Thursday, June 19, 2008

Between Allen Funt and Guy Grand: the "street" comedy of Dom Joly

Okay, so I’m not quibbling with the cellphone as a concept, it’s a linchpin of modern civilization for better or worse. The "whole world as open-air phone booth” concept still has me at wit’s end, though — to hear so many voices with so little to say, and saying it so loudly! The women are hopeless chataholics, the guys are absolute morons repeating their locations over and over (or their educated counterparts, the show-off preppie assholes having a work conversation in public). So what can we do in the face of such overweening “sharing” of one’s every single move, every single thought, motion, decision? Make fun of it, of course!

To this I leave Dom Joly, a British comedian/entertainer/writer whom we don’t know at all on these shores. His absolutely BRILLIANT (to use the fave Brit adjective) Trigger Happy TV had a short run over here on Comedy Central, but it was quickly relegated to the very late-evening hours, and according to what I’ve read online, was a watered-down version of the original (even thought what I remember of it was still pretty witty and downright strange). Joly does the Candid Camera thing, oh yes he does, but there is actual thought and (gasp) an actual point to most of his in-public pranks and experiments. Yes, Allen Funt claimed his show’s intention was to show how people responded to various unusual situations, but we all know that this cornerstone of American cruelty TV was actually a joy to watch because of its focus on the embarrassment and stupidity of its subjects. When he was able to branch out, Funt did a film (1970’s What Do You Say To a Naked Lady?) which proved that the sociological was less at work than the prurient and gaze-at-a-car-crash impulse in the Candid Camera equation.

Anyway, Joly is an extremely savvy British humorist who devoted Trigger Happy TV to on-street pranks that had a point or, better yet, were completely surreal (most involving animal costumes which, hey, are always a nice little counterweight to the realism of any urban street corner). Some classics of his lower-key bits are his Grim Reaper appearing around London, his “burglar” character,, ”stalker mice”, a bit in a hedge-maze, and a gag from a later series in which he shows up in front of some of the world’s wonders and offers an opinion to a fellow tourist.

His “louder bits” include a wonderful French lesson , a public-performer character he calls “Krazy Kat,” some brilliant abuse of the Guardian Angels, rabbits who can’t control their lust in public, and the perennial asshole with loud headphones in the subway or other public place. Oh, and the very reason I created this post, his genius bit “taking the piss” (as the Brits say) out of every moron talking loudly on a cellphone. I don’t know the guy's lengthier works (or writings), have only seen his work in these small snippets available on the Net, but he is a minor god who in his comedy is operating on the same principles that moved Guy Grand in Terry Southern’s classic The Magic Christian. “Making it hot for them,” indeed.

The crowning touch to his work is the fact that he doesn’t punctuate the stuff in the way that every American Candid Camera show has — he lets the gags run without a narrator (subtlety, who’d’a thought that would make things funnier?), using the actual street sound and slightly subdued present-day indie music on the soundtrack, and NO LAUGH TRACK to indicate when’s something is funny. One of my favorite touches was the use of a Jacques Brel song under one gag (which is not all that funny — guys in dog suits do kung fu — but hey, the Brel sets it off, man!).

Joly has continued to do this kind of work on other UK TV shows we haven’t seen over here, including World Shut Your Mouth and The Complainers. I think he’s brilliant and deserves some BBC-America exposure (remember when PBS used to air this kind of sharp comedy? That was one lifetime ago.), but I assume the failure of the Comedy Central Trigger Happy has prevented that from happening thus far. So we can take comfort in the fact that he is very well represented on YouTube, and in fact has one poster who has specialized in putting up his gags.

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