Opinion: Is TV Sketch Comedy Eating Itself?

watson & oliver

It was the eminent writer David Quantick who coined the phrase "pop will eat itself" in the 1980s when he was talking about the way musical genres kept cross-referencing each other. Soon afterwards a band formed calling themselves Pop Will Eat Itself. Maybe there is a sketch group calling themselves Sketch TV Will Eat Itself out there, because that definitely feels like what is happening at the moment.

Comedy duo Watson & Oliver return to BBC2 for their second series tonight. It does not need much in the way of description as it is pretty much the same as their first series – a selection of disparate sketches and occasional returning characters mainly spoofing authority figures, shops, institutions and, most noticeably, other TV programmes. Police get distracted by pop music while crime goes on all around them, surgeons scrub up for an operation as if they are in an ad for shampoo.

It is all painlessly funny and slips down without scaring the horses or leaving much of a mark. A few skits overstay their welcome, but if you don't like one send-up another will be along soon. The only moment that really grabbed me was when Lorna Watson essayed such a good Angela Merkel impression (see picture) I momentarily thought they had bagged the political cameo of the decade.

What lets the programme down, though, is the over-reliance on sketches that ape other television programmes. This has been going on for years – Benny Hill satirised supercook Fanny Cradock, The Young Ones satirised yoof programming (remember Nosin' Around? with Ben Elton back when he was majorly funny?). But now this rash seems to have become an epidemic. TV has become fixated on itself. Both Mitchell and Webb ("Numberwang") and Armstrong & Miller had their fair share of telly tributes and then earlier this year Anna & Katy's entire series felt like a pastiche of screen trash, from daytime medical soaps to earnest foodie competitioins ("Rice Britannia") to breakfast TV (that reminds me, I must stop saying "congratulations" in a cod West Indian accent).

A few years ago the trend was for Austen-era costume drama parodies. W&O donned comedy bonnets in their first series, but have avoided that cliche in tonight's episode. Instead they have mimicked another period hit with their Call The Midwife homage, which is all cockerney dictionaries and mocking the working classes. There is also the inevitable kitchen programme sketch, "Realistic Cooking" – "tonight I'm going to do what most people do and make a pudding badly."

These conceits don't appear hard to think up, just scroll through the top ten TV ratings, and they don't do anything very distinctive with the notion – unlike Kevin Eldon's Amish Sex Pistols mash-up or Vic & Bob's Loyd Grossman Masterchef nightmare or most of Big Train's meta-comedy. Which is a shame. Watson and Oliver are naturally funny clowns in search of a consistently decent script. The best moments tonight are the ones that surprise you and – spoiler alert – there are a couple where expectations are genuinely subverted. But these moments are rare, so cherish them.

What Watson and Oliver need to do is think out of the box. If they are going to send up TV tropes maybe they should go the wholehog and skewer the tropes of other TV sketch comedy tropes. In fact they very nearly did this in the first series with their opening variety show tribute to Morecambe and Wise and there is an "at home" scene tonight that hints at similar potential.

Maybe a really good subversive twist would be to have Anna Crilly and Katy Wix on as special guests in the way that Armstrong, Miller, Mitchell & Webb all once appeared together for Comic Relief. Perhaps Crilly, Wix, Watson and Oliver can do a mixture of Rice Britannia and Realistic Cooking. Now maybe that really would be an appetising example of sketch comedy eating itself. 

 

 

 

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