Newsjack Series Ten Critique with BONUS JOKES!

By Garry Abbott

Image

As you may or may not know, the topical ‘sketchbook’ comedy series ‘Newsjack’ has just finished its tenth series on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

The show has an ‘open-door’ policy for writers, allowing anyone to submit sketches and jokes each week to be considered for the script. Over the last three series I’ve had credits in 9 episodes (two in series 8, five in series 9 (including a sketch) and two in series 10). I would say I’ve been lucky to get these credits, but that’s not entirely true – I’ve also been really disciplined.

Each week I prepare the maximum number of sketches and jokes they allow you to submit. I spend all week keeping an eye on the news, making notes if I spot something with potential. I then spend a whole day getting my sketches together and the best part of another day writing one-liners. Basically for six weeks I lose my Sundays and a good part of Monday to topical writing!

The format of the show changed a bit this year. I was invited down to Comedy House in London to attend a briefing where we were introduced to the new format by the new producers. I got to meet a bunch of other writers. The BBC provided beer. We all went to the pub afterwards. It was good.

The new format was challenging. Less submissions allowed, a strict format for one-liner jokes, and a new ‘feel’ to the show. A lot of these changes were centred around the new host, stand-up comedian Romesh Ranganathan, who now opens the show with his own routine before the rest of the cast join him to start performing the submitted material.

There was some unease at these changes, hence the writers briefing I think. It felt initially like we were losing nearly ten minutes of potential joke placement to Romesh’s monologue, and that the prescribed one-liner formats were stifling (previously you could just submit as many jokes as you could fit on a page, in whatever style/approach you felt like – now you are allowed three jokes in each of three categories – ‘coming up’, ‘breaking news’ and ‘listings’). However, things change and people must adapt – and I got the feeling that most writers (like myself) just knuckled down to the new show and vowed to see what happens.

So what did happen?

To start with the positives; I liked Romesh’s opening monologues. It feels fine to me that a show that is designed to bring people up through the ranks should do the same for the cast and crew as it does for the writers. I’ve already heard Romesh appearing since on the ‘News Quiz’ (Radio 4) and hopefully thanks to Newsjack we will hear/see more of him in the future. The change-up to one liners worked quite well – breaking up sketch features and keeping the show interlaced with snappy jokes between longer sketches. As per usual, the rest of the cast did a sterling job with most of the sketches, especially Lewis Macleod and Morgana Robinson (who joined the cast this year, a steal for the producers I reckon). And most of all, it did what it set out to do: showcasing material by none-commissioned writers from across the country who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity.

I think there is a general reluctance amongst the writers to say anything negative about the show in the fear that they may never get a broadcast credit again! However, what sketch show have you ever heard which doesn’t have its ups and downs? The famous hits and misses? And naturally, there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me. I think most of them generally stemmed from a bit of an identity crisis throughout the series. I registered a shift away from satire towards goofy-entertainment style stories – but then I think it went back towards satire again towards the end. This is understandable when the new producers had a vision for the show and were willing to test things out to see what does and doesn’t work. This may have led to come sketch/joke choices for the purpose of fitting the new vision, rather than being the best of the bunch. But under such pressure to collate, choose, redraft, rehearse, perform, record and edit the show each week, I think we can forgive the odd groaner or sketch that didn’t land quite so well. Also, Romesh isn’t a character actor, so we only had one male voice that could do diverse characters (in the form of the vocally-talented Lewis Macleod), so some sketch options felt thin, and there was a lot of one-to-one interview style sketches in order to give Romesh a role to play (as himself). These often worked quite well, but I think another male character actor would of helped a lot here to broaden the options.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the old format was also not perfect, because topical sketch shows often aren’t (even the ‘Now Show’ has it’s off-moments). So all in all, I think it hit the brief, raised more smiles than not, and explored some new territory at the same time – all good work for when they start planning series eleven (I hope).

Anyway, I’ll leave you now with a few of my jokes that did and didn’t make it into this series (I haven’t included the sketches here, I will put them up another time). Well done to all those who got stuff on, and all those who didn’t but stuck at it anyway.

 

Series Ten Hits:

BREAKING NEWS:

“Michael Jackson to release a new album in May, proving it really doesn’t matter if you’re black or white… or dead.”

LISTINGS:

“Later tonight, The Archers, at whatever time you’re not expecting it and can’t get to the radio to switch it off in time.”

 

A selection of my series ten rejects:

BREAKING NEWS:

“World plans to celebrate a hundred years since the first World War by starting a new one.”

“Studies have found that obese children may be slower thinkers because they take more time to answer questions in class. That’s a bit unfair if you ask me, it’s hard to talk with a mouth full of Mars bars.”

“Misunderstood threat from Obama laughed off by Russians who say their asses are already frozen.”

“MP John Mann warns Labour not to be ‘too clever’ if they want to win the next election – ‘not a problem’ says Ed Miliband as he cleans his ears out with his tooth brush.”

 

COMING UP:

“As the row over the upcoming budget escalates, we’ll be investigating if George Osborne has got Balls on the ropes, or if he just keeps them in his pants like everyone else.”

“Following the announcement that 100 year olds in the UK have increased by 73%, we’ll be investigating how they got so big”

“Grant Shapps will be trying to explain why he doesn’t think it was racist to refer to the UK as Bingo Bingo land.”

“Plain packaging on cigarettes: we’ll be investigating if it would be a more effective deterrent to only package cigarettes in actual planes.”

 

TV/RADIO LISTINGS:

“New to ITV! Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen goes head to head with Kelly Hoppen to try and redesign a town house in only twenty minutes! That’s: Game of Throes, coming soon.”

“This Friday on ITV2 – ‘Birds of a Fuhrer’: Long suffering Eva is in for a big surprise when her new husband tells her what he’s got lined up for their honeymoon.”

“Radio 4 has assembled the coalition cabinet to ask what songs they would play if they were ship-wrecked: in ‘Desert Island Dicks’ – tonight at nine.”

“Can you guess the celebrity just by taking a look around a triple heart bypass? Find out tonight in ‘Through the Keyhole Surgery’ on ITV2!”

“Join Jeremy Clarkson and friends as they score some high quality drugs from a bloke round the back of a pub, in Top Gear, tonight at nine.”

Boredom, evasion and flagrant self-righteousness, or, everything that is wrong with senior MPs.

Yes, it’s that time again, time for a rant.

Since becoming self-employed, I spend more time at home, not surprisingly. I sit in my upstairs office, writing, composing or whatever, broken up by the occasional trip downstairs for a brew and a cigarette. It’s a habit to switch on the radio as I do so, and catch a few minutes of Radio 4. Over dinner, like today when I was tucking into a couple of Staffordshire’s finest oatcakes (with the holy trinity of bacon, cheese and tomato), I listen for a little longer.

There are only a few things that rile me on Radio 4 enough to make me switch it off. If I hear ‘The Archers’ music, I will dart across the room, jump like an action hero expecting an explosion, and hit the off switch. I will also only listen for a few minutes to Radio plays that are too concerned with being high-brow than having any drama or plot, before switching over to ‘Radio 4 Extra’ and hoping to stumble on some old ‘Hancock’ or ‘Goon show.’ And finally, ill conceived comedies that parody ‘youth’ culture with such insightful dialogue as ‘innit blood’ and ‘that’s wicked man’, also have me reaching for the buttons, before I cringe myself to death.

Other than that, I will enjoy or at least put up with most of its programming. I can sit and listen to biographies on people I never knew existed, I will listen to Gardener’s question time (even though most answers involve sowing a few centimetres apart, plenty of sunshine, a good peat-free compost and careful pruning) – I like a lot of the panel/sketch/sit-coms, and I usually enjoy a good phone in or studio debate. Well, enjoy maybe isn’t the word, which is why I am writing this.

Today’s ‘World at One’ (45 minutes of news and commentary with Martha Carney etc..) had a good old, completely pointless interview with conservative MP for transport Steven Hammond, and the shadow deputy cabinet leader, Harriet Harman. I had to make myself listen, because as soon as I heard the voice of Hammond, I realised if he was in the same room, I would be clenching my fists. Harman, though not as vacuous, would have me shaking my head and telling her to go away and think about her life. This is not an uncommon feeling, I get it almost every time I hear senior MPs from most parties talking about pretty much anything.

It is my theory that despite their talk of engagement and transparency, the last thing they want us to do is like, engage, or see behind the world of politics. And to this ends, they employ several tactics, here are some of the worst culprits:

#1 – Boredom

What’s more fun than listening to two people contradict each other with statistics eh? When was the last time you went down to the pub and had this heated conversation:

Steve:   You heard that according to KPMG in a study commissioned by the HS2 Company that the benefits to the economy will be over 15 Billion a year Dave?

Dave:    No. I heard from the office for national statistics that the expected overspend is going to push the budget for the project to nearly eighty billion, and that the institute of Directors has downplayed the economic benefits, saying they could be as low as 20% of predictions… on average.

Steve:   Yeah? Well, fuck you Dave.

… Apart from that last line (excuse the profanity), it’s just not a human way of speaking is it? None of us can engage with this tosh, because it is exactly that, complete crap. What’s more, as on today’s radio show, the presenter’s just sit there, growing fat on our licence money, letting these idiots talk made-up numbers as if it is cutting edge news and commentary! Remember Mitchell & Webb’s ‘Numberwang’ sketch? They should use that as the manifesto for a challenger party.

#2 – Evasion.

This is one I’m sure we are all familiar with. The kind of tactic that has driven Paxman to being the hate-filled ticking time-bomb he is today. Evading the answer. Let’s go back to the pub.

Steve:   Anyway, did you hear what Michael Gove said today about food banks? He said that in many cases it is due to choices made by the people who use them that they are in that situation. Don’t you think that comment could be seen as insensitive at a time of high-unemployment, an increasing divide between rich and poor, north and south, and the ruthless slashing of people’s benefits, often for no fault of their own? At best it might be accurate in only a few cases, statistically not worth mentioning, at worst it shows a complete disconnect between the people who run the country, and the people who actually live here.

Dave:    I would like to go back to what we were talking about earlier, about HS2…

Steve:   Okay. Let’s do that then, and forget I ever asked.

That is pretty much what happened on the show today, and in countless other exchanges on our daily feed of party politics PR. A presenter asks a question, the interviewee evades it by referring back to an earlier point, or simply just reframing the question into something completely different! As per:

Steve:   Actually Dave, I would like you to answer the question about Gove’s comments on those poor people who are in the terrible and presumably humiliating position of having to use food-banks in one of the richest countries on Earth please.

Dave:    Well I think the question is really, is Gove doing a good job on education? To which the answer is, yes, I think he is.

Steve:   Dur. Thanks.

Why the hell do we let them get away with it? Why does the BBC let them do this? They should cut them off, mid-sentence and announce “as the minister is unwilling to answer our questions, we are no longer going to continue with the interview”.

#3 – Flagrant Self-Righteousness

Now this one is almost exclusively a Tory tactic. I noticed this quite soon after they came to power. It goes something like this:

Steve:   I’ve heard that since the welfare reforms, suicide rates have rapidly increased as people who are disabled, or just suffering hard times in their lives, are under increasing pressure to return to work before they are ready or able, and often without a decent job to go to, and are basically being bullied by private companies to attend intrusive and biased medicals.

Dave:    Well I think you’re wrong and we’re right! We are going to stick to our ways because we think it comes across as bullish self-determination, when in fact, nothing you can say will make us change our minds because we know we weren’t really elected and this is the best shot we’ve got for five years of awarding private contracts to businesses we have interests in, and to inflict our vision of a divided and serving class system to this country! Basically, you’re wrong, we’re right and na na na na na to you, you stupid filthy peasant slave.

Steve:   Alright! Hold on! I thought we were having a debate here?

Dave:    You think I would want to debate with you? Are you insane? Did you go to Oxbridge? Does your family or your private investments fund my time and lifestyle? Do you think you are allowed access to me or other influential people without paying a hefty price like the big lobbies? Why in the name of the devils jockstrap would I want to debate with you? Fetch me a badger slave! I’m hungry.

That might be an over exaggeration, but then again, how often do you see Tory MPs who are ‘outraged’ by accusations that their policies are ill-conceived or failing? They aren’t exactly the nice, balanced kind of people who would say, “you’ve got some interesting points, let’s sit down and talk about this in a constructive and adult way” are they? They are blatantly self-righteous. Ian Duncan Smith once actually responded to an anomaly in his use of statistics by saying, “They are right, because I believe they are right”, or something similar. Is that really good enough? Simply believing you are right despite all evidence to the contrary? No, it isn’t is it. To further illustrate this point, today Tory chairman Grant Shapps has been ‘outraged’ by an independent report from a UN representative that criticises the ‘bedroom tax’ (sorry, subsidy…), so he spat his dummy out and is logging an official complaint! You don’t think that maybe she had a point? That criticism is a good thing? That debate means just that?

The problem is we are dealing with a capitalist ideology, and unfortunately this ideology transcends parties as its major proponents are massively more influential and financed than our own ‘elected’ leaders. None of them will ever make any real decisions, because it is out of their hands and they have no real control. So instead, they bore us, evade questions and ‘stick to their guns’ to distract us from the truth that they (at least the most senior ones) are self-interested, career driven sociopaths who are bought and sold by the highest bidders.

So that’s today’s rant. Why not switch on the news and see how many of these, and other tactics, you can spot? It’s a fun game for all the family!