Funny Business: Review
Wednesday 16 January, BBC2, 9pm
Comedians are not on your side. That’s the subtext of the first episode of Funny Business, a three-part look at the industry of making people laugh. Jimmy Carr’s recent tax scandal doubtless shocked many simply because of how much he was earning. Current mainstream comedy owes much to the alternative tradition, but when Michael McIntyre, John Bishop and Peter Kay can make the staggering amounts discussed here, it’s hard to believe they know much about the queue at Costa anymore.
The pretence of common interest is the reason we begrudge comedians their corporate gigs in a way we don’t authors, television presenters or other notables. Yet our attitude to comedians is self-defeating; our desire to hear the funniest people deliver the funniest lines about our day-to-day lives drives them away from that very subject. As Ricky Gervais said: “I can’t go out and talk about how difficult it is to drink champagne on a private helicopter.”
Putting the talking heads’ asking prices below their names in the captions is a neat move – the programme’s not pretending its guests are any different from those they’re critiquing – but it’s all got a “real lives of the stars” feel about it. The comedians express their disdain for corporate gigs as a necessary evil, but there’s no John Humphrys character turning it around and saying, “Well why do it then?”
If you’re at the lower end of the scale and have a young family to feed, then fair enough. I’m not going to begrudge a man a meal. Or a Ford Mondeo. But the nature of the exercise means those at the top end – the ones you most want to put the questions to – are absent. Yes, the programme’s got John Cleese, but he’s not been ‘cutting edge’ since 1972 –
though the shot of his home in Monte Carlo that follows his closing lament, “Everywhere I look, money’s spoilt it” has an acid wit.
The section on comedy adverts – focusing on the creative ‘golden age’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s – is the most enjoyable because it’s the most honest. Fair play to Jo Brand for turning the advertising money down, but I don’t have to reconsider my attitude towards Rowan Atkinson, Jonathan Ross or Stephen Fry because I’ve watched them take the cheque three times during each rerun of Lewis. And so has everyone else.
Funny Business offers a fascinating glimpse at the steel cables that bind the commercial and the comedic – and the archive footage is top notch – but you’ll quickly remember why you normally like to keep considerations of capitalism well away from your favourite comedians.