No Pressure to Be Funny

Note: This review is from 2013

Review by Steve Bennett

How astute of them to put the ethos of the show in the title. Not every moment of No Pressure To Be Funny is indeed funny, but this topical panel-show format now entering its third year, still offers plenty of laughs.

The premise is that panelists – tonight Phill Jupitus, Andrew Maxwell, Wayne Deakin and journalist Miranda Sawyer – are given the latitude to talk around the subject, to go in depth if they need to without the need to land a gag every 20 seconds.

But being (mostly) comedians, they can’t help but crack wise, and there are very few moments when they plunge into any great depth – though they do lob in ideas that go beyond the superficial personal jibes against politicians that tend to be bread-and-butter of shows like this.

Indeed, in a reversal of many talk shows, one of the longest periods without a laugh is when host James O’Brien – a host on London phone-in radio station LBC – delivers a rather pained and obvious opening monologue. But not to worry, he comes alive with the cut-and-thrust of the discussion, just like his panelists.

Similarly comedian co-creator Alistair Barrie’s opening chunk, called Devil’s Advocate, is more a set-up for the topics to come, rather than being particularly chuckle-worthy in its own right. But then some of his topics, such as the fatal protests in Egypt, were never going to be the stuff of comedy.

Topics on the main menu today include the promised EU referendum, horse DNA in beefburgers, and the HS2 rail line. But adherence to the story in hand isn’t mandatory, and digressions that include Jupitus reminiscing about gigging in rural Ireland, or a conversation about squirrel syphilis, all go into the mix.

Unlike ‘straight’ political panel shows, there’s no need for balance, so the tone is of the broad centre-left consensus – only two people in the whole audience would identify themselves as eurosceptics, for example. But the plus side is that the discussions don’t become a left-right shouting match; which means fringe, or even dubious, ideas are allowed to ferment, in the hope of a joke coming at the end of it. And, indeed, several great mini-routines do emerge from the discussion.

There are also some set pieces. Nick Revell, who devised the format with Barrie, opens the second half with a strong piece of witty, polemical stand-up about the Gerard Scarfe Sunday Times cartoon labelled anti-Semitic because it stood against the Israeli state’s behaviour. And Pippa Evans’s psychotic alter-ego Loretta Maine expertly screeched a couple of amusing numbers in the name of variety, which might not have been in the news, but were topical ‘because it’s about what I’m feeling now’.

Of tonight’s team, Maxwell – a regular on Irish TV’s The Panel – was in his element; while Jupitus took the approach of making a quip for every occasion in the hope that some would stick, as indeed they did. As the non-comic Sawyer held her own; but Deakin, about to return to his native Australia, didn’t seem to be on top of the UK news brief enough to do more than lob in the odd gag, even if they were decent.

Despite its aim to be different, No Pressure To Be Funny – which is also aired as a podcast –  is still rather like any other topical comedy panel show, and you can imagine producers, if they were so inclined, chopping the two-hour show into a jaunty half-hour in the mould of The News Quiz or Have I Got News For You. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, however, and this is still an entertaining evening out that sets its sights higher than the easy joke, and consequently generates some strong laughs from the interactions between smart comic minds.

Review date: 4 Feb 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Soho Theatre

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