I have a cunning plan: kill the catchphrase

An end to juvenile and lazy catchphrase comedy would be a real Comic Relief.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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I had meant this week to devote my energies to tearing apart the whole Comic Relief phenomenon, using my sharp powers of observation to rage against the self-seeking celebrities who employ mawkish sentimentality in order to extract money from the well-meaning but foolish public, money which will no doubt end up in the pockets of African kleptocrats, who will surely spend the cash on guns or a new fleet of Mercedes. But in the end I couldn’t be bothered, because it’s all been said before.

Yes, we know that African leaders can be corrupt, and we know that untalented celebrities are egomaniacs who, like Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s ‘Smashie & Nicey’, unceremoniously boast how they ‘like to do a lot of work for charidee, but we don’t like to talk about it’. But it’s all too easy to be cynical about Comic Relief.

BBC’s Comic Relief has learnt from its previous mistakes, and now largely by-passes governments when handing out funds, apportioning money instead directly to aid agencies. Now, whether aid agencies merely absolve Third World governments of the duty of sorting out their own countries, and help to keep sub-Sahara in a humiliating state of pauperism, is a contested point. But at least the money is not going to dictators seeking to purchase a consignment of even bigger baseball bats to beat up opposition leaders.

And yes, celebrities are cretins who should keep their noses out of politics. I could point out that Bono is insufferably sanctimonious, or that having the rotund Dawn French sally to Africa and speak about hunger is disgustingly ironic, but this would not be very original. Comedians and actors are largely self-centered air-heads, but working on the hypothesis that the money that they help to raise does genuinely help the poor, does it really matter? If one were to take a rational, sceptical take on Comic Relief, one comes out to the realisation that it works on Adam Smith’s principle of the invisible hand, by which those pursuing wealth through self-interest inadvertently help to generate a richer and healthier society.

The most objectionable thing about Comic Relief was the seemingly omnipresence of the cast of Little Britain. For long touted as an antidote to ‘political correctness’, in lampooning homosexuals, the handicapped and such like, the show Little Britain has never done anything of the sort. If you want really subversive humour in which no section of society, no political viewpoint, is spared, then watch South Park, or the film made by its creators, Team America: World Police (2004), which is frankly a work of genius.

Little Britain is lame because it works on the juvenile principle of slogans and repetition. In nearly every single episode or live show, we wait for the pretend-handicapped bloke in the wheelchair to say ‘I want that one’, or for the unconvincing transvestite to protest ‘but I’m a lady’, or the chav Vicki to exclaim ‘yeah, but no, but yeah’. Then there’s the Welsh poof insisting himself to ‘the only gay in the village’. Who said Mr Humphries was dead?

Britain will soon tire of Little Britain for the same reason they got bored of Rob Newman and David Baddiel, dressed up as dusty old history professors, saying ‘That’s your mum, that is’, because comedy based on familiar catchphrase anticipation starts to become annoying in the end.

This was beautifully illustrated and lampooned by Paul Whitehouse’s brainchild of the 1990s, The Fast Show, in the guise of one of its characters, the fictitious 1940s variety comic Arthur Atkinson. He was the unfunniest feature of The Fast Show, but that was the whole point. Atkinson would come on stage, give a pedestrian monologue, before delivering his catchphrases ‘How queer!’ or ‘Where’s me washboard?’ to which the audience would absurdly break out into uproarious paroxysms of laughter. The Atkinson sketches were deliberately unfunny because they were meant to be a swipe at catchphrase comedy, which is less about generating humour, but more concerned with social cohesion and a desire to be included in the herd.

We all like repeating comedy catchphrases because it makes us feel that we belong, that we have been in communion with others in worshipping the same television programme, that we are part of the zeitgeist, and to take some solace from that sad fact that while watching television is an unwitting confession of a solitary existence, there is an imagined community out there doing likewise. This is why we like it when our favourite songs come on the radio, even though we’ve got them in our CD collection and could listen to them any time: because we feel we are sharing something with strangers.

Children are especially given to catchphrase sloganeering, and through the years have parroted to each other in the playground ‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink’, ‘Oooh, Betty’, ‘I have a cunning plan’, ‘I don’t belieeeve it’ as a way of gaining social acceptance. Anyone who failed to register the provenance of these phrases was somehow deemed an outcast. Catchphrase humour is literally juvenile.

And I speak as someone who was cajoled by my mother to watch a live theatre performance of ’Allo ’Allo on 26 May 1989, the very same night Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-0 in the last minute, live on telly, to win the First Division title in perhaps the most thrilling end to an English season ever. To my dear mum, I shall say this only once: You stupid woman!

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