All sorts of topics are ripe for humour. Even the war in Ukraine. Very few of the late-night hosts are willing to venture near it, but Stephen Colbert tried one recent night.
Riffing on reports that Russian soldiers had taken radioactive items from Chernobyl in a kind of looting spree, Colbert wisecracked: “Well of course you can’t go to Chernobyl and not check out the gift shop. Oh look honey, they have a T-shirt that says, ‘I had a nuclear blast at Chernobyl!’”
Similarly, two new series aim to find comedy where others might find none: The use of token Black characters in TV and movies, and life inside a women’s prison. (The latter’s been done before but this new satire is particularly demented.)
Revenge of the Black Best Friend (streams on CBC Gem) is a six-part attack on stereotypes and tokenism. While that might seem like an invitation to sit in on someone’s rage, it’s nothing of the sort. There is huge energy and withering wit here. It stars Olunike Adeliyi (from CBC’s The Porter) as Dr. Toni Shakur, a celebrated and bestselling self-help guru who helps people such as the young Black woman entering showbiz who inevitably ends up as “the sassy Black friend” in some production. The humour used to build Dr. Toni as a character is rather broad, but the real engine of the show comes from the young actors who play both the nitwits who feel entitled to own the limelight, and the Black figures who unleash raging sarcasm and hard facts at them.
A bunch of episodes – all about 10 to 15 minutes long – are built around Dr. Toni’s allegedly syndicated TV talk show, in which she allows Black figures to explain the subtle or unsubtle racism they face, and confront those who practice the racism. One episode has an actor, Taye (Ashton James) explain how he was essentially cut from a cop drama called White, Black & Blue, even though he’s the “Black” in the title. He does however appear in the poster for the production; getting featured in the poster while being almost eliminated from the script is a running joke here. He gets to meet the movie’s director, whose excuses are boiler-plate Hollywood evasions.
Created by playwright and CBC Arts columnist and host Amanda Parris, the series is all critique but done with considerable comic zest. The series was wise to use up-and-coming actors and dancers who bring real zeal to it; among the outstanding are Ashton James, Crystal C. Rose and Caitlin McKeon, who are all part of Dr. Toni’s mission to “dismantle the white narrative industrial complex.”
Hard Cell (streams on Netflix) is new and the latest from Catherine Tate, the English actress and comedian known for her dramatic role in the Doctor Who series, but principally for her classic sketch series The Catherine Tate Show. (The latter produced some unforgettable characters and catchphrases.) Here, as usual, she plays multiple characters. The premise is a mockumentary and Tate plays Laura, the governor of a women’s prison. Hopelessly underqualified, her mantra is “creativity leads to rehabilitation” and thus she wants the prisoners to stage a production of West Side Story with the help of a former soap opera actor – Cheryl Fergison from EastEnders, playing herself.
Chaos descends at regular intervals since Laura declines to deal with such issues as plumbing at the prison. There’s a running joke about her “number two” in the office, a sidekick she claims she doesn’t need, but that joke doesn’t go far. In truth the joy here is watching Tate play all sorts of figures with different accents and backgrounds. She’s gifted at this sort of thing and you are sometimes in awe of her.
However, it’s not clear what is being mocked here. Is it the cheerfully woke Laura, the prison system or the prisoners? (A truly insane but admirable women’s prison comedy can be found in Pink Is In, which streams on the Bell Fibe TV channel.) Tate used to be a take-no-prisoners (pun intended) satirist, blasting away at homophobia and general ignorance, but here the humour can get raw, and gags about sewage and masturbation are more clangers than they are clever. For fans of deliberately-graceless English comedy only.
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