How I Fell In Love With How I Met Your Mother And Why The Break-Up Hurt So Much

(The beginning of this post features very minor and general spoilers from How I Met Your Mother, however, half way through I launch into total spoilers of the last season, and I recommend you don’t read it until you have seen the finale. The point at which I start this section is marked clearly.)

Ted's such a douche he won't let anyone else sit on his sofa

Ted’s such a douche he won’t let anyone else sit on his sofa

Kids, I want to tell you about why I fell in love with a show called How I Met Your Mother and how it ended up breaking my heart…

Relax. I’m not going to make you sit down for 9 years while I tell you a long drawn-out story with no satisfactory conclusion in the way that one of my favourite TV shows had a character do with his (fictional) kids. But I do want to talk about what made the show so great, why it was unappreciated and why it fell at the last hurdle.

First of all, a brief recap. How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM for short) was a sitcom launched into a post-Friends landscape. It featured 5 friends who regularly met in a bar, rather than a coffeeshop (Friends) or diner (Seinfeld). It was the story of their struggles with growing up from post-college through marriage and families and various career decision. In that sense it is completely unlike Friends… No, wait a moment…

how-i-met-your-mother-how vs friends

Actually, Friends is probably the worst thing for HIMYM because while superficially they have the same DNA, they are thoroughly different shows in the ways the are written and contructed, but HIMYM was launched at a time when every network was scrabbling to find The Next Friends. It was also a time when mainstream (in the US, Network) TV was dying. It’s a death which is still going on, ever so slowly. In the decade since its launch TV services such as Netflix, Lovefilm, and Hulu have meant people don’t watch live, people downloading TV shows via Bit Torrent has eaten into revenues, and even at the base level, PVRs (like Sky+) mean that people skip adverts and ratings can’t be measured. Now no one can say what a hit show is. Something getting 5 million viewers on one channel is a disaster, while for another network 5 million is an unbelievable hit. Up is down. Dogs are living with cats.

So HIMYM could never become Friends. It could never conquer the globe in the same way. Equally, it was too smart to be Friends. And I’m not down on Friends, there were some seasons of that show that are among the funniest I have seen, but it was always playing to the widest audience possible. That’s not a criticism. Things can have a wide audience and also be good. See also Cheers, Seinfeld, Sherlock and many others.

But Friends was always a joke delivery device. It was an efficient machine. Sure, it delivered some dramatic moments, but it was never about the story, it was about the laughs. It was a sitcom, that was its raison d’être. From the very beginning HIMYM set out its stall differently. It would be funny, but the point was that the show was telling a story.

More specifically, its nominal lead character, Ted, 20 years in the future is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. We see his tales spring to life. This was a sitcom where jokes were not the most important thing. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. In fact, I would argue that it made HIMYM a funnier show. Friends needed to cut to the chase. At the very least every other line had to be a zinger of some kind. Cutting to the chase like that meant the creativity had to be a little lacking. HIMYM could take detours, it could be different, inventive, and sure, maybe you didn’t get as many one-liners in your half hour as you did in Friends, but you got a lot more jokes you couldn’t see coming.

HIMYM Challenge Accepted

Here is a choice – you can:

A) Give someone a 5 on the laugh scale right now

or

B) Meander at laugh level 1 or 2 for 20 seconds and then slap them with an unexpected 8 or a 9.

Friends always took route A (though some of those laughs inevitably climbed higher) while HIMYM would regularly go down route B and deliver a Slapsgiving to remember.

But it’s not just about being a story. The fact that the story is being told 20 years hence means that linearity goes out the window. Friends was always told in the now. There might have been the odd flashback, but each story, generally, had to after last week’s story and before next week’s story. HIMYM would regularly flash forward or backward in time, overlapping with incidents past or future, with promises that “I’ll get to the story of the goat”. And this is where the true genius in the story-telling lay.

It’s quite a regular occurrence for a TV show (in America) to get greenlit on the basis of a concept but for the writers to have no idea where it is heading. Lost is the prime example. Every week the writers were making up more questions with no idea what the ultimate answer was. But HIMYM always seemed to know. When they promised to get to a story, the got to it. Things that were small details in one episode became the focus of another. There were never any contradictions, everything added up. And in doing so it became something more than a story, it became human. It allowed the audience to truly become invested because we knew these characters and their worlds added up.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the show had was turning Barney Stinson – the pick-up artist breakout character played by Neil Patrick Harris (and played brilliantly, I might add) – into a real boy. When the show started he was one-dimensional. He cared about suits, sleeping with women and the bro-code. But as his popularity grew he earned more screen time and needed depth, and the show found it for him.

Barney - Legen-wait-for-it-Dary

Barney – Legen-wait-for-it-Dary

Ted, our ‘hero’, had been searching for love since day one. While the show was ostensibly about his search for The One, it actually became his journey through a lot of potentials who could never be The One. Barney was never looking for The One. He was looking for a different one every night. But the journey the writing team took him on to fall in love was perhaps their greatest triumph. They slowly filled in the details as to why he was the way he was, why he treated women the way he did. The show indulged him at times, but mostly it condemned his ways.

As funny as his sleeping around and trickery was, it was also always frowned upon, but as the show coloured in his background, Barney started to feel and slowly grew his extra dimensions. This was a big risk for the show. Stinson was the marquee character and by adding the shading they risked taking away the alcohol from Fun Bobby. The remarkable thing is that they didn’t. Barney was always Barney, even as he became more human in front of our eyes. Of course, this wasn’t all down to the writers, Patrick Harris is brilliant in the role, but the skill it took to pull off this manoeuvre is not to be sniffed at.

And then we come to perhaps the longest joke in television history. In season 2, episode 9, Barney has a bet with Marshall and the winner will be able to slap the other 5 times, at times of his discretion. A ‘Slap Bet’, if you will. I won’t go into it too much, but this was a joke which kept paying off right until the final episode of the show, and was regularly sitting as an idle threat in the background. It was a beautiful thing whenever the next slap was revealed, and the fact that one joke could run so perfectly for seven and a half seasons is a real credit to the show.

So that is why I fell in love with How I Met Your Mother, and why you should watch it if you haven’t already. Now I shall move on to what happened at the end of the relationship.

This is where the real SPOILERS kick in. I will literally talk about the very end of the show. Seriously – don’t wanna know, stop reading.

So episode one starts with a classic bait and switch. Ted starts telling his kids the story of how he met their mother and proceeds to tell the story of how he went on a date with their “aunt Robin”. Robin becomes the newest member of the group and, over time dates Ted, then Barney, and come the final season, is preparing to walk down the aisle with Barney.

In fact, the final season of HIMYM is one of the most daring things to be put on in a mainstream, popular show, up there with Seinfeld’s season 4 arc where Jerry and George are trying to sell a pilot to NBC. It came about because the show was due to end after season 8 but the network wanted to get one more season out of the producers and cast. Patrick Harris was still hot, Jason Segel was starting to hit in Hollywood (having written and starred in the Muppets revival movie), and they had nothing coming through to take its place. So what was going to happen in the last 3 weeks of season 8 instead became the whole of season 9.

That right there is a recipe for disaster. Stretching a few episodes to fill a 24 episode arc. More than that, the whole season would take place over the course of just one weekend. The weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. This is a show that plays with time all the time, so there were plenty of flashforwards and flashbacks, but generally, we were watching the weekend. And for the first 22 episodes they pulled it off. It wasn’t perfect – Marshall (Segel) couldn’t join the cast for the first half of the season so was stuck in his own story line – but they did callbacks to so many great moments, they played with the emotions of all the characters, they resolved issues, and they got past the problems. Throughout we have the spectre of a love-lorn Ted still filled with feelings for Robin, the woman he met in episode 1, that he fell for, hard, that he mourned. That he was still mourning. He struggled to let he go. But while all that was going on, the most important thing is that we got to meet the mother, Tracy.

That’s right, throughout the season we followed the mother’s course to meeting Ted. We saw her side of numerous near-misses that called back to episodes we’d seen years ago – the yellow umbrella, Ted’s mistaken lecture, a meeting with Barney in a convenience store. We got to find out what type of person would fall in love with the douche (but loveable) Ted, and we got to find her as adorable as Ted did. We got to fall in love with her too. And that is why the ending hurt.

You see, the ending wasn’t really about how Ted met the kids’ mother. After they meet we skim forward and the story takes a melancholy tone. Ted and Tracy have some wonderful years together and they have a family, but then we find out that Tracy has passed away and Ted is alone again.

At the same time we are learning about the lives of the other characters and, especially, about the marriage and divorce of Barney and Robin. This is followed up with the kids asking him if the whole story was an excuse for him to ask them if they’d be ok with him asking ‘Aunt’ Robin out on a date…

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER

The problem with this isn’t so much the story as the execution and the confounding of expectations. Coming into the last episode we have one expectation – that Ted will meet the mother, nothing else. We have seen the two orbit each other all season. We’ve seen how close they came to meeting in years gone by. We’ve seen how they perfectly match each other. In fact, the writers have done such a good job that we now know that Tracy is a far better match than Robin ever was. We get to see the pair on their first date. We get to see them on honeymoon and anniversaries. Time plays inwards to the point at which they met so we’re seeing before and after until eventually they converge, two halves of the same whole.

It’s beautiful story-telling and by the end of it we’ve not just fallen in love with Tracy, we’ve fallen in love with Tracy and Ted.

And then it is ripped from us.

Without the burden of an extra 24 episodes, without the decision to have the audience meet Tracy before Ted does, without the chance to fall for her, maybe this blow isn’t so crushing and maybe they get away with it.

Maybe there could have been some more hints. I mean, in retrospect maybe we should have guessed. Ted has been telling this long story to his kids since 2004 and he has never been interrupted by his wife; there has never been a reference to her in the present tense. Looking back, perhaps there were a few “Your mother was…” comments in the voiceover, but even if there were it wasn’t enough. This is nine years of build-up to a supposed meet-cute and happily ever after and then we’re told that happily ever after ended a few years past. There is no happily ever after.

Perhaps if Robin and Barney hadn’t got together so convincingly, perhaps if we hadn’t been sold so totally on the idea of them as a couple, we could still have wanted Ted and Robin together. Was this supposed to be fan service? Did the fans long for Ted and Robin to end up together? I spent the whole of season 9 wishing Ted to move on from Robin, to drop those thoughts and prepare himself for the love of his life to arrive.

The ultimate resolution felt like a stab in the heart. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that the season was written to push all of our hopes and desires and expectations in one direction and it was pulled out from under us. That’s not a bad thing – if you’re making Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Mad Men – but this isn’t those shows. This is a 9-year long romantic comedy and there are certain expectations that are part and parcel of that commitment. I, the viewer, do solemnly swear to fall in love with these characters and to will them together and you, the writers, do solemnly swear to put ample obstacles in their path but ultimately let them live together forever and ever in our hearts and minds. Nowhere in your side of the contract does it say that you will kill her off and replace her with the biggest obstacle that we have spent the past 11.5 hours (23 episodes of a half hour show) getting over and past.

As I said, there are ways this could work, and that make a degree of sense – Ted and his children are mourning the passing of beloved wife and mother and so Ted tells the story of all that he loved about her and how they came to be – a way to ensure that his wife and his love can live on in eternity. But in this circumstance he’s too close to the tragedy for us a) to not know before we get there (a good thing in a story like this) or b) for him to be able to be contemplating dating Robin. So this approach would perhaps have changed the show beyond recognition, though it would have been able to confront mortality in a way that mainstream television is all too afraid to do. I doubt, however, that audiences would have watched for 9 years the moment they got an inkling that the mother was no longer with us.

If Tracy hadn’t been written so well as the yin to Ted’s yang, the slutty pumpkin to his hanging chad, then perhaps we could have been more accepting too, but then this would seem like bad writing. We might have been accepting of the Robin resolution but we never could have accepted Ted with someone who wasn’t the woman of his dreams. And beside’s how would that play to the kids? “Kids, I want to tell you the story of how I met the woman I mistakenly married when I should have been with your Aunt Robin all along” isn’t the best intro to a story.

Ultimately, the finale failed because HIMYM tried to have its cake and eat it. It wanted Ted to have the woman of his dreams and the woman he obsessed over for most of the previous 9 years, but failed to realise that to do so meant killing someone the audience had not only grown to love, but had fixated on, which isn’t bitter-sweet, it’s just bitter.

But does any of this matter? In the grand scheme of the universe, no, obviously. But neither should it in terms of television of the show. In a way, the finale reminds us that it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey. The destination is, for all of us, the ground, just as it was for Tracy.

What mattered for us wasn’t where we got to, it was the road we took to get there, and HIMYM gave us 8.95 seasons of brilliant television which managed to do things that no show has managed to do before and, it’s highly likely, no show will even attempt to do again. It gave us 5 great characters (of variable douchey-ness), it brought Neil Patrick Harris to the world’s collective consciousness (and if you’ve not seen any of his Tony or Emmy song-and-dance numbers you have been missing out), it gave us Robin Sparkles, it gave us Slap Bet, it gave us Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel’s love for the ages, and it gave us so many more wonderful memories that no matter where the story went in that final half hour, it went somewhere else for me.

how_i_met_your_mother_finale_yellow_umbrella

Lucy Porter – Northern Soul

Lucy Porter – Northern Soul – 21 November, 2013 – Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham

Northern Soul

[This is part of my ongoing series of ridiculously late, and thus shorter, reviews while I catch up]

When she’s not labelling me a sexual predator, Lucy Porter’s new show, Northern Soul, is a brilliant trip through her childhood through to her early days as a comedian, detailing how she went from feeling alienated in Croydon to discovering where her she really belonged through the music of the 80s. Where her previous show, People Person, was essentially based around an anecdote – a very amusing anecdote very well told, but still a little inconsequential, with occasional glimpses of something more – Northern Soul is deeper and more heartfelt and is all the stronger for it. As for the sexual predator thing, I guess someone has to be given that label each night and I was sat a little too close to the front. At least I hope that’s the case, but at least I’m not from Derby…

Jeremy Hardy 2013

Jeremy Hardy – Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – November 15, 2013

Jeremy Hardy

This is running very late, so I’m going to make it short and sweet. Jeremy Hardy is a very funny man but, as he acknowledged, he’s been doing stand-up for 30 years now and he probably should be by now. He has a very relaxed manner which comes with the experience he’s built up and the confidence in a) his material and b) his ability to deal with anything that should come up. Not that his gigs are rife with hecklers. He’s perhaps at least mildly remarkable for not having drifted to the right as so many people are ‘supposed’ to as they age (see Ben Elton for the worst example of this), and his show is kept relevant with a lot of cutting material on the current government and scathing words for the attitudes they’re promoting, but at the same time he’s more than happy to send himself and his liberal views up.

A

Simon Munnery – Fylms

Simon Munnery – West End Centre, Aldershot – 2 November 2013

Simon Munnery is a criminally underappreciated comic, and his latest show, Fylms, is both ingenious and hilarious. And, as Munnery himself points out, stadium ready.

The concept is deceptively simple. On stage is a screen. In the middle of the audience Munnery has set up a little gantry for himself from where he will conduct the show. He has two cameras, one pointing at his face, and one pointing down on a tabletop, and a series of images and diagrams to display.

What follows is probably best described as a semi-animated TV sketch-show on-stage from the middle of the audience. Actually, that’s a terrible description. It’s mediocre-ly described as such. Look, it’s difficult to describe it, clearly, but it works very well and if you go along and see it you’ll see how simple a concept it really is. Then you can send me your own mediocre description of the show’s format.

The sketches veer all over the place, with no rhyme or reason. Some are incredibly surreal, others disturbingly lucid, all very funny. I’m going to pull out one moment which really tickled me, though far from the best joke of the night. After that, you should track down tickets for a show near you. I promise it’s worth it.

Venn

Very very very very very funny. Deeply profound and seemingly inane. And overwhelmingly pink.

A

This is a trailer for the DVD of a previous incarnation of the show, Fylm Makker. Be warned, it’s odd.

Mark Thomas – 100 Acts of Minor Dissent

Mark Thomas – 100 Acts of Minor Dissent – Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham – Friday September 13, 2013

mark_thomas_edinburgh_2013_2-3

I’ve been delaying writing this review, not because I didn’t enjoy myself, but because I really wasn’t sure how to approach writing it. I’m still not but I have to give it a go. You see, Mark Thomas has, one way or another, been a part of my life for almost 20 years, and I have seen him live so many times and with so many different people that he means a lot more to me than just a being a comedian/activist. I still have a VHS copy of his Sex, Filth and Religion show from around 1995 and a year or so ago showed it to my other half. While naturally for comedy with a significant political element some of it is rather dated, much of it is still hilarious and I was also pleasantly surprised/scared to find I could recite pretty much the whole show along with Mark. Maybe it’s because of the point in my life where that show came along, but I do view it as one of the funniest comedy sets available (and I implore Mark to either get a DVD or digital copy available so I can finally be rid of my VCR).

Mark Thomas was, I think, the first comedian I saw after I got my driver’s licence and hence could get myself (and my friends) out to gigs. I saw him at the Wedgwood Rooms in Portsmouth. I’m not sure what the show was called that time, but it featured a section called “Have you ever stolen anything from work?”. Previously supplied answers included cocaine (from a vets in Manchester, used to knock out the dogs before operations) and a freezer, and at our show a blow-up doll was added to the list.

I dragged my first serious girlfriend up to Balham to see a Work In Progress show, and had the opportunity to have a quick chat with Mark pre-show. I watched and recorded every episode of the Comedy Product on Channel 4, later, just the Mark Thomas Product as the comedy took a back seat to some important issues (though even in the bleakest of stories, such as those around the Ilisu Dam or Palestine, Mark has always found the comedy along with the tragedy). I’ve seen Mark’s campaign against Coca-Cola and the way that company destroys (or has in the past destroyed) communities in South America, Africa and India. I’ve seen Mark discuss the various arms fairs he’s been to – including the episode of his show where he aired footage of someone from, I think, the Indonesian Embassy admitting to atrocities – something no one had ever managed to achieve before. Earlier this year I saw, and reviewed, Thomas performing Bravo Figaro, more a theatre performance piece than stand-up comedy, which gave me more insight into his own life and times, and filled in large pieces of his own history for me.

So there is a huge weight of history on any performance of his that I go along to. He’s achieved so much and I have enjoyed so many shows in the past, added to which I have my whole adult life history attached according to who I went with and what was happening to me, and, since this year, I have Mark’s own family history to add to the mix. And while Mark clearly doesn’t know who I am, this has all led to me feeling like there is a long deep-seated relationship.

Halfway through 100 Acts there was a part of me that was feeling like it was a relationship that the spark had gone out of. Perhaps it was time to call time on the whole thing and divorce ourselves; accept that we have gone our separate ways but remember the good times. That first half contained some duplicate material from the ‘warm-up’ section before Bravo Figaro, and it was material I had taken a dislike to, predominantly based around Mark’s disproportionate levels of hatred for the book One Day by David Nicholls. It’s not the target for his ire that I had an issue with – I have read it and I thought it was fine, but everyone is entitled to their own opinions – but I felt it was overblown, unnecessary and, most importantly, not funny. His description of the book makes it sound as though the book had raped his sister and given his mother cancer rather than been a self-important middle class fantasy love story that was perhaps a bit more successful than it deserved to be (which is a view I could understand a lot more). But I also felt that he went against himself in his character assassination of the book, as later on in the first half he mentions how he views books as sacred items – something which, it seems, they can only be if they meet with his approval. And, I mean, it’s not as if his target was Ayn Rand, a woman who’s literature is currently forming a central strand of political thinking in the Republicans in America, this is a book that will be largely forgotten in a few years time, it’s inoffensive, and it isn’t likely to be cited by George Osborne as the reason he’s cutting unemployment benefits; its effect on society will be minimal.

Anyway, Thomas used this description as a gateway into his forms of middle class urban terrorism which includes leaving heckles in the middle of books in Waterstones, putting his own versions of branded signs up in supermarkets and putting replacement posters over estate agents’ signs, each of which form a part of his 100 Acts of Minor Dissent.

And now I have to make a confession. At the interval I was sat in the lobby of the venue with my partner talking about the show. Our seats backed onto a wall and on the other side it’s entirely possible was Mark’s dressing room, because, you see, at the start of the second half Mark seemed to reflect back a couple of the comments I had made, namely that “someone isn’t sure if I’m being an activist or a comedian”. That isn’t quite the point I had been trying to make but it formed a part of the conversation we had had. The whole show had been introduced with Mark telling us he had to commit 100 Acts of Minor Dissent by the middle of May 2014 or he’d have to give money to UKIP. He never said why he had to do this. There was never an underlying point to the exercise, it seemed to just be a thing to do to make a show about, and this was the point I was trying to make. Is he doing these things because they will be funny and will give him material to entertain with, or is he doing them to make a point about the country and the world we live in and, in some way, to try to make things a little better be it through awareness or changing perceptions?

Another way you could look at it would be is he performing the Mark Thomas Comedy Product, or the Mark Thomas Product? A subtle distinction but perhaps an important one. The first half felt to me as though this was supposed to be the latter and yet the acts described tended to be somewhere between ‘quite amusing’ and ‘a bit dickish’.

I don’t know what changed – maybe my words (if they were my words that were overheard) came down like a challenge? Maybe I lightened up, or lowered my defences, or my expectations based on the 20 year relationship I’d had with Mark? Who knows? But in the second half I found the show hilarious. Something just clicked and it was like watching Sex Filth & Religion all over again. It was Thomas back to his comic best. A weight lifted off my shoulders. The insight was back. The skewering of the world we live in was as sharp as it ever was. The cheeky-chappy persona was front and centre (by which I mean that when Thomas is on top of his game he has a persona with which he can call you the strongest, rudest names under the sun and you still want to shake his hand). It was like we’d been through a long tunnel and had suddenly burst out into bright sunlight. This wasn’t a relationship that was on its last legs, this was a relationship that had been going a long time, there had been ups and downs, but there was a lot more life in it yet.

B+

Ha! And here’s Sex Filth & Religion so you can see for yourself what I mean.

Stewart Lee – Much A-Stew About Nothing

Stewart Lee – Much A-Stew About Nothing – Mayflower Theatre, Southampton – September 15, 2013

Stewart_Lee_Big

Honestly, this isn’t going to be much of a review. Stewart Lee is one of the best comedians around, but he operates on such a different wave length to anyone else, I’m not sure I can adequately sum either him or this show up. Much A-Stew About Nothing is actually 3 episodes of Lee’s forthcoming 3rd set of episodes of his BBC2 series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and this was an opportunity to hone the material before that films.

Lee has previously stated an aim of producing a show without any punchlines whatsoever and a segment which involves him repeating the line “If you say you’re English they arrest you and throw you in jail” about 8 times shows how through context and inflection it’s possible (for him) to make almost anything funny without relying on the traditional structures or formulas of comedy. However, I am deeply aware this doesn’t read well.

Anyway, the show overall is incredibly funny and leaves me awaiting the the arrival of the new Comedy Vehicle. In the meantime, below you can find the first epsiode of the first season.

A

Adam Hills – Happyism

Adam Hills – Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – Sunday September 8, 2013

Happyism

The first two times I saw Adam Hills were at The Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth, a nice intimate venue housing about 150 people, but this marks the first time I’ve seen him in a larger venue. It’s clear that Hills has done well out of the 2012 Paralympics and the Channel 4 show, The Last Leg, which span out of it, and it’s also clear that the show has brought a slightly different audience to the theatre than you see at many comedy gigs when most of the ‘heckling’ comes from cystic fibrosis sufferers and wheelchair users.

That said, I don’t really like labeling it heckling, though that is what Hills calls it. I always think of heckling as a negative thing, with abuse being hurled at the comic on stage, while this is entirely good natured and, indeed, part of the show. Hills makes a point of saying (as he did on previous occasions I’ve seen him) that, while he has some funny stories to impart, his favourite parts of the show have always been chatting with the audience and it’s something he excels at.

This may sound like a criticism but I assure you it’s not. Hills is not the kind of comedian to rattle off jokes, to leave the audience swimming in punchlines. His stage persona is that of a thoroughly lovely chap that’d relish spending time with (at the two Portsmouth gigs he fed the entire audience pizza), and he makes a 700 seater venue feel like hanging out at a bar having a chat. He lulls everyone into such a sense of security that when he asks someone a question they’re liable to give away more than wanted. It’s never spiteful though and, again, more like the friendly ribbing friends would give at a bar.

Happyism does have a theme (loosely) holding it together, and it is very Adam Hills, reveling in happiness and positivity. Hills is someone you can guarantee will give you an enjoyable evening. He doesn’t do anything revolutionary with the format, but the upbeat atmosphere is enough to win over even the hardest of hearts.

B+

Robin & Josie’s Shambles

Robin Ince and Josie Long – Robin & Josie’s Shampbles – South Street Arts Centre, Reading – Saturday September 7, 2013

In keeping with the Shambles theme, there doesn't appear to be a proper poster for the tour dates, just this for a related venture

In keeping with the Shambles theme, there doesn’t appear to be a proper poster for the tour dates, just this for a related venture

It’s slightly unfair reviewing this show, seeing as how it’s a late addition to the schedule and is intended to be a bit of a shambles (hence the name) rather than a structured and coherent piece. But then I paid £12.50 per ticket to go, so what the hey. I’ll keep it brief though.

What structuring there is of the show is that Robin and Josie will take it in turns to do their own bits, be on stage together some of the time, and at the end of each half singer/songwriter Grace Petrie gives us a few numbers.

Having seen Robin Ince a fair few times before, he is his usual shambolic self here, in as much as he normally comes on stage with 10 stories to tell the audience and will manage to complete five of them, which five will differ from night to night. Having a fair few years of experience now, Ince has a wealth of material and can easily fill the his time on stage with a variety of stories old and new while still failing to do everything he set out to. It’s all very funny and in keeping with what you’d expect from the man.

Josie Long as someone I’d not seen live before, though TV, radio and podcasts had filled me in on the kind of thing to expect. Unfortunately, the material she’d prepared for her solo section feels a little slapdash and half-hearted. I don’t know if it was because she wanted to prepare something new, where Ince was essentially using elements of other shows and anecdotes to fill his time, but there was a sense that she knew it wasn’t her grade A material, or that it was a work in progress, to be worked into shape later.

Long’s banter with Ince was much better, with the couple (not in that way) having a great rapport and not afraid to annoy the other, much to our collective amusement.

Finally there was Grace Petrie, a protest (and occasional comedy) songwriter, who’s two stints on the stage came as a surprise to me (and perhaps some other members of the audience). I had heard Petrie perform on Radio 4’s The Now Show with a number she reprised in this show. I don’t want to review Petrie on the basis that her music isn’t the kind of thing I gravitate towards and so my views aren’t really going to be relevant. She’s clearly a more-than-competent songwriter, with a good, strong voice and some pleasant tunes, and she was very well received by the other members of the audience. I wish her every success…

B

There’s no suitable clip available of Robin and Josie, so here’s a TED talk by Robin Ince instead, and below that is a clip of Josie on One Night Stand…

Kick Ass 2

KickAss_2

I loved the original Kick Ass, which seemed eager to give the burgeoning comic book superhero movie market a kick right where it hurts and call it something nasty while it was at it, so I was really looking forward to Kick Ass 2, but in terms of comic book sequels, this is more Spiderman 3 than The Dark Knight. Actually, as terrible as Spiderman 3 was (and it really, really was), that’s unfair to Spiderman 3. Kick Ass 2 is quite possibly the worst movie of the year so far, as it abandons everything that made it good in the first place and instead doubles down on the vulgarity believing that to be the key to success.

In fact, that isn’t damning enough. I like vulgarity. I love The Aristocrats, still the only movie to get an 18 certificate in the UK for bad language alone. The problem is that there are no brains to go with it, there is no satire here. Thsi is for people who think that swearing alone is funny, rather than those who demand a little creativity to go along with it.

I came out of the cinema and couldn’t find a single good thing to say about the film. At no point did I laugh. I didn’t crack a smile. But perhaps I’m a little ahead of myself here. What’s the story?

In Kick Ass, a school kid decided to become a superhero and promptly got himself beaten to a pulp. Repeatedly. Then he stumbled across Big Daddy (Nic Cage) and Hit Girl, real superheroes who did their work undercover, he trained himself up, and together they brought down a crime lord played by Mark Strong.

In Kick Ass 2, the school kid seems to have forgotten all his training, so needs to do it all over again. Hit Girl is mostly retired after the death of her father in the first film. Christopher Mintz-Plasse reprises his role as Mark Strong’s son and sets himself the task of becoming a supervillain, taking a name that is clearly supposed to make us laugh but actually shows the lack of wit and intelligence at play. Hit Girl is now attending high school and struggling to fit in. She councils Dave/Kick Ass to be true to himself but fails to follow her own advice in an atrocious sub-plot homage to Mean Girls which seems to be there purely as an excuse to get some teenage girls to do some stripper-dancing that is apparently what constitutes being a cheerleader.

Oh, and the main thing, a number of people have followed Kick Ass’ lead and labelled themselves as superheroes, lead by Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes. They form more of a support group for victims of horrible crimes than they do a group of masked avengers, and perhaps there’s an interesting story to be had there, but after one mention it’s gone again. Meanwhile, Mintz-Plasse is forming a group of henchmen and is determined to kill off Kick Ass, the man who killed his father.

It all leads to the worst battle-finale you’re ever likely to see, as Kick Ass’ team descends on Mintz-Plasse’s warehouse-hide-out. The two groups clash and the fights (Hit Girl’s aside) is sub-student-film in quality. Jeff Wadlow, writer and director of this installment, should be genuinely embarrassed by the scenes he’s committed to film here.

This is a film without a single redeeming feature*. And not in a “Daily Mail, the world’s gone to hell in a handcart” way, in an entirely risible, “do you seriosuly expect us to put up with this kind of crap?” way.

F

Film length: 1hr 43 mins – Feels like: 2hrs 15 mins

*You could perhaps argue that Moretz gives a good performance but, despite her talents, she can’t elevate material this poor. It strikes me as a contractual obligation rather than something she’d have jumped at the chance to do.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

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If you don’t know who Alan Partridge is then shame on you, but at least you have a brilliantly funny journey to set yourself on. Alan (the comic creation of Steve Coogan) is a sports reporter, turned chat show host, turned radio broadcaster and over the past 20 years we have followed him on the highs and lows of his journey, most recently ending up at the local radio station North Norfolk Digital (NND, for short), and that is where we join him here.

NND has been taken over and rebranded, and the new owners are intent on reshaping it and getting rid of some of the dead wood. Specifically, either Alan or another older presenter, Pat, played by Colm Meaney. At first Alan is intent on saving both their roles but when it becomes apparent in a brilliantly funny boardroom scene that it is either/or the message is clear, Just Sack Pat. But Pat goes postal, returning to a staff party with a gun and taking everyone hostage. He feels that Alan is the only one he can trust and so uses him to negotiate with police, a role Alan loves – he’s the centre of attention and he’s important again.

British sitcoms have a long and storied history of being transferred to the big screen, without a huge amount of success. In The Loop was a brilliant spinoff from The Thick of It, and The Inbetweeners certainly brought in the crowds without hitting the heights reached by the TV series. This, then, may represent the first genuinely successful translation, though it’s really the character rather than a sitcom that’s making the move.*

I said in my review of The World’s End that it was one of the most enjoyable films of the year, well Alpha Papa happily sits alongside it. It works for the same reasons, both the plot and the laughs spin out of who the characters are and it remains truthful to those characters at all times. It is certainly funny. From the opening sequence, resulting in Alan lip-syncing to Roachford’s Cuddly Toy, right the way through to the last dramatic moments, comedy is found every step of the way. It never strikes a false note and delviers everything you could ask for. But to be fair, that’s what should be expected from Coogan and writing/producing partner Armando Iannucci.

What makes the character so brilliant is that he is, for wont of a better term, a bit of a dick. In fact, he is the ‘bit of a dick’ that lives inside us all, and that Cuddly Toy sequence is the perfect example. I’m sure that plenty of people do that in cars – I know I do – but Alan really throws himself into it and does a far better job than most of us would. Likewise, later on (and in the trailer below) when he walks along a corridor briefly doing some Saturday Night Fever type moves – we all do it at some point, and we all think we look like Travolta, but really we look like Alan. Alan magnifies the worst in us and for that he gains our sympathy. For us, we get to file those moments away and think that God I’m not like that the other 99% of the time, but Alan is like that always, and we love him for it.

And here, finally, Alan gets to be the hero, and he does it in the way that we would be a hero, not in the way Bruce Willis would. And for that, we don’t only love him, we finally respect him.

A

Film length: 1hr 30 mins – Feels like: 1hr 30 mins

*In fact, while In The Loop is a spinoff, it’s probably fairer to call that a sitcom transposed onto the big screen than it is with AP.