Why Aren't There Any Funny Young People on British TV?

And could BBC Three's online move be the first step towards comedy that isn't a panel show full of posh old white men?

by Sam Wolfson
16 February 2016, 4:50pm

The new BBC Three launches with the bloke off Twilight and Greg Davis. Hilarity ensues?

They saved 6 Music, they saved the libraries, but they couldn't save Stacey Dooley. On Tuesday night, BBC Three, Britain's only publicly funded station aimed at young people, switched off its channel and moved online.

On its final night it on telly, it ran trails for its new online incarnation, repeatedly promising that it would "provoke a reaction". But mostly, it showed old episodes of the channel's greatest hits, like Little Britain, Gavin and Stacey, Don't Tell The Bride and other family viewing staples, most of which subsequently found homes on more mainstream channels.

Perhaps the above shows were conservative commissions, or perhaps they shifted the boundaries of mainstream taste to the left, but it's a moot point. Look at TFI Friday, launched as a teatime anarchic lad culture show in the 90s, only to return in 2015 as a jewel in the crown of primetime, its host now middle-aged and still listening to U2. It highlighted the way one decade's groundbreaking anything-goes format is the next's here-we-go-again template.

But we know that when it works, youth TV can have a phenomenal impact on culture. Shows like The Tube and The Word had relatively low ratings at the time, but they have become part of the cultural shorthand for their respective decades. The same goes for comedies like Big Train, Jam, The 11 O'Clock Show and the eponymous outings for Adam and Joe and Armando Iannucci. Those shows all demonstrated a new generation of comedy writers in touch with the way culture was changing at the turn of the century. Their impact on comedy is still felt today: you don't need to tell anyone who works at VICE about the lasting popularity of Channel 4's one-season hipster sitcom Nathan Barley, for example.

BBC Three itself was responsible for a raft of inventive shows it chose not to showcase last night: Monkey Dust's hand-drawn dystopia and the macabre hairdresser comedy Nighty Night, as well as astute pirate radio parody People Just Do Nothing and The Revolution Will Be Televised, a hidden camera show with a deep grasp of political economy.

Now that it is free from the shackles of broadcast television, BBC Three has an opportunity bring new young voices into British culture. We are desperate for that. How can it be that our most astute British TV comedy commentators - people like Charlie Brooker, Stewart Lee, Armando Iannucci - are all white men who have been in television for over twenty years?

How comes America gets Broad City and we get Josh

In the US, where there is a more established structure in which new comedic talents are able to make their names - sketch troupes like Second City, shows that hire new talent like Saturday Night Live - there has been a revolution of young voices from diverse backgrounds with a sharp and specific take on contemporary youth culture. The success of Aziz Ansari, Amy Schumer, Hannibal Buress, Lena Dunham, Broad City and Portlandiameans there's now a broad cross-section of voices coming at American culture from different, but very funny, perspectives. So how did we end up with The IT Crowd, The Inbetweeners and Russell Howard - where the punchline of every joke is some variation of "that's the interwebs for you" or "minge"?

Having young voices in comedy and pop culture is important. Young people are woefully underrepresented politically, are punished harder by austerity and live in perhaps the most rapidly changing and culturally confusing time in recent history. But if all we see of young people on TV is them looking downtrodden in documentaries or like morons on reality TV, then how can we expect people to understand their realities of their existence? The Britain of grime and Grindr, roadmen and streetwear snobs, shit jobs in marketing and £1000 rents has never been less represented on television. Instead we have endless QI repeats and Jimmy Carr making that face.

Likely this is because a worrying number of British comedians still come from the Cambridge Footlights and the Oxford Revue, elitist comedy clubs that have set the tone of UK humour for the best part of a century. There is nothing that compares to a huge comedy site like Funny or Die, or shows like Broad City or Portlandia, which began as well-supported webseries.

People often bemoan the rise of gormless middle-England teenage vloggers with very little to say. But one of the big reasons that Zoella and Charlieiscoollike, for example, have managed to take such a lion's share of internet attention in the UK is they are operating in a vacuum.

It's a sign of how badly the comedy commissioning game is failing in the UK that the most astute satire show on TV at the moment belongs to John Oliver, a British comedian who floundered on the gauche blokey panel show Mock the Week, only to find success on Jon Stewart's Daily Show and now on his own HBO vehicle focused on American politics. Even new British comedians like Aisling Bea (who starred in BBC Three's promising Vodka Diaries) and Romesh Ranganatha, who have exciting standup careers, often they find themselves on TV shows - Jack Dee's disastrous election vehicle for example - where the straightjacket of the panel format stops anything exciting happening.

Every time an established media brand "moves online", it is posited as a hopeful new dawn of freedom and creativity. Just this week, two national newspapers, the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, puffed that they were excited about their move to a digital future, even as they closed their print editions and acknowledged people would lose their jobs. The truth is that this is all a huge risk. It could be a disaster for the BBC, losing its connection to young audiences and feeling the damage for generations to come. But there is a chance for the new BBC Three. If it doesn't have to stick the dodgy studio formats or traditional sitcoms or traditional TV, then it is able to provide something the broadcasting landscape is crying out for - sharp British comedy from people who aren't scared of the internet.

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