The Blankety Blank Problem
It’s coming up to 10 years since the Blankety Blank Comic Relief sketch, starring Peter Serafinowicz, Matt Lucas, David Williams, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Sarah Alexander, and Martin Freeman.….
That’s quite a lineup. Me and Kevin Cecil were slightly involved in it – it was very much Peter’s baby, but we were asked to spend a couple of hours throwing in a few extra ideas. Hard to be precise which ones 10 years on, but I’m pretty certain we wrote a lot of the bad tempered exchanges between Martin Freeman’s Johnny Rotten and Simon Pegg’s Freddie Starr.
It feels like a long time ago now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this cast wasn’t all that famous when this was broadcast. Little Britain wouldn’t appear on the TV until later in 2003. Shaun of the Dead premiered in 2004. That’s why this stellar lineup was tucked away quite late in the evening of Red Nose Day. And because it was quite late, it was allowed to be quite weird. The words “yellow reggae” cracked me up at the time, and still make me laugh now.
But looking at this footage a few days ago, it doesn’t seem nearly as weird as it used to. This brings me to the second reason why it feels like a long time ago: the presence of Johnny Rotten. For the benefit of those too young to remember, Blankety Blank was one of the lightest of light entertainment shows which dominated the early evening schedules in the 1980s. It was built on a fairly flimsy premise– a simple word association game – but that didn’t matter, because it was just an excuse for Terry Wogan to engage in genial chats with half a dozen celebrities at once. The personalities on the show were for the most part well-known faces from other comedy and entertainment shows. With the exception of Kenny Everett they were a safe and cosy bunch. When Peter wrote this Blankety Blank parody in 2003, the mere idea of having the fearless and dangerous Johnny Rotten on a mainstream light entertainment show like Blankety Blank was a preposterous joke.
In 2013, it’s no longer incredible, because it’s already happened. Under his more grown-up real name of John Lydon, the formerly unusable punk god did a whole series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. That culture clash between him and the stars of panto was mined to the full, but this time for real instead of in an unhinged Peter Serafinowicz sketch.
This is just one example of what you might call The March of Absurdity. It’s a real problem for comedy writers. Comedy thrives off barriers and taboos. Then you’ve got an expectation to subvert, and you’re in business. Less barriers means less unwritten codes for comedy to scrape up against. When I was a kid, the Morecambe and Wise show once featured Angela Rippon, a newsreader whose name and face were known to everyone in the country, as one of a line of dancing girls. At the time this was considered utterly mind blowing. A BBC newsreader! Dancing! With just tights on her legs! These days, Children In Need love to get newsreaders dancing. We now expect our newsreaders to fool around in funny costumes. What was once a bold comic idea gradually became the norm. So – it’s a lot less funny.
There’s another one which sticks out in my memory. Me and Kevin wrote a lot of The Armando Iannucci Shows, a Channel 4 series which though it didn’t make a big splash when it aired in 2001 has since become obscure cult viewing. One of the programs follows Armando as he goes to see “Ibiza Uncovered – the Opera.” Ibiza Uncovered was a very trashy late night show, really just an excuse to show lots of flesh. Unthinkable that it could be turned into an opera, so we had great fun writing the lyrics. “The club is charging £20 admission/do they still have the sex show at Manumission?/no, but Paul Oakenfold is on the decks./Oakie, Oakie, Oakie, Oakie, Oakie’s on the decks.” Just a couple of years later, Jerry Springer the Opera was a massive stage hit. Without it, it seems unlikely that the Royal Opera house would have been able to put on an opera about Anna Nicole Smith. Opera about low culture subjects? People are fine with that now. So that sketch couldn’t work if we wrote it today.
When mainstream culture delights in playing the comedy writer’s game of juxtaposing things to get amusing results, it makes it a whole lot harder for people in my profession. What looks crazy and impossible now might just be commonplace in a few years. So, here’s my plea to society and the media: put up more barriers. Be more sober, more serious. Create more taboos. Make more lines which can’t be crossed. The comedy writers will thank you for it.