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...
A comedy survey has been launched, aiming to collect the thoughts of comedy fans across the UK. Details
The internet has been busy creating lots of funny festive video sketches. Here's 20 of the best from 2014. Watch
UK Pun Champion Darren Walsh has written us some festive jokes. There's a couple of drawings too. Read
Lee Ridley, a stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy, has won the BBC New Comedy Award 2014. Read
Pointless star Richard Osman joins Richard Herring for an entertaining chat. Watch or listen here: Listen
The winners of UKTV Gold's Christmas Cracker joke competition have been announced. Read the top 10: Read
Alistair Barrie and Nick Revell host a festive edition of the No Pressure To Be Funny political podcast. Listen
Check out some of the puns from the comedians who will take part in the UK Pun Championships 2015. Read
A list of 25 festive comedy specials to look out for between now and 2015. There's lots of treats ahead: Read
Shopping for gifts? We've plenty to choose from in our Christmas selection, from books to DVDs. Browse
Channel 4 has commissioned Space Ark, a new sci-fi sitcom pilot about a crew living on a spaceship. Read
Boomers and Citizen Khan will both return for another series, as the BBC outlines its plans for comedy in 2015. Read
We've got some official Only Fools And Horses fancy dress costumes to give away. Del Boy and Rodney. Enter
Will Mars talks about his 'bulletproof' live comedy format Joke Thieves. It's on tour and heading for TV. Read
Olivia Colman and Julian Barrett are to star in Flowers, a sitcom pilot about 'the ultimate dysfunctional family'. Read
UKTV Gold is to show Bob Monkhouse: The Million Joke Man, a three-part series presented by Paul O' Grady. Read
Channel 4 has ordered a third series of Toast Of London, its hit new comedy series starring Matt Berry. Read
Simon Day and Rhys Thomas, the creators of Brian Pern: A Life In Rock, talk about the second series. Read
Early Doors stars John Henshaw and Mark Benton are amongst the cast for the Educating Bitchfield pilot. Read
We've relaunched our Shop Newsletter. Why not have a read through to see what catches your eye? Read
Check out some unique artworks inspired by classic British comedy shows like Blackadder and The Young Ones. View
Simon Evans has just made his first stand-up DVD. He chats with Si Hawkins about all things comedy. Read
Comedy Central orders a series in which comedians get very drunk and attempt to tell historical tales. Read
Almost Royal the prank show involving two actors pretending to be royalty, is to return for a 2nd series. Read
Happy 140th birthday to Winston Churchill. Here's some funny videos which reveal 10 'facts' about him. View
Father Ted and Toast co-writer Arthur Mathews is developing a new BBC sitcom about bailiffs. Read
A discussion with 'troubled comedian' Richard Gadd about topics such as mining one's life for material. Read
Julian Clary has signed a two book deal with a publishing company to write children's novels. Read
Peter Kay's much loved sitcom Phoenix Nights will return as a live stage show in January. Read
The comedy drama about a 16-year-old with weight and mental health problems is to return. Read
Who do you think will win at the British Comedy Awards? Have a guess on our interactive website. Enter
Rebecca Front chats to Richard Herring about some of her comedy acting roles in this episode of RHLSTP. Listen
E4 has commissioned 2 new series of panel show Virtually Famous, focusing on internet celebrities. Read
The BBC has announced its Christmas comedy offerings. Amongst the shows is the end of hit sitcom Miranda. Read
Voting for the British Comedy Awards 2014 King or Queen category has launched. Pick from 6: Read
The comedy troupe So On And So Forth have been given their own BBC Radio 4 sketch show series. Read
Lee Evans, one of the UK's best known stand-ups, has unexpectedly announced he is to retire from comedy. Read
Jason Manford explains why his new DVD is making people soil themselves, and he talks about his club chain. Read
Dave Cohen prepares Big Comedy Conference delegates with an attempt to explain EVERY type of joke. Read
Sarah Millican chats to Richard Herring in the latest episode of his podcast series. It's a funny chat. Listen
Paddy McGuinness is to return to comedy acting with a role in ITV's new midwife sitcom, The Delivery Man. Read
Comedy sketch duo Flip and Maggie ask 'Where are the people, particularly women, of our age in comedy?' Read
Comedy Central has confirmed the commission of a new studio sitcom. It's called I Live With Models. Read
The BBC has ordered comedies for its Magna Carta season, including a new Horrible Histories episode. Read
The 15 finalists involved in the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year 2014 competition are listed here: Read
An article in which Dave Cohen looks at the structure of a joke, and explains how Aristotle got there first. Read
Eddie Izzard is to write his memoirs. He has signed a book deal with a US publishing company. Read