Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Hands Up, Who Likes Me?: Chris Morris and the Subversive Comedy of Brass Eye

In this weekly column, I’ll introduce you to the world of British comedy in the chronology of how I, an American anglophile, discovered it in my life. This week: Brass Eye.

Chris Morris is one of the U.K.’s absolute best, brightest, weirdest and most darkly hilarious comedic impresarios. He’s responsible for some of the greatest comedy to come out of Britain over the past 10 plus years.

Recently, he’s gotten a (relatively) lot of press for his feature film writing/directing debut, Four Lions, which follows the misadventures of a radical Islamic terrorist cell in London. And it’s a comedy.

Trailer for Four Lions:

That should tell you a bit about Morris’s sensibility.

But Mr. Morris began his career in television, and he is responsible for some of my most favorite programs of all time, including JAM and Nathan Barley (both of which I will cover in future installments). But my first exposure to Morris came in the form of his faux documentary news program, Brass Eye.

Building off the success of his earlier satirical news programs, The Day Today and On the Hour, Brass Eye focused on the kinds of sensational human interest stories you might find on 20/20 or Dateline NBC, but with a surreal bent.

Often, in a pre-Ali G prank style, Morris would trick politicians, celebrities and other public figures into making statements about fake charities, or made-up dangers to society. My favorite being Cake, the fictional drug that was supposedly destroying the youth of Britain. Morris even tricked a conservative parliament member to tape an anti-cake video, and he even mentioned it on the floor of Parliament itself.

I really can’t recommend any of Morris’s shows more highly. He’s a personal hero, and someone who has done more for alt comedy than most anyone in recent history. When I was first starting out in comedy, Brass Eye was one of those shows that was passed down to me by the older comedians in my scene as an example of what they found funny. It had a profound effect.

So, now, I pass it along to any and all who haven’t seen it yet. Brass Eye…absolute, subversive genius. Oh, and when watching, keep an eye out for a then relatively unheard of Simon Pegg in the cast.

Curtis Gwinn is a writer and comedian living in LA. He’s written for The Onion, MTV’s Human Giant, Comedy Central and FOX Searchlight Pictures. He also co-starred in and co-wrote Fat Guy Stuck in Internet on Adult Swim.

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  • ChipSuey

    Just overdosed on the entire BrassEye series last weekend. Genius stuff. Morris is also great in The IT Crowd as the boss who can't help but sexually harass any attractive woman who crosses his path.

  • John Herrman

    Didn't he get his start on radio? Blue Jam was a direct precursor to JAM, and On the Hour (which was basically amazing) turned into The Day Today (also amazing.)

    I love Brass eye, if just to imagine the outcry that followed them when they aired. You don't even have to be familiar with the celebrities they tricked into participating to enjoy their humiliation.

    Jam, though, is by far my favorite thing he's done. Some of those sketches are sublime.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/curtisgwinn Curtis Gwinn

    yes john, blue jam was a precursor jam. some wonderful stuff! like many alt bbc comedies, they'll develop their voices on radio first. H2G2, the mighty boosh, etc…etc… kind of a cool way to develop talent! i guess outlets like funny or die, channel 101 and ucb comedy sort of do that as well.

    • John Herrman

      Yeah, I got a huge kick out of going back and listening to the Mitchell and Webb Sound after years of watching Peep Show.

  • Scott Saslow

    I enjoyed his appearances as Denholm Reynholm on The IT Crowd – I still laugh at his frozen reaction shot in "The Red Door."

    YouTube has some great clips from The Day Today. (I enjoy the woman who does the financial report.) One of the writers on it was Armando Iannucci who's best known for The Thick of It and In the Loop. I think Graham Linehan worked on it, too. He created The IT Crowd and, along with Dylan Moran, co-created Black Books which you must write about one day if you haven't already. :-)

    • http://twitter.com/#!/curtisgwinn Curtis Gwinn

      scott, thanks for the bonus info. i'll be writing about both black books AND armando iannucci's genius sketch series, the armando ianucci shows.

  • Hanibal

    It's been brilliant seeing Ianucci, and now Morris, starting to make a splash in the US. Nice write up.

  • holgate

    The surreal news strand of Brass Eye comes from On The Hour and The Day Today; the subversive side that continued into Blue/Jam comes from the splicing and pranking of Morris's solo radio shows. Victor Lewis Smith has long complained that Morris ripped him off, but that's mainly sour grapes.

    (On The Hour had a ridiculously talented team — not just the usual comedy genealogical stuff, but Patrick Marber and the late Steven Wells.)

  • http://comedyconjectures.blogspot.com Brett Johnson

    Have you heard the Morris/Peter Cook "interviews"? Completed shortly before Cook's death (Cook taking #1 – and Morris #11 – in a best-comedians according-to-comedians poll: http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/the-comedian-s-comedian/the-list.html), it's a pretty remarkable improvised (and hilarious) collaboration between these two heavyweights. Ended up released as a 5 track album called "Why Bother?"

    My favorite of the 5 interviews is Morris interviewing Cook about his quote P.O.W. experience unquote– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTjosPPicfw&

    • http://comedyconjectures.blogspot.com Brett Johnson

      Comedians love big balls and both these guys' are almost planetary in size.