Comedy Lab: Slaterwood & Headwreckers
Peter Slater’s pilot takes movie conventions, applies some anarchic characterisation and hopes for the best. Thankfully it does so without a laugh track, because it’s hard to imagine audience reactions ever reaching beyond polite smiles.
The show is a clumsy and ultimately unsatisfying cocktail. Some neat animated titles and links suggest a world densely populated by the performer’s various characters. The trouble is that the links end up being a great deal more likable than the main programme.
The show began with ‘Sir Arthur Conan the Barbarian’ (you see the level we’re at) in a graveyard, telling the camera that he was on the hunt for a werewolf. But while doing so, hey hey, he moves and speaks in peculiar, stylised ways – playing with a comb, rubbing his head. Then he starts to give a driving lesson, unsettling the young woman being taught with his bizarre behaviour.
This is actually the best sketch of the show, but that’s not saying much. Coasting on weirdness, it feels unfocussed, aimless, and under-developed. The creepy factor may seem to echo The League of Gentlemen, but this is like Edward Tattsyrup heading out to…just wind people up a bit. Dark’s fine, but what’s it for?
There’s also an uncomfortable level of aggression on display. Most of the characters are angry or dangerous or egotistical or creepy. Generally some combination thereof. There’s nothing to sympathise with, or really identify with.
Even the most innocuous sketches – spoof adverts by the over-tanned ‘Bobby Gold’ for various crap combination products (“It’s chicken, sausages and burgers all rolled into one”) – have a thin layer of this running through them. Already an old joke brought pretty much to its conclusion by The Fast Show’s ‘Cheesy Peas’, and despite some brilliantly crappy bluescreen, Bobby’s clearly pretty pissed off at the whole crass business. And the anger ends up going towards his two (extremely well-performed) bad actors and to us, the audience. Which doesn’t seem right. Somehow it sucks out the fun.
The coming sketches don’t offer us much that’s new. Angry detective? Seen it before. Rambo-esque movie spoof set in Wigan? Ditto. Christopher Walken as your step-dad, including ‘Walken With Dinosaurs’ spoof DVD sleeve? Well, he’s the True Romance version of Walken, so he threatens, intimidates, then offers a scotch to the child he’s babysitting. Then ends up playing Russian roulette.
And the thing that ties them all together is that unsettling, angry tone – coupled with an all-about-me vibe that rarely hands a joke to anyone else, nor really aims to be in any way inclusive.
The nadir is probably a pair of scenes in an out-of-the-way American diner, taking ‘trapped with inbred lunatics’ cues from films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes – another League-esque source of inspiration. But not only do the sketches have the same ‘notice me I’m being weird’ tone, they also seem to think that the black humour already inherent in those horror films has been missed. It all feels like nothing so much as an irritating friend trying to explain the films back to you, thinking you didn’t see comedy in them – but you will if he just performs them loud enough.
If anything breaks this streak at all, it’s the French Mystery Man – a character who always turns up at the key moment and, by virtue of just being that cool solves the problem. Figuring out a murder, foiling a hold-up and helping soldiers hit a target (“Try zeese coordinates: left a bit…”), they are at least good-natured. But the ego remains, and concluding each scene with the Mystery Man pulling a Party Popper isn’t as cute as the show seems to think.
With two performance credits each in both Phoenix Nights and Saxondale, Slater’s certainly been exposed to some of the more demanding personalities in British comedy. But Coogan and Kay are far more layered and intricate performers, with material that’s infinitely more original, but also far more specific.
Too much of Slaterland feels improvised, doodled down, then performed. There’s no sense that the jokes have been honed, or that the characters might have more going on under the surface. Those characters also fail to speak to familiar types. You’ve never met these people (which is why viewers took so easily to the first series of Little Britain). They’re recognisable from the screen, maybe…but that just means they’ve already been done better.
Walken was already meant to be funny, after all.
Headwreckers gets off to a bad start with a clumsy introduction line. The camera swirls around a team of writers at a table and a voice says: “These people are comedians. Well, y’know, semi-successful comedians…”
It seems to be aiming for the self-deprecation joke, but it’s backwards – the second line actually builds the comedians up rather than putting them down. It’s an odd bit of fumbled execution, but it gives you some idea of the good-natured hit-and-miss you’re about to watch.
This particular telly-eats-itself-then-eats-what-it-excretes format is essentially an intercut, sketch show version of ITV’s Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach. In a seriously under-lit room (creating a neat ‘bare light bulb’ icon for the show) five Irish comedians write their show – or, at least, debate the writing of their show. Then we cut to the sketch under discussion.
The upside of this format is how liberating it is structurally. The highlight is a sequence where one writer introduces an idea that “really happened” to him; they play it out in the sketch, but when it doesn’t go much of anywhere, they stop and ask, “Is that it?” Rather than stop there, though, they then brainstorm where to take the sketch next…and we cut to the two sketch characters: “Where’s this sketch going?” “Where would you like it to go?” “I always wanted to go to Ibiza…”
And because the writers like the idea, the characters go to Ibiza.
This enables Headwreckers to skip over unnecessary logistics and get to the heart of what it wants to say. The sketch above is a definite highlight – it opens with a drug addict begging in a corner shop and delivering racist abuse, takes the characters on a cheery holiday…and ends with the addict working in an Irish theme pub while the Indian guy asks for a free drink. Full circle – great structure. And marred only slightly more than slightly by the use of brownface.
But there’s also a downside. When the writers are visibly debating the merits of what’s on screen, they’re perpetually let off the hook. You never feel anything’s been strongly committed to, which is crazy, because it’s obviously been scripted and planned. Yet there’s a distance introduced which takes the curse off things that could be potentially offensive – and sometimes it’s good to be offended. When the sketch is shown with a sense of ‘We’re not sure this is funny. What d you think?’ somehow it feels a little empty.
Worse still, sometimes it debates things that don’t seem necessary – the stereotypical presentation of the Irish on-screen is raised and milked for an obvious joke – while avoiding things that really should have been discussed. The aforementioned brownface is a key example – how does that not come up when one of the all-white cast are is going to have to do a full Peter Sellers?
One assumes it did on the real production, but the writers’ room we see is a scripted fiction, too. It’s not the real process, captured during production. Which you can see the logic for, but the performances are never wholly convincing, and so we’re left even more distanced. When the debate scenes ring false, and the sketches come pre-excused, where’s the real heart of the show?
When it does work, though, it’s quite beguiling. A discussion about a father who has been prevented from videoing his kid’s football game leads to the obvious paedo sketch, but then comes back to an amusing back-and-forth as the writers get mired in follow-up questions – is recording kids in a swimming pool more sexual than recording them at a football game? And if you say yes, what does that say about you?
So while a pitched sketch about a child fleeing a concentration camp seems to be going nowhere, the debate makes it so. He’s being chased by Nazis? “We could make it funny.” “How do you make that funny?” “Why would you want to make it funny?” “Benny Hill music?” And after you see exactly that: “It’s just my way of dealing with the horror.”
Not bad at all.
There are a few hidden-camera pranks (a busker sings to a guy to take his hands out of his pockets; a guy holds up an ‘Iron My Shirt’ banner while running in a women’s marathon), but mostly the team find their style and stick to it. The sketches are all over the place, but often have the likeability factor missing from Slaterland. ‘Accidental Gay Moments’ is charming (and it’s rare to pull off this kind of joke without coming off as homophobic – Kevin Bishop please take note). And the Irish porn movie – Angela’s Asses – is neatly executed. So dour, so miserable…and the dialogue is spot-on. “Feck me like I’m on holidays!”
There was a smart documentary spoof, too, about a man who suffers from Oral De-synchronisation, a condition that sometimes shifts the sounds he makes out of synch with his actions. It’s beautiful, subtle trick, with great timing. But it cuts away to a poorer, related joke at the end rather than seeing it though to a strong climax.
Among the misses were Amy Winehouse being portrayed as Joe Pesci in the iconic ‘How am I funny?’ scene from Goodfellas, a bare-knuckle boxer who does Michael Jackson dance moves, the wordplay Nazi who says he ‘loves the juice’, and a humpbacked Irish publican who plays into the stereotypes so the show can say its satirising them. (“Drinking non-alcoholic beer is like going down on your sister – it tastes the same but it’s not right.”)
Still, for every humdrum “I was the only child in my school who managed to abuse the priests” moment, there’s a likeably violent fantasy about pummelling the ignorant adolescent behind the counter in a sports shop. A scene that, after a challenge by the other writers, then plays again in a much more realistic, pathetic way. (It’s also a scene that’s introduced me to the description “He had a little MySpace head on him.” Which just seems so spot-on.)
Maybe Headwreckers ducks away from taking responsibility for what’s being said. Certainly it presents material that misses as often as it hits. But for all that there are some interesting things going on here, playing with the format while still often presenting – at least within the sketches – recognisable, familiar situations. It’s a decent, if not wholly satisfying, attempt.