The Persuasionists: Cut Short and Cut Up

January 17, 2010

I tried to watch BBC2s new sitcom The Persuasionists recently and I only made it through 18 minutes before I had to give up on it.  The last time I couldn’t finish watching a sitcom it was the recent remake of Reggie Perrin which is interesting because they share quite a bit of common ground.  Although to be honest RP just made me sad and depressed that David Nobbs would allow such a horrible thing to happen to his finest creation.  If the writer of Men Behaving Badly asked to piss on my cat I wouldn’t say yes wholly on the basis that I get to join in.


Rather than just slag off The Persuasionists as being crap I thought I’d share my inexpert opinions about why it doesn’t work.

Firstly, a quick summary

The Persuasionists is based at an advertising agency.  There’s a perma-angry Australian boss.  There’s a creative played by Iain Lee. There’s a guy who pitches campaigns played by Adam Buxton.  There’s a ditzy blonde who does, uh, something.  Finally there’s a character who is best described as “comedy foreigner” – imagine something like Latka from Taxi played by someone with only a thousandth of the talent.  During the show this team is expected to pitch a slogan for a product called Cockney Cheese.

Here’s the title sequence:

With that out of the way, here’s why it doesn’t work

1. Nobody likes a smartarse

One feature of poorly written sitcoms is what I think of as the smartarse setup.  It often goes like this: smartarse is in a room doing whatever it is they do when one of the wacky characters walks in and says something stupid; smartarse then delivers witty put down.  End of dialogue.

This is the comedy equivalent of a strawman.  You set up a strawman just so you can easily beat it up.  The problem with that is that it’s lazy and it’s boring to watch.

Let’s make a comparison.  Let’s look at Father Ted.  The character of Father Ted is really Mr Average; he’s not especially intelligent or witty, he’s just kind of average like the rest of us.  Dougal walks in the room and says something stupid.  What often happens next is Father Ted then tries to explain to Dougal why he’s being stupid.  Dougal and Ted then get involved in a conversation that often results in Father Ted being unable to win the argument against an idiot and the idiot being just as confused as he was previously.

Most importantly though there’s interaction between characters, there’s conflict, and that makes interesting viewing.

Now some folk might say that there’s nothing wrong with the smartarse setup.  Surely that’s the classic structure of a joke: setup/punch, setup/punch.  Yes it is and I’m not saying it’s always wrong but once a sitcom relies on that structure for the bulk of it’s jokes then clearly the writers are not developing characters or developing interesting situations.

And that’s boring.

2. Get off your fat arse

I think Iain Lee’s character is meant to be the central character, the one we identify with most.  I say this because all the other characters are wacky caricatures.

Anyway, it doesn’t seem to be very well defined that he’s the central character but to me it seemed that he was.  It’s a poorly written sitcom so how the fuck should I know.  Anyway.

What I didn’t understand is why he’s so passive.  For the whole 18 mins he was sitting in a chair.

It really bothered me that the main character didn’t really move and all the other characters had to come to him. Think of the main characters in any other sitcoms and think about how much they move from place to place.  OK, The Royale Family are an exception.  Think about Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp, The Office.  Even Fletcher in Porridge moves about more and he’s in Prison.

It just seems all wrong to me.

3. Slogans are fun!

The writers have set the show in an advertising agency which gives them a tried and tested formula.  Several sitcoms have gone with a similar idea: Reggie Perrin had to work on marketing campaigns, Absolute Power had various PR shenanigans.  One of the irresistible things about this setup is that your characters can spout advertising slogans for fictional products.

This should be dead easy: create a product and then create a ridiculous slogan for it.

The writers mentioned three slogans in the eighteen minutes I saw and they were all unfunny.  The one that was the centrepiece of the show was a bit poor – Cockney Cheese – Leave it Aaaaat!!

Here’s some equally unfunny alternatives I came up with in about three minutes

Cockney Cheese – As old fashioned as being able to leave your front door open
Cockney Cheese – It’s rhyming slang for “that’s very nice”
Cockney Cheese – It’s rhyming slang for “Parkinson’s Disease” – which incidentally it also prevents
Cockney Cheese – Churned within the sound of cow bells
Cockney Cheese – duck and dive with some cheese and chive

Now all of those are shit.  But it only took me, a chronically stupid man, a few minutes to come up with those and I think they’re a tad more imaginative then “Leave it aaaaat!”  And let’s also remember that I didn’t suggest cockney cheese as potential comedy gold – the writers did and so you’d expect them to do better.  If they couldn’t come up with a funny slogan for cockney cheese then they could just come up with a different product.

Anyway, at one point the characters in the show are pushed to come up with an alternative slogan.  Maybe they came up with something hilarious later on in the show.  But during the eighteen minutes I watched they didn’t, Lee’s character suggested they just print it in a different font and put more exclamation marks after it.

Now that strikes me as a cop out because 1) the writers have dodged making another slogan and 2) we all know advertising doesn’t put loads of exclamation marks after a slogan which means that not only is it not funny but it doesn’t make any sense either.

4. Comedy Foreigner

There’s this character.  He has a foreign accent.  He is very loud.  He holds a very large pencil in his hand and suggests it’s like his cock.  He shouts suggestive things about sex.  He’s like a character from ‘Allo ‘Allo just without the existential angst.

If that sounds funny to you then you really don’t want to miss THE PERSUASIONISTS!

5. The Boss from hell

Sitcoms down the years are scattered with bosses from hell: David Brent, CJ from Reggie Perrin, Bishop Brennan from Father Ted, either Mr Reynholm from The IT Crowd, that dude with the moustache in Terry and June.  So this is another tried and tested formula it should be hard to get wrong.

Adam Buxton’s character is called in to the bosses office so he can roar at him.  The boss them roars at him.

And that’s it.

Once again this shows a tragic lack of imagination.  If he’s going to do demeaning things to his employees then why stop there.

He could demand that Buxton smear nutella round his face while singing I Should Be So Lucky.  He could ride Buxton like a pony while brushing his “mane” and calling him Doris.  He could get Buxton to clean a spill of his desk with his own shirt.  Again, these ideas are quite shit but that’s just what popped into my head just this minute and again that seems a wee bit more creative than what happened in the show.

Seriously, just think of this setup: boss calls character into his office and does something demeaning to him.

Now imagine something that could happen in that scene.  You’ve probably just thought of something funnier than “he roars in his face”

So that was pretty much where I decided that this show wasn’t going to go anywhere.  If you can’t think of something funny in that situation then you have no right considering yourself a professional comedy writer.


Is it unfair of me to write off the show after 18 minutes?  Absolutely.  But then no one died and made me Judge Dredd.  I’m just a viewer and I don’t have to watch anything I don’t want to.  18 minutes was as much as I could stand and I’d thought I’d write about why that was.

I love sitcoms, it’s such a shame when they’re created in such an obviously slapdash manner.


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