Show type: Edinburgh Fringe 2006
The Cowards are a four-man sketch troupe who write smart,
funny sketches and perform them in jeans and pumps and short-sleeved
shirts. Their sketches straddle the delightfully naturalistic
and the wondrously fantastical and are populated by believable,
flawed heroes and na´ve also-rans.
Just before coming to the Fringe, the Cowards were awarded
a six-part Radio 4 sketch series, and from this show it's not
hard to understand why. Unfortunately that doesn't necessarily
mean they're any good, but rather they're representative of the
worst traits in modern sketch comedy on radio and TV.
To address the positives first: the performers all do a great
job of portraying their characters, even if they happen to be
animals or inanimate objects in sketches that initially omit
that key bit of information, leading to a fun moment of revelation
when it's figured out.
Unfortunately the sketches themselves follow what has become
a very traditional pattern. They have a odd set up, some odd
things happen, there's no punchline, but we move onto the next
sketch anyway. When Monty Python first did this it was fresh,
original and different. When Cowards do it decades and numerous
sketch shows later it just feels like they couldn't think of
a punchline, so decide to say something silly/offensive/weird
Sometimes they deliberately go out of their way to avoid them:
one sketch contains the wonderful, and almost in-context, line
'The net result of it is she can now see through walls' , which
gets a hearty laugh. But rather than end the sketch on what ought
to be that punchline, they extend it by another 30 seconds for
no reason, ending instead on: 'Well, fuck you then.' The writers
seem to be so desperate to avoid conforming to a traditional
structure for even one sketch that they'll trample over a perfect
punchline to do so, such seems to be their fear of losing that
'weird and wacky' vibe.
There's also a few cringeworthy sketches, one where two men
start talking incessantly at someone that attempts to mug them,
resulting in the mugger shooting one of them as he 'couldn't
stand the banter, it was so contrived', when it's the whole sketch
that feels contrived. A second just has a man who doesn't want
to go into a hall of mirrors. After continuous cajoling eventually
shouts out that he can't as 'they make me want to get my cock
out'. It's the sort of thing you'd expect from a bunch of sixth-formers
who still find shouting the word 'cock' funny.
Cowards isn't a complete train-wreck: there's a couple of
decent sketches, a few that are funny up to a point, and some
concepts that are amusing in themselves.
But it seems far too concerned with being edgy, surreal and
weird that it forgets to be funny, and fails to notice that it's
not being new and innovative either. And perhaps that explains
why Radio 4 have picked it up: they're hoping to seem modern
and forward-looking by picking up a show that features new young
talent, while knowing it follows in a long and established tradition
of 'alternative' sketch shows.