I’m a huge fan of Chris Morris; for those who don’t know who Chris Morris is, he’s an awesome British satirist who typically does stuff about the media. His most (in)famous work is probably the 2001 Brass Eye special, “Paedogeddon”, a TV news-magazine spoof about the media’s treatment of pedophilia. Morris’ work is frequently controversial (well, that’s an understatement), though not just Shock Value — he actually has something to say.
In that episode of Brass Eye, for example, there are very, very few jokes about the pedophiles themselves; the jokes are all about the media. There are celebrities saying inane things to demonize pedophiles. Whether this demonization is deserved or not is irrelevant when you’ve got Phil Collins, wearing a shirt that reads “Nonce Sense” talking about being able to spot pedophiles by keeping an eye out for people showing children maps of their neighborhood with penises drawn in instead of houses, or DJ Fox telling the audience, in all earnestness, that pedophiles have more in common with crabs than with normal people.
In the world of Brass Eye, there’s mob justice against a man named Peter File (based on a real incident where a UK paper published names and addresses of known pedophiles — only they accidentally included the names and addresses of known pediatricians); there’s uninformed worry about the Internet (a Flash game for children that allows a pedophile to fondle the child through the Web); hysteria over Urban Legend-esque warnings (pedophiles tricking children by going around disguised as schools); and there’s vigilantism (a US television show where a former pedophile — who shot himself in the head, blowing away the pedophile part — hunts pedophiles down and shoots them). And that’s only the tip of it — that’s not even mentioning the simultaneous glorification of criminals the media will do, illustrated by a puff piece on a pedophile’s tour of his crime scenes. In fact — that’s about as close as Morris gets to actually making light of pedophilia itself (the only other joke I could think of is the pedophile in the stockades who tells Chris Morris’ anchor-character that he doesn’t fancy Morris’ kids — and while that’s a relatively straightforward gag, it’s wrapped in that media simultaneous-star-and-demon wrapping).
This was actually the first real exposure to Chris Morris I’d had. The old discussion site Plastic ran a story about the furor over the episode, and it sounded interesting to me, so I downloaded the episode from CookdandBombd right before Channel 4 slapped them with a Cease & Desist order.
I loved it.
I ended up hopping on a P2P to see if I could find the other episodes of Brass Eye, and devoured those as well. (My favorite is still “Paedogeddon”, but “Animals” is a very close second.) A while before, I’d heard Morris’ radio series Blue Jam mentioned — IIRC, it came up on the Negativland list as being somewhat similar to their work. I looked around a little bit, though, but the site didn’t really seem like it was really being updated, and I didn’t see/hear any clips of his work, and ended up forgetting about it until then. After that moment, I tracked down everything that I could — his radio work, his other TV work, and eventually his feature film, Four Lions.
Of all this, my favorite is probably Blue Jam (and the TV version, Jam as well) — it might even outdo Brass Eye. My favorite thing about Chris Morris’ work is that while it’s very dark, it’s rarely, if ever, mean-spirited. A lot of people accuse him of being mean-spirited, though — but I disagree. I dislike mean-spirited comedy. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like The Oblongs; it tries for dark, but just ends up squarely in the “mean” bin. One of the easiest ways I can describe mean comedy as opposed to dark comedy: Mean-spirited comedy tends to have characters exchange cruelties without any repercussions.
Look at most sitcoms — most of the exchanges seem to be along the lines of “Wife, your cooking skills are terrible!” “Yes, well, Husband, you are lousy in bed!” “No, I’m not, just ask my mistress!”, etc. Hurtful comments just slide back and forth without any thought or care for the other’s feelings because they have none. They’re like soulless automatons who’ve been so beaten down by each other’s loathing they’ve forgotten what it is to be human. (Or, you know, their writer just doesn’t care.)
Chris Morris, on the other hand, has characters being incredibly cruel to one another — sometimes even more cruel than these horrible sample sitcom characters. But why is that not mean-spirited? Because the recipients of the cruelties are actually hurt. In one of my favorite sketches from Jam and Blue Jam, “TV Lizards”, a TV Repairman mercilessly taunts a couple who’ve called him in because their television is spewing lizards into their room. But the husband, instead of merely letting the insults roll off his back and getting into a war of punchlines starts getting exasperated and starts to cry in rage. The man is not only being confronted with a bizarre, surreal situation which he is not at all prepared to deal with — how could you be? — but ALSO this man whom he’s called in to help, not only refuses to help, insisting it’s a problem with the cable, not the television, is standing in his living room, which is filling with small lizards, making fun of his situation, the man knowing that he can leave at any time, while he cannot leave and has to deal with this un-deal-withable situation. And he’s got to listen to him saying he can’t and won’t help him, but that his name is “Mr. Lizard”, and that his boss’ name is also “Mr. Lizard” and that he basically doesn’t care! He won’t even give him the satisfaction of being apologetic about not being able to help! This complete ass is making fun of him for no real reason. AND, he’s being paid for the privilege! So, of COURSE the man’s not going to trade witty banter with the repairman!
In this, Chris Morris gives the TV Owner a sense of dignity — he’s not some character plunked into a ridiculous situation for the sake of a joke, to be sent on his merry way once the final punchline is given; he’s a real person stuck in this unreal situation trying to make the best of it. And he’s not having an easy time of it.
In fact, this is one of the best things about Chris Morris’ work: None of the actors play anything as comedy. Everything, while it IS funny, is played as one would a drama; after all, this stuff isn’t funny to them. It’s only funny to us as outsiders. While the situation of “TV Lizards” is very amusing to watch, if it were happening to us, we’d be just as enraged and frightened as the man. This type of thing doesn’t happen, it’s not supposed to happen, and from all we know it can’t happen. So why IS it happening? We don’t know. And being confronted with a paranormal mystery isn’t likely to put us in a combative-yet-witty mood. In this, Chris Morris isn’t interested in just giving us a straight setup-punchline type sketch; he’s illustrating how people react in situations beyond their ken.
After all, there’s lots of situations where we’ll be in a similar situation as the TV owner; what about someone who’s been accused of a crime they didn’t commit, but cannot prove they didn’t commit it? That’d provoke the same sort of reaction? But it’s not really funny. Because that kind of thing can happen. The situation in “TV Lizards” is so removed from reality, it provides us with that distance to examine those emotions, and laugh at that common thing that makes us human. Even though the TV Owner is the butt of the joke, we, the audience, can identify with him, even if we don’t explicitly. In fact, when people watch the sketch — or, when I watch the sketch — the comedy comes from the callousness of the repairman. We/I don’t watch it and explicitly say “Oh, I like this because the man is like us/me!” — we “say” “Oh, I like this because the repairman’s a jackass!”
Chris Morris knows that we don’t need to be told to empathize with the man in order to do so; there are no violin swells as the camera noses in to the tears on his face. The repairman has already demonized himself; he doesn’t need Morris to help. The entire sketch is a nightmare, but a nightmare that’s presented in such a way that we laugh at it, but in an uncomfortable way, knowing that we are indeed laughing at the terror and misfortune of another human being. It’s that self-consciousness that lets “TV Lizards” and the rest of Blue Jam transcend mean-spirited comedy. That’s the cruelest part of mean-spirited comedy — it tricks you into thinking that there’s nothing wrong with these actions. No one’s hurt by hurtful things, therefore, there’s no harm, no foul. Chris Morris shows the consequences of people’s actions — paradoxically, by being superficially more cruel to his characters, he’s much less cruel by granting his characters their humanity — the goal of any good creator. Chris Morris reminds people that their actions do have repercussions — the psyche isn’t just a waterproofed tarp ready to bear the elements with no wear.
In other words, Chris Morris reminds people what it is to be a human being.
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Previously published July 11, 2007.