Baddiel’s Syndrome/Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned

Sunday, January 14, 2001 by

Have you ever noticed how “Have you ever noticed”-type comedy is strictly “out” these days? I mean “out” to the point where Steve Coogan has seen fit to turn one of his most idiotic characters (Duncan Thickett) into a feeble observational comedian. In fact it’s probably been out since 1993 (the decline of Newman and Baddiel in Pieces). Also no one ever uses the phrase “complete and utter” anymore. That one died out with the “stonk”. Well the news is that they are back. David Baddiel has produced little straight comedy in the last few years, so Baddiel’s Syndrome would be an opportunity to check out how far he had developed since those halcyon Wembley days.

Baddiel is rightfully wary of the press (“I’m probably the worst-reviewed successful comedian in Britain”), yet that does not provide justification enough for Baddiel’s Syndrome. Like Ben Eltonbefore him, Baddiel has chosen to positively bait the critics by trying to “write a proper sitcom, heavily influenced by the American ones”. Such a ploy comes with a number of built in excuses, chief amongst them being that the programme is not critically popular because it is not sufficiently left field for the broadsheet pseuds. Whilst this might be true, there is enough wrong with Baddiel’s Syndrome for inclined critics to rip it apart on its own merits. There is no complexity to the jokes – each scene being a string of cack-handed, dated one-liners, with no attempt to escalate or introduce humour through plot devices or characterisation. For this kind of material timing is not required. Neither is it offered from a uniformly poor cast that fail to interest, or subvert their stereotypes in the name of original humour. The biggest crime though is Baddiel’s tendency to fall back on old material. The episode’s opening scene (a hackneyed scenario with Baddiel speaking to his “off screen” therapist) is a straight lift from the stuff he performed in his stand up routine all those years ago at Wembley. To still be irritated by people who conclude funny anecdotes with “and I was like … wahhh!” suggests that Baddiel’s comedic muse has developed little in the last eight or so years. Perhaps episode one will have exorcised a lot of these dated distractions from his system, and maybe the programme will improve. Regardless of what is to come though, it is difficult not to dismiss Baddiel’s Syndrome in its entirety. Kooky foreign cleaners, amusing Yanks, and a toff neighbour are not the framework for classic comedy in the 21st century.

With only 10 minutes in which to recover, Baddiel was back on our screens with erstwhile chum Frank Skinner. The initial hangover of Baddiel’s Syndrome soon passed as it quickly became apparent that the easy, ramshackle banter of series one of Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned was to remain unchanged. Watching the first episode, two things became apparent: firstly, Frank Skinner isn’t actually that funny and bluffs his way through much of the show with a kind of rogue-ish charm; secondly, the respective profiles of Baddiel and Skinner are becoming more and imbalanced. If the audience’s reaction was anything to go by, Baddiel is now little more than Skinner’s stooge. Furthermore there is a sense that the duo has an uneasy awareness of this fact, and it informs their “performance”. Most noticeably, Skinner’s attitude towards his partner has become more avuncular, seemingly to counter the indifference of the audience.

The audience has changed slightly too. Seemingly keen watchers of series one, they appear to have worked out that the best episodes were those in which Baddiel and Skinner sparred with Members of the Public. Heckling can often make for an agreeably nervy confrontation; however there is always the possibility that what began as agreeable, quick-witted banter can rapidly descend into a dull slanging match. Baddiel telling the “stereo slappers” to “shut up” all the time, is a depressing indication of what may come to pass if the audience’s enthusiasm isn’t properly checked. Skinner too, seemed unable to rise sufficiently to the comedic bait, and his easy confidence seemed a little undermined as he tried to cope with this boisterous bunch. The best stuff – as always – came when the duo were allowed to rest for a time on one particular subject: in particular, Skinner ‘s recollections of animals farting provided an object lesson in modern observational comedy that Baddiel would do well to heed.

Patchy as always, it was still good to have them back. Theirs is the most dangerous programme you are ever likely to see on ITV, and – what’s more – a perfectly agreeable way to spend 30 TV minutes. Baddiel was apparently depressed throughout the making of series one, and it will be interesting to see how his ego contends with playing such obvious second fiddle to Skinner. His syndrome (undiagnosed in his own programme) is simply an inability to produce the goods unless paired with a more instantly likeable, and popular partner. Let’s hope he can come to terms with this, drop the sitcom, and concentrate on providing those slightly bemused reactions and feed-lines that Skinner so obviously thrives upon.


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