Why ‘It’s Kevin’ didn’t work, and an analysis of absurdity in comedy

It's Kevin - Eldon - BBC 2The actor Kevin Eldon finally has his own comedy show, and it is…different. Which isn’t surprising, as Eldon has been a regular actor on the periphery of numerous original and groundbreaking shows for well over a decade. Here, he mixes absurdism and weirdness and is supported by a whole host of famous friends.

I didn’t find It’s Kevin (BBC 2, Sundays) to be that funny. Too many sketches fell flat. But I far prefer any show which attempts to be original and fails sometimes, to one which treads well-worn ground and remains consistently mediocre. I want to try and explain why I think the show failed more than it succeeded, and why it has been damned with faint praise.

The main issue with It’s Kevin is that it used absurdism as a crutch. Surreal absurdity was used in places where an actual joke would have improved the sketch considerably. Some sketches didn’t have any jokes at all. A woman squawks like a bird. A man eats porridge in a sloppy way. A different guy carries around a cut-out of Camilla Parker Bowles.

Absurdism in comedy is a really tricky line to walk. Fall one side of it and you can come across like a teenage girl telling people she’s ‘so random!!’ I hate myself for linking to a meme here, but the ‘t3h PeNgU1N oF d00m’ meme perfectly sums up this attempt at humour. Channel 4’s new sketch show, Anna and Katy, is guilty of this weak, wacky absurdity.

On the other hand, absurd humour when done right is amazing. Jack Handy for instance is outstanding at turning strange tangents into an art form. And yet it’s quite difficult to explain exactly what differentiates Handy’s writing from a ‘random’ Anna and Katy sketch, which shows just how close the divide is between absurd comedy genius and random teenage girl.

The most illuminating comparison I can make is between absurd comedy in South Park and the same in Family Guy. An episode from the former show – ‘South Park is Gay!’ – satirises a metrosexual fad in culture, and a change in attitude to homosexuals on television. The episode’s antagonists are a group of gay men who, near the episode’s end, burst out of their human bodies and are revealed to be crab people, intent on taking over the world. ‘Crab people, crab people, taste like crab, talk like people.’

I really can’t do it justice with a description, but it is hilarious and great absurd humour. But if you listen to Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s commentary on the episode, you’ll hear something quite interesting. ‘Crab people’ was actually a placeholder – a ‘dummy version’ – used by the writers until they could think of a smarter ending for the episode.

Trey Parker: ‘We were trying to think of a smarter version, and then we were like: ‘let’s go with the dummy version.’ We did the crab people and it was a total down the middle split. Half the people thought it was great and half the people thought it was the dumbest thing ever. I go back and forth. It’s one of those things that is so dumb that it’s pretty rad.’

Matt Stone: ‘I have a soft spot in my heart for crab people. But I don’t have an argument when [our producer] bitches about crab people, because she’s basically right. It’s kind of lazy.’

This is an atmosphere in which good absurd comedy can thrive. Both Parker and Stone are perfectly aware of the pitfalls in that form of humour; how lazy it can be, and how stupid. Now, compare their attitude to the attitude of Family Guy writers.

One of the most famous recurring jokes on that show is one in which the main character fights a chicken. It is over five minutes long. That’s 25% of the show’s entire runtime. There are no jokes whatsoever. And this is not a one-off. They have done the chicken joke four times, and this type of humour is standard for Family Guy. These jokes are like 80% of Family Guy’s comedy.

You saw above how the discussion about an absurd joke went down in the South Park writer’s room. How do you think it works in the Family Guy version?

‘Okay, start of the show. Who’s got a joke?’

‘Yeah, how about five minutes of Peter fighting a chicken?’

‘That is hilarious lets do it. Now, next five minutes.’

‘How about we cut away to footage of the singer Conway Twitty?’

‘Amazing, you are a comedy fucking genius.’

That is absurdity as a crutch. That is teenage girl ‘random!!’ comedy, penguin of doom comedy. And unfortunately, far too much of Kevin Eldon’s show was Family Guy, and not enough of it was South Park.

Random Notes on It’s Kevin:

  • I found the ‘Not everyone is called Ben’ sketch to be really funny. And that is absurd humour. And I can’t really explain why I found it funny. It is really quite a tricky type of comedy to analyse, absurdism, so apologies if you disagree with everything I wrote above.
  • ‘It’s a simple enough premise for God’s sake, go along with it.’ ‘There you go; first show of the series. Some people might say it’s a bit disjointed.’ Self-referential humour is another type of comedy which is often used as a crutch.
  • ‘Next week: We investigate why summer bookings are down at the Doncaster ice hotel.’ A funny joke. The show could use more funny jokes.
  • The songs were pretty good. I kind of enjoyed the show as a whole, despite not laughing very often.
  • ‘At any given moment there are 57 billion sandwiches in the world. And if they were laid crust to crust they would stretch all the way from here to Mars. And then back here again. And then back again to Mars. And then back here again. And then back again to Mars. And then back here again.

…….And back again to Mars.’

It’s Kevin Reviews: Episode Two, Episode Three, Episode Four, Episode Five, ……………………..Episode Six

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