_ Game for a


Funny old game, this comedy lark. A new BBC2 series Funny Business attempts to demystify the laughter business in six 50-minute films. Tom Lappin raises a quizzical eyebrow and looks round for the inevitable banana skins.

Make ‘em laugh. The old showbusiness adage has become the cornerstone of many a TV company‘s charter as producers search for mainstream programming at cheap prices. Comedy is the answer. Not the elaborate location-shot ensemble pieces like Only Fools And Horses or Last Of The Summer Wine, but the independently-made cheapo studio jobs of the Bottom or The Big One ilk. Or cheaper still, get a bunch of those alternative comedian chappies to invent a quiz game format (stealing one from radio will do) and

I makes us laugh. ‘When we first came up with the idea for a television documentary series about comedy,’ Atkinson explains, ‘we decided that we weren‘t going to attempt an exhaustive analysis of humour, but simply to look at some of the traditions and techniques that funny people employ in order to make us laugh. In other words, the how rather than the why of comedy, the nuts and bolts rather than the grand purpose.’ The danger is that, as everyone knows, comedy

, is funny, talking about comedy is deadly dull. It’s a ' pitfall that series producer Sarah Williams is aware of. ‘We didn‘t want to fall into the trap ofmaking six deeply unfunny films about comedy,’ she says. 4 ‘So each programme features specially-shot performance as well as in-depth interviews and . rare archive footage. The aim of the series is not to

provide a comprehensive guide to comedy, but rather to be as revealing as possible about selected aspects.’

The series changes style from programme to programme covering stand-up, visual comedy, double-acts. movies, good taste and the sitcom (a behind-the-scenes report from the set of the hit

. American show Roseanne). ‘Each documentary has its own distinctive style,‘ says Williams, ‘from

the personal essay to the fly-on-the-wall to the spoof.‘

Atkinson himself stars in the first of the series, a mock Open University lecture about the secrets of

visual comedy, interspersed with clips from - everybody from Buster Keaton to John Cleese. ‘In visual comedy we see the same ideas crop up again

capture large audiences and broadcasting prizes with their smartassed quips. The evening schedules for both BBC2 and Channel 4 look set to

be dominated by ‘Have I Got A Word In Your Era fraught business, akin to taking apart a particularly delicate piece of machinery and So what works and what doesn’t? Insiders still attempting to reassemble it.

Which makes Funny Business something of a risky venture. A six-part series of 50-minute films audience, while a whimsical piece of Yorkshire made for BBCZ by Rowan Atkinson’s Tiger nonsense like Last Of The Summer Wine can run Television, Funny Business attempts to tinker with for decades. Analysing comedy has always been a the workings of comedy and understand what

Anyway format for the foreseeable future.

don’t really know. Shows that look formula winners on paper never really gel with the

Rowan Atkinson and the oldest prop in 60011301

and again,‘ says Atkinson. ‘The wit ofthe

comedian often lies in simply inventing new

variations of old jokes. He can do this because the

success of any comic idea depends not just on the

skill with which it is executed but, more

importantly, on the attitude with which it is performed.‘ Sounds dangerously like a

justification for Norman Wisdom to me.

' Funny Business starts on BBC2 on Sunday 22 November at8.05pm.

_ Emulating


Rita Smallbum's kitchen is crammed with assorted tins with taped-on labels identllying them as ‘soup', ‘beans’ or simply ‘don't know’. The original labels have long since been stuited into envelopes accompanied by a witty slogan completing the sentence ‘in twelve words or Iess.’ For Rita is a ‘comper’, the : user-friendly term tor a competition 5 fanatic. llot only that but Rita is The Comper Queen, the subject ol a ; Channel 4 Short Stories documentary. I I0!" can. 34 holldays, 8 CD Player. In the iourteen years since she first . mlcmlfl". “Shin! maChlne. tumble developed the obsession, tha has won ! “Ml 80d 3 d'8hW88Mf- Oh. and a

Rita Smallbum, Compr Queen

house worth £50,000 which Rita sold

lor double the amount. Some people

have all the luck.

Rita would probably dispute that remark. For her, ‘complng’ is akin to a military exercise. Shopping trips tor Rita and her chirpy, shiny-headed husband Ray are not a matter of getting in the basics tor the weekend, but of planning hundred-mile round trips to pick up entry lonns at every possible outlet. ‘We tend to get neck-ache as we go round supermarkets,’ says Rita, because we have to look lrom side to side. it's a bit like going to Wimbledon. We're looking iorthose three magic letters W, land ll.’

Comping is a growth phenomenon with its own newsletter Competitor’s Companion, a vital investment tor anyone serious about winning prizes. Rita is asked to address compers’ conlerences occasionally where she is


The List 20 November 3 December 19‘)

j lnlonnatlve about such erudite matters

: as lucky post-boxes, the ‘blackllst’ and

the necessity of having expert judges. The film also allows us to see

' competitions from the manulacturer's point ol view, as Camparl launch a promotion to name their Rio Camlval queen. Rita is hooked instantly. She and Ray sip the Campari unenthuslastlcally belore Rita turns her singularly commercially-attuned brain to the problem of thinking up a suitable name. This time alas it was

not to be. Another compertook the prize and the last we see oi Rita she is knocking on a neighbour’s door. ‘Would you like a bottle at Campari. We’re not really very keen, and we've

only tried a little. Shall we say £4 . . . 7' '

(Tom Lappin)

Short Stories: The Comper Queen is on Channel 4 on Friday 20 November at 8.30pm.