"...who've got their own programmes." It was such a cliché in the old days before digital TV that Armando Iannucci wrote an entire sketch about it.
As a Sassenach who remembers hearing that phrase crop up in continuity announcements, I'm coming to it from an entirely different perspective. Iannucci rightly complains about all the good stuff he wanted to see, but couldn't because BBC Scotland had decided to replace it with "a Paul Coia quiz show about hills". But what about all that Scottish programming that never gets shown south of Hadrian's Wall? Surely there must be some good stuff in there that the rest of us are missing?
Well, so far in 2010 there've been two comedy series - Limmy's Show and Burnistoun - that have only been shown on BBC Scotland, but are definitely well worth a look. And thanks to digital telly and the iPlayer, they're not just Scotland's own programmes any more.
Both shows are the product of The Comedy Unit, which has been producing Scottish programmes for TV and radio for over a decade now. For every breakout UK-wide success like Rab C Nesbitt, there have been plenty of shows which have existed quite happily in the Scottish TV ghetto. But in an age when it's easy to watch the latest US telly (and getting easier all the time), the mere fact of a programme only being broadcast in Scotland shouldn't be a hindrance to the rest of us.
Limmy's Show and Burnistoun are both sketch shows, but they feel quite different from each other - and, for that matter, from most other sketch shows on TV at the moment. It took me a while to work out what the difference was, but I think I've found it. Most sketch shows these days employ a small army of writers, relying on the personalities of their leading performers to give them coherence. Both of these shows are entirely written by one or two people: they feel like there's a guiding intelligence behind them, one that's prepared to take the sort of risks that would generally be ironed out by a committee.
Take Limmy, for example - or Brian Limond, to give him his full name. He made his name producing videos, podcasts and Flashy nonsense for his own website, limmy.com. Obviously that's no guarantee that he's capable of converting a set of virals into a coherent TV show... but he seems to have pulled it off. And with a minimum of compromise, too - he's not only written and performed in Limmy's Show, but directed it too. It's kind of all over the place, but in a good way: random in the old-fashioned 'lots of different types of sketches' sense, not in the modern wanky Mighty Boosh sense.
There are sections that work like straightforward observational standup, interspersed with sketches - much like any other funny guy with a comedy show. But those sketches go into unusual areas. There are microscopic bits of silliness lasting no more than a few seconds. There are wee bits of visual whimsy, spruced-up versions of gags that Limmy originally explored with a camcorder for the web. There are surreal ideas extended way beyond their natural lifespan, like the time Limmy starts following someone in the street for a laugh and ends up doing it for several years. There are, as has become fashionable, sequences that push black humour into areas that are almost - I said almost - too grim to laugh at. And once or twice, it even attempts a sketch without any jokes in it. Which sounds like a terrible cop-out on paper, but it's lovely that something like this has a place on television, even though it's utterly unclassifiable.
Limmy's web background goes some way towards explaining his anything-goes approach to constructing a sketch show. Meanwhile, Robert Florence and Iain Connell - the writer-performers of Burnistoun - come to their show with a raft of previous experience in comedy telly, mainly on Scottish programmes such as Chewin' The Fat and games review show videoGaiden. (In what's either a coincidence or an indication of the incestuous nature of the local comedy scene, Limmy popped up in the latter as what he referred to on his blog as "a wank called Zack Eastwood.") As a result, it's much more of a traditional sketch format than Limmy's, featuring a series of recurring and one-off characters inhabiting a thinly-disguised version of Glasgow.
But it's a delight for once to see a traditional sketch show made by people who know what they're doing. Part of the fun is that Florence and Connell aren't afraid to revel in their Scottishness: where Limmy's Show is primarily driven by its visuals, Burnistoun is all about the slang, the accents, the Scottish way with words. A piece of verbal knockabout like A&E could have happily played in music hall at the Glasgow Empire a century ago. At the same time, they're careful to avoid the usual national cliches, unless they want to rip the piss out of them (as in the gritty drama series The Drugs). The love of language even extends to one lovely sketch that's played out entirely in written text.
Most importantly, you can tell that the script's been worked on. Too often these days, there seems to be an expectation that one joke is all you need for a three-minute sketch. And if you tweak the opening setup slightly, you can repeat that sketch in every episode of the series. By comparison, Two Litres Of Ginger (which has gone viral to the degree of getting namechecked in the latest B3TA newsletter) is notable for the way it sets up its basic premise, and then escalates it three or four times before wrapping it all up in a smart punchline. It helps that Florence and Cornell are naturally funny guys - not to do Limmy down at all, but I think the overall impression you take away from his show is more 'smart' than 'funny'.
Anyway, you can try them both for yourselves and see what you think. Limmy's Show is no longer available on the iPlayer, sadly, but Burnistoun should still be on there until mid-April or thereabouts. And as they're both sketch shows, they're ideal for illegal filleting on YouTube, which means that a quick search for Limmy's Show or Burnistoun will give you anything from five-second gags to entire episodes (including the 2009 pilots of both). Maybe they'll even get a repeat on the Beeb in England at some point in the future. God knows what they'll show on BBC Scotland when that happens, though.