The Fast Show was the best and worst thing to happen to British comedy in the mid-'90s. It revolutionized sketch shows thanks to its blistering pace, visual style, and imaginative range of well-drawn characters, while transforming co-creator Paul Whitehouse from Harry Enfield's "stooge" to full-blown comedy legend in his own right. But it was also responsible for crystallizing the idea that catchphrases and repetition in sketch shows were easy shortcuts to hilarity and popularity—as so many shows that followed were likewise keen to arm themselves with built-in reiteration (most notably Little Britain).
This BBC show ran for three series (including some specials) from 1994 to 2000, and in that time became big enough to attract a guest appearance from mega-fan Johnny Depp. And now, over a decade later, it's back. Have the BBC chosen to revive it like Shooting Stars? Well, no. An Australian beer company have. Fosters had unprecedented online success in bringing back two comedy giants this year (the sublime Alan Partridge series Mid Morning Matters; the ghastly Vic n' Bob series Afternoon Delights), so it makes sense that they'd chase down The Fast Show next. Its format and fizzing pace is perfect for the internet age, where watching comedy on YouTube has helped erode attention spans to the bone. Or to put it another way: we've embraced Family Guy over The Simpsons.
So how successful is The Fast Show's online return? The first seven-minute installment "went live" a few days ago (embedded below), and fulfilled its primary mission to please fans of the show. The core troupe have been reunited: co-creators Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, joined by regulars Simon Day, Arabella Weir and John Thomson, with the added bonus of Caroline Aherne (an original alum who left after series 1), but sadly without Mark Williams. Most have aged gracefully, and it helps that many Fast Show characters were already significantly older than the actors playing them, so there's no notable difference between rambling Rowley Birkin QC circa 2000 and 2011.
Perhaps wisely, there are no new characters in this project. I remember on television it always took about three episodes for new characters to really "connect", and that's too long for an online show chopped into seven-minute chunks. Consequently, most of your favourites are returning, opening in this episode with fan-favourites Ted and Ralph (in the weakest sketch of the bunch), the hilariously crazy "Chanel 9" news crew and their bizarre "Spanish" language, unintelligible drunken raconteur Rowley Birkin, and tough-guy actor John Actor as Monkfish in a timely Downton Abbey/Upstairs, Downstairs spoof.
Just over five minutes isn't long enough to settle into a show's groove, and I missed the studio laughter the TV version always used very well, but other than that... Foster's Fast Show is essentially a continuation of the original show, with a slightly wrinkled cast and less budget. The writing doesn't appear to have slipped too badly in the ten-year gap, although I still think this show belongs as a pleasant memory from the past. It's fun to see familiar characters after a long absence, but where it was once irritating that The Fast Show relied so heavily on catchphrases, it's now relying heavily on catchphrases from a previous century. "Scorchio!" and "Does my mum look big in this?" were mimicked all over playgrounds when Oasis and Blur were fighting for chart supremacy, but that now seems like a very long time ago watching this.
Another problem is that Alan Partridge's own online series was beautifully written and, by virtue of the medium, had to focus on its strengths: intricate dialogue and Steve Coogan's nuanced performance. In contrast, The Fast Show is just doing what it was doing all those years ago, only with less money and cultural significance. As a fan of the TV series I'll be sticking with this, but don't expect a brilliant reinvention for a new medium.
- If this series proves as successful as Alan Partridge's Mid Morning Matters was earlier this year, will a proper TV return be on the cards? Interestingly, Partridge's online run is apparently being bought by Sky for a re-edited broadcast on TV, when you'd expect the BBC to have snapped it. It just goes to show how fast the TV landscape is changing now, as old shows find new leases of life online or on digital channels (see also Red Dwarf's return next year, following three successful specials on Dave in 2009.) Even in America there's a feeling that online entertainment's beginning to find its niche--with UK acquisitions like Misfits and The Only Way Is Essex doing brilliantly on Hulu, and companies like Netflix financing their own shows (starting with a US remake of the UK's House Of Cards miniseries).