion of inaccurate information that passes for common knowledge. The answer is not the blue whale. Pretty solid premise for a show, but its premise is nothing to its execution.

Stephen Fry is Quizmaster and is incredibly knowledgeable as well as hilarious. He is joined by permanent panelist Alan Davies (left) who plays the part of the fool for our benefit. While Alan may not have much of a cache of knowledge, he often has some hidden gems of wisdom not atypical of a stand-up comedian.

Alan is joined by three others, usually comedians, that you will come to know and love. Bill Bailey, Jimmy Carr (right), Phill Jupitus, and David Mitchell are my favorite regulars (and the most regular regulars).  You see Joe Brand and Rob Brydon up there. There are times where the panel is so bright and knowledgeable that it can be tough not to take personally. But then they’ll throw in a knob joke and everything is forgiven.

On the “Making of QI” which I am fanatic enough to have seen, Jimmy Carr brings up this excellent point that, I think, deserves greater investigation. He said that QI puts together panels of folks that people want to invite into their homes. That’s an old trope that we’ve heard before about shows in the ’50s, but we don’t use it too much anymore. We should because what British Comedy has in greater abundance than the US, in my view, is that precise motive to watching television.

I want to have these guys over for 30 minutes to have a conversation about weird stuff. I imagine that, for whatever reason, that’s what keeps shows like Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother on the air. People get attached to these characters or actors and they tune in regularly. Personally, I’d rather hang out with Stephen Fry than share a bottle of tiger blood with Charlie Sheen. Different strokes.

The show is going into its tenth series (Series J) but sadly only Series A-C are available on DVD.  There are ways around that.  Anyway, it’s the very best Panel Show I’ve even encountered and you should check out every Youtube morsel.

Whose Line is it Anyway? (1988-98)

Since I put in Mock the Week, I have to put in Whose Line is it Anyway? For some reason I didn’t think of it as a panel show because it isn’t remotely quiz-based. Still, there is a game here–whoever gets the most points wins. How do you win points? It isn’t really clear.

The show is about improvisation.  If you’ve ever taken an acting class, you’ve almost certainly played some of these games or at least recognize the idea of them.  Oh, and you may recognize Jonathan Pryce in the middle-left in that picture there.

The show was at its best early in its run when John Sessions was the regular. He is a touch obnoxious, but if I was as good as that, I think I’d be way more obnoxious. Still, it seemed like he was the figure of fun and I will not have any of that! Sympathy to one side, Sessions raised the level of the game and his loss towards the end of the first series was a great one (whether they knew it or not).

Without him, the show basically relied upon the strength of the game itself.  Luckily, Host Clive Anderson came into his own after a couple episodes and brought solid consistency. Still, the mental altitude slowly dropped to American levels by the end of the third series. That’s not good.

Other regulars included Paul Merton, Tony Slattery, and Josie Lawrence (who I love unconditionally and is, if anything, better than Sessions and the musical champion par excellence). They are all quite strong with their own brand of comedy. Guest appearances by Stephen Fry and Peter Cook were nice touches that I wish they had repeated the guestings more frequently. Oh well.

Eventually the show did jump the pond and completely lost its identity. But its predecessor, for the first couple episodes alone, is well worth the investment.

Would I Lie to You? (2007-)

This is an old game. You tell three stories and someone tries to pick out the lie (or the truth). Everyone takes a turn telling and guessing.

Rob Brydon plays the Host and is joined by regulars David Mitchell on screen left and Lee Mack on screen right. Brydon is rather more involved than any of the other Hosts in the list. While Brydon is a very funny person, I think he’s best with a foil and the panelists do not really provide that function. More typical is Brydon interjecting with a Ronnie Corbit impression that means nothing to me. “Its not the one about…” Nothing.

Apparently, Angus Deayton was the original host.  No idea why that stopped, but I can’t really be indignant because this isn’t a show that calls for much subtlety.

Still, it’s got David Mitchell who I find incredibly funny and has great individual material. There’s a catch 22 with Mitchell that if he had a different personality, he’d be the best stand-up alive, but if he had a different personality, his best material would die. I’ll keep the Soapbox, thank you very much (if he’d get back to making them!).  But on this show, I feel he’s completely wasted.  He’s too smart for this kind of stuff.  Not that the others are fools, but his kind of righteous indignation about whatever thing’s upset him today (but nobody else cares about) is a little out of place.

Lee Mack, on the other hand, has a routine that is more in keeping with the tenor of the show.  That’s a little bit bogus since both Mack and Mitchell have been on the show from the start and so Mitchell has as much to say about the tenor of the show as anybody else.  Still, though, this is, as I say, an old game that’s very basic.  I mean, you wouldn’t expect Mitchell to host The Price is Right, would you?  Mack, on the other hand, is clearly a blokey bloke and at home with the pseudo-working out of the plausibility of a story.

As a show, it’s not something that I’m tempted or willing to track down with youtube or find collections in less legitimate repositories.  I say less legitimate when, in fact, there’s no real difference other than perception.  That’s people for you. I use Youtube, therefore it is legal.  I’m too dumb to torrent, therefore it is illegal.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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One Response to British Comedy: A Guide (Part IV: The Panel Show)

  1. Pingback: British Comedy: A Guide (Part V: One Hour Comedy) | Prof. Ratigan

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