* Oh, all right then, twelve
By Spank The Monkey
Remember that phrase you used to hear in continuity announcements, “…except for viewers in Scotland, who have their own programmes”? Limmy’s Show is one of those programmes. Up until a few years ago, a comedy show broadcast solely on BBC2 Scotland wouldn’t have raised even a flicker of interest south of Hadrian’s Wall. But technology’s moved on: thanks to a combination of comedy blogs, Twitter, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and those Sky channels that come just after the porn, Brian Limond’s sketch show has developed a small non-Scottish following.
Limmy has written, directed and performed in twelve episodes of his Show so far – six in the winter of 2010, and another six one year later. It would be far, far too easy to just link to a handful of YouTube sketch clips and let you work it out for yourself. So I’m a little embarrassed that this is exactly what I’m going to do. But let’s take a structured approach – one sketch from each episode, in chronological order – and use it to decide whether Limmy’s current relative obscurity is justified or not.
Series 1, Episode 1: Finnieston Crane
For me, this sketch was the precise point in the first episode when I literally sat up and took notice. Lazy journalists continue to use Chris Morris’s Jam as a reference point for dark, paranoid comedy, and it’s had its imitators over the years: but this introduction to junkie waster Dee Dee is the first sketch I can recall that gets Jam’s atmosphere of creeping unease spot on, without crossing the line into easy gross-out. And its casually thrown-away punchline is the sort of detail that makes those same lazy journalists call Limmy a genius every so often. We’ll try to avoid that here.
Series 1, Episode 2: Sannies
So where did Limmy come from? ‘The internet’ is the short answer. Most of the groundwork for characters like Dee Dee had been performed in 2006, when Limmy recorded three months’ worth of daily podcasts featuring nine of those characters in a series of monologues. You can still download Limmy’s World Of Glasgow for free, an extraordinary nine and a half hours of audio that Limmy’s still strip-mining for the TV show. The adventures of schoolboy Wee Gary took the least work to adapt for the screen, as they’re simply the monologues paired up with schoolbook illustrations.
Series 1, Episode 3: End Of The Show
After watching a few of his shows, you quickly realise one thing about Limmy: he isn’t afraid to make an audience feel uncomfortable. He enjoys confronting them head-on, frequently berating them for having the reaction he’d intended to generate in the first place. This sketch is an early example of the approach he’s subsequently refined on his Twitter feed, a unique mix of time-wasting nonsense and direct insults. In his most audacious bit of audience-baiting to date, he recently set himself the challenge of losing 1,000 of his 12,000 followers in 24 hours, purely through the power of his own dickishness. He managed it, too.
Series 1, Episode 4: Yes Or No
Aside from the podcasts, quite a bit of the early R&D for Limmy’s Show was done on YouTube, where you can find several rough camcorder versions of sketches that turned up in a more finished form on TV. The technical limitations of the YouTube version of Yes Or No are there for all to see: it’s obviously filmed in one room of his house, the two characters he plays don’t look very different from each other, and there’s a clumsy edit near the end that wrecks the flow. But the stuff that makes it work is all there, in raw form, like a demo recording of a song you love.
Series 1, Episode 5: Millport
I had to watch all of the Limmy’s Shows again to pick out this selection of twelve sketches, but I always knew Millport was going to be in there. And for those of you who’ve been clicking through the links and complaining about just how few laughs you’ve had so far, guess what? This is a sketch with no comedy in it whatsoever (unless you count the mild bathos of the final line). But it’s my favourite moment of series 1, a little vignette that couldn’t be shown on TV in any other context.
Series 1, Episode 6: Stairs
Despite what you’ve seen so far, series one did have jokes, including this microscopically short one – just not as many jokes as some people might like. As it finished its 2010 run, Limmy’s Show was followed up by another sketch show, Iain Cornell and Robert Florence’s Burnistoun. That one had lots of jokes, and a couple of sketches – notably Lift and Two Litres Of Ginger – quickly went viral on YouTube. With two new sketch shows coming out of Scotland in rapid succession, inevitably people would end up comparing the two, and I did just that back in March 2010. (Spot the recycled opening.) My conclusion was that Cornell and Florence beat Limmy in terms of comedy: “I think the overall impression you take away from his show is more ‘smart’ than ‘funny’.” But that would change.
Series 2, Episode 1: Jester
When Limmy came back one year later, he’d obviously had a bit of a rethink. The supporting cast of Debbie Welsh, Tom Brogan and Raymond Mearns were out, replaced by a trio of straight actors who pointed up the gags by steadfastly refusing to play them for laughs. In a ballsy move, Limmy directly addressed the risks of such a change in the opening sketch, throwing Kirstin McLean into the established Adventure Call format from the previous series and watching her flail around horribly.
Series 2, Episode 2: Missing
In fact, the recasting is mirrored by an interesting change in the format of the sketches between the two runs of the show. In the first series, Limmy tended to be the straight man, reacting to bizarre or unexpected situations. In the second one, he’s frequently the one who causes those situations, and it’s up to the supporting players to react to them with a mixture of bewilderment and contempt. Alan McHugh pitches that mixture perfectly throughout the series, and this particular sketch wouldn’t work without what he brings to the reaction shots.
Series 2, Episode 3: The Money Game
Paul McCole is the only one of the new supporting players we haven’t mentioned yet, so let’s have a sketch featuring him. At the same time, this delightful piece of visual nonsense displays one of Limmy’s strengths as the director of the show – his use of editing. It’s always been one of the dark arts of screen comedy, but all too often in television an edit is used solely to show you who’s saying the line you’re hearing. Limmy’s one of the few people working in TV comedy today who’s actually creating gags in the cutting room. This may be the first article you’ve ever read that namechecks the people who edited a TV show: Calum Ross (series 1) and Walter J Grant (series 2).
Series 2, Episode 4: Clowning
Lots of people on the internet have their own The Day Limmy Called Me A Cunt story: here’s mine. Clowning’s a fairly typical Limmy sketch, getting laughs from the way a psychotic mental state is triggered by banal means. With the aid of an old Manfred Mann clip and Windows Movie Maker’s cut and paste facility, I made a tribute video that literally takes more time to watch than it did to create. I tweeted it to Limmy, and he responded with an approving “Cracker!” Unfortunately, he deletes his old tweets every few weeks, so I can’t prove that. It’s not really a TDLCMAC story at all, but I’m afraid it’s the only one I’ve got.
Series 2, Episode 5: Paraside
TV psychic Raymond Day was one of the new characters created for series 2, and he’s probably my favourite. All too often in sketch shows, a running character allows the writers to create one sketch and then get five variants out of it with the minimum of tweaking. Limmy carefully calibrates Day’s unpleasantness throughout the run of sketches, making his responses shorter and more brutal as the series progresses, so this one’s kind of throwing you in at the deep end with him. But the viciousness of the sketch has a point and a deserving target, which is rare these days.
Series 2, Episode 6: Choux
And here’s another example of Limmy playing with format as the series progresses. Jacqueline McCafferty has been a fixture from the very start, and her self-justifying speech about how “I lost three years of my life on heroin, and another five years on a methadone programme that was meant to get us off it” is the closest Limmy’s Show gets to a catchphrase. (Snappy, eh?) But her character is beautifully defined behind that catchphrase, a killer cocktail of snobbery and self-loathing that reveals itself in a variety of ways. By this stage in the series, we know Jacqueline so well that Limmy can write an almost wordless sketch for her: one whose climactic mixture of emotions is as complex as those generated by Millport, but funny as well. Result.
Where does Limmy go from here? Can he stray far from BBC Scotland? (Burnistoun’s director, Iain Davidson, recently wrote an interesting blog suggesting that it’s the insular nature of regional programming which allows them to take risks like this show.) Will the rumoured national repeats of Limmy’s Show on BBC Three ever happen? Will he move into another medium altogether, to give the Mostly Film crew something more mostly filmy to write about? Or will one of his Andy Kaufman-style stunts go wrong and alienate his entire audience? I’ve no idea. But I’m waiting to find out.
Series One of Limmy’s Show is available now on BBC DVD, with Series Two presumably to follow later in 2011.
Spank The Monkey would like to thank Cathay Pacific, whose failure to provide a working in-flight entertainment service during a recent seven-and-a-half-hour long haul helped greatly with the writing of this article.