Friday, 22 January 2010

The Amazing World Of Star Wars Stuff Made Out Of Gingerbread

Whilst munching my way through a couple of delicious homemade ginger biscuits at work the other day I offered my colleagues the following bold, rhetorical question: "You can't beat good gingerbread, can you?" Nobody disagreed. Or, y'know - cared. There's something magical about gingerbread that puts it in a different league to other biscuits. I guess it's the whole gingerbread house / gingerbread man vibe...gingerbread has the flavour of fairytales and Christmas. Gingerbread houses are so appealing that there's an actual architectural school (originated in quaint ol' Victorian New England, predictably) that mimicks their highly ornate, storybook style. There are few things more desirable, more bewitchingly mouth watering, than a gingerbread house, frosted with snow white icing.

And then there's stuff like this gingerbread AT-AT, which perhaps doesn't have quite the same appeal, at least not as Actual Food. Making Star Wars vehicles out of gingerbread takes a particular type of genius, doesn't it? Imagine you call up your friend - "Aright mate, what you up're making what?" I think you'd be impressed, to an extent. Impressed slash bemused. Elsewhere on the internet there are pictures of gingerbread Tie-Fighters, and a gingerbread Landspeeder. I guess if you wanted you could call it Folk Art, or Outsider Art...but the reality is people just dig making Star Wars stuff out of gingerbread.

Monday, 18 January 2010

TV Review: 50 Greatest Comedy Catchphrases

50 Greatest Comedy Catchphrases - 9pm, Sunday 17th Jan, E4

So this was pretty much the most pointless three hours of television ever conceived, a show whose singularly limited appeal can be summed up in one sentence:

"Oh yeah, I remember when that used to be funny."

Comedy catchphrases have an intensely short shelf life, and operate on two, and only two, settings: 'tolerably zeitgiesty' and 'hopelessly lame.' There's no middle groud, no grey area. One day they're harmlessly amusing, the next day they're obnoxious and outrageously uncool, and remain in that state for eternity. Nothing is more un-hip than the out-dated catchphrase. A drunk dad at a wedding party yelling "Yeah, baby!". A gaggle of science students guffawing at Monty Python lines. Your idiot mate who still answers the phone with a gargled "WHASSSSUP!" These are some of society's greatest ills. Ricky Gervais made two whole sit-coms about it.

The whole point of comedy catchphrases is that they're so fundementally Not Funny that once the novelty has worn off, you cannot fathom why you ever thought of them as being anything other than monumentally irritating. The only thing comedy catchphrases have going for them in the first place is their newness - consequently a three-hour TV show listing 50 old ones just made no sense at all. The regular cast of assembled talking heads had precisely nothing of value to say about any catchphrase, because there is precisely nothing to say about them. At most (Ali G's "Is it 'cos I is black?") they distill the essence of the character to whom they belong, and in most cases ("Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?") they're just some random phrase that for some reason struck a popular chord at a particular time.

The Fast Show's shock & awe approach to catchphrase comedy rendered the exercise utterly obsolete anyway - you could do a Top 50 of catchphrases from Fast Show alone, and you could fill another Top 50 again with sketches from post-Fast Show efforts like Little Britain, Bo Selecta and Catherine Tate. To top it all off, the Number One Comedy Catchphrase was..."Nice to see you, to see you - nice..." which isn't even a comedy catchphrase, any more than "I've started so I'll finish" or "I have a dream" are comedy catchphrases. It's a catchphrase, sure. But it isn't funny. It isn't the punchline to a joke, or part of a comic routine. This is the second time a Channel 4 Top 50 has ended with a dull, off-beat thud - the winner of the Top 50 Kids TV Shows was revealed to be The Simpsons, which, similarly, isn't a kids TV show.

In conclusion: "D'oh."

Saturday, 16 January 2010

A Tale Of Two Offices - Why 'An American Workplace' Is Better Than 'The Office'

The Office: An American Workplace (Mondays, 8pm, ITV4)

"All my favorite comedies are coming out of America. Always have been, really." - Ricky Gervais

Rick Gervais & Stephen Merchant's 'The Office' remains a holy grail for fans of smart situation comedy, a watershed for British television, and a benchmark for all that came after it. Initial scepticism about how the show would translate across the Atlantic was an understandable, if depressingly predictable, response from the sort of Union Jack waving Brit-comedy fan boys whose knee-jerk to the mooted 'American Office' was generally "oh, but The Office is so dark and awkward and quintessentially British, it's exactly the sort of thing Americans could never make."

And, in the first instance, they were right. The early episodes of An American Workplace leaned way to heavily on the UK original, and they suffer in comparison to it. But as the US show has developed and moved further and further from the tone (if not the spirit) of the UK version, An American Workplace has turned into the one thing those nay-sayers could never have predicted it would do - a fundamentally better show than the BBC original. Four seasons in, An American Workplace has matured into The Office' warmer, livelier, better scripted, more consistently funny and emotionally complex cousin.

This should come as no surprise. Many Brit-comedy fans chose to understand The Office as a triumph of 'quintessentially' UK humour, a black-hearted antidote to bland, self-satisfied, formulaic US sit-comedy, and they hailed Gervais as their hero on this basis - but this reading of the situation was always fundamentally flawed. The Office is not 'quintessentially British' at all; its enormous - and thoroughly deserved - impact was due precisely to the lack of a precedent for it on British TV (except perhaps The Royle Family - discuss). If The Office was an attack on anything, it was on bad UK sit-coms (something Gervais took to nauseating, bewilderingly self-indulgent lengths with Extras). Gervais & Merchant's key influences for The Office - Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, and especially This Is Spinal Tap - were all American. Series-long story arches, the documentary style, the focus on social faux-pas and taboos, naturalistic & improvised performances - The Office was built on an American model, not a British one. This being the case, it makes perfect sense that the Americans should do The Office better than we did. They haven't just changed the British version (Americanised, godforbid) - they've taken it as a starting point and, with the resources, acting talent and writers available to them, improved on it. If anybody could have predicted this turnaround, it would be those all-time US comedy fan boys, Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Steve Martin - A Wild & Crazy Guy (1978)

Steve Martin: A Wild And Crazy Guy

I guess my favourite NYC purchase would be a lovely vinyl copy of Steve Martin's height-of-his-powers stand up LP, 1978's 'A Wild & Crazy Guy'. A well over-used superlative applies here: the sleeve is iconic. The bleached white silhouette of Martin vamping in his bunny ears, he appears to be alive with light, the enormous speaker stacks to the left of the image hinting at the size of the arena...this beautiful B&W photograph sums up everything one needs to know about Martin's act, the juxtaposition of goofball stupidity and genuine ART. The picture is so serious, the subject so wonderfully, knowingly daft. It's perfect. Popular culture has produced a huge back catalogue of images I marvel at; this photograph I love so much that if I had a copy small enough I'd keep it in my wallet.

Oh, and the record is pretty funny too. The A side (small San Francisco comedy club gig) is way better than the B side (mega-sized enormo-arena gig); the second half is lumbered down with catchphrases and skits re-hashed from his Saturday Night Live appearances - the audience (tens of thousands of people) have come expecting "Well excuuuusssse meeeeee!", and Martin has no choice but to lay it on 'em, and when he does the audience go predictably mondo nutso, and it's all nice & interesting pop history, but it pretty meaningless to 2010 ears, and without context just plain ain't funny. Many comedy albums suffer from this built-in obsolescence, and in Martin's case the problem is exaggerated by the fact that his act was hugely visual. Contemporary audiences would have been hugely disappointed if this stuff didn't appear on the LP, and for this reason impossible to criticise its inclusion. The one big bonus for 2010 listeners is that we close with Martin rolling out an SNL skit which remains hugely entertaining - 'King Tut', Martin's deliberately dumbo-cash-in disco track (and bone fide semi-hit single) about King Tutankhamun.

The first side of the LP is sheer brilliance, however. As 'clever', and 'highly original' as Martin's dumb-on-purpose, Vegas-entertainer-gone-haywire shtick undoubtedly was, I've always thought it would be equally accurate to simply say that at some point in his career Martin decided he was going to find it easier to adopt a persona, and the persona he chose was that of an unhinged lounge singer. He wasn't Steve Martin on stage, he was 'Steve Martin', and 'Steve Martin' was something to hide behind. Something funnier. With a funnier voice, and a cool suit. There are some great lines on the first side of this LP, and it musta been a blast live.

So the first side is really funny, and the second side can be marvelled at as a piece of comic history, but there ain't that many yocks for the modern listener. Perhaps the real value of 'A Wild and Crazy Guy' sits between the two sides, in the transition between the small gig & the enormo-dome. The LP is quite deliberately set up for the listener to 'compare & contrast' between the two sets - "wow. How did he get from there to here? What a journey!" The segue between them is cinematic in scope; Martin walks off the stage of a small club, and emerges instantaneously from the curtains of a gigantic sports arena, with tens of thousands of people screaming for him. A story is told, or at least in implied, in this brilliantly effective piece of editing. For this reason I almost don't think it matters that the second side isn't hilarious. It works conceptually. Maybe the fact that it isn't that funny is precisely the point - certainly Martin felt his act had become stale, and that playing to audiences of this size had sucked the spark and spontaneity from his act...maybe it's impossible to be truly funny in a sports arena, and maybe this is the price a comedian pays for the level of success Martin achieved. Like all of Martin's best stuff, the LP gives you something to laugh at, and something to think about, and, again, like all Martin's best stuff, the something he asks you to think about is the nature of stand-up comedy itself. I don't have many real, lasting heroes. Heroes are for kids, really. But Martin comes closer than most.