Wednesday, December 8, 2010

TV Review: Have I Got News For You (1990 – )

By ScottDS
While BBC America airs many fine British TV shows and films, they also insist on airing American shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation which, let’s face it, can be found on several American networks and local stations where it airs several times a day. (Not to mention the people who sunk hundreds of dollars into the DVD boxsets – people like, uh, me.) The one show that currently airs on the BBC in the United Kingdom that I feel we’re missing out on is Have I Got News For You. Produced by Hat Trick Productions and currently airing on BBC One, Have I Got News For You (HIGNFY) is a light-hearted news quiz show.

I can’t think of anything like it in the States, at least on the national level. Sure, we have Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, and Red Eye, but the programs that, in my opinion, have the most resemblance to HIGNFY would be NPR’s Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!, certain segments of Dennis Miller Live, and the much-missed Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn which aired on Comedy Central from 2002 to 2004. In terms of politics and to the extent of my knowledge on the subject, the show leans a little bit to the left (or whatever its British equivalent is) but it’s all done with a smile. There’s no vitriol, no mean-spiritedness (i.e.: no comments about Down syndrome kids), and most of the jokes are obviously reserved for British politicians. Guests have included both liberals and conservatives and while certain conservative politicians (like Anne Widdecombe) may find themselves the butt of a joke more often than others, liberal politicians aren’t spared either. The show goes after nanny staters, religious hypocrites, clueless news broadcasters, and empty-headed celebrities with equal aplomb. For an independent like me, it’s all gold.

HIGNFY premiered in 1990 with Angus Deayton as host (chairman) and Ian Hislop and Paul Merton as team captains. Each team would also include a guest, usually a comedian, but politicians, news presenters, actors, and writers have all graced the stage. Ian Hislop is the editor of the satirical news magazine Private Eye and has never missed an episode, even showing up for a taping with a burst appendix. He also holds the dubious distinction of being the most sued man in English legal history. Paul Merton is an actor, writer, and improv performer whose jokes often border on the surreal. He’s a veteran of the Comedy Store and the original version of Whose Line is it Anyway? where he would sometimes break character and comment on the absurdity of the scene he was playing. Deayton was fired in 2002 after becoming involved in some personal scandals and the show currently features a new guest host each week.

The Format

Following an animated title sequence (which currently features President Obama shooting a basketball in the Oval Office... and missing) and a brief introduction, the guest host will show a series of video clips (“In the news this week...”) preceded by descriptions that may or may not be accurate. For example, “After a photo call at Downing Street, Gordon Brown tells colleagues that if any of them doubts his ability to win the election, they should come in for a private chat,” followed by a clip of Gordon Brown and his wife walking inside followed by several dozen people. The host will then introduce the two guests, usually accompanied by some jokes specific to that guest. This segues into the “bigger stories of the week” which involves showing the teams silent news footage – the players must identify what’s going on in each clip and elaborate. As for the humor, it’s all on the table: from dry British wit to very bad puns to countless John Prescott fat jokes, no stone is left unturned. The host will also read inadvertently funny lines from news publications which will flash on the screen (the underlined section): “David Cameron posed in front of Big Ben among supporters, tourists, and food stores. According to the Daily Mail, there was a whiff of candied nuts.

The next round is usually a picture game of some kind: for example, the “picture spin quiz” in which a photo is rotated and zoomed out from. Variations have included the “Wheel of News” and “Name That News” in which guest host Bill Bailey performed the news stories on his keyboard and the players had to guess the tune. I should mention that there is a point system at work but no one pays much attention to it. Following this round is the “Odd One Out Round” in which four photos are presented and the teams have to guess which one doesn’t belong as well as the (sometimes nebulous) connection between the other three. For example, Bill Bailey presented four photos: Richard Branson, Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, and Labour Party politician Hazel Blears. While Ian guessed that Castro was the odd one out “because he’s a dictator,” Paul correctly guessed that Branson was the odd one out since everyone else had made cameo appearances in films but Branson had just had his blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo cut out of Casino Royale during its in-flight run on British Airways. According to Bailey, Castro’s cameo was in a 1946 Lucille Ball film titled Easy to Wed in which he played a poolside spectator. “Or as it became known in Cuba, The Amazing Story of the Poolside Spectator starring Fidel Castro.”

The last round is the “Missing Words Round.” Every week, headlines are displayed, including some from obscure publications like Portable Restroom Operator and the Pylon Appreciation Society newsletter. Certain words in the headlines are blanked out and the teams have to correctly fill in the blank(s). For example: “I do _____ but I don’t _____, The Queen admits.” Guest Victoria Coren guessed, “I do anything for love but I don’t do that.” According to host Benedict Cumberbatch (a.k.a. the new Sherlock Holmes), the correct headline was, “I do get bored but I don’t let on” to which Paul replied, “She just has!” After this round, the host will tally up the points and announce a winner. From a cursory glance at Wikipedia, Paul’s team has won 220 times to Ian’s 113 with nine draws. The final gag sometimes involves a competition in which the players are presented with photos and have to supply the captions.

Notable Gags and Moments

Given the satirical nature of the show, the BBC has had to fend off countless lawsuits and was, in fact, fined £10,000 for High Contempt of Court in 1996 after Angus Deayton joked about two brothers who were about to go to trial for their involvement in a financial scandal. After Deayton was sacked, actor/writer Stephen Fry announced he was boycotting the show and hasn’t been back since. Conservative Party politician Anne Widdecombe also announced she’d never come back after hosting in 2007 and having to deal with comedian Jimmy Carr’s “barrage of filth.” After Labour Party politician Roy Hattersley’s third cancellation, the producers decided to pair Paul up with a tub of lard, renamed “The Right Honourable Tub of Lard MP.”

And then there’s Boris. Boris Johnson is a Conservative Party politician, former journalist, and the current Mayor of London, and has appeared on HIGNFY both as a guest and host. From my strictly American point of view, the man is just so prim and proper that to see him host a show like this… it makes for a funny juxtaposition. From the few episodes of his that I’ve seen (where he hosted), he tries to keep things on a slightly more dignified level but usually fails. Ian and Paul have labeled Johnson a “Wodehousian” character, referring to writer P.G Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves and Wooster. Personally, I would compare him to Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers films. He once introduced himself by saying, “When I first appeared on this show I complained that the whole thing was scripted and fully rehearsed. I'd now like to complain in the strongest possible terms, that it isn't.”

Speaking of “fully rehearsed,” many critics have complained that the show has gone stale and that Ian and Paul and their guests know the answers in advance. Paul Merton has gone on record stating that they usually know the questions in advance but not the answers. Regarding the format, writer Dave Cohen once said, “[...] they're right, the format hasn't changed, but then why should it? Sixteen years on, the show is still pulling in eight million viewers, it's still funny, and it still makes waves beyond our little world.”

NBC taped a pilot episode for an American version of the show back in 2009 featuring actor and Air America personality Sam Seder as host and comedians Michael Ian Black and the late Greg Giraldo as team captains. This was obviously not picked up. In my humble opinion, a show like this couldn’t get produced in the States. I know of no host that could keep things from getting viciously partisan and out of control (assuming guests were plucked from both the left and the right) and the closest person I can think of that compares to Ian Hislop would be P.J. O’Rourke (in terms of literary background, not political leanings). As for Paul, I’m not discounting his formidable talent but there are many improv performers and comedians that can do what he does... but could they keep their politics on a more or less even keel?

As I noted in the opening, the show doesn’t air in the US. There are compilation DVDs but they’re region-coded for the UK so you would need a DVD player that can play region 2 discs. As for me, I watch them on YouTube – just do a search for “hignfy” and sort by upload date to see the most recent broadcast. The show airs two seasons (or series) of eight to eleven episodes every year – one in the spring and one in the late fall. The BBC also airs extended versions of episodes, advertised as Have I Got a Bit More News For You. There are also books, including a companion guide and the official Have I Got News For You Guide to Modern Britain.

I’ve seen probably every episode from the last few years. Some of my favorite moments include:

-Flash Gordon actor Brian Blessed invoking his signature catchphrase during the opening (this entire episode is a laugh riot from start to finish)... turn down your volume!

-Bill Bailey (actor, comedian, and co-star of Black Books) reporting that Fidel Castro was being fitted with an artificial anus and then breaking into song with “What Happens When Your Anus Doesn’t Take?”

-a completely absurd non sequitur in which everyone tries to come up with a rhyme for “pot noodles”

-Top Gear star Jeremy Clarkson mocking the BBC’s attempts at fairness during a political debate, and then making fun of the people in the debate audience

-Host Alistair McGowan comparing an evolution/de-evolution chart to the five items or less line at a Plymouth supermarket, along with guest Alan Duncan MP’s reaction

-And finally, guest Victoria Coren (TV presenter, author, poker player, and future ex-Mrs. ScottDS) proves there’s nothing hotter than a hot Scrabble player

For more information, please visit the Have I Got News For You page on the British Comedy Guide website or the official BBC page for the show.


Tennessee Jed said...

An interesting show, thoughI'm afraid if it actually got greenlighted by an American network, it would be re-cast and re-worked to be conservative, Christian, and family bashing only.

Tennessee Jed said...

typed too quick for my thoughts :-) Meant that as you point out, the show couldn't get made in the states. Interesting show, though.

AndrewPrice said...

I haven't seen it, but it sounds a lot like Whose Line Is It, which I enjoyed a lot.

On Jed's point, I think it's the rare British show that can be remade over here because our networks tend to suck the life out of them by Americanizing the humor.

Anonymous said...

I'll be back in a couple hours to comment. :-)

CrispyRice said...

I was just going to say that I used to love the British Whose Line! Was that Hat Trick, too? That name is ringing a bell with me, but I don't know why.

Anonymous said...

Crispy -

Hat Trick did produce Whose Line and Whose Line host Clive Anderson and players Steve Frost and Tony Slattery (and possibly more) have made appearances on HIGNFY.

I'm a huge fan of that show, too!

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy and Scott, the best line from Whose Line came from a game they played where they were superheroes at a party, and each one had to name the next one to enter the room. At one of the introductions, one of them said, "Proctologist Man, what are you doing here?"

Answer: "Just looking up some old friends."

I haven't seen than in 15 years and I still remember that line! :-)

Ed said...

Sounds like fun, I'll check some of them out. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm late. I was out having dinner with our very own Bev. It was weird talking about the site with someone else who posts here - I had actually never uttered "Commentarama" out loud before! It was nice. And we had nothing but kind words for Andrew and LawHawk. :-)

Jed -

I don't entirely disagree with you. I think it would depend on the talent involved but especially on the person chosen as host who would basically have to be the calm eye in the storm.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

I never sensed the Whose Line connection but I guess I can see it. I don't think "Americanizing the humor" would be the problem.

I do think one of the problems would be the amount of bandwidth and hard drive space devoted to dissecting every single word uttered by the people on the show. Between the Big sites and HuffPo, if someone from either side were to say the wrong thing, all Hell would break loose!

Anonymous said...

Ed -

It's a fun show though some of the references go over my head. The clips I linked to at the bottom should give you a good idea how it all works. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Wait a minute, are you saying there really is a "Bev"? Does this mean there is a "Lawhawk" too? Wow. ;-)

I think Americanizing is always a problem for British shows. They always want to dumb down the humor and eliminate the sharp bits.

As for bandwidth, LOL, yeah, I could see where that would be a problem. Seriously though, I think one of the problems would be finding people who could actually participate in this kind of show without just becoming nasty. That's one of the problems with political "talk" shows these days. And that would make it a minefield for anyone who wanted to go onto the show.

By the way, I've seen Boris on Top Gear and I've read a lot of his interviews. He's quite a character.

Ed said...

Scott, I watched one earlier and I liked it, though the accents are hard to understand. A lot of the references go over my head too, especially their pop culture references. Are they thinking of bringing it to the US?

Anonymous said...

Ed -

As I mentioned in the article, NBC shot a pilot last year with Air America's Sam Seder as host and actor/comedian Michael Ian Black and comedian Greg Giraldo (R.I.P.) as team captains. It was obviously not picked up and I've read nothing to indicate that this had changed.

As for the references, some of them I get in their proper context but it's all the different political titles (Lord, MP, etc.) that confuse me.

Anonymous said...

Andrew - yes, there is a Bev. :-) This was the second time I met someone from the Interwebs - when I was in Houston on NASA business, I had dinner with a guy from a film score forum who lived nearby.

I've been thinking of funny Whose Line bits but they tend to mesh together. I always loved Questionable Impressions which they played in the US version. Colin Mochrie stepped out and simply said, "Dinner for Craig T. Nelson?"

In the British version, Tony Slattery once had to sing about his love for a pig:

"I got a problem I'd like to report/
When I see Porky Pig, my pants distort."

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's a great line! LOL!

That show had a lot of great lines. The only thing that bothered me was the way they used being gay as a crutch. Whenever they couldn't come up with something, they just tossed in a line about being gay at the end of their jokes/songs/etc. to get a cheap laugh. I don't really care about the gay part, but I thought the constant use was annoying -- would have had the same complaint if every other line ended up with a Scooby Doo reference.

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