The second series of ‘Extras’ has concerned itself with sticking the boot into BBC1 lowest-common-denominator comedy, with questionable results. You suspect that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant don’t actually know who watches these critically-panned laughter-track comedies, and were afraid of finding out. I don’t know either, but I was disappointed that ‘Extras’ seemed to go for the easy answer. And that’s one reason why I’ve preferred the similarly-themed ‘Lead Balloon’, in which Jack Dee plays a comedian dissatisfied with the work he’s able to get (corporate gigs, linking material for ‘funniest accidents’ DVDs): despite having a fairly mean-spirited central character, it feels like a less mean-spirited show.
Aesthetically, the fictional sitcom in ‘Extras’ is perfectly executed (and, considering that guest stars on this show are routinely lauded for being ‘good sports’, far too little praise has fallen on Lisa Tarbuck, who portrays herself as the star of this dead dog). It’s a testament to how keen the BBC is to keep Gervais and Merchant on-side that it’s willing to permit its own processes to be depicted this way – or perhaps it think it’s sending itself up in the same way the celebrities do?
The problem, though, is that the fictional sitcom’s success is put down to the audience being idiots who laugh at anything. Maybe that really is all there is to it, but it feels too easy an explanation to me and also somewhat mean-spirited, especially in the context of a BBC2 sitcom beloved of the chattering classes. This is a shame, as Gervais and Merchant are still capable of writing excellent material – Ian McKellan’s ‘deconstruction’ of the acting process was glorious, every bit as funny as Patrick Stewart’s cameo last year.
The argument over whether the comedy of humiliation has run its course still goes on, but it features in both of these sitcoms and whereas recent episodes of ‘Extras’ have far overstepped the cringe mark, I’ve found the style to be deftly handled in ‘Lead Balloon’. The pettiness of Dee’s character, Rick Spleen, and his propensity to become obsessed with minor inconveniences, owes a substantial debt to ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’.
The comparisons with those shows are unavoidable, but to obsess over the similarity is rather a waste of time. Anybody can spot it and it has no impact on your enjoyment of the programme, which is sharply written and often very funny, with a fine ensemble cast (especially Raquel Cassidy, whose last sitcom was ‘According to Bex’, a fumbled BBC1 effort of the type seen in ‘Extras’, and is better served here). Spleen is successfully set up as both a sympathetic figure and a slightly pompous fool, and as with Larry David, there’s a sense that these humiliations fuel him somehow, that they’re an essential part of him functioning in the world.
Increasingly, the BBC finds its successes not by targeting its comedy at a mass audience, but by simply making some comedy and letting it find its audience, and hopefully some will hit big. ‘Little Britain’ is a prime example of how BBC3 and BBC4 are being used to feed the more established channels. I don’t have a problem with this at all: Dee and his co-writer Pete Sinclair have noted that being on BBC4 freed them to simply make something they thought was funny, and then see what the reaction was when it went out. The reaction has been very good, and the show’s transition to BBC2 has been accelerated accordingly. Is it perhaps time for all BBC comedy to be made this way, or does the old system still have a value? I’d be interested in finding out. More interested than Gervais and Merchant seem to be, anyway.