Usavich vs Paul Merton: The Series (WORLD CUP OF TV COMEDY)

  • 9/01/2011 11:27:00 pm
  • By Mark Gibbings-Jones
  • 0 Comments

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So, welcome to the opening match of the BrokenTV World Cup of TV Comedy 2011. Before 'kick off', an interesting bit of background - BrokenTV's Mark X originally came up with the notion of putting each match up to a public vote, in very much the same manner used in the BETEO Song Wars, which he devised and is best at. Upon realising that (a) no-one would really sit through two entire episodes of a TV show before voting in each round, (b) getting hold of complete, legally viewable episodes of each show online would be near impossible, and (c) he's clearly the best at liking comedy anyway, the decision was made to do things this way.

And so, over to our commentary team for today's match, Tony Gubba and Egyptian polymath/high priest of the sun god Ra, Imhotep.

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TONY: So, a bit of a controversial choice for the finals here. USAVICH is a series of short animations - made for MTV Flux Japan - clocking in at just 90 seconds long. In order to participate, the competition organisers have agreed to count each full season as a single 'episode'. As that still totals just 21 minutes, it has been agreed to let the plucky Asians take part.,The crowd seem a bit uncertain about this, Imhotep.

IMHOTEP: Suspect the tetchiness of the crowd might be down to us having nicked this fake sporting commentary riff from J Nash, Tony.

TONY: It's a homage, Imho. You know, like when Family Guy steals jokes from things on telly in the 1980s.

IMHOTEP: Boy, this is worse than the time I dropped acid with the cast of Rentaghost, Tony.

TONY: That's the level, Imho. Up against Usavich today is oft-forgotten sketch show PAUL MERTON: THE SERIES. Coming from that short period where people let the London-based funnyman make actual proper comedy on television instead of just having him react to things in a wry manner, or front engrossing documentaries on cinema.

IMHOTEP: PM:TS was certainly the high watermark in Merton's career, possibly even the funniest sketch comedy to ever be shown on Channel Four, aside from Absolutely. The two series run maintained a very high standard throughout, which made it all the more surprising when his two subsequent pilots for the BBC, The Paul Merton Show (BBC Two, 1996) and Does China Exist? (BBC Two, 1997) proved to be on the disappointing side. And nowadays of course, Merton seems to have been replaced by an unfunny doppelganger willing to make jokes about the Daleks' inability to climb stairs on Have I Got News For You. In 2011!

TONY: Luckily, it's that high watermark we're looking at here, courtesy of the entire series being freely available to view on 4OD. The first episode was promoted by Merton wearing a T-shirt that said "TURN OVER AT 11" on Have I Got News For You an hour previous, and a later episode closed with Merton furiously eating a massive bowl of cornflakes, with the punchline being "that was a party political broadcast for the Campaign To Legalise Cannabis" which the studio audience found utterly hilarious but which I still don't get. But which will episode will be sent out to bat today? Over to King Edward VII at the randomiser.

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USAVICH: SERIES ONE

PAUL MERTON THE SERIES: SERIES TWO, EPISODE TWO

TONY: Here’s how it’s going to work. Both of the chosen episodes are to be watched SEMI-SIMULTANEOUSLY (the team tried watching both actual-simultaneously, but things soon got hugely confusing). As events in each programme catch the eye of the ‘referee’ at key points of the ‘match’, points can be added – or subtracted – accordingly. If it works out at all, I’ll be astonished quite frankly. If nothing else, it’ll be a huge strain on the creaky old PC in the BrokenTV office. Over to today’s match officials, the BrokenTV crew.

KICK OFF

1 minute

Paul Merton gets off to a sedate start, with its familiar “letters on a washing line” title sequence, while Usavich leaps straight into gear with a snappy title card, and a setting we’ll be getting very familiar with, the inside of the prison cell that contains our two rabbit pals, with Green Rabbit jogging keenly on the spot while his cellmate, the volatile Red Rabbit, lies on his bed reading a magazine about sneakers. A prison guard arrives, and delivers the prisoners’ dinner: one raw fish each. Green Rabbit takes his fish, but before he can drop it into his rabbity mouth, the fish springs to life, slapping him about the face repeatedly in a comical manner.

Red Rabbit looks at his plate, and with clear distain walks to the cell door in order to remonstrate with the guard, throwing his unappetising meal in the cell’s toilet bowl as he does so. The guard reacts by sliding through an alternate meal: a Looney-Tunes-issue fish skeleton on a plate. Chuffed at his piscine retort, the guard guffaws with gusto through the slot of the cell door, only for Red Rabbit to SLAM the plate of fishbone into the guard’s chortling chops. The guard chokes tearfully from behind the cell door, and with frenzied rage uses a pair of grabby metal arms to try and beat Red Rabbit with a club. And yes, all that happens within the first sixty seconds.

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Over in the Merton corner, the first thirty seconds are taken up with that title sequence before we cut to Paul Merton’s chirpy news-stand vendor character, effectively the lynchpin of the show. Aside him on his newsstand is a record player, pumping out some jaunty muzak, which Merton explains contains subliminal messages with which to encourage customers to buy more.

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We soon see what he means, as a customer enters (played by Robert Harley). As he requests a couple of items from the stand, the muzak track calmly suggests in a measured tone, “buy a newspaper”. With a slightly bemused expression falling across his face, the customer appends “…and a copy of the Daily Rubbish, please” onto his list of items.

Nice little bit, but Usavich’s cracking pace takes the point: USAVICH 1, PAUL MERTON THE SERIES 0

1-5 minutes

Yeah, we’re not doing actual minute by minute, we’d be here all week. In the time since the last update, Merton’s customer felt compelled to buy some cigarettes (“what brand?” “I don’t know, I don’t smoke”), a pig on a stick, and due to the record skipping, eight boxes of chocolates. From here, Merton goes on a riff about sending Picasso portraits into space along with a note asking aliens if any of them look like the paintings because no bugger down here does, and wonders why every single man in Iraq has a black moustache (“because they can’t all think it suits them”). And he said some other things while we were typing all this.

We’re on a roll now, and into the first proper sketch, Merton and players at an army medal-giving ceremony (whatever they’re called, we’re too busy to think properly). Merton’s major and the general (probably, no time for fact-checking) soon run out of DSOs, leading to the remaining soldiers picking the medals they fancy most from the box, as if they were a box of Celebrations. The medals soon run out entirely, meaning the squaddies end up being awarded anything Merton can lay his hands on, such as a fag packet, a Shredded Wheat, and a saucepan, all of which are dutifully pinned onto their chests. A nice bit of surrealism, and a nice punchline at the end that we won’t spoil. As we reach the five minute mark, a beauty salon sketch opens up, meaning this has been a good five minutes for the lad Merton.

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Meanwhile, it Japanese-animation-studio Russia, Red Rabbit has gone totally batshit on the guard, so much so that instead of his fishbone lunch, he’s rewarded with a lovely juicy carrot. The episode closes as he tucks into it, pulling back to reveal the fish still slapping Green Rabbit about the face. Onto episode two: “Time For Work”. We know this because we can read Japanese (oh, okay, we looked at the filename). The prisoners are told to earn their upkeep (well, shown, as there’s no dialogue in the entire series). Green Rabbit is given a tray of mismatched Russian Dolls, which he soon keenly assembles into their correct order. Unimpressed, the guard gives him another task: sexing chicks.

Green Rabbit keenly slides the various baby chickens into the correct tubes, much to the annoyance of the guard. Until, that is, Green Rabbit arrives at the curveball placed in the tray: a transgender baby chicken. Nervous sweat drips from Green Rabbit’s head as he ponders what to do, until he tries classifying the androgynous chicklet as a female. This turns out to be incorrect, leading to the sound of a klaxon and Green Rabbit getting slapped across the face with a whip. At this point, the door changes to a pseudo bank, where Green Rabbit is to receive his ‘payment’ for the day’s work: a single shiny coin. The banker flips the coin into the cell in slow-motion, and as the sound of Bach’s cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147 plays (and yes, we looked that up so you’ll think we’re cultured) the coin falls ever nearer to the toilet bowl, upon which Red Rabbit is sitting. Calmly, Red Rabbit moves aside, allowing the coin to land inside the toilet bowl, closely followed by Green Rabbit.

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Ep three begins, with both Green and Red Rabbit receiving showers from a firehose held phallus-like by the guard. This ends with Red Rabbit ripping the cell door from the hinges, the guard (still hidden behind the now unattached cell door) giving Red Rabbit a less humiliating shower, while a naked Green Rabbit dries on a clothes line, his modesty covered by a hovering Transgender Baby Chicken. This takes us up to the first thirty seconds of ep four, where Red Rabbit fashions a crude game of pool from the cell door, nine Russian dolls, and TGBC.

So, Usavich still cramming a load of content in there, but Merton’s blend of whimsy, trad comedy foolishness and Shredded Wheat sees him nab an quick equaliser. USAVICH 1, PAUL MERTON THE SERIES 1.

5-10 minutes

Usavich to kick off. The pool game starts with the cue ball slammed painfully into a cheeping TGBC. A game of ping-ping is then fashioned, and long story short, it all ends sadistically badly for the guard. And TGBC gets eaten by a frog in the toilet.

Onto ep 5, and it’s an entertaining fusion of everyday sounds in the cell combining to make a form of music. You know, like the bit with Tyres in the kitchen in that episode of Spaced, or a bit like something in a Cornelius video, if you prefer. It ends with the frog shitting out a noticeably embarrassed TGBC. Yep, this isn’t particularly highbrow, but still oddly compelling. We dash into ep 6 (“Time for Visitors”), and Green Rabbit is excitedly hoping to see a member of his family drop by, only for the visitors to turn out to be The Frog’s Mum, and TGBC’s sexless parent. The tearful reunion for the latter pairing is cut short, as the frog eats TGBC again. A frenzied Mr (or Mrs) TGBC bursts through the glass and leaps into the cell to the sound of Bach. Sadly for Mr (or Mrs) TGBC, he (or she) lands on the notoriously short-tempered Red Rabbit, who reacts by eating cooked Mr (or Mrs) TGBC for lunch (or dinner).

The first minute of ep 7 (“Time for Exercise”) has the guard peep a whistle for Green Rabbit to exercise along to. The pace of the whistling quickens, leading to Green Rabbit getting more and more exhausted, finally collapsing on the cell floor. The guard, clearly unimpressed at Red Rabbit not joining in with the routine, bangs loudly on the cell floor in order to attract the attention of Red Rabbit. Red Rabbit takes this new event as well as you might expect, but instead of flying into a furious rage, menacingly strolls to the cell door, and takes the whistle from the hand of the terrified guard.

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Goal kick to Paul Merton, and that beauty salon sketch. A nice throwaway gag about a new assistant forgetting to slice cucumbers before placing them on customers’ eyes. Next sketch, a pair of mountaineers trapped in a freezing hut halfway up a mountain. wondering what terrible fate might have befell their companion who’d ventured out in a blizzard to try and get some rations a long time ago. It seems he must surely have succumbed to the terrible conditions, a fate surely now awaiting themselves. Enter Merton, carrying shopping bags while complaining about the wait he’d endured in the supermarket.

Cue one of Merton’s always enjoyable bits where he plays the comic foil to a room full of essentially ‘straight’ characters, our favourite of which would probably be the one where he plays Frankenstein’s monster (but which isn’t in this episode). Here, he goes through the collection of items in his shopping bags, stating how items quite useless in this situation such as kitchen roll and light bulbs couldn’t be passed up at such bargain prices. The sketch rolls on from there for about a minute or so, until we hit the eight minute mark, and a sketch where Merton (in a suit) addresses a scrum of reporters and photographers. It turns out that he’s a spokesperson for a hospital, where an unlucky patient turned out to be the surprise recipient of a new heart she hadn’t asked for. Unfortunately, due to a further misunderstanding, the heart she’d had transplanted into her body had been that of a pigeon. The story grows yet more surreal from this point, with our diagnosis being: this is a nice sketch.

Interesting to note that while PM:TS was a pretty low-budget affair by 1993 standards, it probably had more money spent on it than a sketch series you might see on British television nowadays, leading to the same half-dozen gags being recycled endlessly, if only to cut down on the costume and location budget, plus that gives you something to put on your tour T-shirts.

Back at the series, another trad sketch, where Paul Merton’s treasure hunter follows a map displaying a dotted trail leading to a tantalising ‘X’ symbol. Reaching the coordinates displayed on the map, he starts to dig, and…

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Hey, sometimes the obvious jokes ARE the best jokes. Though you’ll know we think that if you’ve read this blog for any length of time.

USAVICH 1, PAUL MERTON 2.

10-15 minutes

Usavich to kick off, and we’re back at the exercise episode, with Red Rabbit having just taken the whistle. As might be expected, Red Rabbit forces the guard to do some exercises as strenuous as the ones which made Green Rabbit a wheezing mass of sweat and fur at the start of the episode. ONTO EP 8, and Green Rabbit is playing a game of cards with the guard. Each hand Green Rabbit plays suggests the outcome he’d like to see, showing cards that generally involve him finally being set free from the prison. The guard’s hands are more menacing though, involving nooses, electric chairs and the like, sending Green Rabbit into a nervous cold sweat. As Green Rabbit finally collapses with shock, Red Rabbit decides to take part in the game.

A nervous guard plays the same hand he’d used to frighten Green Rabbit into submission, but this time is just met with the cold unblinking gaze of Red Rabbit, who plays his ‘Joker’ cards, denoting a demonic Red Rabbit going Tonto with various weapons. The scene ends with Red Rabbit counting his winnings while the battered guard serves him chilled wine.

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EP NINE – “Time for a Snack”. The two rabbits are given a snack of what appears to be sugar cubes on a plate. Green Rabbit sucks pleasurably on his, while Red Rabbit rises, walks to the cell door, and forces them into the eye sockets of the guard. The guard reacts by serving an alternative snack, a delicious pudding, albeit one containing a barely-concealed bomb. Red Rabbit eats the snack in one chomp, the bomb exploding inside his belly, resulting in no more damage than a puff of black smoke floating from his burping mouth. Onto episode ten: “Time for Toilet” – Green Rabbit, while dancing, realises he desperately needs to go plop-plops. One problem – his psychotic cellmate is using the only toilet in the cell. The guard spots this, and ramps up the tension by prodding at Green Rabbit’s abdomen with a long stick. The episode ends with… ah, we won’t spoil it.

THROW-IN TO MERTON, and a return to the newsstand for the remainder of Part One. A customer approaches the newsstand, and notices a sign stating that everything is on sale. “Everything’s half price, it’s all fire-damaged stock”, explains Merton. “Alright then, I’ll have a packet of cigarettes”, requests the customer, only to be handed an ashtray full of cigarette butts. It’s not that much of a con, though – Merton also offers the customer the smoke from the cigarettes, contained within an inflated balloon. Merton then goes into a lovely routine about a one-legged man at a bus stop, a choc-ice, and a mass slaughter of Loyd Grossman lookalikes.

PART TWO and we’re back at the newsstand, and Merton eating a big spoonful of Brylcreem. Via a bit about his newsstand offering dry cleaning (“Haven’t got one that’s white with green stripes, just this one that’s green with white stripes”) we’re onto his ace sketch about a man placing unorthodox bets in a bookmakers:

“Here, d’you remember me? I came in here last week and made a bet that they’d discover life on another planet within the year. Here’s my betting slip.”

“Oh yeah, £5 at 10,000/1, I remember.”

“Well, I’ve just been up to Mars, and I found this ant up there.”

Even more brilliant betting-based banter ensues. Lovely stuff.

“Right, when you’re dead in the year 3000 you can come in here and claim your winnings.”

If you’ve not seen it for a while – or (gasp!) ever – it’s definitely worth watching Paul Merton: The Series again. While it was put out in a post-watershed slot on still-any-good-era C4, it’s easily the kind of humour that could’ve screened during Christmas Day on BBC One.

USAVICH 1, PAUL MERTON THE SERIES 3

15 minutes +

Merton reclaims the ball straight from the kick-off (because we want to see the ending of the brilliant bookmakers sketch). Back to more stand-up delivered amongst newspapers and Mars bars, and it’s all a reminder of what a bloody good stand-up Merton was at the time. The twenty minute mark is reached during an enjoyable two-hander with Paul Merton and Neil Mullarkey on a studio-set train platform. A throwaway gag about videogame addiction aside (back when they were still referred to as ‘computer games’), a throwback to a running gag from series one (we think), and a final sketch with Robert Daws and Merton playing businessman in charge of a struggling company. What seems like it might be a diverting but unspectacular ending to the episode takes an unexpected turn when Merton’s character comes clean about his past in the illicit world of Old Woman Racing, with the action displayed in the live-action/stop-motion manner also used for Monty Python’s Furniture Racing sketch and Spike Milligan’s Standing Still Race.

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So, a possible chance to claw back some dignity by the Usavich camp. Four episodes to go, which see the guard attempt to decapitate, poison, torture, shoot, and explode Red Rabbit, all to be… ‘vigorously rebuffed’.

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Finally, in the series closer, Green Rabbit is due for release. Upon spotting a particularly enticing pair of sneakers for sale in his magazine, Red Rabbit soon has ideas for an exit of his own, leading to the first action taking place outside of the cell, and setting up series two very nicely indeed.

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A late consolation for Usavich, then.

FINAL SCORE: USAVICH 2, PAUL MERTON THE SERIES 3

Usavich is certainly a series of animations well worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of the utterly demented Japanese humour that you might find in games like WarioWare, PuLiRuLa or Super Galdelic Hour. You can see the entire first series of Usavich here, though be warned, it’s running at a distractingly less than optimal frame rate. Various episodes of the other series are on YouTube too, though their availability seems be at the mercy of Viacom’s legal department.

Unfortunately for Kirenenko and Putin (the real names of the rabbits, we’ve just looked them up), Paul Merton: The Series is just too bloody good a comedy show for it to compete against, though that works out quite well for us, as we’ve only got one more series (i.e. twenty more minutes) of the show in full, and it’s all so packed it’s a nightmare to write about in a hurry. Phew, eh? If you read all that up there, well done to you, frankly.

So, Paul Merton takes up the first slot in Round Two, but who will be joining him? Looking at our schedule, the next match is a tantalising tussle between CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and HANCOCK’S HALF HOUR. See you then!

(Reader’s voice: “When?”)

Erm, soon. These take ages to do, you know.

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