Mock the Week was never part of the culture wars. We only fought for laughs | Dara Ó Briain
Well, I guess my time hosting a Rorschach test on the telly is almost over: after 17 years, Mock the Week is entering its final series. I thought I was hosting a comedy panel show, the UK’s chosen contrived mechanism to put standup comedians on the telly, rather than just letting them, y’know, do standup. It turns out that I was hosting a Rorschach test for culture warriors, eager to see within the show whatever agenda they wanted; and none of them spotting that it is still only an excuse to get comedians on the telly and that the comedians don’t have, and have never had, an agenda greater than getting a laugh from the studio audience.
If there’s one lesson I draw looking back on it all, it’s this: people have taken our nonsense waaaayyyy too seriously. Some viewers used to watch the show with stopwatches and contact us if we had spoken about one political party for longer than the other, without ever being clear if being spoken about was a good thing or a bad thing. Some jokes just had legs, folks. They ran longer.
People would accuse us of whatever bias they felt they saw in BBC news, as if I used to be called into a meeting alongside Huw Edwards, the team from Bargain Hunt and Mr Tumble, so that we could be given the corporation’s stance that week. Mock the Week was made by an independent company, filmed in various studios around London and rarely even in Television Centre when it existed, and at no stage in the past 17 years have I even owned a pass to get into the BBC. If I need to visit the BBC, I present myself at the front desk and the man says, “Mock of the Week?”, and I say yes, because, at this stage, why fight it?
People were angry at the show for being offensive and male and vicious; and then, later, other people were angry because it wasn’t offensive and male and vicious. And through all that, it was always just seven comedians a week trying to get laughs from the studio audience.
And people were angry that it seemed to have only one opinion on Brexit; which is fair, because it pretty much did, and I spoke at length in a tour about how we could have better represented, for example, the sense of Brexit being for many people about sovereignty, and its importance for the English national psyche. But also: Brexit was a terrible idea, which has never delivered any benefits, and unlike politicians, I’m not obliged to pretend it’s not a terrible idea, and while I ‘m generally really dubious of trying to see collective intent in seven comedians competing for laughs, I think we got that one totally right.
And mainly, and relatedly, people got angry that there weren’t enough “rightwing jokes”, whatever they are, and seemed surprisingly un-calmed by my regular response that if they wanted different jokes they should just write them themselves and go on stage , because comedy is a pretty free market, and we’ll see them after they’ve done a few years on the circuit. This did not seem to make people happy as a response, even though it was exactly the kind of “pull yourself” up by the bootstraps” advice that rightwing types love to give.
Also, and this seems painfully simple, the show started in 2005 so we spoke plenty about Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown at the time; but you inevitably talk more about the government than the opposition, so 12 years of Conservative rule just put them more in the spotlight.
That said, for balance, people also were really, really angry that we made jokes about Jeremy Corbyn and have regularly contacted me since to say I “have blood on my hands” (actual quote) for undermining the Labour leader, even though we were obliged by law to spend the same time talking about both parties in the run-up to the election; and, as you can see from Brexit, voters don’t actually take their opinions from Mock the Week. And also, grow up. He was the leader of the opposition: the least he should expect is to be joked about, and challenged.
So none of this criticism matters. None of it. Because the people who actually watched the show, who were fans of it, enjoyed the same bits of it we did: Private Browsing, Monsoon Poultry Hospital, Princess Monaco of Kent, the silly parts that had nothing to do with politics or imagined agendas and were just the great jokes that emerge when you let funny people interact, whatever the red herring of a format you’re using.
Yes, of course, Mock could be a terribly blunt tool, satirically. Quietly, in my more pretentious moments, I will explain my theory of how satire is the construction of a parallel world, whether with Lilliput or latex puppetry, and its lessons for our world are taken in inference and reflection; and that what we were doing on Mock, staring straight down the lens and pointing out jokes, was merely commentary. And that it was insane to think you could carve a coherent satirical voice while seven different people were talking. When Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, he didn’t invite six other writers to keep grabbing the quill off him and also start riffing about eating the poor; or worse, propose a different proposal, that got a bigger laugh, and made the edit instead of his.
It’s true that in the early days the show was too white and too male, and, in one early episode, there were five Cambridge Footlights graduates, with only myself and Frankie Boyle as Celtic exceptions. That changed dramatically over time, but I would say that Mock didn’t lead the diversification of the comedy world as much as reflect it, and the presence on it of so many female and ethnic minority comedians is because they kicked the door in, and full credit to them.
Mock became the academy for comics reaching the top of Edinburgh and the circuit and starting into television. Hugh Dennis and I were avuncular schoolteachers, waving through generations of bright talent before they left to achieve greater things. Last week, I was performing at the Montreal comedy festival and almost the entire British and Irish contingent (Tom Allen, Ed Gamble, Sindhu Vee, James Acaster, Nish Kumar, Suzi Ruffell, Rhys James and Catherine Bohart) were Mock alumni.
We actively liked new comics on Mock and, despite the show’s early mythic reputation, wanted appearing on it to be a positive experience, partially because I remembered just how unfriendly some of the senior talent on the previous generation of panel shows (Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Have I Got News for You, in particular) were towards new comics. For fuller details of this, look forward to my memoir, It’s Over, So Let’s Burn the Bridges, whenever I get round to writing it.
So, a final shoutout to the angry people, including the Guardian itself, whose preview of the show once said: “Dara Ó Briain, Hugh Dennis, Frankie Boyle [and co] wade through it, as if through thigh-high excrement … ”
People would tweet: “It’s not as good as it used to be and I haven’t watched it in 10 years!”, contradicting themselves. For the record, I enjoyed it most in the last seven years, or so, in the company of a more relaxed, collaborative generation of comics.
“You’ve lost your cash cow!” Mock was 11 evenings’ work a year. Theatres reopening after Covid was the bigger news for us, by a factor of 10.
“When are going to bring Frankie back on to Whose Line is it Anyway?” said a man, bewilderingly, to me last year on Oxford Street, and walked away before I could start unpicking everything that was wrong in the question.
“The reason it’s getting cancelled is because …” Ah, let me stop you there. There is no reason for people outside the show to waste any energy theorising about this.
I was quoted this week as saying that Mock had to end because the news had become so ridiculous that we had nothing left to say. This was a joke for the press release. It has, in fact, come to an end because the BBC has less money than it used to; and to do something new, something old has to stop.
This chipping away will continue, which is why people should fight to protect the BBC before it becomes a shell of what it used to be. We’ve had our go, though; and I hope that whatever arrives next gets anything near 17 years – and leaves behind its own My Enormous Head, Robo-Bongo-Cuckoo-Cop or the Penis-Sausage/Megabus man. Truly, that is our legacy.