Relax, It’s Just a Joke: When British Comedy Met Real-Life

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Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G (Pic: Channel 4)

Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G (Pic: Channel 4)

Hello, are you having a nice day? Feeling happy with your lot, and looking forward to a week of excitment and general happiness?

Well, if so and you wish to continue in this carefree vein, you may wish to skip one or two (or all) of these clips, because these are the British comedy shows that try to pull the wool over the eyes of members of the public, or celebrities, or celebrities and members of the public. Sometimes the results are unexpectedly wonderful; sometimes they take your internal organs and fold them up like an origami horse. Consider this a warning:

Game for a Laugh (1981)

The British answer to Candid Camera, and every bit as popular. Game for a Laugh made a household name of Jeremy Beadle (the chap with the beard here), as his specialty was going out and setting up elaborate hoaxes, like this lion taxi. He even wound up with his own spin-off show, performing similar pranks, called Beadle’s About. Despite being a fairly controversial figure—because of the glee with which he enacted his pranks—he was only punched once, and that was in the back. Which possibly says something profound about British reserve, or the stiff upper lip.

Dennis Pennis (1995)

This time, the joke was on red carpet celebrities, who were even less used to being treated with less-than-fawning respect than they are now. Dennis Pennis—the comic creation of actor Paul Kaye—was employed to act as a provocative presence, to make something happen, and he did this by being fairly horrible to everyone he met, while chewing madly and grinning like the Joker.

The 11 O’Clock Show (1998)

This is the clip people of a more nervous disposition might enjoy. Sacha Baron Cohen let loose as the would-be youth TV presenter Ali G, interviewing the great and the good—and the not-so-great and the downright shonky—and asking provocative questions hidden behind a mask of rank stupidity. It takes someone of great moral clarity to see through the conversational murk and maintain their composure, and Tony Benn treads that line beautifully. Other celebrities were not so fortunate.

The Day Today (1994)

Among the many weapons The Day Today used to lampoon news media were these voxpops, where a member of the public badly read a prepared statement on an issue of the day as if it was their own thoughts. By the time Chris Morris was working on the sequel, Brass Eye, the members of the public were celebrities, and the prepared statements were as part of made-up campaigns; against a drug called cake, against pedophiles, called “Nonce-sense” or in reaction to appalling(ly untrue) tales of animal cruelty.

Trigger Happy TV (2000)

In which Dom Joly sets out to terrorize well-meaning and helpful members of the public for the heinous crime of going about their daily lives. His fondness for for dressing people up in huge animal costumes—and the skit he did where he’s a massively shouty man bellowing into a huge cellphone—occasionally helped to soften the blows.

Balls of Steel (2005)

Like Trigger Happy TV, only less playful. Even the title Balls of Steel credits the people doing the pranking over the ability of the victims to take a joke, and as this beautifully executed quiz segment proves, there’s no visible attempt to bring them back down to earth gently once the dastardly deeds are done. Possibly because violence would ensue.

Fonejacker (2006)

Taking things back a notch to the kind of pranks Bart Simpson would execute, only with a touch of introspective humor, Fonejacker made great use of Kayvan Novak’s talent for accents and improvisation, to execute a series of pranks in which a good portion of the people called appeared to be enjoying themselves almost as much as he was. He then went on to create a sequel show called Facejacker, with the same basic premise (but a lot more makeup).

The Revolution Will Be Televised (2013)

Which brings us right up to date with a show that uses character pranking as a form of satire—from faux right-wing journalist Dale Maily (I know, right?) interviewing members of the English Defence League / drag queens at Gay Pride, to the “Labour MP” Ewan Jeffries whose strongest convictions can be overturned with only the slightest whiff of disagreement—because everyone can make TV about anything nowadays, even hipsters.

See more: 
A History: Are Brits Better at Satire?
RIP Rik Mayall: His Greatest Roles
10 British Stand-Up Comics Whom Americans Should Know
‘Veep’ Fans: A Guide to Armando Iannucci’s Comedy

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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