4 December ~ When we think of football and comedy on TV, the first image that springs to mind is men in suits swapping insults while laddish misogynistic joshing is passed off as post-modern ironic jokes. How did we get here? I’m afraid we only have ourselves to blame. By we I’m including myself, this magazine, and all the comedians who grew up with football during the 1970s.
Back then before big money, live games on television and celebrity endorsement, football and comedy lived apart. Michael Palin made a lovely Ripping Yarn about Golden Gordon, and the most famous Likely Lads episode involved them trying to avoid finding out the result of a football match before the television highlights – but apart from that, football and comedy rarely mixed.
One man changed everything. John Peel brought together the three areas of popular culture that were so important to teenage lives in the 1970s. He played non-chart music, talked incessantly about football and made jokes about both. His obsessive urge to champion all new music willed punk to happen. Fanzines took over from newspapers as our means of communication and it was only a matter of time before football would have its own.
Alternative comedy had sprung from the same well of creativity, and many of the writers and performers were long-suffering football fans, freed now to joke about their disappointing teams. The person who did more than any to merge football and comedy was the late Harry Thompson, a BBC radio producer who in the late 1980s co-wrote Lenin of the Rovers with Marcus Berkmann (as featured in WSC 285).
The show that brought alternative comedy into the mainstream was the 1991 Edinburgh Fringe hit An Evening With Gary Lineker, set during the previous year’s World Cup. Written by Arthur Smith and Chris England, it starred Nick Hancock as an obsessive Stoke City fan who could never watch penalties (no suspension of disbelief required) and had TV producers queuing to sign him.
A year later the link was cemented by Fever Pitch. To many of us that felt like nothing more than a full-length version of what was already out there. But for the millions of others it was a revelation, and the marriage of football and modern comedy was now official. Thompson had become a hot property in TV, having successfully launched Have I Got News For You in 1991 and now more shows based on his twin obsessions of sport and music were to come. A year before launching Never Mind The Buzzcocks in 1996, Thompson had produced a TV version of the Radio 5 comedy quiz, They Think It’s All Over. Hancock was brought in for Des Lynam, and his inimitable blend of exasperation and sarcasm replaced Lynam’s more measured and quiz-like approach.
It’s hard to remember but at the time the show was revolutionary. Not just a successful, funny programme about sport but one which helped blow away much of the toe-curling deference with which the football PR machine had been held by the BBC. Surely it would only be a matter of time before a massively successful football sitcom would break through.
The genre has not taken off – not for want of trying. My own radio sitcom never got past pilot stage and I know many comedy-writing football lovers who have tried and failed to make a living out of writing jokes about one of their favourite subjects. I am struggling to get beyond three other instances of football sitcoms. Mike Bassett has been by a long way the most successful incarnation, first as movie, then ITV sitcom and now rumoured to be returning to the cinema. The show had plenty going for it – a fine cast led by Ricky Tomlinson, funny scripts, great stories – but wasn’t allowed to develop after a promising first series.
In 2008 The Cup, on BBC2, took the nice idea of a bunch of dads running an under-11s team, but the mockumentary form didn’t suit the subject matter and it also never made it past a first series. Six years later ITV4’s animation Warren United showed how hard it is for football sitcoms to break through. Because they’re so rare, each new show carries a burden of expectation. Given that each new adult animation carries a similar burden, Warren United’s chances of making it to series two were not great.
Why does the nation that’s supposedly obsessed with football fail to warm to its sitcom narratives? It may be because for most of us, football is more a source of misery and is actually the sitcom of our lives. In sitcom, characters are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. At the start of every story the protagonist is offered a way out of the rut, the possibility of change. And for some of the episode, it looks like that change will happen. But by the end, they are right back where they started. Our football teams have often followed that script. In August, we say this season is going to be different. Reality usually kicks in by mid-October; many of you will have learned, as I have through a lifetime of following Leeds United, that winning one game now counts as “a run”. Comedy is often described as “tragedy plus time”, but I’ve learned to accept no amount of time will elapse for me before following Leeds United ceases to be tragic.
This is probably why we’re stuck with the kind of programmes that mimic shows like They Think It’s All Over and Fantasy Football. That style of comic insult has elbowed its way into every corner of light entertainment. Those of us who wanted to bring comedy to football began with the best of intentions. We’re still trying, even as we understand that our hilarious comic narratives will continue to be neglected in favour of the cheeky-boy banter passed off as wit. Once again – sorry. Dave Cohen