L to R: Russell Howard, Dara O’Briain, Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons.
The style and influence behind contemporary quiz show Mock the Week (2005-present) can be traced back as far as early current affairs programmes of the 1960’s; mixing all the irreverence of topical sketches featured in That Was The Week That Was (1962-63) with frequent stand-up and political satire. Consequently, it cannot be likened to any other comedy programme on television. The off-beat quiz has been dubbed the antidote to ‘smug and anaemic primetime comedy’, behaving instead like a series of stand-up routines whilst obliterating any laws of decency and political-correctness in its path. Oddly, this display of daring and anarchic humour is largely encouraged by the show’s host and successful Irish comic in his own right, Dara O’Briain. The opening of each episode sees O’Briain review the week’s news in a unique stand-up style introduction and while obviously rehearsed, this provides the audience with a fitting ice-breaker before any real controversy gets underway.
A show which undoubtedly inspired this segment, as well as having a direct influence upon Mock the Week’s format, is the long-running and some would argue the original ‘current affairs quiz show’, Have I Got News for You (1990-present). Each week, no-nonsense host Angus Deayton would read two or three headlines from the week’s news with an accompanying piece of ironic footage. Even the introduction of guests provided a moment of comedy prior to the first round, as Deayton welcomed them with an amusing and sometimes scornful anecdote: (“On Paul Merton’s team, a woman who gave up a career in film to become a Labour MP, bidding the world of fantasy and make-believe a fond…hello, Glenda Jackson”).
Ostensibly, such techniques have been abandoned by the modern quiz show which can often render relationships between the host and audience stale and predictable. Mock the Week exemplifies this in name-checking all six panelists before launching eagerly into a ‘caption contest’-style opportunity for risqué laughs. It seems the charm of HIGNFY’s tradition then is the warmth or unplanned chaos that can ensue in forging connections between regular contestants and fresh faces. This close-knit and rather intimate format has often led to many conflicts in the shows twenty-year history, notably sparking the long-term rivalry between ex-editor of The Mirror Piers Morgan and team captain and editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop after Morgan hired reporters to watch Hislop’s house prior to the recording. An equally controversial incident following a sex-scandal in 2002 led to the very public ridicule and eventual sacking of host Angus Deayton in the 23rd series, cementing the show’s reputation as one of the sharpest and most cynical panel games in the genre’s long history.
Where guest stars are concerned, Mock the Week is comparatively short on tension. This is partly because Dara O’Briain must keep four regular team captains in check in addition to two guest stars; including established comedians Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons, and newcomers Russell Howard and Frankie Boyle (the show’s famously morbid and controversial comic). As well as jovial host to the proceedings, O’Briain is himself a successful comedian, and as such will often contribute to the programme’s one-liners as much as the panel which creates an atmosphere of equality. Where its predecessors would prefer to show restraint, Mock’s panelists almost feel obliged to openly ridicule the host and vice versa; demonstrating that the professional relationship between host and contestant has tamed somewhat in the last fifteen years.
A programme with a familiar concept to Mock the Week and one to have provided a similar breeding ground for up and coming talent was the hugely popular game show Whose Line Is It Anyway? (1988-98). Written by the two would-be producers of Mock the Week (Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson), Whose Line began life on Radio 4 in the late 1980’s before moving to television with four alternating performers and the show’s former radio presenter, Clive Anderson. As its title suggests, performers were expected much like Mock to create various characters, scenes and songs on the spot. These ideas were often chosen by the studio audience themselves in rounds such as ‘scenes from a hat’ which involved acting out themes such as ‘Bad ice cream flavours’ or ‘Fortune cookies that tell the truth’ etc. Mock the Week’s blatant equivalent to this arrived in the form of ‘scenes we’d like to see’, the show’s popular final round and usually the most anticipated from the point of view of the comedians. The game instructs all six team members to stand in the ‘performance area’ whilst O’Briain calls out ideas for various scenarios including ‘Commercials that never made it to air’ and the controversy-seeking ‘Things you wouldn’t hear in the Queen’s Speech’. At this point in the programme, the humour can become quite dark and subversive; giving comedians the freedom to pursue taboo areas such as race and gender that may have otherwise deemed inappropriate in the earlier, conversational rounds of the show. As one might expect, any suggestions made during this period carry a certain degree of controversy and in October 2008, a response made to the latter ‘scenario’ caused public outrage when comedian Frankie Boyle made a sexually offensive remark about the Queen. Worse still, this edition was part a repeat shown amid the controversy surrounding radio presenters Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross who were involved in a similar scandal. In light of Boyle’s remarks made almost two years before in a 2006 recording, the BBC was inundated with near to thirty thousand complaints, even prompting a debate on Newsnight which questioned issues of taste in comedy. In hindsight however, this has only done more for the show’s popularity, as viewers are constantly searching for satire that isn’t afraid to push the envelope in a politically correct climate.
Unlike the strict ‘game show’ element of Whose Line, Mock the Week tends to focus heavily on stand-up routines and as a result, rounds can often run on longer than expected. This is casually over-looked by O’Briain however, who is often just as engrossed as the viewer. In this sense participants can afford to stray into surreal and sometimes, unthinkable tangents in the subjects assigned to them. In a section aptly titled ‘Wheel O News’, panellists are asked to lampoon a selected topic for five to ten minutes; these can range from sport to technology and the comedian to receive the biggest laugh is usually deemed the winner. Because panel games rarely combine satire with actual stand-up, stars based in sitcoms and other such mediums of comedy are often featured on the programme; seemingly to test the water in latter rounds such as ‘between the Lines’ and ‘scenes we’d like to see’. One of the first programmes in Britain to provide young comedians with a springboard into stand-up was Saturday Live (1985-1987), an innovative comedy programme influenced by the popular American show Saturday Night Live or ‘SNL’ (1975-present). In its brief history, the programme helped to launch successful comedy partnerships and sitcoms based on small acts performed on the show.
Occasionally, material ‘tested’ in a recording of Mock the Week can make its way into the stand-up routines of individual comics; and sure enough, two of the younger comedians Russell Howard and Frankie Boyle have sold out nationwide tours since having an association with the show. Evidently, panel games have always provided a breeding ground for younger, less-established comedians but recently the ‘quiz show’ seems to have adopted a whole new agenda; dividing into various sub-genres of popular culture in an aim to fill every available slot of primetime television.
Ian Hislop (with a bit more hair), Angus Deayton and Paul Merton.
Classic ‘quiz shows’ in the vein of Have I Got News for You make for comfortable viewing; coaxing audiences through a predictable yet welcoming structure. Modern quiz shows however appear to be doing the opposite, following along the lines of indefinable programmes in the genre such as the otherworldly Shooting Stars (1993-2002) a game disguised as a chat-show where points were unnecessary and so too were any ‘celebrities’ made to feel who appeared on it. A recent game show with a similarly single-minded approach is QI or ‘Quite interesting’ (2003-present), a show determined to provide interesting facts in addition to light-entertainment, courtesy of its affable host Stephen Fry. Unlike Mock the Week, current affairs are by and large irrelevant as contestants are given a lesson in ‘general ignorance’; answering questions that fall under the category of that particular series (e.g. Series D for Divination). It has been observed by fans as the ‘thinking man’s quiz show’, though this isn’t to say it is taken any more seriously. While Mock the Week adopts a general disregard for the scoring system, Stephen Fry is so ludicrously strict that acquiring any ‘IQ’ points at all becomes a game in itself. QI famously awards points to interesting answers rather than correct ones and Fry channels an affectionate headmasterly rapport with the show’s only regular panelist Alan “dimwit” Davies.
In the current age of ubiquitous quiz shows, Mock the Week is one of the few remaining programmes to focus solely on political satire; exposing the fabrication and falsity of the system much to the delight of the general public. Of late, panel games have been made in an effort to revive the careers of past TV personalities, with the emergence of Would I Lie To You? in 2007, a modern-day Call My Bluff hosted by Angus Deayton. This has spawned further games within the ‘pub quiz’ genre of programming such as the self-explanatory Big Fat Quiz of the Year (2004) and 8 out of 10 Cats (2005-present), a show about opinion polls and statistics in which the panel are introduced by an announcer; returning quizzes to their game show roots of the 60’s and 70’s.
It seems the winning format of Mock the Week lies in its general disrespect for politicians and political life, a formula initiated by comics of the satire boom such as Peter Cook and Alan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe (1964). While other shows fall at the wayside, Mock manages to remain fresh by attacking the universally objectionable world of politics. Like HIGNFY, Mock the Week abides by the notion that politics is ‘only a game’ and therefore our ridicule of it should be treated in much the same way. Have I Got News for You undeniably set the benchmark for this type of humour and is still running today (currently in its 40th series); so not only is Mock the Week influenced by it, but is having to compete with it in the panel game genre. For now though, Mock the Week remains its provocative counterpart.