Classic Comedy Year: 1994
Chris Hallam has previously looked back at why 1979 was such a good year for comedy, and now he's turning his attentions to 1994.
Fourteen year-old Simon Amstell performs impressions of Dame Edna on Good Morning with Anne and Nick. Brand new series of Jewish ghost comedy So Haunt Me and solicitor romance May To December. Christmas specials of Keeping Up Appearances and Birds Of A Feather. Here Chris explains why, despite all these things, 1994 remains one of the best ever years for British comedy...
1994 was indeed a glorious time. Graham Taylor boldly led England towards World Cup glory. Michael Sheen (Tony Blair) struck a deal with David Morrissey (Gordon Brown) to lead the Labour Party following the death of Father Jack Hackett. Across the pond, President Bill Pullman prepared to lead the nation in defence against an under-scripted extra-terrestrial assault.
With all this going on, it's amazing anyone found time to produce comedy at all. But remember: without Angry Birds, DVDs or a proper internet, people were forced to make their own entertainment...
Actually, it's probably a good thing the internet hadn't really got going by 1994. The Fast Show should, on paper, have been awful. It's easy to imagine cynical bloggers ripping it to shreds before it even began.
For one thing, it relied heavily on repetition and catchphrases. "Where's me washboard?", "Suit you sir!", "Brilliant!", "You ain't seen me, right?", "Hi! I'm Ed Winchester!", "I'll fetch my coat" and many more.
For another, as Paul Whitehouse nervously admitted in pre-publicity it was also not especially "fast" at all. Indeed, he later revealed many of his own characters from the show had already been rejected by his old collaborator Harry Enfield. What was worse, the new series was based around the traditionally patchy and to some extent discredited sketch show format.
As it is, as we know now, the show was a huge success, the clever use of catchphrases and repetition in fact proving one of its main strengths. Within years, Whitehouse would be appearing in Hollywood films, admittedly usually in smallish roles alongside professed Fast Show enthusiast Johnny Depp (The Corpse Bride, Finding Neverland). For the record, the US version of The Fast Show went under the name Brilliant.
Whitehouse was the most prominent figure in the show, playing gamekeeper Ted to Charlie Higson's repressed aristocrat Ralph in some of the show's subtler sketches scripted by future Father Ted scribes Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews as well as, of course, Ron Manager and fictional 1940s comedy legend Arthur Atkins.
But he was by no means the only star performing with Higson; Arabella Weir, John Thomson, Mark Williams and Simon Day all rose to prominence on the show, as well as many recurring supporting players. It was decided that each actor should own copyright of their own characters. Many would thus later appear in adverts, although none of the show's direct spin-offs (Arabella Weir's book Does My Bum Look Big In This? or the sitcoms Swiss Toni and Grass) were especially successful.
Oddly, with the exceptions of Caroline Aherne and John Thomson, it's probably fair to say that nearly twenty years on, all of the cast including Whitehouse are still better known for The Fast Show than for anything else.
But with the show so well loved and in my opinion still holding up better than some more recent sketch show fare (such as Little Britain), there is certainly nothing shameful about that.
1994 saw not just one but two new comedy teams emerging fully formed into the world. Of course, The Day Today team (Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Front, Patrick Marber, Doon Mackichan, Armando Iannucci, David Schneider and others) weren't untested, having first appeared in On The Hour (sample headline: "Ireland has burst") on Radio 4 in 1991. But despite the misfortune of losing rising stars Stewart Lee and Richard Herring in the transition to screen, The Day Today emerged as a gloriously slick looking TV success in 1994.
It wasn't just about the news. Chris Morris's fanatical Paxman-like presenter - giggling flirtatiously with Rebecca Front's traffic correspondent one minute, barking at Patrick Marber's Peter O'Hanraha-hanrahan the next - was undoubtedly the star and the show mocked the hysterical urgency, and even the rhythms of news speak, brilliantly ("Those are the headlines - God, I wish they weren't"). The war episode was another highlight, one correspondent intoning: "As I swilled the last traces of toothpaste from my mouth this morning, a soldier's head flew past the window, shouting the word 'victory'".
But the show had a pop at everything, brief samples including George Formby singing Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, an advert for tampons performed by a Nirvana-like band, a snippet from fictional racist 70s sitcom Them Next Door and soap opera The Bureau (set awkwardly in a narrow Bureau Du Change). There was even a segment called The Office, a parody of a fly on the wall documentary which could (at a stretch) be viewed as influencing the most successful sitcom of the next decade.
Despite its references to Boris Yeltsin, and Virginia Bottomley, The Day Today has stood the test of time remarkably well, certainly better than the more recent Broken News. However, its most immediate influence was to spawn a new chat show.
On that bombshell...
Oliver Reed and George Best drunk live on air. Grace Jones punching Russell Harty. Actor Christopher Lloyd refusing to talk to Terry Wogan. Actress Anne Bancroft refusing to sit down.
Given how many genuine tremendously awkward chat show moments there had been in the Eighties, it's surprising how few spoof chat shows there had been before Alan Partridge. The only notable exception being Dame Edna Everage's series, which like most of the later post-Partridge inferior offerings such as The Mrs Merton Show and The Kumars at No. 42, actually had real guests.
The secret of Partridge was not so much about the show but the extent to which it revealed the massive personality flaws of its sexist, borderline racist, "homosceptic", ex-sports presenter, host.
The character had, of course, first existed as an improvised voice on On The Hour. The TV version of Knowing Me, Knowing You... With Alan Partridge (or "The Alan Partridge Show" as its host is keen to call it) was actually the fourth series the character had been on. By then Steve Coogan, still in his twenties at this point, had fine-tuned the Norwich City fan to perfection.
The awkwardness with women (particularly lesbians), bouts of rage (particularly with both precocious child actors and anyone who forgets his name), the obsession with catchphrases and terrible introductions ("she's a trooper, I think she's super...") and little touches such as his miming an increasingly aggressive attack on the audience at the start of each show before the final episode culminating in the accidental shooting of a guest ("On that bombshell: Forbes McAllister is dead") have ensured Coogan's career and the character's immortality.
Although the jury's still out on one question... Is this, or his later incarnation as a permanent guest at the Travel Tavern, Alan Parrtridge's most successful manifestation?
Four Weddings And A Funeral
Okay, it may not seem very cool to sing the praises of a Hugh Grant film. But the fact remains: Four Weddings And A Funeral is one of the best British comedy films there has ever been.
Yes, it does go off a little towards the end. Yes, Andie "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed" MacDowell who famously had her voice dubbed over for the film Greystoke ten years before, could happily have been surgically erased from the whole film in many people's view. And then there are the questions. How do all these friends know each other in the first place? Why does Andie MacDowell's character invite them all to her wedding in Scotland when, aside from Hugh Grant, she's barely met any of them at all at the previous weddings? Do any of them work?
These quibbles aside, the film remains very funny. The mad old man for example is hilarious. And it revived the British film industry. So stop complaining.
Like Britpop, the comedy boom of the 1990s had a bit of a false start. Just as the short lived ascendancy of Suede had appeared to herald a new musical age in 1992, before fizzling out until the successes of Pulp, Blur and Oasis two years later, comedy too had a false dawn. Newman & Baddiel and the notion of comedy as "the new rock and roll" had effectively died a death by 1994. Newman and Baddiel themselves fell out. Rob Newman fell into relative obscurity while in 1994, the intellectual Baddiel formed an unlikely partnership with Frank Skinner to front Fantasy Football League.
Like Loaded magazine, the show perfectly captured the prevailing "lad culture" humour that was so in vogue then, but to be honest, looks less good now. Simon Nye's Men Behaving Badly had begun in 1992 but was approaching the peak of its success in 1994, partly by pandering to this trend. At the start for example, Martin Clunes' Gary (as in Nye's novel) had refused to get a TV, enjoyed classical music and reminiscing about university with his old friend Dermot (Harry Enfield). By the mid-Nineties, he was swigging beers instead with Neil Morrissey's Tony. But this is not to knock it. The show worked better with Tony, not least because Morrissey is a better actor than Enfield.
1995 would see new series for ex-On The Hour alumni Lee & Herring while even more excitingly Irish writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews who had produced the "tiger" sequence for The Day Today together (an enormously difficult to film story about a tiger being released as a measure to shut up noisy neighbours), as well as the memorably awkward Ted sketches in The Fast Show, went onto write a sitcom about another Ted. A priest.
But that was another year and another story...
Win a copy of Series 1 of Cuckoo on DVD, the sitcom starring Greg Davies and Andy Samberg. Enter
Newspaper reports suggest that Peter Kay is working on bringing Phoenix Nights back for live shows. Read
Thom Tuck talks Munnery, Bambi, expensive dross at the Fringe, piles of rubbish on BBC3, and more. Read
Bill Kerr, who played Tony Hancock's dim-witted Australian sidekick, has died at the age of 92. Read
BBC Radio Comedy will be running comedy writing information sessions in London and Manchester. Read
David Walliams, Catherine Tate, Philip Glenister and Frances de la Tour talk about Big School Series 2. Read
Lord Alan B'Stard, First Marquess of Haltemprice, has died at the age of 58, it has been confirmed. Read
Frankie Boyle has blasted TV commissioning, Mock The Week, panel show booking, & other topics. Read
John Kearns, Alex Edelman and Phil Ellis are winners of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2014. Read
Plot details have been released about the 2nd series of James Corden and Mathew Baynton's comedy. Read
Lucy Beaumont talks about how she got started in comedy, and what she misses about leaving Hull. Read
BBC One has ordered a comedy drama series based on the best-selling book, The Tent, The Bucket and Me. Read
BBC One has ordered six episodes of Mountain Goats, a sitcom about a mountain rescue team. Read
Sky1 is making Agatha Raisin And The Quiche Of Death, a crime comedy drama starring Ashley Jensen. Read
Musical comedian Aidan Strangeman has won the 2014 So You Think You're Funny? new act competition. Read
Channel Dave has ordered 10 more episodes of comic chat format Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled. Read
ITV2 has commissioned a brand new sketch show starring Leigh Francis's alter-ego, Keith Lemon. Read
E4 has ordered a new comedy series called Chewing Gum, written by and starring Michaela Coel. Read
A police camera has caught comedian Roy Chubby Brown reading a newspaper whilst driving. Read
Jack Whitehall and his dad will move to BBC Two for a second series of Backchat. Read
BBC Three has ordered a new comedy series called Together. The show is written by & stars Jonny Sweet. Read
BBC Three has ordered Top Coppers, a 'silly, gag-filled, action comedy' which follows two police detectives. Read
Fried, a BBC Comedy Feeds sitcom pilot set in a low-rent fast food chain shop, has been given a series. Read
BBC Three has ordered a full series of Josh, the sitcom starring and co-written by Josh Widdicombe. Read
Harry Hill will host a reboot of singing show Stars In Their Eyes. ITV wants to do more comedy too. Read
A photo gallery providing an intimate insight into the pre-gig routines and notes of some of comedians. Read
The shortlists for the prestigious Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2014 is here: Read
The sketch group WitTank, stars of Live At The Electric, are now developing a sitcom project for E4. Read
Outnumbered star Hugh Dennis is to appear in You Should See My Family, a new hybrid comedy format. Read
Stand-up Romesh Ranganathan talk schools, comedy writing advice and more in this interview. Read
Channel 4 are to pilot a new panel show format hosted by Adam Hills called Welcome To My World. Read
An interview with stand-up comedian and podcast host Stuart Goldsmith. What is his own masterplan? Read
Gary Lucy, Andrew Dunn and Louis Emerick are amongst the stars for The Full Monty live UK tour. Read
Tim Vine has won the award for the funniest joke at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe festival. Top 10 gag
Holly Walsh's Edinburgh Fringe marketing design has won at the first ever Comedy Poster Awards. View
Stand-up comic Tom Craine talks about the cultural panic that exists around being single nowadays. Read
A bunch of comedians offer their suggested cures for that inevitable festival-based hangover. Watch
Lee Evans has launched 5 Minutes Mr. Evans!, a game for the iPhone/iPad. Get him to his gig on time. Read
Harry Hill is reportedly working on a scripted comedy show for the BBC. Few other details are known. Read
Miranda Hart will host a revival of BBC gameshow The Generation Game. Maybe. It's confusing. Read
Stand-up Celia Pacquola has been named the winner of the Amused Moose Laughter Award 2014. Read
Watch Tim Key tell a five minute tale about ghosts at the Edinburgh Fringe. It's chilling stuff. Watch
Jimmy Carr and Sarah Millican amongst the stars for a Sunday Night At The London Palladium revival. Read
An interview with Peter Morey, who is documenting gigs by creating a unique real-time illustration. Read
Luke McQueen tricked people into thinking they had Frankie Boyle tickets. They weren't happy. Read
Channel 4 is to screen Scotland In A Day, a one-off mockumentary tied to the Scottish Independence poll. Read
A look at why the comedy video websites Comedybox, MySpace and Funny Or Die all closed. Read