First published March 2000
Okay, so how are we gonna cover this one, we asked ourselves? Chris Morris has never actually produced a 'failure' before.
Blue Jam, the Radio One show which spawned the Channel 4 show was a debating point in itself, albeit one which nobody actually bothered debating over. People preferred instead to simply blether on about its 'God-like genius' or its 'dark', 'disturbing' dialogue rather than quibble over why anyone would actually enjoy listening to it.
It split your humble Corpses team down the middle - with half of us thinking it was fundamentally a worthwhile and exciting project, the other half having grave reservations yet not actually able to pinpoint its faults in mere words. There was something very (insert sound-effect) about the whole thing. Was it just disappointment that Morris' new Radio One show wasn't the chummy psychosis of his previous outing? Was it a general reaction against the 'ambient comedy' foisted upon Radio One comedy (of which Simon Munnery's The League Against Tedium shows - an obvious influence on the style of Blue Jam - were part)? Was it just the simple fact that we were no longer surprised or taken aback by anything Morris does?
It suddenly struck us while in conversation with one of the Blue Jam cast one night. We'd been asked whether we love the show and expressed reservations. The reaction from the cast member was one of eyebrow-raising astonishment, that we didn't suddenly fall to our knees and proclaim it the most incredible thing ever broadcast.
Okay, so we were used to this sort of behaviour by now - the hype surrounding I'm Alan Partridge had pretty much convinced us that even frowning sideways at stuff everyone else had proclaimed to be brilliant wasn't something you could get away with in public anymore.
Said cast member continued that he reckoned Blue Jam was the most amazing thing he'd ever been involved in, and that the cast and co-writers were really proud to be part of Chris Morris' visionary masterpiece.
And it suddenly struck us - this was the reason. The cast are really 'proud' to be part of it. Proud to be involved in a project with the God-like genius Morris (the guvnor). Proud to be part of something which, by its very definition, will have no detractors. As such, how natural can their performances be, if they're constantly looking over their shoulder at Morris' face to check whether his all-seeing eye is twinkling? How natural can the scripts be, as comedy, if they're specifically tailored to impress Morris the Mighty, rather than the audience?
Okay, this might be a highly selective worry. Not all the team were new to Morris' work. But whereas you can imagine Morris and Baynham being on the same level, giggling over their childish scripts (as had been the case with the 1994 Radio One shows), can you imagine anybody else from the team actually daring to stand up to Morris and say 'well...this script is a bit crap, can we change it?'? There's a worrying office politic which threatens the flow of the project by casting Morris as the boss, in his main office, and everyone else as backroom lackeys, trying desperately to impress.
None of this matters to the fans of course - the people who try to enforce the myth of its presence in the media. The sort of dicks who moan when they've missed a show and then, when you offer to tape it for them, refuse, claiming that unless they listen to it live, really tired at four in the morning (and in a vaguely alternative state, yeah, I smoke weed, man) then there's really no point in hearing it. Grafting miserable underground wank onto a comedy show. Dear me.
Despite all this, the Radio One shows were okay. There were some great moments of Baynham whimsy, David Cann's doctor character was fantastic, the monologues were hit-and-miss amusing, and the music? Well, sometimes (as with the 'Tedious Penis' and Imagination's 'Body Talk') that worked too. The third series showed very obvious signs of repeating itself, but whatever... Tucked away in that little slot, it didn't scare anyone and - aside from all that business with the Archbishop - was allowed to do what it liked amidst the Mary-Ann blandness of night-time Radio One.
And so, it goes to TV. And it doesn't deliver. And suddenly all its fans are drawn into a debate about what's wrong with it. And this is difficult as it requires them to actually pinpoint exactly what it was that they adored about the radio series when they spent all that time substituting three-dimensional opinions with hyperbolic enthusing about its 'surreality' and (again) 'God-like genius'. So we're left with a lot of vaguely-worded moans about how it was 'better on the radio', which is usually a great argument (because it winds up Richard Herring something rotten), but it seems banal here. It actually runs much deeper.
It's to do with a definition of 'innovation' which is sweeping through the comedy world. A sea of egos, seemingly embarrassed by the mere idea of being involved in the 'comedy' world, are attempting to 're-define' the look of their work, peppering everything they do with the ridiculously self-serving argument that what they're creating is more than just 'comedy'. Mainly, it appears, to disguise a bad script. We've seen otherwise intelligent people (including people within the business itself) totally fooled by gimmickry and excuses.
Such gimmickry is manifold - anything from field-removed video (making videotaped comedy seem more 'serious' by adjusting the frame-rate, rendering it vaguely film-like), shaky camerawork (allowing dick-brained journos to invent phrases like 'docu-comedy'), and naturalistic acting (disguising tedious scripts with serious delivery) to this over-hyped non-opinion about how 'dark' a show is (again, allowing people to skirt around the merits of the comedy by claiming something is part of a non-existent genre).
'Oh, that show is fantastic - it's so dark!'. Fuck dark. What's so bloody clever about being dark? Anybody can fool an audience into thinking something is fantastic by adding supposed downbeat half-arsed graphic crudity instead of whimsical wordplay or original ideas.
In the few short years since Brass Eye was broadcast we've come a long way but achieved very little. The media is probably damaged beyond repair, so much so that inflicting a Morris project on it isn't really going to do much. With stuff like The 11 O'Clock Show debasing the currency of 'offensive' material (by making it irrelevant and useless), Channel 4 in general debasing the currency of VT effects by using them all over the place, and Channel 5 debasing the currency of sex itself by making it really boring, a sketch like 'The Gush' (Jam, Show 2), which would have been genuinely eye-popping back in 1997, nowadays is simply shown up for what it is. A rather dull and pointless parody of nothing.
It's actually gotten to the point where the reverse effect occurs - the genial sketches which don't try to be clever visually, or live up to the media fad of being 'dark' (e.g., 'The man who married himself'), are the ones which work the best. As such, the over-the-top bits (with 'prosthetic body parts' gushing theatrical cum) become the 'filler' material. We'd like to think that maybe this was Morris' intention, but somehow we doubt it.
The show relies on lots of the original radio material. Again, this is an argument that is often stalled by comedians who claim that people who moan about it are 'just trying to be clever'. Sadly, this view strangles at birth a lot of necessary arguments about the problems of doing radio material visually. So many sketches which work well in sound only are killed on TV by visualising ideas in such a way as to simply allow its audience to bleat a unified, delighted 'Euurghh' as a shared experience. We've seen The League Of Gentlemen turn from a fantastic, whimsical radio show (which wore its 'dark'ness very much on its sleeve) into a boring pleb-pleasing mugging bunch of self-satisfied cunts, spraying non-jokes with blood and guts to ensure a reaction.
The visuals of Jam aren't exciting. They are pedestrian and plodding and seem to have an air of oh-look-we've-found-the-button-that-does-this about them. They resemble a demonstration-package for a VT editing machine. Everything is made to look 'scary' and 'unnerving', a step-by-step guide to enjoying Chris Morris' 'dark' humour. Fuck that too. We cringed at the word-for-word, image-for-image title sequence to Jam Show 1 because it reminded us of the 'click ting stamps' literalism (a characteristic of bland student films as well as newsroom editors) which had been parodied so brilliantly in The Day Today. Similarly, the routines about Robert Kilroy Silk and Richard Madeley losing their minds (which, in another life, would be throwaway Morris one-liners, reliant on a genuinely unexpected final line - "...my faith left me completely when He shoved the sun up his arse" for example) pander to the lowest form of kitsch, studenty, no-joke, 'TV Cream' humour. It's embarrassing.
There is also a general lack of identity. Jam's PR was deliberately kept low-key, possibly to avoid stirring up the automatic Daily Mail-journalist scare-mongering that fucked up Brass Eye. The initial preview tapes apparently had confusing 'scene missing' type gaps which suggested that bits had been censored so that journos couldn't jump on its more graphic scenes and create a fuss. It would appear that this paranoia is no longer justified - The Daily Mail actually made Jam their 'Pick Of The Week', giving it a glowing review. The rules have all changed.
The radio broadcasts were an hour long. For TV, the shows clock up little over 24 minutes apiece. Moreover, the commercial break has been removed which must have taken some bargaining. This is an interesting idea but has actually worked against them. Their argument was probably something along the lines of 'oh, we wanted it to be a continuous stretch of weirdness which would otherwise be hampered by an ad break' which is fair enough, but falls down flat in practice because a) it makes the show seem deceptively short; b) the weirdness within the show is unevenly paced anyway; and c) It's stuck between a repeat of Drop the Dead Donkey and The 11 O'Clock Show and so, however much it tries, it can't escape the Michael Jackson-bestowed Comedy-On-Channel 4 tag anyway.
When that little credit sign comes on the screen, the viewer is just getting settled, hoping that a good meaty wonderful sequence is about to leap at them. Instead there's the impending horror that Iain Lee's about to come on.
Maybe we're just expecting too much. Who knows. Hands up all of you who watched the whole episode of Drop the Dead Donkey the first week, hoping that Morris would burst in half way through. Hands up all of you who assumed that the overlong trailer for a hidden camera show called Big Brother was an elaborate Morris set-up which would be paid off at the end of the series. Hands up everyone who wondered whether the last four series of The 11 O'Clock Show were made deliberately vile so that Morris could use the final show as a launching point for something truly wonderful...
Yes, we're expecting too much. We wanted Jam to be something so amazing that it would blow everything else off the face of the media. Instead it would appear that Morris has, for the first time, totally misjudged that media, perhaps confused by the furious backslapping of his cast, crew, writers and fans who have all raised him up on high as a Comedy God.
Never mind. It's still 'dark'. Can't take that from him...
In defence of Jam
Posted Fri May 19 16:45:49 BST 2000 by Jason Hazeley
(i might regret this, but i figure you guys can handle a little devil's
the review describes it, albeit within inverted commas, as a failure.
inverted commas do cover a sackload of sins, but, to be honest with you, the
argument then proposed lacks flesh.
my main bugbear here is that sotcaa are just *so* good at comic analysis:
most of the site is just bursting with information and well thought-out
opinion. but the jam review swings fairly wide of the mark, as i read it.
anyway, for the sake of inviting some discussion (and not, i must stress, to
pick holes in your work, which i admire greatly), here's my
hundredandtwopennyworth of response. i'll deal with each bit roughly in the
order your review did.
first of all the review talks about the programme's big brother, blue jam,
and complain that it wasn't debated or justified, just fawned over. okay,
this is a good starting point, but it is aiming a missile at the fans just a
trifle too early. it's also difficult to substantiate.
morris has a good batch of fans: largely, as with anyone creative's
following, they're terribly straightforward, occasionally opinionated
people. there is usually a hardcore that believe that their hero can do no
wrong, but these people are in the minority, and anyway, they usually grow
out of it.
i talked to one other morris fan (of the non-obseqious variety, like me)
after the first few blue jams had been tx'd, and he said that he'd given up
listening to the series. he just didn't like it, he averred. it wasn't
funny and it wasn't a parody of a news programme.
this in itself is enough of a good springboard.
i was surprised, because i'd really enjoyed blue jam, and had been refreshed
by its simplicity and quirkiness, but it did occur to me that a great many
morris fans had clung on to (and could quote) his every little
aphorism/aside/platitude/non-sequitur from oth, tdt and brasseye, and that
morris was delivering these people (although he probably wasn't too
exercised by this, and why should he be?) something they really weren't
expecting and really might not like. gone were the stabbing news sigs, the
punchy delivery, the beautifully childish editing and the scams. and these
were the things that the fans had lived for: morris pulling people to
it seemed, to my friend the fan, that since he'd stopped being the parodist
and (ugh by christ i hate the phrase) 'media terrorist,' he'd stopped being
funny. to me, this was rubbish. i personally didn't know how much more
parody and terrorism i could take. and, as you rightly point out, the news
virus had started to attract all sorts of other tedious little organisms
(latterly the 11ocs, for example) on its agar dish. i was rather hoping
he'd do a complete about-turn, so i was delighted.
so blue jam didn't just have a stream of rose-tinted approbators.
the review then touches upon what might have disappointed the corpses about
jam. and here you raise some good points: was jam the programme people had
expected? was ambient comedy getting a bit de trop? did the programme lack
surprise? (any of these points could be dwelled upon, by the way, but i'm
in danger of getting verbose: however, you don't say what you expected from
jam, which i'd certainly be interested to know...)
then the review mentions that you can't slag off comedy publicly any more.
(i do hope your tongues were firmly chafing against your cheeks at this
point, because you sodding well *can* slag it off and you guys are
particularly good at it. you can't imagine how delighted i was - and a
friend of mine has cited the same example - when i read your kick in the
balls for that disgustingly schmaltzy, apologetic, pissweak, emotionally
blackmailing last episode of blackadder goes forth.)
but here's where i throw my big spanner at your formidable works.
the gist of the review then continues that morris's cast and crew (and, by
extension, i presume, bosses) are so overawed by him that they let him get
away with whatever he wants without offering any criticism, deliver
half-baked performances because he's looking over their shoulder, or do
things only to impress.
if i were one of morris's colleagues, i'd be personally quite hurt at this.
have you any evidence of morris running his own sort of autocracy (i know
you're connected to talkback, so maybe you know more about this than you've
let on...), except in the sense that he's the producer, director, co-writer,
creator and sometime participant in jam and blue jam? i do find the idea
that the talkback employees all stumble around him trying to keep him happy
- possibly an exaggeration of your argument in my head, i'll admit.
but consider this. morris is the man behind jam and blue jam in a big way.
it's his baby, so he's bound to want to wrest as much creative control as he
can from it. he's no different in this respect from louis theroux or even
noel edmonds (heaven forfend, which it bloody well hasn't, fortifying my
atheism beyond words.) and his stuff is very definitely his material, so he
is, in all truth, almost certainly the best man for the job of directing or
in addition, morris invites and regularly uses contributions from a handful
of outside writers - bussman and quantick, linehan and mathews, robert katz,
peter baynham etc. even mark heap and kevin eldon got a writing credit in
one episode of jam. this doesn't point to someone whose ego gets in the
furthermore, and perhaps most pointedly, morris consistently inspires
affection from the people he works with. now, unless he's some kind of
utterly tyrannical cunt (and i can't imagine he'd have gone very far with a
company like talkback had he been so) who barks orders to the lackeys and
insists upon this and that with a terrifying ferocity, he's probably liked
by those who work with him (cf the brass eye designer's website comments)
because he's a nice guy. he's obviously absurdly quick-witted, which is
always appealing, and he's also pointedly proud of his work (even to the
point of 'grade is a cunt,' which may have been ill-judged, but it was at
least heartfelt: and who leaked it to the press?) i have to admit, were i
working for someone whose passion for their projects was manifest, i think
i'd be pleased that i was working within an atmosphere of creative
besides, if morris was the subject of such ingratiation, wouldn't he have
had his name all over the show instead of burying the credits on a website?
wouldn't he have appeared in more than four sketches in the show (the intros
aside)? wouldn't he have appeared more in blue jam? and wouldn't he have
transplanted some of his set pieces (rothko etc.) to tv?
then the review gets into details. for me, it's a bit hazy here. it says
that the transfer of blue jam from radio to tv doesn't deliver, but it
doesn't say how or why. then it repeats the 'fans don't debate it' point
and combines it with the 'it was better on radio' line of thought. this
usually translates, as i'm sure you know, into 'i've heard it before.' in
defence of this, i'm delighted that i heard the gags before in blue jam
rather than heard them everywhere before (cf almost everything the 11ocs
then the review touches on a really interesting point, about which i wish
you guys had said more, because it's a hugely regular theme in television
comedy: style over content.
the gist of the argument here is that the visuals in jam weren't
interesting. i'm not convinced. i think the visuals did about as much as
they could without disappearing up their own arses. for instance, most of
the camerawork in the show is surprisingly ordinary. the moments of visual
creativity were often at the top of sketches (cf the doctor sketch that
starts on a crab shot at ninety degrees to the horizon), and not in the
midst of them. in that respect, they were fairly economical and
interesting. the major visual effects on jam, however, obviously happened
in the editing suite. aside from the possibility that this might not have
been morris's doing (because it almost certainly was), the fx serve the
useful purpose that they adhere closely to and enhance the deliberately
'monged' pace of the show, and help the show's fluid nature. what they
aren't (in my werry humble opinion, sirrah) is either distracting or a
cover-up for a weak script.
the style-over-content thing is a royal pain in the seat for anyone who
really gives a shit about television. your jihad against drop-framing is a
great example: it does look really quite shit when applied to a sitcom like
'beast,' but where it was used in jam, it wasn't really that offensive.
even the notion of drop-framing was dealt with in the series: when kevin
eldon asks amelia bullmore for a payrise, the show starts out with straight
video playback, then shifts into drop-framing, from which it later recovers.
quite a nice twist. and i haven't seen anybody else doing it.
but jam did more than that: it used cctv, it used stop-frame effects, it ran
the picture and sound out of sync, it even submitted itself to the first
ever (i think) tv remix. jaaaaam looked, by turns, mildly irritating (the
visuals were sometimes too much) and quite sublime (cf the 'synchronised
style-over-content becomes a real problem when production supremos pile
thousands and thousands of pounds into filming a shite script with
staggeringly, unjustifiably lush set design and filming and costuming etc.
french and saunders are by far and away the most poignant example of this:
the last few (few?) series of their stuff has been absolutely bursting with
delicious-looking parodies that just aren't aren't aren't funny. of course,
producers will always want things to look engaging and attractive and
clever, but they don't often sink to f&s depths, where the programme becomes
a sort of millennium dome - 'we know how to build this huge and engaging
thing, now what the fuck shall we fill it with?' etc.
then the review deals with 'dark is easy.' to be honest, this is the most
unjustified claim in the whole piece, but, as i've averred before, this
isn't me picking your argument to pieces, it's me responding to it with a
healthy dash of devil's whatsit.
is dark easy? i don't know how easy dark is, to be honest, and wouldn't
like to guess. of course, as the review says, it's possible to make
something look dark by plastering it in effects etc, but jam doesn't really
do this. the darkness in jam and blue jam is, i think, quite easily
defined. anyway, since you haven't asked for it, here's my theory about
morris's dark side.
brasseye, from what little morris has said about it, almost destroyed him,
and left him smartinglike some open sore with no thirsty biblical dog in
sight. after the hassles with channel four, the hassles with lawyers and
the hassles with michael grade (which were a shame, to be sentimental for a
moment, since grade did much to kick british tv into a better shape and
fiercely defended morris until the eleventh hour), morris was no way about
to launch into another parody prog, or anything like it. and he must have
been fairly miserable, because he wanted brass eye to allow him to 'step out
of the inverted commas of the news format,' which it didn't really do with
any degree of success. it must have occurred to him that to step out of the
inverted commas that had been the parameters of everything he'd worked on
since oth, he'd need to get a whole new set of parameters together - which
is presumably where the idea of slowing the jokes down came from. and he's
a huge music lover, so it made sense for him to set it to some kind of
soundtrack. initially, he was going to use exclusively ambient music, to
give the show its fluidity and feel, but he soon found that he could get
away with plenty more tunes, which gave blue jam a little more spice and
the idea of slowing the joke down - or, by extension, stretching it to its
absolute limits (cf 'i feel... i feel... like... i feel... huh... i feel
like... a dog... on a motorway') probably isn't particularly new. lee and
herring did it to great effect with 'the boy who cried wolf.' but the idea
of slowing the whole show to this pace was new, and it gave the show its
however, i'd guess that the biggest influence on the dark feel of the show
was the material.
morris's humour appeals to all sorts because it is so three-dimensional and
surprising that you really don't know what he's going to do next. he's also
obviously a brilliant editor and is breathtakingly verbal. but the blue jam and jam material
lacks much of this surprise and verbal dexterity, which seems to have
aggrieved morris fans as much as his dismissal of the news parody. but this
was deliberate, and admirably dangerous: he could have flopped appallingly
on radio one. since the series was recommissioned twice, and he more or
less overlooked the archbishop fiasco, we can assume that both he and the
bbc were very happy with it.
on the other hand, the material itself is absolutely consistent with
morris's previous work. morris's major fascinations have always been:
(1) things medical (presumably thanks to his parents being doctors) like
prenatal beauty therapy, the wide face problem, backstreet dentists,
slemell's disease, stomach velocity, virginia bottomley's organ sharing
scheme, the organ precursor cell experiment giant testicle, a stomach full
of shoulders, good and bad aids, symptomless coma, acupuncture, 'she's not
just a little girl,' all the doctor sketches etc;
(2) animals (the zoology background?), eg global dolphin consciousness, sit
in a pen and save a hen, bombdogs, horses on the underground, boneless apes,
fox hunting and humanity, peter baynham and the tortoise, karla the elephant
and all of brass eye ep1, the model and the elephant monologue, the bloke
who wants to shag his dog before the vet puts it down, the woman dragging
the dead dog around the park and just about every hoax phone call he's ever
(3) parenthood (what with him being a parent and all that) - see the
gynasium womb implant (again), kiddies' outing, peter baynham stealing a
baby from oxford street, sock quiz, sophie vhaaalbje (or however it's
spelt), git surfing, drumlake school, the girl whose parents fake their own
funerals in case she becomes a junkie, baby fights, ted from primary three,
barry's present of a coffin to his neighbours who have had a miscarriage,
the preterm clinic, it's about ryan, the couple who don't believe they're
and (4) broadcasting (because it's clearly the only job he's ever done), eg
the stylistic content of absolutely everything he'd done until blue jam,
including peter o'hanraha-hanrahan, monsignor treeb lopez, alan partridge,
rosie may, and all the various parodies and stitch-ups he's done.
blue jam and jam basically removed the fourth element from the equation, and
left the material to find its own way through his usual themes. not that
huge a departure, really, but when you take scripts about animals, medicine
and parenthood and put them through a slow-it-down filter, you're hardly
going to end up with something happy, clappy and sunny, are you?
furthermore, most of morris's material has as its starting point some kind
of crisis. before blue jam and jam, it was usually something objective,
unbelievable and, often, hugely overinflated, like the prime minister
punching up the queen, war ad nauseam, johnnie walker being found dead, the
arrival of cake, karla's trunk getting stuffed up her guts, michael
heseltine's death and any number of scams, off which crises (morris has
correctly reasoned) it's easier to spring a campaign of sorts and get people
voxpopping all over the place. in blue jam and jam, the crises affect the
characters involved, rather than to the general public, the listener or the
interviewee. thus people lose their children, get their car crushed,
accidentally kill someone, find a lump on their breast, discover they're
sexually attracted to each other, can't stop ejaculating, whatever.
add this internalising-of-crisis to the lack of the broadcast/parody element
of morris's humour and you get blue jam. or jam. and it's impossible to be
anything other than dark. that said, it can't have been easy to arrive at
that mix. and, for me, both jam and blue jam got the atmosphere right. of
course, this isn't an apologia for morris, so i can't claim either to be
without fault, but apart from the occasional stutter (like the lonely woman
who ruins kilburn ' really quite dull), it all worked with consummate ease.
the removal of the ad break in jam is a curious point to pick up on for you
guys. i'd have thought you were delighted that it went out without adverts.
i was. although, like you, i think the show was too short. just like the
review says, the end of the show came all too soon. one wonders why it was
only a channel four half hour, in fact: it's not as if morris had a dearth
of material (after three series of blue jam). presumably this was
budgetary, although, again, this would surprise me: jam must have come in at
a fraction of the cost of brass eye and the day today.
the intros are a more interesting argument. i didn't think, as the sotcaa
review states, that they looked like 'click ting stamps,' although the
review was talking about the intro to ep1, which was the weakest. but as
for the vanning to the fens and the sextet of morrises on scooters in the
car park and mark heap having only the body of a slug, they were both
visually arresting and fantastically disturbing, which really kicked off the
show well. how else would the corpses have envisaged those pieces being
filmed? i'd be interested to know.
lastly, i can't really agree with you that morris misjudged the media. the
media, on the whole, absolutely loved the series, with (occasionally) a bit
of undue gushing of the type the sotcaa review attributes to morris actors
and colleagues. and, obviously, it goes without saying that the daily mail
shouldn't have liked it and the fact that they did is a sceaming fucking
disgrace, but hey, even morris can't have everything. i can't work out what
you mean by misjudgment of the media, because i didn't detect any at all.
the only part of the media campaign that bothered me was the low-key-ness of
the publicity, which was almost too quiet, as sotcaa's review asserted.
however, i think the 'scene missing' parts of the review tapes (and a friend
of mine has one, and reviewed it favourably for a national newspaper)
covered 'the day kilroy lost his mind,' in case of eleventh hour lawsuits.
you must be bored by now, surely?
anyway, food for thought and all that. and it's the first time i've strung
more than two thoughts together in a row since the late nineties.
by the way, your reviewer probably wasn't expecting too
much, as he/she wrote. one of the appealing things about morris is that you
do expect something exceptional. and you can't say the same for many other
people in comedy.
Reply To 'In Defence of Jam'
To clear up a few points here. I'm the SOTCAA editor who wrote most of that Jam article. I don't know Jason Hazeley personally and I've not corresponded with him. As such I'm probably the best person to come back to his arguments.
Re: the general reaction from Morris fans to Blue Jam. Our personal experience of such creatures (and please never forget that this site only purports to show our personal perspective of things) did seem to reveal, for the most part at least, a vague need to cosy up any possible debate by discussing how great the show was on a scale of one to ten rather than questioning its validity in the first instance. Fair enough, there were detractors but, as you suggested, most of these seemed to abscond from the conversation rather than get involved. If you're in a pub full of comedy fans, all saying 'Blue Jam was the most amazing thing ever - true if destroyed' then it stands to reason that any views you express are going to be lost amidst the fawning, pretzels and lager pools.
Like Brass Eye before it, Blue Jam gained a kind of blokey Loaded-style following who presided over it with 'yeeaah, facking brilliant!' gurglings. Fair enough, far be it for us to attempt to dictate how people enjoy their comedy (ha-hem) but we find it awfully tiresome.
An obvious offshoot from such experiences is the flippant 'You can't slag off comedy in public anymore' argument. This comes from the same personal standpoint - sorry it didn't come across as clearly as we intended it. As we mentioned the 'Dot Dot Dot...' and 'I'm Alan Partridge' articles, we've expressed a certain lack of enthusiasm about specific comedy shows over the past few years and have received a formidable (and disproportionate) amount of disdain and criticism for doing so. And this wasn't us setting ourselves up as 'spoilers' on a grand scale - simply expressing an 'I didn't think much of it, personally' opinion. We got the impression that everyone was feeling so cosied up by the idea of declaring something fantastic that any grievances one aired in a public forum would simply be seen as an unwelcome spanner. Nobody seemed to understand that these were simply our 'opinions' - there had to be other factors at work. We still adamantly believe that opinions or criticism are unwelcome in this comedy climate unless it's a 'so just how fantastic is this' type affair. It's a comedy-capitalism where only the shit-kicking 'successes' are welcome. 'Merely great' is classed as a non-runner.
Of course you are allowed to slag things off in public - as long as it's stuff everybody expects to be slagged off. As long as it doesn't have a media / fan / industry-endowed 'sacred cow' status. Our carefully-constructed 11 O'Clock Show vitriol in Comment has been applauded by just about everybody who's read it. But so what? Everybody hated that show anyway. All the article really did was press a little button in people's minds which says 'I agree with this'. There's nothing exciting about that. But our opinions on Jam pressed a different button altogether. A button marked - for the sake of anything more erudite - 'you're pissing on our parade'.
Re: Morris' contributors/fellow actors. We never meant to imply that Morris was 'tyrannical' in his approach to those around him. He doesn't have to be - his 'guvnor' status is media-bestowed and the respect and admiration he gets from those around him is totally deserved. Our point is that this affection must surely affect critical judgement. Were the contributions of the team written as comedy they found fantastic or as comedy designed to impress Morris?
In the days of On The Hour and The Day Today there wasn't a problem. On The Hour was the sum of several disparate talents with nobody to impress but themselves as a collective group and their listening audience. Armando Iannucci, as producer, was the 'boss' but obviously gave all the contributors gallons of leeway. At this point Morris was certainly admired but never revered by his conspirators. Even through to The Day Today this didn't appear to be a problem. The show as an 'entity' was much bigger than Morris as a 'comedy genius'.
There are several instances in Blue Jam and Jam where we got the distinct impression that 'Morrisian' sketches were being written because the contributors assumed that's what he wanted. Now this is an ambiguous argument - were they doing so for the good of the show or for the good of pleasing their boss? On first ponderance, both situations might seem the same, but think about it a bit - does this allow Morris to extend his own opinions on (and ability to create) comedy properly if he's surrounded by pale, balls-less, imitations of a specific style he's created?
The most worrying aspect of the latter to us is that we've experienced this sort of thing before. As soon as The Day Today became popular there were hoardes of gutless imitators, all clamouring to ape Morris' style. You never saw any of them? No - nobody did. Their efforts were deservedly banished to the dusty shelves of their student bedsits. These were people with nice expensive 4-track machines, keen to create comedy, but who a) couldn't think of an original idea and b) evidently totally missed the point of what made OTH/TDT funny in the first place. When we first saw Iain Lee on The 11 O'Clock Show we almost died - one of those balls-less imitators had apparently escaped anonymity and was doing it for money. We got the same feeling when we first saw Noel Fielding prattling his merry way through C4's Gas - the studenty Comedy Review/Wallace Eddie-Izzard-is-great-'cos-he-just-talks-bollocks myth had, for the first time, spawned the real thing.
The current media climate appears to be priming the ersatz for stardom. Possibly because the ersatz is easier to market and control than anything truly 'innovative' (and appeals to the plebbier aspects of fandom who'll accept it as 'comedy excellence' without thinking too hard). We're not suggesting that Jam was guilty of this, just illustrating that a lot of its writing was governed by the same second-hand nature. This is what we found so depressing.
So what did we expect of Jam? Pretty much what Jason described really. There were no surprises whatsoever. We would have been surprised and impressed if Jam had dropped all ambient effects and been presented totally straight. Picture, if you will, Jam, with the same material but on normal videotape, acted in front of a live studio audience. Does that sound totally ridiculous? Well of course it does. And that's what a Morris project should be - confounding all expectations.
We once pondered on the subject. How could Blue Jam be filmed and still retain a level of unexpectedness? What if Morris chose to start the series with all the ambient VT FX-catalogue and stuff - a straight visualisation of the radio show - but, by Show 2, headed off in a totally different direction? The scripts could have remained exactly the same but each show would have presented them in a different way. One show could have been a single unedited reaction shot of an audience watching the show. Another could have been a live-studio-audience-attended, brightly-lit sketch show like the one mentioned above. How about a whole show which simply filmed a radio session-type set-up - the actors in front of the microphones. The point here is that the viewer would never know beforehand what the set-up would be, yet the material would remain the same.
Is 'Dark' easy? Yes, and it's getting easier by the second. In our view. We're not saying that dark humour is a bad thing, but it has been bestowed a media-friendly status that has debased its currency anyway. 'Dark' humour works best when it is genuinely unexpected. If everything is clearly signposted then, again, it just becomes what everyone expects. The 'whoo, spooky' style of Jam killed any 'dark'ness as such. Our assertion that 'dark' humour is easy to do is more a missile lobbed at lazy journalist opinion generally (and their perceived notion that if 'dark' fits a remit they've more or less invented then there's no need for further discussion). We believe that it's getting easier and easier to gain a cheap round of applause by doing something 'weird'.
While we're on the subject, didn't 'dark' comedy used to be referred to as 'black'? At what point did it acquire this sort of hazy off-colour, not-quite-black status? Just a thought.
Great breakdown of Morris' conceptual pecadillos in Jason's piece. With one possible exception - the 'parenthood' assumption...
We always assumed that the 'parenthood' aspect of Morris' work was originally more about the inappropriateness of making sub-paedophilic comments in a comedy show - the comedy arising from the awkwardness of hearing such a taboo subject treated flippantly. The 'children' obsession was there long before he settled down into a life of domestic bliss ('Sock Quiz', 'Big Spoon Baby Balloon', etc). We would argue that actually becoming a parent has probably left him a bit more worried about the flippancy aspect of the whole thing (as with the self-censorship of the 'buggered senseless' / 'little girl with balls to be proud of' sketches). This isn't new either - we can name a load of comedians who, though happy to take a cavalier approach to the family unit in their earlier days, now blether in a tame manner about their babies. Morris has claimed that the self-snipping was more for comedy reasons, but this betrays a sudden personal worry about people misreading his work. This has never been a problem before.
And, on the subject of 'dark'ness and paedophilia, try this for a theory. There's a sequence in one of the 1994 Radio One shows where, to a cheesy musical backing, Morris cheerfully reads out a 'letter from a listener' which asks if he can solve a family argument. The letter-writer is a man of 'strong physical urges' who often satisfies this compulsion by 'extracting a kiss of some passion' from his seven-year-old daughter. No spooky music, ethereal chants or skewed video FX could ever enhance the disturbing nature of the image Morris has just placed in the listener's mind. However, it then escalates and we learn that the seven year old is actually a corpse. 'And if anything, it's me who should be complaining as the taste is in the "acquired" category and is becoming less palatable with every snog!'. This, we believe, shows Morris at his most understanding as far as the nature of broadcasting goes. A flippant treatment of incest would have been a bit too much to take, but a subsequent flippant treatment of necrophilia somehow turns the whole thing on its head and makes it acceptable as throwaway whimsy. Why should this be? Why is the idea of snogging a decomposing corpse less worrying than snogging a child in terms of humour? Probably because, even though the latter is more vile, it's probably a more ridiculous comedy concept. The child-thing worries the listener whereas the corpse-thing settles them back into it.
Morris pretty much gives this game away during the 'Big Spoon Baby Balloon' sketch - when Baynham implores Morris to assure the listeners that he didn't just stick his tongue down a baby's throat. 'I just wanted the people who switched off just now to leave with that image in their minds', he says.
Contrast the above with the oh-so-shocking image of Robert Kilroy Silk pissing against a shop window.
Re: the intros. We may have been a bit premature with that dismissal of the 'click-ting-stamps' literalism. The later titles sequences did seem to poke fun at the idea of doing po-faced spooky intros a bit. The one with Morris sticking his head out of school desks seemed to be more on-track. The whole thing reminds me of something an academic once said about Frank Zappa's early work with the Mothers of Invention - that, on the LPs one would hear some serious, mildly anarchic political-comment lyric, often followed up by the musical equivalent of a rasberry. The subtext being 'don't take this too seriously'. We worry that maybe Jam didn't manage this often enough (something which has definitely contributed to the GCSE-essay-standard perceived view that he's some sort of 'mad genius').
The 'taking the piss' aspect was generally missing from the show. There is usually at least one sequence in all of Morris' broadcasts which separates him just-ever-so-slightly from the set-in-stone concept and allows him to be seen with his socks off, giggling at the ridiculousness of the work as much as we are. Think of the credit-sequences of The Day Today (with the various visual gags of him shooting up, revealing himself as a woman, etc). Think of the childishness of the Nicholas Parsons cut-up poem at the end of Brass Eye's 'Animals' (which steps sideways from spotless satire for a second and reveals the whole silly set-up in plain language - sort of "look at our comedy, tee hee"). Think of the various deliberate alternating between being 'in character' and simply talking about being in character in his DJ broadcasts. 'In the interest of showing my knickers in public...' , Morris once said.
There was very little of this in Blue Jam and practically none in Jam. Jason mentions that the visuals of Jam went as far as they could without disappearing up their own arse. We suggest that a bit more anal-concealment would have been a better option. Otherwise we're left with the impression that Morris wants to be considered a 'serious artist'. And that would never do.
Adding to our frowns over Jam was the aquisition of several old GLR radio broadcasts. Neither of us heard his local radio tenures as we were living elsewhere at the time. These early-90s DJ shows, like the 1994 Radio One stuff, are playful, silly and enthralling as much as Jam was po-faced, staid and inaccessible.
Oh, just to be pedantic, 'Sit in a pen and save a hen...' was a Lee & Herring sketch. So were most of the Treeb Lopez, Peter O'Hanrahahanrahan and Partridge sketches, mind you.
And we have no connection with Talkback whatsoever. Other than frowning at their office headquarters every so often on our way to Cheapo Cheapo Records in Soho to buy old Jasper Carrott LPs.
Re: Morris misjudging the media. It wasn't the potential media response we believe he'd misjudged. We knew the media would adore it. Morris knew the media would adore it. The cast knew that the media would adore it. And, yes, the media adored it. Everybody's playing that little game - the same game we attribute to the I'm Alan Partridge set-up. Coogan's doing a TV show. It must be fantastic. Let us adore it. Morris is doing a new project. It must be fantastic. Let us adore it. Given his hitherto faultless track record we would assume that Chris Morris would understand all this and fight against it - at least do a project which would piss off his gushing admirers as much as his detractors.
Or maybe he did. And that's why we didn't like it.
[NOTE: Here's something interesting. About a week and a half before Jam went out, Chris Morris told two friends of ours that Channel 4 was refusing to broadcast the show. Given that a) Kevin Eldon, on the same evening, didn't mention any eleventh-hour cancellations, and b) Morris was smirking thoughout, it's possible that this was a little Morris-jape at our mates' expense. Not quite on the same level as the 'Cake' scam but it still makes us laugh.]