Beyond parody?

Susan Harrison on the challenges of spoofing today's TV

Once upon a time a TV talent contest consisted of Brian from Winchester putting on a Tom Jones wig, having a really nice time and going home to watch his performance on VHS while eating some Angel Delight to celebrate. Well times have changed; Stars In Their Eyes has morphed in to the overblown, manipulation fest that is the X Factor and all its offshoots.

Eight years ago, when reality talent contests as we now know them came in to my consciousness, I was performing in a very long run of a play. Myself and the rest of the cast used to do impressions of the judges and contestants in the wings of the theatre to amuse each other, and when the play ended our attempts at a reality TV spoof began.

What followed was months of watching X Factor (purely for research purposes you understand), devising, writing and performing sketches on stage. Along the way a viewpoint I often encountered was: 'What you’re doing won’t work because you can’t spoof a spoof.' The feeling was that because X Factor and the like are so absurd it is not possible to squeeze any more comedy from them.

At the time I vehemently disagreed. Surely if the jokes were strong enough, the characters truthful and surreal enough, if fun was poked at the massive machine of television itself and the egos of the judges involved (as opposed to the contestants) there would be plenty of mileage? Alas we were never to find out, because lack of time, money and considerable emotional burnout conspired against us, and the group eventually dissipated before we’d been able to film a pilot fit for public consumption.

Not long after we’d unofficially ended our own project, Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got The Pop Factor And Possibly A New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly On Ice came out. I watched with interest, not only as a fan of comedy but as someone who had spent three years attempting to explore a similar idea.

Most comedy fans would agree that the best spoofs have affection for their subjects, but make full use of their head as well as their heart. Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap got the balance of this perfectly. The core cast loved and understood the music they were parodying enough to actually play it really well, the characters were fully formed, the improvised dialogue was sharp and the visual gags (Stonehenge for example) were unsurpassed. It is to my mind the perfect spoof.

Britain’s Got The Pop Factor... however was a very different beast, and the critical reaction wasn’t great. One problem was that Peter Kay was too soft on his targets. Tenderness needs bite to make it mouth-wateringly funny.

Another problem was lack of ideas. As all of Christopher Guest’s films demonstrate, there is so much more humour to be mined from an ensemble cast of improvisers rather than the onus being all on one person. Watching Britain’s’ Got the Pop Factor… felt more like the Peter Kay Show… or rather The Geraldine Show.

A few critics were positive and emphasised the number of viewers who tuned in, while yet more emphasised the amount of viewers who turned off halfway through. But what struck me most then (as now) though was the old refrain: 'You can’t spoof a spoof. 'Perhaps the TV talent show – simultaneously slushy and calculating – is beyond parody,' The Guardian said.

Perhaps. And perhaps not. Perhaps the problem wasn’t the subject matter it was the execution. Perhaps the script was just too soft, too flabby, with not enough jokes and lazily written characters. Perhaps reality TV is not 'unspoofable', perhaps it just needs a really clever mind to do it.

Then along came Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe: The Great British Wee which proved this to be the case. Admittedly this wasn’t a talent show spoof, more a deconstruction of a particular type of reality TV, but nevertheless he was parodying the very genre which many said was unspoofable.

'There you go,' I thought: 'You can spoof these programmes, they’re all up for grabs. You just need to be Charlie Brooker to do it.'

Or so I thought.

But something monumental happened lately which made me question whether this was the case. One day as I was going about the important business of checking my Twitter with the TV on in the background I heard Stacey Solomon say in her inimitable tones: 'Love him. Love the dinosaur costume. But I don’t think this is for Yoda.'

She was talking about a dog. I had discovered ITV2’s Top Dog Model, a reality TV talent show about dogs. Being models. About dogs being models. About actual dogs (animals) getting modelling contracts and becoming actual models. The format was exactly the same as X Factor et al, from the casual chats in the holding room ('I don’t mind horse poo ‘cause it’s clean …it’s better than dog poo') to the tragic back stories ('I was told he was un-trainable and he’s not… he came to me with a few problems… we’d like to show that rescue dogs can be beautiful'), to the deluded hopefuls ('We share a passion for amateur dramatics').

The content is affectionately similar to any other reality TV talent contest. The contestants go to Paw Camp, there are guest judges (Ashley and Pudsey from Britain’s’ Got Talent) and the judges make difficult decisions with uplifting music in the background: 'I have to listen to these two… but also I have to listen to my heart.'

It is in many ways the perfect compromise. And the lovely thing is that the contestants (unlike the poor deluded souls who go through rounds and rounds of off camera vetting on X Factor before being publicly humiliated on stage) have no notion of how they are doing in the competition or even that they’re in a competition at all. After all Sparky the rescue dog isn’t going to get a complex about his weight or have to read tabloid exposes about his seedy past or block horrid people from Twitter.

I was - and am - amazed. Could it be that Top Dog Model renders Best In Show, Christopher Guest’s other masterpiece about a dog show, redundant? Or perhaps it is simply a new breed of spoof, if you’ll pardon the pun?

More likely is that Top Dog Model heralds a call to action to comedy writers who (to use the reality TV show parlance) really need to give it 110 per cent to successfully spoof the new delights that are out there.

So on your marks, get set, SPOOF.

Published: 25 Sep 2012

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