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William Shatner in The Twilight Zone episode &...

William Shatner in The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Good news for fans of the horror-comedy anthology series this month: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are working on a new series for BBC2, and In The Gloaming is returning with a new episode to the Leicester Square Theatre at the end of October. Admittedly, those two pieces of news might not have quite the same impact, but with the success of last year’s Black Mirror, it’s a hopeful sign that the horror-comedy anthology series might be on the way back.

It’s a format that, just a couple of years ago, seemed irretrievably lost. In the arc-heavy, densely-plotted world of television of the 2000s, the idea that you wouldn’t continue a story from week to week seemed like a quaint anachronism, one of things you were able to do in television’s infancy, but that had been superseded, like a clock to count you down to the programme’s start or actors who hadn’t eaten worms in a jungle.

Shows that were held up as the epitome of the new storytelling – 24, Lost, Heroes – had taken the twist ending to beloved of anthology shows, but used it to drive you into next week’s episode, rather than nastily rounding things off for the audience and trusting they’d come back for more. The showrunner who seemed to be the most direct descendant of Rod Serling – J.J. Abrams – was held up as an example of why shows like The Twilight Zone just weren’t feasible any more.

The 1990s saw revivals of The Outer LimitsThe Twilight Zone, and the creation of Tales From The Crypt in the US. In Britain we had Murder Most Horrid, which ran for four series and won a British Comedy Award, but it pretty much stood alone*. Hammer House Of Horror and Tales Of The Unexpected had given up the ghost, and there was nothing to fill their shoes.

There were a couple of attempts to revive the format in the early 2000s. It’s diffiocult to know whether or not to count Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible as a proper horror-comedy anthology series because it’s a spoof. The jokes come mainly from the way in which they parody actual anthology series (and lots of knob gags), rather than from the stories themselves.

It’s difficult not to drift into spoof sometimes, though. Particularly in its titles, Murder Most Horrid often made fun of the conventions of the murder-mystery. The League Of Gentlemen Christmas Special (much like The Simpsons‘ Treehouse Of Horror series) are all the more effective for having a stock bag of horror cliches to play with.

In In The Gloaming we made a conscious effort to avoid spoof, but sometimes the comedy relies on your awareness of the genre, and your audience’s awareness of the genre.  Even so, listening back, there’s one joke in ‘Dead Skinny’ that only works as a take on the old ‘disappearing shop’ bit (and which, in retrospect, The Simpsons also mocked in their ‘Monkey’s Paw’ episode.)

Reece Shearsmith as Papa Lazarou.

Reece Shearsmith as Papa Lazarou. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The third series of The League of Gentlemen was a comedy-horror anthology series, tied together with the motif of the crashing van, and it was an interesting development from the more sketchy format of the first two series. BBC Three also had a go at the format with Spine Chillers, which I never saw (2003 was something of a ‘lost year’ for me. I am reasonably reliably informed that it was much like 2002 and 2004).

And that was pretty much it for a decade. Not only was it not attempted, but it was thought of as impossible.

I first developed In the Gloaming as a series of shorts for Comedybox in 2007/8. When that inevitably went the way of all sites that were producing internet comedy (and not allowing you to embed the videos) during 2008 that was one of the projects that sank with it.

After doing Tonightly I reworked it as a television pitch, and took it to a few TV production companies in the autumn of 2008. Everyone thought it would be far too expensive (which may well have been a nice way of saying, “We saw Tonightly. No thank you.”) and it wasn’t the sort of thing anyone was looking for.

At around the same time I went to a BAFTA screening of Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, which had a Q&A after it. At that, he mentioned that he was working in something like Tales Of The Unexpected. I gave a grim chuckle. Horror anthology series seemed dead in the water. (Which would be an episode where a businessman in a yacht rescues a drowning man far out at sea, only to discover that he’s his exact doppleganger…)

There was a place, of course, for the anthology series. On the radio. BBC Radio Seven (what is now Four Extra) had revived The Man In Black with none other than Mark Gatiss in the titular role. So, in 2009, we decided to do In The Gloaming as a series of audio podcasts. We had great casts (Michael Greco, Lizzie Roper, Darren Strange, Ruth Bratt, John Voce, Rachel Stubbings), and we won some awards, but, for too many reasons to list here, we only managed to do four episodes.

Fast forward two years: Black Mirror is filming its second seriesHappy Endings will be coming out next year, and there are brand new episode of In The Gloaming  live in London.

It’s a great time to be a horror-comedy fan.

And I can finally use the sign-off line I never dared use on any of the podcasts:

“You won’t know whether to piss yourself or shit yourself.”

Good night. Mhwah ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaa!

* Incidentally, my father-in-law played a Chinnery-esque butcher in an episode of Murder Most Horrid. You can see him here:

Two years ago we released the first of the In The Gloaming podcasts, for Hallowe’en 2009. Our original plan was to make six. We got to four. (If you want a list of some of the many things we did wrong, I wrote a long post-mortem here. In fact, if you’re podcasting it is full of useful Dos and Donts. Mainly Donts.)

However, I got to work making half-hour horror comedies with some incredibly talented people. The casts included: Ruth Bratt, Michael Greco, Lizzie Roper, John Voce, John Hopkins, Zoe S Battley, Darren Strange, Sally Chattawa, Emma Powell, and Rachel Stubbings). I got to make one of those people wail “But these are my Beppe shoes!”

Anyway, because nothing is never truly dead on the Internet, and because it’s Hallowe’en, why not download one (or four), and have a creepy, funny Samhain? The Archive with all of the episodes is here. And then tell your friends.

In fact, don’t even bother to do that. Just click down there and start listening right now. Just click. DO what the creepy man says and click. What could possibly go wrong? After all, it’s Hallowe’en…

In The Gloaming may be a corpse, but it’s an animated one.

Sort of.

(Oh, I also have a short story in this month’s issue of Black Static, Britain’s foremost horror magazine, available at all good newsagents. End plug.)

This article was originally published on the Spectator Arts Blog on September 10th.

I am rubbish at interviews.

During an interview with BBC Kent last week, I was in the middle of telling a joke for which the punchline was “A penchant for ethnic cleansing, incest, and the films of Matthew McConaughey” when I realised that most of those things were inappropriate for an early afternoon on the nation’s broadcaster of record. Especially Matthew McConaughey.

Did I calmly think of a new punchline? Did I deftly redirect the questioning to a happier place? Did I turn it into a musical number?

No. I stopped half-way through the punchline (just after “ethnic”) and then just listed random nouns for a few seconds, while my brain pedalled thin air like Wile E. Coyote. Needless to say I plummeted into a stony chasm of radio silence while the presenter gamely tried to work out if what I had said was even in English.

I am rubbish at interviews.

One staple question of the interview with comedians is: “Are men funnier than women?” Or, worse: “Why are men funnier than women?” Or, in the passive-aggressive formulation I was asked last week: “I don’t find women comedians as funny as men. Why do you think that is?”

The answer, of course, is: Because you’re a horrible sexist.

It’s really that simple. Obviously, it wasn’t the answer I gave. The answer I gave was nuanced, talked about implicit power relationships with people who are on stage, and a hyper-aggressive culture in some aspects of the comedy world. It was also not the whole truth. The whole truth is that telling journalists that they are horrible sexists doesn’t win you any favours. I am not a horrible sexist. I am a horrible coward.

This is a subject that pops its outdated head above the parapet with dreary regularity. Even Christopher Hitchens has stooped to write about how much funnier men are than women, littering the article with sodden, sub-Richard Curtis analogies in what we can only assume is an exercise in disproving the argument of a piece of prose using the evidence of the prose itself. Give him a participle long enough and Hitch will hang himself…

On its return from Edinburgh, Chortle, the comedy website, did a breakdown of its reviews over the course of the Festival. This analysed the star ratings given by Chortle reviewers, and led to the startling finding that, on average, the reviews of men’s solo shows garnered 0.23 more stars than the solo shows of women. They also broke down the number of stars by venue and reviewer, and published these moderately interesting figures under the headline “Men ‘are funnier than women’”

In 2010, the difference was 0.23 stars. Yes, ‘stars’ is a scientifically valid term. Each star is composed of 64% applause duration, 12% applause volume, 8% performer sexiness & 16% booze with a +/- 5% guffaw modifier. That’s 0.23 stars out of a possible 5. So men are about 4.5% funnier than women.

Some women – flighty, overwrought balls of screeching hormones that they are – and some men – probably the sort with overbearing mothers – objected to the headline and the fact that the article purported to represent, you know, actual research. Katy Brand wrote a particularly good dissection of it. There have been other insightful responses from Liam Mullone, Will Andrews, and Charlotte Browne.

The most depressing thing is that despite all evidence to the contrary, this is a meme that – like Rasputin – just will not die. Joan Rivers fed it cyanide-laced rice cakes: it popped back up rubbing its filthy stomach and asking for more. Victoria Wood shot it through the heart, but it leaped up behind her to whisper in her ear: “You bad girl.” French and Saunders shot it again. Roseanne Barr clubbed it around the head, Lily Tomlin kicked its face off and threw it into the Neva river. Again and again it gets up.

The ‘argument’ is often clothed in evolutionary psychological terms (Hitchens’ article is particularly dire on this count). Cavemen had to be funny to attract a mate. Women’s concerns (being domestic, don’t you know?) are less impressive to men than men’s are to women because they are not meat-providers. The function of humour is to make mammoths fall over and literally split their sides, neatly arranging their tasty innards as they do.

This, of course, is all arrant horse manure dressed in papier-mache bollocks. As a joke, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran wrote a paper called “Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?” in 1997 to show how you could use the vague, unprovable nonsense that makes up a lot of evolutionary psychology to justify any prejudice you want. To his horror it was accepted for publication in reputable journals, and some people, to this day, refuse to believe that the paper is anything but the truth.

But why do some people prefer male comics? Apart from its having been made acceptable by constantly being recycled in the media, why do people not feel more ashamed about saying that they don’t find half of the population of the world funny? Why would they cut themselves off from a whole swathe of great comedy?

My suspicion is that there is a power relationship at play when you are on stage. It is palpable. If a performer is not in control of the stage then it makes the whole audience uncomfortable. When I’m telling jokes, I’m deciding what your response will be. You are laughing when I prompt you to. You are ceding a certain amount of control over the situation to me because I’m on the stage, and I have the microphone. And if you have a problem with the idea that someone like me should, even briefly, be in control over you, then you won’t laugh on princple, whether you’re a sexist, a racist, or just someone who hates me. (There are apparently loads of you)

Dress it up how you want: if you think that women are not as funny as men, and you nod to yourself sagely whenever any ‘research’ appears to confirm your prejudices, you are a sexist. By definition. You’re making value judgments about someone’s abilities based on their sex. You’re a sexist. Suck it up. Own it. You horrible sexist.

And couching it in your experience isn’t good enough. Just because you can more easily think of male comedians you like, does not make it reasonable to assume that men are funnier than women. If you like Harry Hill, Dara O’Briain and Al Murray, would you really opine loudly that bald people are funnier than the hairy? Middle-aged people more hilarious than the old or young? White people just more laughtastic than all the other races?

My daughter is funnier than my son. This may be because he is only yet capable of sitting in his own faeces and falling over backwards*, but, on the empirical evidence offered by my children, women are much funnier than men.

There are women doing incredible comedy, excellent comedy, comedy you should drop everything and go to see now. Without thinking very hard, there’s Susan Calman, Sara Pascoe, Grainne Maguire, Holly Burn, Rachel Stubbings, Ruth Bratt, Josie Long, Nat Luurtsema, Sarah Hendrickx, Sarah Campbell, Pippa Evans, Alice Lowe, Lizzie Roper, Helen Keen. And loads more. You owe it to yourself to go and track down some really exciting comedy.

Could I have given an equally long list of excellent male comedians? Yes. Am I going to? No. Why not? Because I’m a horrible, horrible sexist…

(*Actually, that’s an exaggeration for effect. He can actually toddle around in his own faeces and fall over in any cardinal direction, when oriented along a North-South axis.)

The new episode of ITG is out. A very silly and quite horrible episode this month.

Starring: Ruth Bratt, Sally Chattaway, John Hopkins, Emma Powell, Lizzie Roper, Darren Strange, Nathaniel Tapley

Sound design & production: Raoul Brand

Written & directed: Nathaniel Tapley

Download this episode (right click and save)

For more In The Gloaming goodness go to the website or the podcast archive.

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