Sunday, October 17, 2010

British humor 2: Chris Morris

Chris Morris honed his humor not as a standup but as an extremely experimental radio personality. His work is best described as “humor” and not as “comedy” because Morris takes incredible chances with his material, underplaying it with the assumption that his audience is intelligent enough to get what he’s doing and that if they don’t, they’ll just move along.

As with all of the people I’m going to profile in this series, Morris’ work is not known in America. He has been incredibly influential in the U.K., though, thanks to three of his series, all of which did the comic concept of “fake news” to a very fine turn. There are a number of reasons these shows worked so perfectly — top-notch professionals in front of and behind the camera; the deadpan, fully authentic tone; the emphasis on odd concepts rather than jokes or puns — but the key factor in my view is that Morris has a way with words.

The best British humor, from Carroll, Swift, and Lear to the Goons, Beyond the Fringe, and the Pythons, has contained an element of really inspired wordplay, dare I say whimsy? (A word that sounds very coy but is indeed accurate.) Morris’ ability to manufacture nonsense language is daunting, as is evidenced by the “feedback reports” he produced for his radio shows — man on the street interviews that asked members of the public about non-existent concepts (“spherical cows” and the like). The passersby who responded to his questions were obviously thrilled to be on the air, and so they went along with Morris’ earnest absurdist queries, even as he altered his voice to signal it was all a game. (He was fond of replaying one old man asking him why he had changed his voice just then — the only gent who had actually paid attention to what was going on!)

Two of Morris’ heroes are all-time Funhouse favorites Peter Cook and Vivian Stanshall. He worked quite superbly as a sarcastic “straight man” for the former before he died, and attempted to work with the latter. I think it is safe to say — and this is a major compliment, given the unfettered genius of those icons — that Morris belongs in their company, although his brilliance is more controlled and he clearly lacks the self-destructive tendencies that plagued those comic deities.

For Morris is nothing if not a perfectionist. He worked for years on radio, using his various stints as a DJ as a kind of comic laboratory for the ideas he was developing. There is an incredible amount of wonderfully entertaining material on the Morris fan site Cook’d and Bomb’d. However, since he began writing and starring in TV comedy in 1994, he has crafted only 25 half-hour episodes (26 if you count the Nathan Barley pilot, which was later cannibalized for episodes of the show). To consider that most American series crank out 20 episodes per season and go on to jump the shark in painfully awful ways, Morris deserves additional praise for pulling the plug when his series were still inventive and on-target.

Morris’ radio work does indeed dwarf (in quantity, not in quality) his work in other media. The folks who run Cook’d and Bomb’d have collected hours and hours of this material, and I was stunned how radically weird Morris was on mainstream stations in England, parodying the music-radio format while also conjuring up some esoteric “theater of the mind.” It’s hard to pick the single most outlandish moment, but a good nominee is the show in which his hapless sidekick, Peter Baynham (of Fist of Fun and later a screenwriter on Borat and Bruno) “kidnaps” a baby and then he and Chris watch it float to the ceiling of the studio.

One of Morris’ finest radio creations was top-40 DJ Wayne Carr, whose best moments are collected here. He also read “heartrending” letters asking him for musical requests:

Baynham wasn’t Morris’ only radio sidekick. He also recruited an intrepid gent named Paul Garner to do odd or irritating things in public settings, usually airports or hotels. Here Garner takes commands from Morris as he enters a cab:

The union of two men with brilliantly strange imaginations: Chris interviews Peter Cook as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling. In this installment, Morris throws a concept to Cook that he had introduced on his own radio show during the Christmas season, namely that “the fossilized remains of the infant Christ” had been discovered, and that Christ could reproduce himself like larvae:

Many of the segments that Morris crafted as a DJ were patently bizarre, but his lightning-quick nonsense news flashes showed his talent for spouting absurdity in a genuine-sounding manner. And so producer-writer Armando Iannucci made Morris the star and head writer of On the Hour, a flawless radio send-up of news shows that ran for two seasons of six episodes each (ah, that magic number!) and can be found on YouTube and other sites.

Morris brought his alter-ego Wayne Carr onto On the Hour to discuss back-masking in rock records:

In 1994, the show was rather effortlessly transformed by Iannucci and Morris into The Day Today, the landmark fake-news TV program that spotlighted an ensemble of versatile performers, including Doon Mackichan as an unflappable (and incomprehensible) financial reporter:

The show's longest-lasting contribution to TV comedy was clueless sports reporter Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan), who later became a clueless talk show host in Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge and then a clueless show-biz has-been in I'm Alan Partridge. A sample of Alan in his earliest incarnation:

The Day Today contains a number of references that only Brits will understand, but most of its six-episode run needs no footnotes, as with this short but potent bit about Sinn Fein:

Or this brilliant encapsulation of what cable-news networks are all about:

In 1997 Morris came back with an even more brutal satire on TV news, Brass Eye. The program lampooned TV news magazines and specials that claimed to decry social issues but exploited them in the process. Morris himself played most of the male news anchors in the six themed episodes, and the concepts introduced in the shows were even more outlandish than those he had presented in his "vox pop" (man on the street) interviews on radio. Among these was a made-up concept called ”heavy electricity.” Two other segments that showed off Morris’ perfect comic timing found him insulting a gay audience member for having “bad AIDS” and coming on to a teenage incest victim.

The most elaborate idea Morris created for the series was "cake," a fashionable and lethal party drug that was addicting British youth. In the course of several interviews he convinced well-meaning but dunderheaded celebrities (proof again that a camera pointed at someone makes them ask no questions!) to do PSAs against the drug, and recruited politicians to speak against it publicly, which one proceeded to do in parliament. Watch the segment here. Brass Eye took the concepts created by Morris and Iannucci in The Day Today several steps further, to the point where earnest British newscasters acknowledged that Morris' presenter characters were spot-on and that his spoofs had made them, the real newscasters, feel odd about affecting a super-earnest pose on-air — but they continued to do so anyway (hey, satire can only do so much).

For me the height of Morris' art is Blue Jam, a startlingly original radio show that aired from 1997-99 in a late-night slot at Morris' request, as he wanted the show to seem like something dimly heard while one was half awake. The show is like nothing else that has ever appeared on radio (the closest thing we ever had over here was the early "Mr. Mike"- produced National Lampoon Radio Hour).

There is no way to describe Blue Jam, except perhaps to call it "Ken Nordine meets Terry Southern and David Lynch" with "trance" music and a decidedly British deadpan tone. The show aired in three series of six episodes, and the entire run (including an episode that was pitched off the air for making fun of the Archbishop of Canterbury) is available at the Cook'd and Bomb'd site. If you want to sample some bits of the last series, a poster on YT has uploaded a few of the shows from late in the first series.

The indispensable Morris biography Disgusting Bliss: the Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall (who also wrote the even more indispensible Ginger Geezer about Bonzo supreme Vivian Stanshall) includes quotes from Morris that explain his approach to comedy in general and Blue Jam in particular. The two most important quotes are Morris' remark that he likes to "bury the humor" in the work he does, and that he feels that Blue Jam was different from other comedy in that there were "no cues" (meaning comedy cues, not musical ones) in the show. On that note, I should emphasize that Morris' TV series have never had laugh tracks or even live audiences supplying the laughter — again, he trusts that the home viewer either gets what he's doing or they don't.

One of the hallmarks of the show were sex sequences in which the lovers cry out odder and odder things at each other (possibly the finest being “whack my bonobo!”):

Blue Jam appears to be a free-form exercise, but a careful listen reveals that Morris' "dream comedy" (my phrase — his own was "ambient stupidity") was very carefully constructed. Hypnotic music, from Gainsbourg, the Beatles, and Eno, to Beck, Bjork, and Mercury Rev, is played in between dark-humored sketches which dealt with Morris' comic staples — animals, doctor visits, sex, and children in peril, among others. Morris himself delivered monologues that had the feel of nightmares and usually involved his character getting caught up in modern art or entertainment events.

After Morris ended Blue Jam — which, at 18 episodes, lasted three times as long as any of his TV series! — he reworked some of the material in the radio show for the TV series Jam. His own monologues were gone (except for one), the songs were obviously eliminated, but the weird, disturbing tone of the sketches was reproduced visually by Morris with the aid of several disjunctive film techniques, plus the odd device of having the actors in some instances lip synch to the original radio sketches to make things seem a little more distant and bizarre.

One helpful YT poster has again posted the entire series, but there are some clips I definitely can recommend as stand-alone samples of the show:

A couple ask their friend for a heavy favor:

A busy doctor answers his phone while tending to a patient:

Morris plays a man who has decided he’d rather live outside:

And a couple tries to get the cable man to deal with their “lizard problem”:

In 2001, Morris came back with a final Brass Eye episode, which qualifies as one of the most daring and funny TV shows of all time. If you’ve read this far in this entry and have the slightest interest in Morris’ trailblazing work, please take a little time and check out his really stunning creation “Paedogeddon!” on YouTube. It is a brutally accurate attack on news-media hypocrisy, and once you’ve watched it, everything else pales in comparison. The owners of the material, Ch. 4 in England, have deemed that it can’t be embedded on a blog, but you can click through and watch it.

“Paedogeddon!” became the subject of immense controversy over in England, where the tabloids were horribly offended by Morris “making fun of pedophila” — ignoring, of course, that what he was utterly decimating was the news coverage of presumed pedophilia. The show was a landmark in British TV history in terms of news coverage condemning it, but it remains a comedy masterwork, a piece of satire that delivers its point in numerous ways, all of them condemning the mainstream media for its insane mawkishness and hypocrisy.

To date, Morris' last excursion into TV was the sensory-assault sitcom Nathan Barley (2005). Co-created with Charlie Brooker from a character Brooker created for his website TV Go Home, the show follows a supremely obnoxious young trust-fund hipster who runs an "alternative" website (the issue of where Nathan gets his cash from was explored in the series’ source matter, but never addressed in the series itself). The nominal storyline involves the hipster's interactions with his journalist hero (Julian Barratt, from the comedy team "the Mighty Boosh") and the journalist's sister, a documentarian who is the only sympathetic character in the series. The show has the sublimely abrasive tone that drove Mike Leigh's early telefilms, and it also savages the annoying quirks of the modern hipster. As is so often the case, the entire series can be found on YT here

Two segments that give a feel for the show are the introductory reading of the article “The Rise of the Idiots” by Barratt’s character:

and the anti-incest music video “Bad Uncle”:

After having been an agent provocateur and master satirist on U.K. TV, Morris has now chosen to work in film. His first short, based on a Blue Jam monologue, had the unwieldy title My Wrongs #8245–8249 & 117. It is, like all of his other best work, a relentless mindfuck.

Morris' first feature, Four Lions, opened in May of this year and played to good reviews in England; it is set to open in the U.S. in November. I look forward to watching Morris operate on the "larger canvas" that is the movie screen, and am glad that his search for topics that you just can't joke about — the film concerns incompetent Muslim terrorists — continues apace….

1 comment:

Costello said...

The "Horse With No Name"request nearly moved me to tears.