COMMENT: The Return of The 11 O'Clock Show
First published December 2000
The Return of The 11 O'Clock Show
What's so numbingly depressing about the new series of The 11 O'Clock Show (which forced its vaguely revamped self onto Channel 4 on October 3) hasn't so much been the show itself, although that remains as bad as ever. What's irritated SOTCAA over the past few weeks is the number of clueless idiots on various TV fora wittering on about how the programme is...well, y'know...actually not all that bad really. 'Last night's show was OK,' blethers one dick. 'I actually laughed at some jokes - maybe we should give it a chance?' blethers another. It suggests not only that many people don't identify the faults of the current 11 O'Clock Show, but also that they never fully understood what its faults were in the 'bad old days' either.

Let's clarify this. Yes, let's. The problems of The 11 O'Clock Show in its first four series had fuck-all to do with Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan. Both were unpleasant, vacuous presenters, admittedly. Both came from a disinterested autocue culture hell-bent on surfing inferior projects solely to boost one's CV. We know that. But, although one can despise them for being involved in and promoting the show, neither were the instigators of the overall Channel 4 cancer that the programme represented. Lee and Donovan (who wrote very little of the show's scripts) were the equivalent of session musicians. They were in it for the money. If they hadn't done the gig, there'd have been no shortage of hopefuls waiting to fill their shoes.

The real problem with The 11 O'Clock Show - which we made clear in our original article - was in its concept and attitude. And with this new series, nothing's changed - it's a case of same shit, different planet. Iain Lee may have left (apparently in protest at the quality of the scripts, although most insiders claim he'd been the victim of long-term elbowing), but all new presenters Jon Holmes and Sarah Alexander have done is make it less of an easy target. It is, after all, easier to join a mob of people attacking something if the object of their derision happens to be a skinny wanker.

As a presenter, Jon Holmes is a Theakstonite. A hair-gelled, interchangeable boy band of a bloke whose entire body language (watch his contorting face when Sarah Alexander is talking, just watch it) suggests someone who is super-slick and media literate but, ironically, severely uncomfortable being on TV. His sentence-codas are all delivered in an irritatingly ersatz-Chris Morris tone, reminiscent of Gina McKee on Brass Eye saying 'And maybe that's the point'. Sarah Alexander is just as bad - her voice wavers between Tracy MacLeod on A Stab In The Dark and a real-life version of Pamela Stephenson's Jan Leeming impression. They're not as overtly irksome as Lee and Donovan, but the smidgens of warmth that Fred MacCaulay (and even Brendan Burns, whose corpsing was at least for real) brought to the show's early days are not there. Neither give the slightest fuck about the comedy they're reading out, and that's the problem.

The 11 O'Clock Show had an image crisis, so it decided to have a makeover. Unfortunately, it changed all the wrong things. Apparently, the 'nasty' stuff (largely attributed to second and third series producer Dominic English and his 'get it in the can so we can go down the pub' attitude - the homophobia, the misogyny, the bullying, the lazy swearing, the tireless sex references) was out. In its place, thanks to a new crack-team of writers wheeled in from Radio 4 staples The Way It Is and Dead Ringers, and a new producer (Phil Clarke - the bloke who produced Radio 1's Loose Talk when it started to go a bit blokey and dull), was a remit to turn the show around and make it genuinely satirical.

The problem is that the 'proper satire' promise misses so many points it's difficult to know where to begin. Ostensibly, though, proper satire (as the term is understood by producers) is rarely funny. The third series of the Friday Night Armistice, for example, was clearly a victim of this foolhardy boast - the silliness and whimsical interplay of the earlier two series, which had resulted in sporadic amusement, was booted out in favour of work-a-day topicality. And this is so wrong. Because, contrary to belief, for political comedy to work, comedians do not have to give a fuck about the week's news. In fact, it's usually funnier if they don't. The golden rule, however, is that they must be joyously, deliriously, adrenaline-sluicingly passionate about COMEDY. With the Lee/Donovan version, the political disinterest was obvious; the problem was that the latter passion was also desperately lacking - not just in the presentation and writing, but in the production as well. It was a show without a soul.

The pledge to remove the 'nasty' stuff also misses the point. Homophobia, for example, can be funny if it's real (ie, it reveals a person's stupidity and paranoia), or if it's overtly ironic (ie, it reveals a character's stupidity and paranoia). On The 11 O'Clock Show, the homophobia fell between these two stools, and deliberately so. It allowed the writers to appease right-on viewers by wearing the 'ironic' badge, while at the same time being reliant on a mass audience of plebs (it's no surprise to learn that The 11 O'Clock Show's audience was largely made up of Ali G-impersonating adolescents) to make up the viewing numbers. The inverted commas were there, but they were detachable at will.

With the new show's feeble 'Garry Bushell as a gay icon' piece, this attitude seems unchanged - not only was it a cowardly and insidious attempt to convert those who tarred them with the homophobia brush in the first place (people who also missed the point, like those morons on Right to Reply ), it remains just as cynical: it was clearly a spoof item, but smugly presented as if it was real - the producers obviously knowing full well that most people are too dense to know the difference. Inevitably, we're reminded of the Armistice team pretending to wreck the Blue Peter time capsule.

This patronising philosophy is less subtly exposed on the 11 O'Clock Show spin-off chat show, Meet Ricky Gervais , which airs prior to the current series' end-of-week compilation. Even a tiny child can see that Gervais is clearly a character, but there are still a frightening number of idiots who are happily playing into his hands by moaning about how 'sick' and 'ignorant' he is. The correct way to complain about Ricky Gervais is to point out that his character is boring and badly-realised, which - ever dependent on the cackles of the boozy classes - is offensive only in its blatant hypocrisy. But because it's easier just to call him an ugly fat twat, his reputation is fed and his continual presence on Channel 4 becomes assured.

So what does the all-new 11 O'Clock Show offer us? Well, the pseudo-reactionary stuff is kinda half-in, half out. The homophobia may be absent, but the jokes are just as lazy, with jibes about celebrities' physical appearance (Hague's baldness, Branson's beard) still ruling leeringly supreme. The satirical thrust is just as listless as before - the same limited set of studenty reference-points are plundered for watery squibs about cannabis, Posh Spice and the Tory conference, all smeared - in lieu of proper punchlines - with a cheap, heavy-handed, 'I've heard of this act everyone' sex-obsessed vernacular. (The show's 'cut it in case the plebs don't get it' mentality - pioneered by past script editors, removing the names of obscure indie bands from Robin Ince's 'John Peel' routines for example - is evidently still in effect.) The animation inserts, like 'Gratuitous Wood' and that tapestry thing about the Royal Family, all stink - their creators unanimously failing to understand that, in animated comedy, a good script is everything. And even though we've been spared the vox pops that Iain Lee prepared for the new series, the spoof interviews are just as embarrassing, and for all the wrong reasons. As one forum contributor amusingly noted, there is nothing more ludicrous and self-important than wearing a wig to disguise your appearance (as Alexander does to transform herself into 'Suzannah Waugh') when nobody knows or cares who you are in the first place.

Also present and correct are the same desperate, bland set of wannabe comedy whores using the show to promote their under-written and tedious fucking (and we can't employ the Smash Hits inverted commas strongly enough here) "characters". George Jeffrie and Bert Tyler Moore reprise their 'Style Wankers' routine, last seen in Comedy Nation . No, guys, we heard you on The Now Show doing your fucking Bill Clinton material - you'll clearly do anything to get into the comedy business, except perhaps care about comedy. Will Smith adapts his boring 'I'm middle class, sorry everyone' stand-up persona into a will-this-do character called 'Posh Boy', clearly hoping to grasp some kind of sub-Ali G limelight. And comedians like Ian Stone and Sean Meo - both inoffensive performers from the know-their-place school of stand up - misguidedly take the work when it's offered (and do their fucking Bill Clinton material). The implication seems to be that it doesn't matter how good or bad these performances are - the important thing is that they're doing them. Bollocks to the product, they seem to be saying - here is our televisual CV. You like it, it's shiny.

Well, fuck 'em. Who says comedy shows should be a fucking 'factory' for aspiring writers and performers anyway? Well, Nev Fountain mainly. But fuck him too. You see, it used to be a great idea, using comedy shows as workshops - when the Baddiels and Herrings were writing for Week Ending, when the Punts and Coogans were voicing Spitting Image , it was exciting that these people were developing their craft in public. Why? Because although all these people wanted careers in comedy (let's be under no naïve illusion about that), they also wanted to do comedy. PER FUCKING SE. Why? Because they loved it. It was their life. It was part of their lymphatic systems. It was a thing of joy that pushed and possessed them towards the creative genius they would inevitably create as a result of loving it. What's more, they wanted to make the shows they worked on as good as possible - not because they were using them as springboards, but because...well, it was a matter of personal pride. And listening to such shows was a real lucky dip - even if people weren't very good, the breathless enthusiasm and sheer pleasure they took in their work was a delight in itself.

However, with comedy now being big business, everybody wants a stable career more than they want to write a good joke, and comedy shows inevitably reflect this. We know for a fact that, should Jon Holmes ever front a big mainstream BBC1 success with Oh No It's The Jon Holmes Experience, he will not view The 11 O'Clock Show as a glory period in its own right. Why? Because, as far as he's concerned, topical comedy shows are a means to an end, and - if that involves denying your roots in the process - then so be it.

It really boils down to how much pleasure is in evidence on the participants' faces. For example, can you honestly imagine Jon Holmes writhing around on a carpet in hysterics as he reads his own material back to himself? No, we can't either, but we can imagine Jack Docherty and Moray Hunter doing so when they wrote the 'What do all the buttons do?' sketch for Alas Smith & Jones. And we know which one we'd rather watch.

At the end of the fourth series of The 11 O'Clock Show , when everyone involved knew the show was fucked, Iain Lee was seen desperately pitching potential 'wacky' spin-off ideas (interviewing celebrities as a dog, for example), essentially using the show as a forum for his own pilots - desperately squeezing whatever airtime he had left into an 'I can do anything' frenzy. In the opening show of the new series, Jon Holmes - with his Channel 4 publicity hat on - told viewers that they 'may recognise Sarah from Smack the Pony'. And that, for us, sums up the show both past and present. It's a sad show, created by sad people. Yes, there may be the occasional funny gag (saying that Minnie Driver was suffering from a disease called 'Medieval Picture Of The Sun Head', for example), but the humour simply evaporates in such a cripplingly unenjoyable context. The truth remains that comedy can only ever work if the participants can convince us that they are having a ball. Anything less than that is worthless, and a betrayal of comedy.

And that is why The 11 O'Clock Show is still shit. And to even talk of its 'redeeming features' indicates a wider ignorance of the even greater decline facing the comedy world as a whole.

No bathos.

mail from "Mike Scott"
Fri, 15 Dec 2000 16:07:54 -0000
to "Champniss"

Jon Holmes has just written, saying he's asked for some hair gel and a Jamie Theakston annual for Christmas...


Get Your Private, Free E-mail from MSN Hotmail at

 Comment: The 11 O'Clock Show - The Comedy Alternative