Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Argumental Series 3

Last night I found myself being filmed in the audience for series 3 of Dave's Argumental. Dave is a UK comedy channel which has a balanced diet of older, well-worn comedy favourites and new shows, like this one, Argumental - which is a new version of older well-worn comedy favourites.

The producer asked us not to talk about the content of the show, which is entirely reasonable, so you won't find any gags or spoilers here. However I found the experience faintly interesting and thought I might share at least a little of that.

Argumental, for all its game-show pretensions, is simply a vehicle for stand-up comedy. Consequently we had a classic support act (whose name I didn't catch) setting a brisk comic tone, one part risky to two parts observational nuttiness.

Bizarrely it was also the only truly improvised set of the evening. For all that Dave markets Argumental as an improvised contest, it's fairly tightly scripted. The contestants read from autocue. Each comedian has clearly prepared his or her own script - some with bullet points, some with sketched notes, one almost verbatim. Here's a series 2 clip from Dave's YouTube channel:

Of course, inbetween the more formal stretches of the show there is a great deal of improvisation, but this is contained within the triangle of competing teams and compere John Sargeant. Whilst it plays to the audience it doesn't really involved them directly.

A couple of things emerge from this. Firstly, whilst you might expect the improvised overspill of the show to be considerable, so that there is plenty of material to edit down, this also applies to the script. Clearly, the comedians bring prepared material into the show prepared to lose a proportion of it according to what gets the laughs on the night.

Secondly it is marvellous watching the sheer professionalism of the dedicated, broadcast-calibre comedians at their work. Despite being able to follow the delivery of the script via the autocue, it is very difficult to tell exactly when the script is being delivered, such is a the ease with which the comedians move between the prepared and the spontaneous. They are also highly aware of the practical necessities of the recording, despite the live show being taped. At one stage one of the guests immediately repeated an off-the-cuff joke which he had delivered imperfectly but felt might be worth keeping. His presence of mind to keep the audience aware of the technical necessity of what he was doing without deflating the genuine comic temperature of the moment was deeply impressive (I might add that my own opinion of this particular comic was very low indeed and has since rocketed accordingly).

In its pre-edit version the show is notably coarse. The images and ideas dreamt up by the contestants and the language used to describe them can be very mucky and occasionally hops back and forth over the line of good taste. However, we sat through 3 hours of recording for two half-hour shows, so one can see that this as an affective strategy, with the comedians expecting much of this to be cut.

Indeed, by the time the recording had finished it was well past 10.00pm. Given that we had been brought into the studio at around 6.30 and were discouraged from leaving our seats inbetween the editions being filmed, the audience is clearly treated as camera fodder rather than a real audience - the TV audience. Nonetheless, the comedians are on stage for the most part of that and their contribution is all the more impressive for it. I will watch the shows when they go to air from 13 October with fresh eyes.

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