Back in my early teens, when – like many young teenagers – my personality was being formed almost solely by the TV I watched, I came across a show with a style I liked. Modern Toss was profane yet subdued. It had whimsical classical music running through its many horrible scenarios. It poked fun at the dullness of suburbia by injecting crass, violent characters into its leafy, bore-filled crapness. The British countryside was turned into a playground for irate squiggles and roaming swearwords.
Modern Toss is the brainchild of Jon Link and Mick Bunnage, the co-creators of Loaded magazine and writers for Armando Iannucci's bizarre and brilliant 2004: The Stupid Version. It began as a strip called "Office Pest", in which an average office, populated by the characters you see on aeroplane safety information cards, was replete with murder, shit-smearing and team building. So it's somewhat of a throwback that their newly released adult colouring book, The Working Day, is all about office life.
I caught up with Jon and Mick to ask a few pressing questions about what it takes to make a colouring book about the grinding, monotonous sadness of work.
VICE: Looking through The Working Day, the most depressing part of it was the bit about opening your email to check if there are any new emails since checking your phone on the stairs up to the entrance. I'd like to think working at Modern Toss isn't like the normal grind, so where does the inspiration for these horrible modern work tropes stem from?
Modern Toss: Despite our limited experience of work, we seem to be quite good at getting inside the head of someone who has done a lot of it. Probably the impulse to check stuff comes from Stone Age times, when you had to constantly check your surroundings for animals that might want to eat you. That's all still going on now, but this time it's coming at you out of your phone. Basically, it's fear of death combined with a ramped up obsessive compulsive disorder. Clearly, all this comes over on that page in our colouring book.
Is the decision to make adult colouring books a reaction against people's increasing decision to infantilise themselves?
Not really. People of all ages like scribbling all over things – it's an in-built human desire. Tapping away at a keyboard all day doesn't really fill that gap. Maybe if people started flinging their shit around in public that'd be a sign that infantilisation was really kicking in. It's probably the next thing after colouring books. The trick there would be figuring out how to monetise it.
Modern Toss has seen a few different iterations, all of them promoting fecklessness and rudeness. Do you feel a responsibility to continue to make sure this is at least a small part of the fabric of British society?
We don't promote rudeness; we just write down what people actually say and do. On the other hand, if they stopped being rude to each other, we'd have to find something else to do. Let's hope that doesn't happen.
What fundamental changes do you think need to happen to working life to make it less devastatingly shit?
Afternoon drinking , smoking in the office and flexitime.
That would work. For something that began over ten years ago, and hasn't deviated too much from its original theme, Modern Toss has dated quite well. What do you think it is about the style of humour that doesn't seem to age?
It's probably because we're dealing with fundamental building blocks rather than curtains and tablecloths. You've got to stick a few load bearing walls up so you've got something to bang your head against, plus there's no point in doing an attic conversion if you haven't got a ground floor. It's common sense.
Will we ever see a return to TV in the shape of a long-form show, not just as part of another thing, like someone's stand-up's comedy compilation at 1AM on BBC Two?
Yeah, definitely, but someone would have to commission it and then someone would have to watch it. Maybe VICE TV are up for it?
You'd have to ask them – I'll give you their email. The drawings in the colouring books are a little more elaborate than the usual Work fare. Did you feel like the paying customers needed something more to work with than an irate, frowning outline?
Well, it's good to surprise people with different shaped characters, and it seemed to be funnier with realistic figures. It's hard to draw a computer keyboard with a really thick crayon, but if you use a thin nib you can draw letters on the keys. We've never got that close in before.
What colour is life to you guys?
Seeing as you've branched into so many mediums – books, TV, tapestries, posters, etc – is there anything else you'd want to do with Modern Toss that you haven't already? I hear VR is getting pretty big – maybe a virtual Alan experience?
Virtual Reality's everywhere now, isn't it. We reckon the future's going the other way. Reality Reality. We're thinking of getting into something that's actually useful, like running an old people's home or maybe picking up litter, scraping chewing gum off the pavements – that sort of thing. We'd probably be pretty good at it as we like to get out and about.
I feel like Modern Toss is exactly the sort of thing that Americans would not be able to understand or process. A kind of personal-level meanness and crassness that they would be confused at the existence of. Have you ever attempted to find an audience there, and, if so, was it difficult?
When our first book came out in America, one online US commentator said, "What even is this? Is it serious or a joke?" Fair comment, really. Having said that, our TV show was shown there and we regularly send shit-naks over there. They really went for our Periodic table of Swearing. One American bloke said, "If this is what swearing is like in Britain, I'm going there now." So we're doing our bit. We're reaching out and building bridges – let's hope they don't put a wall up before we get there.
Fingers crossed. Thanks, guys!
The Working Day, and another book that we didn't talk about, Mindless Violence, are both out now and available here.
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