Thursday, August 02, 2007

4 falls foul

Possibly my second favourite prose humourist of all time is Miles Kington. He graces the ever-diminishing audience of The Independent on weekdays with 500 words so funny (or at least witty or droll) that they counterbalance the rest of the paper's cardboard seriousness (and I speak as someone who's been reading the Indy for ten years now).

A while ago, he wrote a piece on how comedians are taking over Radio 4's light entertainment programmes:

I merely think that comedians are quick-witted people who have learnt how to think on their feet, to be at ease with a microphone, to be unfazed by an audience and, when all else fails, to come up with a relevant joke. They are ready made, pre-trained broadcasters.

So when a radio producer thinks: "Hmmm. I need a person who can react quickly and not dry up, to present Saturday Live/a travel programme/new quiz/chat show/series of trailers saying how much good comedy there is on Radio 4..." the first person who comes to mind will be, not these days, a broadcasting name; it will be Arthur Smith (or Paul Merton or David Baddiel or Sandi Toksvig or Sue Perkins or Marcus Brigstocke...).

This is fine and good because they can be very funny. But when these programmes involve conducting interviews (as does Chain Reaction, where one celebrity interviews another, who next week interviews a third celeb, ad nauseam), far too often interesting questions (especially those following up remarks of the interviewee) are left unasked.

Take this week's Chain Reaction, where semi-veteran comedian Jo Brand interviewed the fully-veteran comedian Barry Cryer. At one point, Cryer remarked that early on in his career he was on the same bill as Wole Soyinka performing Tom Lehrer's songs. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate for Literature and Africa's greatest living writer. Performing Tom Lehrer songs. This is a story that's begging to be told - it has famous people in odd situations. It would crown any piece.

It isn't hard to work out why Brand didn't follow this up: she's trained to go for the next laugh, not the interesting stories. It's also quite possible that she didn't pay enough attention to Cryer's answers to know that she had let slip a possibly fantastic, unusual anecdote. As someone who has done a fair few interviews, I have learnt (through hard experience) that you must listen to what your subject says and not just plough on with your list of questions. By listening, you can actually pick up interesting remarks and follow them.

While I would hate to have interview-trained journalists (not all known for their humour) hosting comedy shows, it would be nice at least to have comedians who knew a little about interviewing.

No comments: