If you can believe it, this summer marks the 10th anniversary of BAFTA-winning British comedy series Toast of London’s genius pilot episode, co-created by and starring the ever memorable Matt Berry. He plays the obliviously unsuccessful actor and wannabe lothario Steven Toast; a man with zero brains and even less grace.
With four seasons down, including this year’s Toast of Tinseltown set across the pond, Toast of London is responsible for some legendary moments in comedy. The mere mention of the show among fans will elicit responses such as “Yes I can hear you, Clem Fandango!”, “Fire the nucular weapons!” and “Well, he can f**k that sky high”.
Toast is joined on the show by a clueless agent, a genteel landlord who’s also a retired actor, an arrogant acting rival and a casual lover who happens to be that rival’s wife. That’s not to mention the thorn in his side that is recording studio hipster Clem Fandango who he is forced to endure while doing increasingly ridiculous voiceover work as his main income.
The role is certainly an overdone caricature of the failed actor archetype, much like Ricky Gervais’ character Andy Millman in Extras, multiplied by 1,000. Somehow, though, the more Matt Berry overacts, the more hilarious he is. Since his debut TV role in 2004’s Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace where he played an over-the-top actor playing a smug doctor with that impossibly baritone voice, he’s never looked back.
Now Berry is a slapstick comedy extraordinaire well-known for portraying pompous though intellectually challenged characters with robust libidos and jarringly low-pitched voices — Steven Toast being perhaps the finest example. Slapstick used to be about family-friendly violence and pain – think Punch & Judy and Chaplin films like His New Job – but Matt Berry has turned it into an utterly delightful filth-fest.
However, it’s in between those exaggerated moments that his humour really takes off; sardonic asides and nonchalant comments with no gaps for laughter throw us for a loop when we’re expecting excess. Who else could elicit a snort by simply responding “Who?” to every mention of Benedict Cumberbatch?
It’s easy to compare Toast to Berry’s other roles such as the sexually voracious boss Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd, and the equally lascivious nobleman vampire in What We Do in the Shadows. All are preoccupied with sex, all have grandiose ideas about themselves and all are preposterously stupid.
And yet, there’s a soft centre when it comes to these characters that always makes them hopelessly likeable. Their friendships, perhaps, or their struggles. The fact that they’re always looked down upon by someone; be it Jen Barber in The IT Crowd, the cooler vamps of Manhattan in What We Do in the Shadows, or Ray Bloody Purchase in Toast of London.
Nonetheless, Matt Berry is most definitely and defiantly a Marmite actor. His brand of deadpan slapstick – two seemingly diametric forms of comedy that he somehow makes work – blends the fatuous and the vacuous, toning down where you’d expect excess and building up other moments to outrageous proportions. Combined with frankly juvenile gags about sex makes him an acquired taste, and certainly not family-friendly.
Slapstick is widely considered to be the baseline of comedy. It’s the oldest form of comedy, in fact, if we look back to the court jesters of old. Official entertainers would have had to use big, exaggerated movements to entertain the royal courts since mics weren’t around for all spectators to hear them cracking jokes.
With the advent of cinema, slapstick became the style for silent movies. Early comedians the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy couldn’t deliver side-splitting dialogue themselves, so they had to lay it on thick with the action.
When cinema developed synchronised sound, Lucille Ball, Benny Hill and Jerry Lewis were among the classics who brought a voice to this traditionally mute genre, and later contemporary actors like Jim Carrey, Rowan Atkinson and Sacha Baron Cohen took slapstick to the extremes becoming internationally recognised comedic legends. Carrey is almost cartoonish in his delivery, Atkinson bizarre and mysterious as Mr Bean, while Cohen juxtaposed his extreme style with real life.
To count Matt Berry among the greats may seem hyperbolic given that he’s not a Hollywood A-lister; he’s a humble television star, and probably always will be. But when you examine some of his more popular roles you can see his own unique comedic genius come through.
He’s absolutely committed to idiocy in a way that is rare to see among actors. There’s no holding back when it comes to grotesque orgasm faces, nonsensical catchphrases, and drawing out a comedic scene well beyond its sell-by date, all with a paradoxical stoicism that seems so out of place and yet brilliant. When you think of Matt Berry’s face, isn’t it a completely serious deadpan expression that pops into your head?
As essential as it’s been to the foundations of modern comedy, slapstick has drastically fallen out of fashion. Nowadays, satire and dry humour are more palatable in Western entertainment. That’s why actors like Matt Berry can get away with it so well. By combining the impassive with the flamboyant, he’s created a new era of comedy television.
It takes an extraordinary fearlessness to blend together both ends of the comedic spectrum like that, and as far as we know, no-one else has managed it with quite so much success.