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Comedy Lab: School of Comedy

I had intended to cover the first three of Channel 4’s Comedy Lab shows together, but School of Comedy deserves a slot all of its own. Too well put together to be ignored as ‘just another pilot’, it’s a programme I’m backing to the hilt. You don’t need to skip ahead – this is a five-star review.

A sketch show (as all the Comedy Labs this year seem to be) featuring nine kids should have been desperate. I still adore Bugsy Malone but…well, it’s not like I watched it and thought it’d work great as a starting point for a series of sketches.

You can get all the important ‘how it came about’ details from the Channel 4 site, but suffice to say that this is a show already sharpened on the live circuit – and it shows. A myth seems to have built up that School of Comedy gets a lot of its laughs from getting kids to say rude things, and while that does happen here – in a sketch that seems designed to deal with this criticism head-on – it’s such a tiny part of the content that you’d have to be watching very selectively to take away that conclusion.

Still, you can find out for yourself. For those unable to get onto 4oD – those anti-Mac bastards – the whole thing is on YouTube in three parts on YouTube. Go, watch, come back after, and remember to stay until the end of the credits.

Good, innit?

School of Comedy

Starting with actual audience applause is brave in a time when viewers seem to regard such things as a trick, but I was sucked right in. The decision to use a live studio audience, combining pre-recorded and live sketches, is a reassuring one. It seems quite an intimate audience, and that ‘small pub’ venue gives a warmth to the soundtrack – especially in the live sketches, which are performed on a stylised single set with basic props and costumes. You’ll no doubt remember Goodness Gracious Me doing something similar, and to equally good effect.

Using kids to play adult roles has a lot of positive aspects. It holds a peculiar mirror up to adult pretensions and behaviours, sure, but there’s something about the performances that are more than just spot on. The show’s been thoroughly tested live, and – if my time performing Two Ronnies sketches during my GCSEs has taught me anything – kids seem to have an ability to replicate whatever worked best the next time they go out.

The impression one gets is of a thousand small things – intonations, gestures – being expertly compiled into a ‘best of’ performance. It’s like nothing so much as animation. The movements key-framed, tried out and reworked, until every expression is just so; the audio selected from the very best takes at the end of a long recording session.

Which is not to downplay the performers’ involvement. Clearly far more than puppets – as denoted by their writing credits – the nine children still manage to get across something organic and natural without losing precision. Stars quickly emerge, and while it seems heartless to single them out above the others, you kinda have to: Will Poulter (who’s probably already sick of being described as ‘that kid from Son of Rambow’ despite the film’s brilliance), Arthur Sturridge, Beth Rylance and the Ainsworth sisters take a career-establishing bow.

School of Comedy

Credit, too, to producer/director Andy Hardcastle for capturing everything so well. It’s easy to underestimate the comedy director, but getting these things on tape requires a skill – in the timing, in the tone – that few have. Especially when it comes to live material. Not once does this show slip up with a ‘If they’d just got that right, it really would have worked’ moment. Not once.

The consistency in tone is also surprising, given the seventeen credited writers (including the cast, excluding the creator). Yet the whole thing tiptoes nicely between specific gag writing and more playful moments that just revel in the style on display.

In the gaggier category we have some neat recurring characters. Two performed by Sturridge stick out especially – a man who cannot stand to watch bad news being delivered (A pair of doctors talking to a patient: “We’ve actually detected –” “Superpowers!”) and a know-it-all instructor of violent intensity whose catchphrase is “What the fuck was that?!”

But in a densely-packed pilot it was Lilly Ainsworth’s receptionist that really stood out. As with the two characters above, all they do is transpose her from one variant of her job to another – airline receptionist, medical receptionist – and keep the jokes coming. In this instance the gags come from the bizarre combination of enquiries. “Have you got any of the following items in your luggage: towel, toothbrush, bomb?” mixed with with famous questions, “Are you there God it’s me, Margaret?” and irrelevant ones, “Can a hippo kill a lion?”

"How many fingers am I holding up?"
School of Comedy

All of which is nifty, but it’s the performance that elevates the whole thing. Ainsworth mixes up her styles for every question – aggressive, then playful, then serious, then completely bewildered. And every one, as you’d expected, is the best fit for what’s being asked. It’s utterly daft, yet quite charmingly brilliant. “Are you only with me for the money?”

Jokey one-offs include Poulter’s pitch-perfect tactless teacher (“No, I said he was backwards”) and three execs trying to outdo each other by issuing instructions to an unseen assistant with escalating levels of insanity.

Less successful is the arrival of an American Cop to a British precinct. Not helped by a dodgy accent from Africa Nyle – though it is very Bugsy Malone – the idea’s a good one (“Was she loaded, was she packing?” “Tax disc.”), it just goes on too long. Still, it has a kind of Hot Fuzz quality to it.

The other miss is the “You’re a cunt” meeting. Staff gather in the conference room to discuss the best way to move forward, and they all agree that one of those present is a cunt, and his removal would be best for everyone. Getting laughs from swearing is absolutely legitimate – and the joke here is in the simple repetition and “We’re just being honest” tone – but why the hell the thing had to be bleeped is beyond me. Not the best sketch of the bunch anyway, but the censorship killed whatever it had going for it.

Those are the clearest, jokiest sketches. But in many ways the real joy comes when the show has the confidence to revel in a particular tone without aiming for a specific punchline.

The highlight is a posh 1930s couple played by Rylance and Poulter. While the first scene does include an on-the-nose (but neatly constructed) lesbianism joke, neither the rudeness nor the gag are the big deal here. It’s in the delight of terms like “The plural of rhubarb is rhubarb”, the style and the timing. “One day I shall move from this beastly spot and stare at different part of the curtains.” Effortlessly hysterical.

"Freddie said there’s to be another war."
School of Comedy

Likewise we have an Eastern European plumber and au pair. Not really the best material to begin with, but – as with the ’30s couple – theirs is a story that runs over several scenes, and by the time the husband of the home they work in returns early and mistakes the plumber for his wife, it’s all coming together. (Though someone cut Jack Harries’s hair – the lad looks so feminine that it nearly kills the punchline.)

But with both of these it’s really the musical numbers that take things to a new level. Both stories climax with the cast miming to a well-known song (now come on, that has to put you in mind of Bugsy Malone).

In the early stages this looked like an idea that wasn’t quite going to fit. The ‘bad news’ guy miming to The Great Pretender was too brief, and too early, to work, and the office cunt miming to One only brought back memories of that song’s appearance in Magnolia, a film which also asked its cast to mime to someone else’s song.

But then the 1930s couple pipe up with Phil Collins’s Separate Lives and it all drops neatly into place. By the time we get to the Eastern Europeans’s Hopelessly Devoted to You, it’s absolutely part of the fabric of the show, tying up the story with a smart song choice and a final, perfectly-timed cut.

One moment falls between two stools. The twice-seen ‘old fashioned room’ doesn’t quite know which type it is, and so doesn’t quite nail either, but when the American and British cops end up miming to Eminem’s Lose It – and the show’s final, bickering couple slip into You Don’t Bring Me Flowers…well, you just feel in your gut that something’s working.

The choices made are so smart, so spot-on – in the music, the shooting, the writing and the performances – that you can’t help but admire the craftsmanship. School of Comedy is a brilliant piece of, erm, comedy, one which had me in hysterical fits for more time than is entirely normal for a grown man. (It also gets better on repeated viewings. Are you listening, Little Britain?)

That it deserves a full series goes without saying. That that series probably has to happen soon, before the kids get much older, is a worry. Could a running series have a rotating cast, seeing new talent in as the older ones leave? I guess.

Cherish this rare gem while you can. If there’s any justice, it won’t be a little-seen pilot much longer.

5 Stars

About this entry


Actually it was shit.

By Guy With A Brain Cell
August 29, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

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I caught this last week after seeing these guys at the Edinburgh Festival last year.

One of the funniest things I have seen in a long time and lets just hope C4 see sense and commission a series.

Superb writing, amazing acting and a brilliant concept. Whoever came up with this idea deserves a BAFTA!

By Jeff Williams
August 29, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

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>Good, innit?

Hrm…. in parts, yes, but as a whole it was disappointing. I liked the “old-fashioned room”, 1930s couple”, “you’re a cunt” and “competitive workers” sketches but the rest of it was a bit average, the first “eastern european workers” sketch drifted too close to comedy accents over material and some of it (like the reception girl) was just downright poor. There was an unfortunate “Fast Show” like tendency to beat the joke into the ground (the first “what the fuck…” sketch was quite good but it outstayed its welcome after that) and someone needs to tell them that people miming/dancing to songs isn’t actually intrinsically funny.

As for the performers, I thought they were all pretty good although the fact that a few of them were clearly adolescents rather than kids took the edge of the “kids’ swearing” stuff (probably for the best).

It’d be nice to see it get a series since there was enough strong stuff in there to warrent it but I certainly didn’t have as positive reaction to the pilot as yours.

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By Zagrebo
August 29, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

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Overall, it was rather boring and depressing. I have to admit, the funniest parts were the 1930’s room and the old fashioned lesbian part, and to a lesser extent the bad news breaker. There was alot of childish humor in various parts which ruined it, for example, the dance scene after the US police officer scene. Aswell as that, the acting in that scene was crude, the accent of Africa Nile was dodgey at times and you could barely make out what he was saying, the jokes werent all that great. Also the acting of Will Poulter was quite bad, as he does that thing with his mouth too much, which further emphasies the fakeness of his acting. It doesnt look natural at all. By far the best actors in there were Beth Rylance, Arthur Sturridge, Max Brown and Ella Ainsworth. The various “service counter” scenes were attrocious, as the acting from Lilly Ainsworth was crude and the jokes were awful. to many musical parts, where actors mouthed the words to a song. The only part that i felt fit in with the sketch was the old fashioned lesbian.
Overall, i rate it a poor 4/10

Positives: Acting of Beth Rylance, Arthur Sturridge, Max Brown and Ella Ainsworth. Old fashion scenes were hilarious. Alot of scens were original ideas.
Negatives: Too many musical parts, some scenes crude and boring, Africa, Will and Lilly had weak acting at points, Didn’t see enough of Evie Henderson and Jack Harries.

By abz
August 30, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

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> someone needs to tell them that people miming/dancing to songs isn’t actually intrinsically funny.

I agree that it’s not intrinsic. And I don’t think the first two examples worked. But when they go with the Dennis Potter idea - using other people’s lyrics to summarise the feeling and situation - I think it works. More than works, in fact; Hopelessly Devoted and Separate Lives were just right for the conclusion to two running stories.

> It doesnt look natural at all.

I’m always confused by people who mistake naturalism for quality. By that criteria, many a Chris Morris performance, say, would be deemed worthless.

Also: Poulter was great in Son of Rambow. A film that, itself, was simply excellent.

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By Andrew
August 30, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

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>I agree that it’s not intrinsic. And I don’t think the first two examples worked. But when they go with the Dennis Potter idea - using other people’s lyrics to summarise the feeling and situation - I think it works. More than works, in fact; Hopelessly Devoted and Separate Lives were just right for the conclusion to two running stories.

The thing is, though, this isn’t a drama or even a comedy-drama, it’s a sketch show and we don’t need things to “summarise the feeling and situation” so much as make us laugh which the songs didn’t do. Also, given the woeful use of a few of the tunes (particularly the one used in the crap “policemen*” sketch) I suspect that the writers aren’t using the tunes to create atmosphere or sum characters up so much as someone’s decided that their “schtick” should be miming along to tunes and then people have thrown suggestions into the mix vaguely related to the sketches. It also stank of an attempt to appeal to those woeful idiots who think something’s funny if it’s “random”.

*Whilst I’m mentioning it, did anyone else think it was a bit “off” to have a sketch based on the notion that US cops are always chasing crack dealers whilst British cops police quiet beats? Not only is this not the case, it’s not been the case in the popular imagination for decades and in real-life arguably never at all. The only people who seem to perpetuate it are foreigners who don’t actually know much about this country beyond fictionalised accounts. It’s weird to see a British sketch show perpetuate this myth. Or maybe that was the “joke” in which case fire the writer.

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By Zagrebo
September 01, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

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> it’s a sketch show and we don’t need things to “summarise the feeling and situation” so much as make us laugh which the songs didn’t do.

Well the latter is opinion, obviously, but the former - of course sketch shows can legitimately use progression and summary as part of their toolkit.

> Not only is this not the case, it’s not been the case in the popular imagination for decades and in real-life arguably never at all.

You must have missed Midsomer Murders!

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By Andrew
September 01, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

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I’ve never read such a misplaced, hyperbolic review in my life.

The show was second rate at best. Missing so many chances to be genuinely satirical, with real bite…using kids to make a comment on adult society. Or even to just be gloriously silly.

It was a half hour kid show, dressed up as something it wasn’t. This is all emperor’s new clothes. And this unintelligent reviewer has been caught up in the whirlwind.

By Liam
September 02, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

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> And this unintelligent reviewer has been caught up in the whirlwind.

Of…seeing a show on the telly? Not much of a whirlwind!

Still, it was to my taste – which is an issue unrelated to intelligence. I know plenty of idiots who like BrassEye, but they’re not idiots BECAUSE they like it.

The review contains criticisms. And it was part of the Comedy Lab overall review, part two of which may be more to your taste:…

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By Andrew
September 02, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

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I finally got a chance to watch this…well, most of it. I’m underwhelmed, to be honest. It’s okay. It didn’t really get many laughs out of me, but neither did it frustrate me (disappointing sketch comedy seems to frustrate me a lot more than a disappointing sitcom or something, though I have no idea why).

I don’t know. It’s better than the rest of the by-and-starring-kids sketch shows I’ve seen (no idea how many of them you have in the UK but we seem to go through loads in the US), but that’s about all I can say. The simpler audience stuff reminded me of Mr. Show, but the comparison in my mind only underscored the difference in writing quality.

If it gets a series then that’s cool…I’m not against it and I wish them luck. But I can’t see myself following it either.

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By Phil Reed
September 03, 2008 @ 12:29 am

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To be honest, I thought Will Poulter’s acting was really good! He was my favorite by far.
I found the cop scene particularly funny, mainly because of how Poulter seems to play my (and obviously other people’s) exact idea of how boring cop’s lives much actually be (I mean come on, they hardly have jam-packed days of saving lives, rescuing people and stopping murderer’s, rapists and robbers do they?) e.g. the cop’s idea of ‘action’ being sending a woman to the DVLA over a tax disc and him having a nightmare about not being able to find the plug for his kettle.
Although I didn’t actually think much of the 1930’s scene with Poulter and Rylance. I’m not sure what it was that I wasn’t keen on but the only part that made me laugh slightly was when Rylance said ‘I’m a lesbian, I go with women’ and that was only because it was completely not what I was expecting.
I found the sketches with the ‘old fashioned’ room very funny and almost hysterical in the second sketch when Poulter opens the door to find everybody inside singing just to close it, mutter ‘bollocks’ and walk off.
I though over all the best scenes were the ‘out-doing exects’, the ‘tactless teacher’, the ‘old fashioed room’, and the ‘office cunt’ (Also the bleeping of the word cunt actually made it (for me) even funnier).
Personally I feel that the least funny were the ‘1930’s couple’ and the ‘Eastern-European plumber’.

But altogether I thought it was really good, a unique idea that clearly deserves to be made into a series. I hope they go far (:

By AliPopp
September 10, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

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It is brilliant!
How can you not like it????!!!!!!!!

By Jessi444
September 13, 2008 @ 9:27 pm

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-I thought it was a great show!
-Great acting from all the kids…much better than a lot of child actors out there nowadays.
-I do think there was a little too much of them mouthing out the words to songs, but still a good show.
-I thought the censoring of the word “cunt” actually made it funnier.
-Not being able to understand Africa doing his cop thing made it funnier…you kinda feel sorry for Will’s character in that sketch…
-It did kinda feel like it was still a ‘kid show’ trying to be an adult show…add a little more adult humour to it.
-They need to put Jack, Evie and Africa in more. it kinda felt like I was watching the “Will and Arthur Show”.
-They need to realize that just yelling “what the f***?!” isnt THAT funny…i thought the lines “i am art!” and “say thank you…” (after smashing the students face into the painting) were much funnier lines.
-Overall, i got to say my favorite parts were the office execs trying to outdo each other and the old fashion room.
-Line that made me laugh the hardest:
Max: (slaps his wife) You do as your told!

By Professor
January 12, 2009 @ 11:31 am

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I didnt laugh at all it was poor

By Sanz
May 10, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

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Good point, well made.

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By John Hoare
May 10, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

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Not sure who this is aimed at. My 11 year old watched it last night and couldn´t stop laughing. He is now watching it again on You Tube and loves it. He keeps forcing me to watch and I admit, I quite like it.

By Rachel Green
October 02, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

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Lilly Ainsworth’s receptionist was pure brilliance. Lilly, Will and Beth are clearly the stars of this show, but they’re all very good.

By Andy
December 03, 2009 @ 7:45 am

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School of Comedy is my favourite show on television. I crack up laughng throughout the whole show and am nearly rolling on the floor by the end! Will Poulter is obviously the best actor there! His tactless teacher was hysterical and he is just the funniest actor in the show. Also Beth, Lily and Jack and extremely good aswell. I love the miming/dancing and the farmers when every time they swear something loud happens in the background! Overall an outstanding performance by all the actors and I hope you never go off the air! Love it!
Also love :
Will: Well the office agrees… that youre a bit of a
Jack: BEEP!

Max: My pie is cold.
Lily: (sticks rude finger in pie for ages….. then sticks it up at Max) Oh it is too!

Beth: What is you’re policy on bullying?
Will: Yes definitely!

Beth: It was a shart!
Will: It was choclate cake, man.
Beth: It was a shart!
Will: Cake!
Beth: Shart!
Will: Cake!
Beth: Shart!
Will: Cake!
Beth and Will: Shart cake fully!


By Steph
December 26, 2010 @ 1:29 am

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I thought it was a great show, here are my opinions about the actors:
Africa Nile is a good actor but he was hardly in the show
Will Poulter is my favorite actor and we all like him
Beth Rylance is good and I loved her lesbian character
Arthur Sturridge was like the funniest
Ella Ainsworth had a good job at lipsynching
Max Brown looks like he can be in a movie about eastern europeans
Evie Henderson needs braces
Jack Harries is 2nd after Will
Lilly Ainsworth would make the show better if she was only in that question sketch

By chester Pollard
January 27, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

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