Comedy Lab: School of Comedy
I had intended to cover the first three of Channel 4’s Comedy Lab shows together, but School of Comedy deserves a slot all of its own. Too well put together to be ignored as ‘just another pilot’, it’s a programme I’m backing to the hilt. You don’t need to skip ahead – this is a five-star review.
A sketch show (as all the Comedy Labs this year seem to be) featuring nine kids should have been desperate. I still adore Bugsy Malone but…well, it’s not like I watched it and thought it’d work great as a starting point for a series of sketches.
You can get all the important ‘how it came about’ details from the Channel 4 site, but suffice to say that this is a show already sharpened on the live circuit – and it shows. A myth seems to have built up that School of Comedy gets a lot of its laughs from getting kids to say rude things, and while that does happen here – in a sketch that seems designed to deal with this criticism head-on – it’s such a tiny part of the content that you’d have to be watching very selectively to take away that conclusion.
Still, you can find out for yourself. For those unable to get onto 4oD – those anti-Mac bastards – the whole thing is on YouTube in three parts on YouTube. Go, watch, come back after, and remember to stay until the end of the credits.
Starting with actual audience applause is brave in a time when viewers seem to regard such things as a trick, but I was sucked right in. The decision to use a live studio audience, combining pre-recorded and live sketches, is a reassuring one. It seems quite an intimate audience, and that ‘small pub’ venue gives a warmth to the soundtrack – especially in the live sketches, which are performed on a stylised single set with basic props and costumes. You’ll no doubt remember Goodness Gracious Me doing something similar, and to equally good effect.
Using kids to play adult roles has a lot of positive aspects. It holds a peculiar mirror up to adult pretensions and behaviours, sure, but there’s something about the performances that are more than just spot on. The show’s been thoroughly tested live, and – if my time performing Two Ronnies sketches during my GCSEs has taught me anything – kids seem to have an ability to replicate whatever worked best the next time they go out.
The impression one gets is of a thousand small things – intonations, gestures – being expertly compiled into a ‘best of’ performance. It’s like nothing so much as animation. The movements key-framed, tried out and reworked, until every expression is just so; the audio selected from the very best takes at the end of a long recording session.
Which is not to downplay the performers’ involvement. Clearly far more than puppets – as denoted by their writing credits – the nine children still manage to get across something organic and natural without losing precision. Stars quickly emerge, and while it seems heartless to single them out above the others, you kinda have to: Will Poulter (who’s probably already sick of being described as ‘that kid from Son of Rambow’ despite the film’s brilliance), Arthur Sturridge, Beth Rylance and the Ainsworth sisters take a career-establishing bow.
Credit, too, to producer/director Andy Hardcastle for capturing everything so well. It’s easy to underestimate the comedy director, but getting these things on tape requires a skill – in the timing, in the tone – that few have. Especially when it comes to live material. Not once does this show slip up with a ‘If they’d just got that right, it really would have worked’ moment. Not once.
The consistency in tone is also surprising, given the seventeen credited writers (including the cast, excluding the creator). Yet the whole thing tiptoes nicely between specific gag writing and more playful moments that just revel in the style on display.
In the gaggier category we have some neat recurring characters. Two performed by Sturridge stick out especially – a man who cannot stand to watch bad news being delivered (A pair of doctors talking to a patient: “We’ve actually detected –” “Superpowers!”) and a know-it-all instructor of violent intensity whose catchphrase is “What the fuck was that?!”
But in a densely-packed pilot it was Lilly Ainsworth’s receptionist that really stood out. As with the two characters above, all they do is transpose her from one variant of her job to another – airline receptionist, medical receptionist – and keep the jokes coming. In this instance the gags come from the bizarre combination of enquiries. “Have you got any of the following items in your luggage: towel, toothbrush, bomb?” mixed with with famous questions, “Are you there God it’s me, Margaret?” and irrelevant ones, “Can a hippo kill a lion?”
All of which is nifty, but it’s the performance that elevates the whole thing. Ainsworth mixes up her styles for every question – aggressive, then playful, then serious, then completely bewildered. And every one, as you’d expected, is the best fit for what’s being asked. It’s utterly daft, yet quite charmingly brilliant. “Are you only with me for the money?”
Jokey one-offs include Poulter’s pitch-perfect tactless teacher (“No, I said he was backwards”) and three execs trying to outdo each other by issuing instructions to an unseen assistant with escalating levels of insanity.
Less successful is the arrival of an American Cop to a British precinct. Not helped by a dodgy accent from Africa Nyle – though it is very Bugsy Malone – the idea’s a good one (“Was she loaded, was she packing?” “Tax disc.”), it just goes on too long. Still, it has a kind of Hot Fuzz quality to it.
The other miss is the “You’re a cunt” meeting. Staff gather in the conference room to discuss the best way to move forward, and they all agree that one of those present is a cunt, and his removal would be best for everyone. Getting laughs from swearing is absolutely legitimate – and the joke here is in the simple repetition and “We’re just being honest” tone – but why the hell the thing had to be bleeped is beyond me. Not the best sketch of the bunch anyway, but the censorship killed whatever it had going for it.
Those are the clearest, jokiest sketches. But in many ways the real joy comes when the show has the confidence to revel in a particular tone without aiming for a specific punchline.
The highlight is a posh 1930s couple played by Rylance and Poulter. While the first scene does include an on-the-nose (but neatly constructed) lesbianism joke, neither the rudeness nor the gag are the big deal here. It’s in the delight of terms like “The plural of rhubarb is rhubarb”, the style and the timing. “One day I shall move from this beastly spot and stare at different part of the curtains.” Effortlessly hysterical.
Likewise we have an Eastern European plumber and au pair. Not really the best material to begin with, but – as with the ’30s couple – theirs is a story that runs over several scenes, and by the time the husband of the home they work in returns early and mistakes the plumber for his wife, it’s all coming together. (Though someone cut Jack Harries’s hair – the lad looks so feminine that it nearly kills the punchline.)
But with both of these it’s really the musical numbers that take things to a new level. Both stories climax with the cast miming to a well-known song (now come on, that has to put you in mind of Bugsy Malone).
In the early stages this looked like an idea that wasn’t quite going to fit. The ‘bad news’ guy miming to The Great Pretender was too brief, and too early, to work, and the office cunt miming to One only brought back memories of that song’s appearance in Magnolia, a film which also asked its cast to mime to someone else’s song.
But then the 1930s couple pipe up with Phil Collins’s Separate Lives and it all drops neatly into place. By the time we get to the Eastern Europeans’s Hopelessly Devoted to You, it’s absolutely part of the fabric of the show, tying up the story with a smart song choice and a final, perfectly-timed cut.
One moment falls between two stools. The twice-seen ‘old fashioned room’ doesn’t quite know which type it is, and so doesn’t quite nail either, but when the American and British cops end up miming to Eminem’s Lose It – and the show’s final, bickering couple slip into You Don’t Bring Me Flowers…well, you just feel in your gut that something’s working.
The choices made are so smart, so spot-on – in the music, the shooting, the writing and the performances – that you can’t help but admire the craftsmanship. School of Comedy is a brilliant piece of, erm, comedy, one which had me in hysterical fits for more time than is entirely normal for a grown man. (It also gets better on repeated viewings. Are you listening, Little Britain?)
That it deserves a full series goes without saying. That that series probably has to happen soon, before the kids get much older, is a worry. Could a running series have a rotating cast, seeing new talent in as the older ones leave? I guess.
Cherish this rare gem while you can. If there’s any justice, it won’t be a little-seen pilot much longer.