Harry Hill, for as long as I can remember, has been something of a comedic abomination. The sands of laughy time have mercifully helped us to forget that he had three series of The Harry Hill Show on Channel Four in the late nineties, making unfunny jokes about badgers, and… well, there was probably something else going on. But badgers. Lord, always with the badgers.
But in recent years he’s become the lone light in the comedy output undergrowth of ITV. He took the run down You’ve Been Framed, a programme that came to epitomise the contempt that the channel increasingly showed for its viewers by getting bum-chinned doorpost Jonathan Wilkes to front it. Drafting in Harry Hill meant a return to showing clips, without introducing even more awkward format changes to get viewers to vote on ‘classic clips’. Instead, he’s come to provide a continual rambling commentary about kittens in shoes, gurning babies and adults with severe inner-ear problems, which has helped to restore the programme to its duel purposes of being both a family laughfest and guilty pleasure.
He also came up with the wonderfully daft Shark Infested Custard for kids, much akin to CBBC’s marvellous Stupid, and probably the last decent programme that CITV commissioned before they fell off our screens.
But his crowning achievement is TV Burp. It’s like Screen Wipe without the moral impetus, making gloriously cheap visual jokes about the week’s telly. And it’s fast, so wonderfully fast that when some of the gags inevitably fail, it doesn’t matter; there’ll be another ten along in a moment. High fibre diets in Emmerdale (cut to a shot of farmer coinciding with a cow mooing); NHS cutbacks in Holby City (shot of empty hospital); Peggy calls for more mucus action in the Queen Vic (cut to Babs Windsor saying ‘Phil snot here’).
To those who haven’t seen it, this probably seems all a bit childish. And it is, it wonderfully is, dressing his keen eye for visual gags up in kid’s clothing. The man is genuinely talented to make any given gag funny when it could easily come across as snooty or whisperingly ironic if done by any number of other programmes (Have I Got News For You, Screen Wipe again).
The programme is far from being solid gold. Being ITV, there is the enormous weight around its neck that it has to be filled with at least 60% content about the channel’s soap output. For those like me whose comedy context is the irony-heavy output of Channel 4, the brassy approach can take a bit of adjusting too. And being Harry Hill, there’s still a bit of googly-eyed arm waving.
His scattergun approach also means that his unfunniest gags will be picked up and run with for extensive lumps of the programme. Take this week’s episode: there was a great joke about The Bill releasing a new video game, featuring a clip of a police chase along different levels of a tower block that looked the spit of a platform classic. I laughed out loud; but then there was a laugh-free one-minute skit showing Harry taking up the chase from the programme.
But it’s still not quite possible to change channels, because (a) it’ll be over in a minute and we can get with some fart gags, and (b) no-one else does a ‘pick of the week’s telly’ sort of programme without being utterly vapid. For that, Harry Hill has redeemed himself from his shoddy past. He just needs to stay away from the badgers.