2011 was a year mired in economic turmoil, protest and civil unrest. Comedy wouldn’t be doing its job if it wasn’t right in the thick of things and, for better or worse that was certainly the case this year. If times are bad they’re certainly bringing out the best in stand-up, Josie Long’s development as a voice of political dissent was refreshing, funny and added an extra dimension to a performer so readily dismissed as ‘twee’. It was also a real pleasure to see hard-working circuit nearly-men rewarded as Adam Riches finally took home the Edinburgh prize, while Nick Helm and Joe Wilkinson began to cement themselves as fixtures of the live scene and as TV regulars. Meanwhile the surreal stylings of Dr Brown and Sam Simmons attracted rave reviews and ever-increasing audiences.
Alternative acts making mainstream breaks was hardly a trend reserved for the UK, in the States long time alt-comic staple Jon Benjamin found acclaim with his own comedy vehicle Jon Benjamin Has A Van to follow up his lead in Bob’s Burgers. Meanwhile younger upstart Hannibal Buress not only enjoyed success at the Edinburgh Festival (picking up a Best Newcomer nomination) but also signed a deal with Fox to create his own sitcom with Hollywood star Jonah Hill. But it took a well-established name to truly shake up the scene. Perhaps unsurprisingly that comic was Louis CK who released his latest stand-up show as a download. Aware that his fanbase were always going to get hold of the show via the Internet he bypassed the DVD middlemen and did something which may becoming common place in music, but until recently hadn’t been attempted by a comedian. Who takes up the baton next is anyone’s guess.
While the live circuit buzzed with talent, television comedy felt comparatively gloomy. BBC cult hits Psychoville and Shooting Stars were both axed, while the future of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, having already been moved into a graveyard timeslot, remains in limbo despite Lee’s recent wins at the British Comedy Awards. Channel 4 also wielded their axe, Comedy Lab, the testing ground and starting point for so many modern favourites became a victim of TV comedy cuts. This was particularly unfortunate given some of the excellent work that emerged through the lab this year (Chickens and Anna & Katy both showed bags of potential). While innovation seemed to give way to cost-effectiveness, Channel 4 did hold most of the comedy trump cards including Friday Night Dinner and, a real high spot in the form of Fresh Meat. The eight-part series based on a university house share contained some of the year’s funniest moments as well as some surprisingly tender ones. The writing, while occasionally a little uneven, took it above just being a sub-par Skins clone and into a genuine TV highlight. The cast also deserve credit, Zawe Ashton and Greg McHugh took most of the laughs but Joe Thomas perfected his likeable loser persona and even Jack Whitehall, a man whose stand-up has often led to much personal teeth-grinding, was surprisingly enjoyable (if not particularly stretched) as posh twit JP.
Perhaps the culling of so many inventive shows was the reason it was so hard to watch Life’s Too Short. Unfortunately it felt like an extension of Gervais and Merchant’s previous work, unsure of whether it was a vehicle for Warwick Davis or Gervais, an Office-style mockumentary or a traditional sitcom. Even the character traits of those from The Office appeared to have been transferred to those in Life’s Too Short. Davis, desperately fame and power hungry, possessed not only Brent’s lack of self-awareness, but even the same style of comic delivery. His assistant, Cheryl, was at times Gareth, at others Maggie from Extras, undermining Warwick at every possible turn and undoing any headway he makes with her dozy honesty. The fringe characters that made The Office so well-rounded have now been replaced by Hollywood A-listers, cameos that varied from genuinely funny (Liam Neeson) to the tediously ‘unpleasant’ (Helena Bonham Carter). Much of the humour from the programme’s set-pieces was missing because you felt you’d seen it all before. It was hard to watch so many characters who were so totally unlikeable. Admittedly Gervais hadn’t helped, his Twitter-based ‘mong’ campaign in the run-up to the first episode made him look less like a comedy genius and more like a craven idiot. Contrast that to the fortunes of his comedy partners (Stephen Merchant’s Hello Ladies show was exemplary and Karl Pilkington grew increasingly popular through a second series of Idiot Abroad) and Gervais may look back on 2011 with a shudder.
Gervais wasn’t the only comic who fell from their pedestal this year. The UK riots weren’t a great time (especially as every stand-up has been crowbaring dreadful London looters gags into their sets ever since) but it was also a chance for all and sundry to pass comment on why it had happened. Step forward John Cleese. It was a comment that passed under many news radars, maybe due to his ‘legend’ status or maybe because there were just too many hoodies to film but when questioned about the riots on Australian TV, Cleese asserted that the reason rioting had taken place was due to the fact that London wasn’t English anymore. A decidedly dodgy line at the best of times, Cleese, current star of the AA adverts, clearly missed the irony of passing comment on British immigration policies given he moved to California several years ago. It was also nice to see how only a month ago he was willing to fly back to his beloved non-English England in order to flog his DVD for Christmas. Cheers.
As well as riots 2011 was also the year Britain woke up to how morally bankrupt our national press was – an alarm call raised by, among others, 2010’s star of the year, Steve Coogan. Coogan had a somewhat schizophrenic year, going from promoting and fuelling the brilliant Alan Partridge renaissance to appearing on news programmes and the Leveson Inquiry taking the tabloid press to task over phone hacking, harassment and misleading reporting. He even managed to make it quite funny.
Roll on 2012. Thanks for reading.