Sketch Primer 2 – The Fast Show

For part two of my several part series on Sketch Comedy I was going to do Mitchell and Webb, but I called an audible at the last minute and switched to The Fast Show, another English sketch show, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute. Anyways, the point of this series is to try to get you, the reader to watch more and different sketch comedy, while learning a thing or two about what makes it great. The first installment, Mr. Show, was covered here.

So why did I choose the Fast Show (also known as “Brilliant!” in the US, a terrible name if ever there was one)? Well, that’s sort of complicated. The Fast Show was the second sketch show I ever really watched, after Monty Python’s Flying Circus, so it holds a special place in my heart. But for the purposes of this series, it’s interesting because it’s an almost exact contemporary of Mr. Show, lasting three seasons from 1994-1997. I figured it would be a good look at what was happening across the pond, since for all intents and purposes The Fast Show was the biggest and most important English sketch show of the mid-90s. Many of it’s characters and catchphrases have entered into popular usage in the UK, while noted fan Johnny Depp quotes it in his movies and puts its cast in minor roles. This year at the Olympics, an American reporter named Ed Winchester caused quite a few chuckles when he went on the BBC and said, “Hi, I’m Ed Winchester,” and nothing else. But you’ve probably never even heard of it.

The Fast Show was the brainchild of Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, who were the head writers. Whitehouse also starred in most of the sketches, a sort of Carol Burnett-type player, except funnier and more English. The supporting cast was excellent, with Simon Day, Mark Williams, John Thomson, Arabella Weir, Caroline Aherne, and Paul Shearer, who went on to varying degrees of fame in England. Each had his or her share of memorable characters, and none really rose above the others, although I’ve always thought John Thomson was especially terrific.

That clip is from Season 1, and is the first featuring perhaps the most popular characters, the Suits You tailors. After this appearance, Ken and Kenneth would go on to be in more episodes than any other character (except maybe Ted and Ralph), always spouting their trademark single entendres to a horrified customer (including Mr. Depp in a special episode). So how in the world does a show sustain that kind of repetition? That question is at the heart of the Fast Show.

The Fast Show gets its laughs by putting funny characters in different situations and having them react the same way they always do. In other words, it’s almost all character sketches, or sketches revolving around interesting characters rather than premises. Here we see the first difference with Mr. Show, and it’s a big one: the number of premise sketches is very low indeed. But that other bastion of American sketch, SNL, is very similar. In fact, SNL has been doing character sketches almost predominantly since its inception in 1975. The key difference, however, is length. Where the average SNL sketch runs about five minutes,  a typical Fast Show sketch runs about one and a half. Many are shorter even than that. The idea of hightening, as Americans understand it, is nonexistent. Almost every sketch is one beat and out. The ones that last several beats often hit the same note multiple times, rather than accelerating. The hightening occurs instead over the course of a season, or for some few characters, the entire series. Let’s take a fairly simple example that is well known to everyone, or should be: “I’ll get me coat.”

A simple premise with a pretty long buildup to a short, pithy button. That line would be repeated on and off for three seasons. And it somehow stayed funny, partly because Mark Williams is a very funny character actor with great timing, but also because they put him in all sorts of situations, from dinner parties to the public pool to medieval English battlefields to Enlightenment sitting rooms. What the Fast Show did (unintentionally) was to take the SNL character format and draw it out to its logical extreme. But whereas most SNL characters, even the best ones, last 2-3 sketches, and are generally played out after one, the Fast Show’s characters stayed funny.

Obviously, they didn’t use the same people in every episode. They mercifully ended many when they ran their course, such as Fat Sweaty Coppers, Professor Denzil Dexter, Roy and I, Our Janine, Bob Fleming, and many others. They were replaced with newer, better characters, such as Louis Balfour (Jazz Club), Roger the Fairweather Fan, Swiss Toni and of course, the greatest character in Fast Show history, Rowley Birkin, QC*, who all then made it to the end of the line.

*Rowley Birkin made me like the Fast Show. I mean, I liked it. I still like Season 1, which he isn’t in. But his bits were the funniest to me, for whatever reason. The clip above is pretty typical. Basically, he’s an old codger/alcoholic, telling stories to an unseen interviewer. His speech is always indecipherable, except he would occasionally become clear for one or two words. My favorite is “Johnny Ludlow,” where he excitedly tells a story about his friend Johnny Ludlow in his typical manner, then closes by sipping his drink and stating, “That…that was Johnny Ludlow.” Paul Whitehouse also drew applause for one, which wasn’t funny but bittersweet. Very interesting.

But what’s as impressive is the number of setups that lasted the entire series. Ken and Kenneth, the Brilliant Kid and his Dad, Ted and Ralph, Arthur Atkinson, Unlucky Alf, and the folks at Chanel 9 all made it the distance, even if they had changed a bit over time. By the third season, the writers were stretching the plots to keep them fresh, with excellent results. Ted and Ralph were likely the most popular characters, if not always the funniest. One thing about the Fast Show was its willingness to do things that weren’t actually meant to be funny. Several moments are sweet or bittersweet, while others are just surreal. And it all works. You get to know the characters and you get to like them, or at least respect them. This is the Chanel 9 Neus Team:

I think that’s one of their funniest bits. In later seasons, they switched over to variety shows and other programming to keep Chanel 9 interesting, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Neus. And the Gizmo, which appeared in every episode of the Neus, with the same actors, but with a different purpose, such as the Bebe Gizmo, the Auto Gizmo, and of course, the Orgasmo Gizmo.

So far, this review has been pretty glowing, which is funny since The Fast Show is nowhere near my favorite sketch show. That Mitchell and Webb Look, Monty Python, and Mr. Show are all dramatically better. Part of this is because the Fast Show had very small budgets and were pretty low quality.* Another reason is that yes, some sketches get repetitive and some aren’t very good at all. Like most sketch shows, the later seasons are probably tighter and funnier (the 13th Duke of Wymborne was a winner). It’s also fairly inaccessible for many Americans. Even an Anglophile like me misses a lot of jokes. Part of the reason is that the Fast Show seems to be straddling two generations. England was no longer on its own in the global community, but it wasn’t really globalized either. As a result, there are more American-style parodies (which are often quite funny. See “Shore Leave.”) than Monty Python, but fewer than Mitchell and Webb (for whom it isn’t even really a matter of England or America. It just is). Many sketches play on the differences between regions of England, which a typical viewer would instantly get, but which are all but incomprehensible to an American viewer. Mitchell and Webb’s Snooker commentators are close, but those sketches are more of a universal commentary on sports commentators than Snooker.

*There’s an interesting side-effect to this quality issue. When the Fast Show did black and white sketches, they actually looked like black and white movies, rather than sketches filmed in black and white. Which is nice.

My other problem with the Fast Show, which I didn’t realize until recently, is it’s unwillingness to be subversive. It’s a very interesting comedy show in that respect. Where Mr. Show in the US was firmly in the counterculture, the Fast Show often treads close to almost being propaganda. There is a healthy disrespect for foreigners, Americans and their culture, and surprisingly, the downtrodden. Jokes often come at the expense of unlucky or poor characters, and can often be mean-spirited, which takes away from the funniness. Unlucky Alf is the main offender, but the second season of Our Janine and some of the sketches with Gideon Somes or the documentary announcer are close behind. The obvious counter argument is that the show takes the piss out of everyone and everything, which is true on some level. But it does seem a little bit too rah-rah England, and even a little dated, at points. It doesn’t help that the main characters, with the exception of John Thomson, Arabella Weir, and Charlie Higson, often look very old. Especially when they’re trying to play younger characters.

Still, the Fast Show is great. Its preeminence in the 90s was well-deserved. The lingering popularity of its characters is testimony to its excellence. Not every sketch hits, nor does every character deserve the run he or she got. But that’s true of every show, really. If you want to start watching the Fast Show, you really have to start at the beginning and go in order. That’s the only way to watch the characters the way the creators intended. It’s almost like watching 10 or 15 sketches drawn out over 6-8 episodes. It’s a unique experience in sketch comedy. You could even argue that the Fast Show comes close to redefining what sketch is, since so few of their sketches stand on their own. Every sketch show in England stands in the shadow of Monty Python, like every show here stands in the shadow of SNL. You could say that Monty Python’s Gumbys and Mr. Praline and the Colonel came first. But that’s not really fair. Monty Python didn’t do what the Fast Show does. At the very least, the Fast Show is worth watching just to see exactly how varied the form of Sketch can be, and why trying to reduce it to a page and a half of rules (UCB…) is patently crazy.

So yes, the Fast Show is English sketch in the mid-90s. And yet I can’t help but wonder, what if Mr. Show had been Lord Show, and broadcast on BBC2 from 1994-1997?

2 Responses to “Sketch Primer 2 – The Fast Show”

  1. Brilliant!

    I’m glad you tagged all your comedy posts, or I don’t know if I would’ve run into these. I didn’t read your Mr.Show review yet, but this one was a lot of fun and quite interesting. Also, enjoyed the clips.

    I was trying to decide if I’d seen “Suit You, Sir” before, but then I realized you’ve just recited it a million times. Really liked “Brilliant” even if he does look ancient. My favorite was the “cheese and peas” commercial from the chanel 9 neus.

    Was thinking that it’s interesting character/premise distinction, something i’ve noticed before is common among snl and monty python. One of the things I find irksome about UCB is very little room for character sketches. But also just little room in general for layering premises and characters, which something like chanel 9 neus does brilliantly (weird greek news program plus day where news people admit there was no news).

    I find myself doing this a lot with my and other people’s sketches–watering things down so it’s either a world sketch or a weird thing sketch–but why can’t weird people be in weird situations? you know what i’m sayin’. that’s what makes it goofy, and some people hate goofy.

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