Why The Fast Show Special is still funny
Ivan Radford | On 24, May 2014
Photographer: © Tyson Benton
This weekend, we will mostly be watching The Fast Show. That’s something that hasn’t been said for the best part of two decades, when the BBC series first began. Now, there are people growing up who haven’t even heard of The Fast Show. But this Friday, it returned for a one-off, two-part special to celebrate its 20th anniversary – not to mention the 50th of BBC Two.
It’s easy to underestimate the role The Fast Show has had in British comedy history. When Caroline Aherne delivered the programme’s first “Scorchio!”, viewers were unprepared for what would follow: a format that undid comic traditions at an almost anarchic speed. Jokes flew onto the screen, nonsensical punchlines without minutes of careful build-up. Often, there was no set-up at all, just a catchphrase yelled at the camera by someone in a dodgy wig. It was silly. It was unpredictable. And, above all, it was fast.
Played by a host of young comedians, the sheer variety of personas on display was part of the key to its success: Didn’t like Paul Whitehouse’s clueless football pundit? That’s ok: Charlie Higson’s lascivious car salesman Swiss Toni was a second away. Or Simon Day’s overly competitive dad.
Together, the bewildering array of slogans and callbacks made for a 30-minute piece of hyperactive madness, each with a precisely observed foot in real life but a delightfully absurd eye for the surreal. Monty Python with ADHD.
Rather than come up with narrative for each episode, the show relied upon its repetitive nature to build up a rapport with its audience. Over time, that created mini-stories of their own. Foppish prince of the manor Ted and his down-to-earth farmer Ralph became a melancholic bromance of unspoken affection; an arc that was perpetually stuck in emotional limbo.
That familiarity led to in-jokes, expectations and, ultimately, subversions of them. It’s telling that Ted and Ralph’s most famous encounter took place when Ted was telling Ralph his wife had died – a moment of uncharacteristic pathos, told through the medium of an alphabetical fruit-based drinking game.
Several other sketch shows were around at the time, from Harry Enfield and Chums to Goodness Gracious Me. Others soon followed, from the brilliant (Big Train) to the less so (Little Britain). But in a world of instant social media, skits on Vine and gags on YouTube, the sketch format is rare in modern broadcast TV, which tends towards sitcoms and dramedy instead – forms that require higher budgets and glossier production values. 20 years on, can The Fast Show still cut it?
If the first of these two specials is anything to go by, yes. Cobbled together from highlights of their Fosters-sponsored web series, catchphrases fly, wigs shout and it all happens as quickly as ever. If there’s a missed beat or a duff gag – Ted and Ralph talking Twitter is a misstep, giving a timeless couple a sudden, jarring context – it doesn’t matter: another one will be along shortly.
Messrs. Higson, Day and Whitehouse still have an ear for words that are inherently hilarious, from spoof TV show “Upstairs Monkfish, Downstairs Monkfish” to, of course, Chris Waddle. Even the Jazz Club’s nod to the age of these now-veteran performers is an inspired demonstration of how a skit can stay the same without getting old.
Naturally, there are callbacks and in-jokes galore, from Johnny Nice Painter changing his colour paint to the Channel Nine news team taking botox, but the cliquey tone fits. Is the special going to win a new legion of fans? Not in its Friday night BBC Two slot, which will only have been watched by die-hard fans of the original. What’s impressive, though, is that all those expectations are still there, waiting to be met or subverted. When they are, The Fast Show immediately finds its pace – and sets off sprinting up and down your funny bone.
On BBC iPlayer, the hip online place where younger Beeb streamers hang out, there’s a chance that some will stumble across The Fast Show Special. Will newcomers get it? Not anymore than people did back in the 1990s. And that’s the show’s timeless secret. How can a series from so long ago feel so fresh? It’s simple: it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s silly. It’s unpredictable. And, above all, it’s fast.
This weekend, we will mostly be watching The Fast Show. We strongly recommend you do the same.