TV, there’s something I don’t watch much of these days. I probably should watch a bit more. I have no idea what is hilarious about comparing meerkats, for example. However, on the occasions when I do watch TV, about 90% of the time I remember exactly why I watch so little. Call me a snob if you will.
The other day I caught a trailer for a new BBC3 sitcom called Mongrels. My curiosity was piqued, and so I headed over to iPlayer to investigate.
The series revolves around a group of animals living on the Isle of Dogs (GEDDIT?!?!?!?!). However, that wouldn’t make a very good sitcom. These animals are portrayed by puppets and go through typically human problems, albeit with an animal spin.
Now, adult humour using puppets is very hard to pull off. The only two examples that immediately spring to mind for me are Team America and the superb Avenue Q. In most cases, though, it comes across as being like a teenage writer who thinks ineptly-written sex scenes will make her fan fiction more mature. You see, the reason those examples worked was because they had more than just the novelty of their medium. Team America had some funny songs, broad but dead-on satire and a hilarious script from the South Park guys. Avenue Q has sharp observational humour and, again, great songs with a satirical edge.
Far more of it falls flat, though. For instance, did anyone see …And Then You Die on Dave a while back? Don’t worry, you weren’t missing out. The premise was that it was a comedy panel show presented by a puppet. Sounds funny in theory, in practice not so much. Or there’s the admittedly popular, albeit inexplicably so, Achmed the Dead Terrorist. This character, operated by ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, is a dead terrorist named Achmed. The premise is that he is a dead Islamic terrorist, or an approximation thereof. His entire schtick is shouting “Silence! I keel you!” while his eyebrows bob up and down, followed by predictable jokes about getting 72 virgins.
So. Basically, if you’re going to derive comedy from puppetry, you’d better have some damn good writing to back up the funny man on your knee. Or, if you’re Jeff Dunham, a stupid redneck audience also works. But I digress.
Mongrels, I fear, lacks this. The humour is unashamedly Family Guy-style in nature, in that it relies heavily on cutaway jokes. This, incidentally, is probably the number one criticism raised against Family Guy – that it uses cutaway jokes as a substitute for proper humour.
And – oh Christ – it tries to be shocking. But in that terribly British, nervous way. So it tries to make a bad-taste joke (Freudian slip – where I meant to type “bad taste joke” I just typed “bad joke”) set in a dog obedience class. The dogs are told to pretend to be Richard Whiteley – and so they play dead. Ha ha ha, Whiteley died five years ago. It suggests that they wanted to make a crossing-the-line joke about a celebrity, but were worried about crossing the line. Either go for it or don’t.
And if you have shock humour, make sure it’s funny. There are cutaway gags about Harold Shipman and Anne Frank, neither of which are amusing enough to justify themselves and frankly feel like a last-minute attempt to inject some moral outrage into an otherwise fairly tame sitcom.
Also, puppets aren’t exactly the best medium for the kind of humour I sense these people wanted to do. Puppets lack subtle movement, so if you’re setting up a quick-fire gag or physical humour, they are not ideal. Sorry to dump on the basic selling point of the sitcom, but there it is.
That’s not to say that I don’t think the idea has promise. There were one or two jokes that, admittedly, I didn’t laugh at, but I quite liked. The running gag about Toby Anstis was funny (and live action). The basic story of the first episode – a fox falls in love with a chicken – had a lot of comic potential that wasn’t fully realised. I did, for instance, like the gag where the fox and the chicken have a bag of grain and want to go on a boat.
In conclusion, I’ll probably stick with it for a couple of episodes to see where it goes, but at the moment I must admit it feels a little bit confused as to what it wants to be – OTT slapstick shock humour or surreal character comedy? Either way, it’s still sharing a suitcase with Achmed right now. Basically, it would be better if it stopped trying to be Family Guy and tried to do its own thing instead.