Thursday, August 24, 2006

Panel beating

Late to the game, as ever, I've been catching up on Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive. (Dig that ambiguous apostrophe!) If you're even further out of the loop than I am, it's Have I Got News For You meets The Larry Sanders Show. Brydon plays himself (or a Welsh comedian of the same name), hosting a fictional, derivative panel game. We see behind the scenes: the banal, demographic-obsessed production meetings; the preparation of 'spontaneous' quips; and, above all, 'Brydon''s pompous, thin-skinned, two-faced megalomania. And we see the 'show', which has all the trappings of HIGNFY, They Think It's All Over, Buzzcocks and all those other repositories for moderately competent circuit comedians. The attention to detail makes it convincing (the obvious question being, does the studio audience know it's not 'real'?), but because we see it in context, we know it's fake, and by extension, so are all the panel shows it mocks. Although, as Small Boo points out with a sigh, its fakeness does not stop me from shouting out the answers.

What Brydon is doing is, of course, not new. Before Larry Sanders, Garry Shandling played 'himself' in It's Garry Shandling's Show ("This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits/We're almost to the part of where I start to whistle..."), which was, in turn, suspiciously like the almost forgotten Kelly Monteith Show. Then, of course, Seinfeld had a character called 'Jerry Seinfeld' (played by Jerry Seinfeld) surrounded by characters who seemed less 'real', more 'extreme', partly because the actors didn't share their names. Although one of them (George) was clearly based on the show's co-creator, Larry David - who then came up with his own show, in which he played a character called...

Annually Retentive seems to owe even more to Bob Mills' notorious flop The Show; the key difference being that the backstage bits in the Mills offering were real. Or were they? Well, certain stars complained because they felt they'd had their privacy invaded. Or did they? The fact that Mills ('Mills'?) appears as a panellist on 'Brydon''s fake show adds to the fun.

There seem to be two forces at work here. One is that producers now accept that audiences are relaxed about post-modernism, self-reference, metafiction and all that fancy French stuff, even if they can't put a name to it. The other is that performers now need to show that they don't take themselves too seriously. This is a fairly recent development: look at the difference between Peter Falk, playing Peter Falk straight in Wings of Desire (1987) and the character-self-assassination implicit in Being John Malkovich, just 12 years later. The extraordinary sight, in Extras, of 'Les Dennis' being informed of his cuckold status with his saggy arse ('arse'?) on display, is just a logical progression.

But there's a subtle difference. Malkovich and Dennis have taken the public perception of themselves, their lives, their personalities, and used them to make a particular character. "Fair enough, there are bits of us here," they say. "But this is clearly a self-caricature. We know we're not perfect, but by doing this, we're proving ourselves to be a bit less imperfect than you might have thought." Brydon, however, never seems to be out of character, even in the 'reality' of an interview situation. In the past, there was always a bit of Keith Barratt-style loserdom about him; now, I suspect, the 'Rob Brydon' style arrogance will resurface, even when it's Rob Brydon (no quotes) on the guest list.

We know more about the life of his colleague Steve Coogan (Ferraris, coke and shagging on a bed of money, apparently), but his own personality is still a mystery; any difficult question and he'll pull in Alan Partridge or Gareth Cheeseman to fend it off. He too has gone the Malkovich route, portraying 'himself' in Jim Jarmusch's underrated Coffee and Cigarettes as a complete shit, snubbing 'Alfred Molina''s overtures of friendship until he finds out that 'Molina' has Spike Jonze's phone number. (Jonze, of course, directed Being John Malkovich.)

Brydon and Coogan, of course, play themselves, playing roles (if, in fact, 'themselves' are not roles) in Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story, which, being based on the pioneer postmodern fiction Tristram Shandy, is also about Tristram Shandy, and about itself, as well as up itself. Or so I'm told. I haven't seen the film. But Coogan hasn't read the book. Or so he said.

(Winterbottom, of course, plays the po-mo thing as if it's second nature - the appearances in the Tony Wilson biopic 24-Hour Party People of the 'real' Howard Devoto, Clint Boon, Wilson himself being the most obvious examples - that when something 'real' happens, the audience is temporarily thrown. The sex in 9 Songs is 'real', because we can see the ins and outs and bodily fluids. But, because it's Winterbottom, and the non-boudoir action takes place at 'real gigs', we're constantly aware that they're actors, following a script, only 'really' sucking and fucking in the way that actors in a Woody Allen film are 'really' talking.)

Coogan and Brydon, then, are the next step in celebrity culture, keeping their 'real' selves hidden, or at least ambiguous, even when apparently taking the piss out of those very 'real' selves. And in the Baudrillard sense - that's him on the right, by the way - say "bonjour", Jean - doesn't he look like Ronnie Corbett? - "le producteur dit à moi, il dit, Rrrronnie" - and who does the better Corbett impression, Coogan or Brydon? - and isn't the whole thing impressionism in a way? - post-modern post-impressionism? - in playing these versions of themselves, they have become true simulacra. Because, since the real Brydon and Coogan are kept away from the public domain, 'Brydon' and 'Coogan' are representatives of things that (in a cultural sense) do not exist.

So why do I still feel the urge to shout out the answers?

31 comments:

Molly Bloom said...

Fantastic post Tim. I really, really enjoyed this. I love the idea of simulacra and identity. I love the way that people can play with their identities and shift the portrayal of themselves. Some of it can be a little 'smug' as you suggest, with this 'I'm being Postmodern, I am' way. But at the same time...to blur the boundaries between what we 'want' to portray as our own personality and what 'is' portrayed on TV is a clever concept.

I like the way you play with the idea of the old and the new, referring back to older ideas of representation and bringing in other 'texts'. Comedy is all about playing with our perceptions of things and dealing with, in some ways, 'the normal' (game shows) and the 'shared experience' I suppose. That is why we cringe or laugh at comedians who touch a nerve with something we have done (that's why I laugh at Peter Kay's 'dancing onto the dancefloor' gag). It is something 'close' and yet part of us wants to distance ourselves from it. Perhaps that's why you focus in on the gameshow example. We can't help but get involved. And (ahem) quizzes are fun are they not? I am the quiz queen.

Perhaps part of the notion of the 'marketplace' or the burlesque. Everyone is 'joining in' in Rabelais' world don't you think?

What am I doing up this early? I know...this is the day when I get hero-worshipped or thumped. Yes, it's results day!

I love your posts Tim. Always thought-provoking...and allow me the chance to babble on in my babbling way...

I love Baudrillard. Yay!

patroclus said...

Oo, I enjoy these posts so much. If only I'd actually seen any of these TV programmes. Although I have seen 24 Hour Party People, and throughout couldn't help of thinking of Coogan as Alan Partridge. So possibly Alan Partridge is more real than Steve Coogan, 'Steve Coogan' *and* Tony Thing (I want to say Tony Parsons, but that's not the one, is it?). Which makes you think, dunnit?

the whales said...

Tony Hancock.

So much for interesting, educated comment, eh?

Good post. I've been thinking about it for the past hour.

the whales said...

...actually, as Molly has pointed out, 'comedy' seems to be a common thread in your post, Tim. Is this a case of the 'blurring of the boundaries' being acceptable if laughter helps to suspend preconceptions.

Tim Footman said...

Molly: I think I may purloin "I'm being Postmodern, I am" to hover in a droll manner under my blog header. And I'll hero worship you. My mum was a teacher, and I know you can never, ever win at these things.

Patroclus: There are many cases of comic characters taking over their creators: Partridge, obviously; Alf Garnett; and...

Whales: Tony Hancock. Should have slipped him in, and those radio/TV comics in the 40s-60s (eg Tommy Handley, Jack Benny, Burns and Allens, Kenneth Horne) who used their own names and (apparently) variations on their own personalities, in a fictional situation. Have you seen the interview TH did in the early 60s with John Freeman? Posher, but you can see where the 'Hancock' character came from.

As for the comedy: very sound point. I think there's a feeling that audiences are more likely to accept structural, conceptual and other high-jinks in comedy than in pure drama. Tarantino and his ilk can play with expectations in the thriller format, but there has to be a level of comedy in there somewhere. If you apply unconventional narrative forms to 'serious' text, your work will immediately be labelled 'arthouse' or 'avant-garde'. (See Peter Greenaway.) Maybe that's why non-comic acting is called 'straight'...

Joel said...

So many possible comments, but I think the most important point I have to make is this:
Baudrillard actually looks a lot more like Stanley Baxter.

patroclus said...

Tony Wilson.

Tim Footman said...

...who also appears in the film, playing a TV producer, thus reinforcing the...

And yes, Joel, you're absolutely right. But Coogan and Brydon don't do impressions of him.

frangelita said...

Fascinating post. But then, aren't we all doing the same thing by choosing and editing what aspects of our lives and characteristics we blog about? If any?

the whales said...

The interesting thing will be if your 'real life' starts to be overtaken by your 'blog characteristics'.

I wonder if there are people (and i'm guessing there are) who become defined by their blogs.

Tim Footman said...

This has already happened: Patroclus is concerned about the prospect of having to sue herself for plagiarism.

Betty said...

I wonder if Rob Brydon, Ricky Gervais et al are trying to portray the Real Them, warts and all, in such a self deprecating way because they hope that people will think "oh, he can't be that arrogant/selfish/conniving in real life"? In which case, they're really hoping that it will show them in a good light.

Anyway, Mike Yarwood was possibly ahead of his time with his po-mo deconstruction of and messing around with the idea of the television personality. Not just with his "... and this is the real me" after all the feeble impressions of Vic Feather and Bob Monkhouse, but due to the fact that he apparently seduced his then wife by impersonating and dressing up as Harold Wilson in the bedroom. Where did the real Mike begin and end, eh?

patroclus said...

Ah, but which is the real one of any of us anyway? In what way is the 'real' me any more real than Patroclus, I ask myself. Often. More often than is healthy, in fact.

Sherry Turkle is a great read on the whole thing of living the postmodern condition through multiple online identities. Once the mind is decoupled from the body (apart from the bits that do the typing, obviously), you can be just about anyone, and as many people as you like...

Billy said...

I agree with Betty's first paragraph.


What about stand-up comedy and singer-songwriters? Most of those use their actual names but I bet if you met them in real life they wouldn't tell a string of jokes or sing a few songs at you.

Tim Footman said...

Betty - Vic Feather, there's a name to conjure with. I remember when he died, my OOOOOOOOld Labour Mum got very distraught. Yarwood was rubbish, wasn't he? But at least he didn't do that Joe Longthorne thing, and bellow the names of the people he was doing, to make sure the audience distinguished his Sinatra from his Bowie.

Patroc: Maybe the online identity is a sort of flexible avatar, that you can try out and mould into something you like. Bit like trannies playing with their identities until they find something with which they're comfortable. Will read Ms Turkle - crazy name, crazy gal!

Billy: we're talking about the distinction between comedians who go as 'themselves' and the ones who go as characters (Ali G, Mrs Merton). Well they're all 'unreal' - but maybe the latter are more honest. And this is not me!

First Nations said...

that seinfeld got away with it at all is a testimony to the skill of his supporting players. but even then, after three episodes of the final show within a show format i was overcome with the desire to find him and give him a shot upside the head.
the only recent success-and by 'success' i mean 'watchable without cringing- i've seen using this device has been 'Being John Malkovitch'. that worked because even if you had no idea who John Malkovitch was, the story still made sense.
a techinique i think is probably best used in small doses. you're asking an audience to 1. continuously experience a double timeframe containing two different sets of references AND 2. to prolong their experience of recognition, and recognition involves an element of surprise. surprise gets stale quick.

excellent, excellent post.
...ok. i failed the security thing once now. if this double posts its bloggers damn fault and proves that I AM NOT A CRACKHEAD.

Wyndham said...

You forgot to mention Sean's Show, of course, in which Sean Hughes ripped off Garry Shandling with the understandable audacity of a man who knew his audience will never have heard on Shandling's show.

I don't know what it is about Brydon, currently the hard-working man in showbusiness. He's funny, enormously talented and a great actor - but just doesn't register. No charisma, you see. I was explaining this to the Flaneur the other day when Brydon, a little feller by all accounts, walked into the pub and ordered a coca cola at the bar. Nobody looked round, except me. And that was only to smirk at my own godlike prescience.

Molly Bloom said...

Just a little thing that might make your heart swell...or might even make you vomit...they all passed with A*-C! And a bottom set to boot! Yay! My mission to the inner-city is worth it. I had to tell someone...I do apologise.

realdoc said...

Tim, really interesting post. I've just seen Armando Ianucci's Time Trumpet which had present day people playing themselves commentating on events that haven't happened yet.
Lots of really near the knuckle stuff thrown in under the radar as we giggled at'old' David Beckham. If you haven't seen it out there yet I would recommend it.

Helga von porno said...

I think it is tempting when pretending to be yourself to pretend to be shit, like drysden. But its not pretending, its just being shit. Where will the british run now americans have irony. retreat up your arses englander pigs.

Tim Footman said...

FN: But the wonderful thing about blogging is that you can allow yourself to be a virtual crackhead. Don't you think JunkyBlog would get a publishing deal (or at least an Edinburgh adaptation)?

Wyndham: I know what you mean about RB. And yes, Sean's Show. V good point. Someone who was in a position to know, in the early 90s, told me that Hughes wasn't nearly as goofy-nice as his little-phone persona. It was just a good way to get girls. Bit like the evil, calculating, I-look-like-Mozz's-bassist Billy.

Doc: Yes, I've seen a couple of the Time Trumpets. 'Prince Harry' cracks me up. And Stewart Lee, who now looks like an old version of Stewart Lee anyway... Wasn't one of them banned?

Helga: I think most of us spotted the difference between irony (Time Trumpet) and shit (aka "so bad it's good", going to discos dressed as Zammo and dancing to Men At Work when you're 37 and a successful accountant; now back in new clothes as "guilty pleasures") some while back. The only thing we've lost now that (some) Americans have "got" it is that we can't say "Those Americans, they don't understand irony" any more.

Tim Footman said...

Oh, and Molly, well done and big hugs. Nobody, I'm sure, could ever accuse you of "dumbing down".

"Clevering up", maybe.

First Nations said...

...yep, right over my head there, tim.
*sigh*

Tim Footman said...

FN, sweetheart, we think of you (and the likes of Jon Stewart, John Cusack, Janeane Garofalo, Gore Vidal, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, etc) as honorary Canadians; in my mind, there are few higher compliments.

patroclus said...

Don't mention the Gore!

PS Molly - congratulations! Really well done. It warms my cynical heart to see someone doing something worthwhile, while I churn out another marketing brochure for expensive software.

Wyndham said...

Tim, you couldn't be more right about Hughes.

*thoughts of Vidal flood through Wyndham's brain like heroin*

dh said...

What a great post! It's all about detachment I think. Being able to separate oneself from oneself.

Who was it said 'Americans watch TV. Canadians watch American TV.' John Candy? Martin Short? Eugene Levy? One of those guys.

Tim Footman said...

What have you got against Uncle Gore (apart from his name, which makes him sound like a relative of the Addams family)?

dh - I always thought it was Mike Myers. But it was definitely a Canadian that most Americans think is American. William Shatner, maybe?

dh said...

Yes now that you mention it perhaps it was Mike Myers. Could have been Shatner though. Not Jim Carrey for sure. Damn you're good. Doesn't all that thinking ever give you a headache?

Molly Bloom said...

How the blog-world turns...William Shatner. Sigh.

What about all the funny characters we 'meet' in real life? They play themselves.

Annie said...

sorry to bring it down to such a base level, but Steve Coogan is a dirty old man - I know, he propositioned a friend of mine with something unspeakable which I cannot relate here.