8 Out of 10 Cats/Mock the Week

Sunday, June 26, 2005 by

For the last 15 years, the words “topical television quiz show” might as well have been spelled Have I Got News for You.

While Radio 4 has been churning out unrelentingly poor attempts to find any other format than the increasingly tired (and HIGNFY-spawning) News Quiz, television has admitted defeat in the face of the Friday night stalwart. While certainly funny, and occasionally essential, perhaps the programme’s greatest achievement has been to rewrite a nation’s definition of the word “satire”. Merely by dint it being recorded the day before broadcast, it has ensured any expectations of Swiftian anger or Chris Morris’ venom are replaced by the desire to hear jokes about stuff that has happened recently. Topicality is the new satire, and we’re poorer for it.

If any further proof were needed, it comes from the sudden appearance of two new attempts to mimic the formula. Channel 4′s 8 Out of 10 Cats, and BBC 2′s Mock the Week, both attempt to validate their own conceits through the short time between their recording and broadcast. And hope that that’s enough.

8 Out of 10 Cats bases its premise on the mistaken belief that opinion polls are of the zeitgeist, and so we will be riveted by their potential for topicality. Of course, the reason why everyone is so conscious of opinion polls at the moment is the gestalt has finally had their fill of them, their unanimous presence as irritating as an amphibious ringtone. Enough ludicrous election predictions and meaningless surveys occupying desperate front pages mean our cynicism is complete, and our belief that the thoughts of 1000 people might reflect those of 60 million entirely shattered.

As Mark Steel points out, opinion polls are immediately prejudiced merely by means of only being able to survey those stupid enough not to avoid the people conducting them. Oh, and it’s hosted by the Tony Slattery for the new millennium, Jimmy Carr – a man who not only looks like he’s been repeatedly smacked in the face with a spade, but also consistently confirms that he deserves it.

A project of Endemol, 8 Out of 10 Cats could hardly be more derisive. No effort has been made to disguise its wanton copying of the HIGNFY format, complete with variations on the “newspaper headlines”, “odd one out”, and “missing word” rounds, concealed by the tissue-thin excuses of survey results. Asked to guess the five most talked about subjects by their pollees, it’s embarrassingly obvious that the charade is entirely unnecessary, and they may as well be asked questions on the week’s news and be done with it.

Of course, 8 Out of 10 Cats isn’t entirely stupid for having done this. The four rounds of HIGNFY are the results of 15 years’ refining – and they work. Coupled with the extremely wise choice of Sean Lock as a team captain (very probably the funniest stand up working in Britain), and consistently strong guests (with the very noticeable exception of Tara-Palmer-Bumpkinson – awkwardly ignored by the rest as she squawked her confused nonsense, and spoiled much), it manages to be like enough other stuff that’s good to maintain some credibility of its own. While relying heavily on reliable guest panelists like Sue Perkins or Paul Kaye, inspired choices like Peter Seronovich, and brave risks like Richard Madeley, allow it to get away with the blandness of the other regular captain, Dave Spikey. In fact, it’s in Spikey that the curtain is pulled too far aside and the levers and cogs of stand-up standards are revealed – news stories are used as springboards for clearly well-worn routines that had their day years ago, presumably when they were originally written.

So despite the flawed foundations, the programme’s success and failure relies on the quality of the material stacked on top, and thus in the viewer’s ability to tolerate television’s MRSA, smug-faced Jimmy Carr. The trick is to replay his well-written lines in your own mind, mentally removing the raised eyebrows and faux-sarcasm. Or to hit him with a spade.

Sadly such a forgiving tolerance is rendered impossible by Angst Production’s Mock the Week. It’s quite troubling that in the last 17 years, Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson haven’t managed to come up with a new idea. Painfully similar to their successful project of the 1980s and ’90s, Whose Line is it Anyway?, Mock the Week is an uncomfortably muddled mess of ideas by people who are clearly too busy counting their money to come up with anything original.

While 8 Out of 10 Cats is lazy in its implementation of current affairs, it at least generates material based on those stories, if occasionally awkwardly disappearing down the over-trodden pathways of previously abandoned material. Mock the Week walks down this pathway, takes a seat, and refuses to move. Hosted by potential Deayton replacement on HIGNFY (and presumably being watched very carefully by Hat Trick on this), Dara O’Briain, and captained by Rory Bremner and the far less known Frankie Boyle, it reveals its lack of confidence in itself merely by the seating arrangement. Mirroring the peculiar confusion of latter series of Shooting Stars, where the contract-bound Ulrika Johnson remained ever-present despite having been replaced by Johnny Vegas, the nauseating Hugh Dennis appears to be situated opposite Bremner, yet not receiving the honour on the credits. Dennis’ current ubiquity is inexplicable. Despite Radio 4′s The Now Show becoming increasingly horrendous with every clawingly poor series, work appears to be pouring in for The Mary Whitehouse Experience‘s second least funny star. It comes as no surprise that his partner-in-criminally bad comedy, Steve Punt, appears as a “Programme Associate” on the show’s credit roll.

Mock the Week achieves something quite impressive – it manages to get every toe-curling feature of panel-based programming into one half hour show. Including …

Over-reliance on the concept: Like early HIGNFY, too many overly-complicated rounds pollute everything, with strained requirements that the guests move over to the “performance area”, in order to replicate Whose Line‘s “World’s Worst Step” round, but with the added messiness of being required to walk about six steps up to a central microphone. With only four contestants on Whose Line … who only had to step forward, clashes were frequent. Here, as six stand-ups vie for the right to make the awkward walk, you cringe as they force in front of each other (so much so that Jo Brand physically pushed the dominating Rory Bremner out of the way).

Thinly disguised scripted material: Pre-preparing scripts for panel games is discussed by the tabloid press as if a matter of terrible conspiracy. In reality, it’s what we should be wanting. Genuinely off-the-cuff performances tend to be awful, while pleasantly linked crafted content makes for great TV. What doesn’t, however, is creating a great show of pretending you’re thinking of your tight routine on the spot. It’s ghastly (as anyone who’s listened to Tim Brooke-Taylor on Radio 4′s heavily scripted I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue will attest). Adding in an “Er, how about …” before your line on the page makes you look stupid, and us feel embarrassed at the obvious deception. Done poorly, this is horrible enough. Done when in the guise of standard improvisation games, it’s grotesque. This is never worse than when some actual improvisation accidentally creeps in. During one “bit” between Bremner and Dennis, Dennis throws in a not particularly worthwhile curveball, Bremner giggles, panics, attempts to remember where he was, and then actually says, “Oh yes!” before offering the next feedline. Shameful.

And finally, a complete lack of anything topical to say, whatsoever: If it weren’t for the occasional comments about the week’s most over-mentioned story, you could believe the programme was pre-recorded months ago. Chosen topics are vague beyond comprehension – one round asking contestants to tell a joke on a news story of the week gave the subject matter, “Education”. And where 8 Out of 10 Cats occasionally faltered, Mock the Week exists – top notch comedians like Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith go off into the same routine you’ve already heard them do on their own radio shows, The News Quiz, QI, HIGNFY, and any number of other “dead material” programmes.

It’s quite astonishing that a Carr-fronted, gimmick-ridden Endemol effort should come out on top of a production by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson, starring the likes of Mark Steel and Linda Smith. But Mock the Week‘s hopeless bastard child of improv and current affairs should have been aborted at the pilot, or at least put on extended hold until it figured out what the hell it wants to be. 8 Out of 10 Cats will probably never receive another series, Carr moving on to present 37 other projects a week, but it at least manages that slightly appealing, if not long-lasting, style that saw the likes of If I Ruled the World through its run.

Meanwhile, HIGNFY remains unthreatened on its faux-satirical throne, despite thoroughly meriting a challenge from something far more willing to bite chunks out of the week’s news. However, so long as any who attempt to do nothing other than recycle old formats, or indeed to copy it outright, it will maintain its status for a long time to come.


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