Simon Amstell, Larry David and the rise of the ‘sim-com’
There are stories of particularly intense actors who, in the interests of remaining in character, insist on being addressed on set only by the names of the person they are playing.
There’s no risk of such pretension, though, on the set of Grandma’s House the BBC2 sitcom in which Simon Amstell portrays the TV presenter Simon Amstell. Or during filming of Trinny and Susannah: What They Did Next an online mockumentary purporting to depict the daily lives of the fashion presenters. Or in the shooting of The Trip, a forthcoming TV comedy in which the names of both the actors and the characters are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, supposedly touring Britain reviewing restaurants for the Observer.
Such projects are the latest echoes in Britain of an essentially American phenomenon: the sim-com or clone-show, in which a comedian plays a character who would be able to board a flight using the actor’s passport. The market leaders are Seinfeld (NBC, 1990-98) – in which Jerry Seinfeld portrayed a New York comedian under his own name – and Curb Your Enthusiasm, produced by HBO since 1999, in which the co-creator of Seinfeld, Larry David, offers a hopefully exaggerated take on his own personality and life.
Those two shows clearly influenced Amstell’s Grandma’s House. They are also part of a wider trend towards self-referential fiction, which includes Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras, with Hollywood stars spoofing themselves, and the forthcoming movie I’m Still Here, where Joaquin Phoenix, billed as himself in a film described as a documentary, apparently renounces acting to become a weird, bearded rapper.
But, while these performers will never have to risk the sniggers of the crew by asking to be addressed in character, they may stand accused of a different kind of conceit. Is it clever or arrogant – postmodernist or lazy – to stay quite so close to home in the creation of a role?
Most such projects are aiming for a Jekyll-and-"Jekyll" effect, in which the viewers aren’t sure if they’re watching the real person or a dramatic persona. Whereas in Extras it is generally clear that Ian McKellen, Kate Winslet and the others are playing vicious spins on their images – although Les Dennis’s appearance in that series sometimes seemed to be exposing a genuine streak of self-disgust – these sim-coms deliberately operate in, to borrow a cricketing expression from Geoffrey Boycott, a corridor of uncertainty.
In Trinny and Susannah: What They Did Next, the makeover mavens are indulging in a game of bluff. The viewer assumes that the scenes in which they are slatternly and angry with each other off-screen are a joke, but is it just possible that there are elements of genuine confession amid the jokey pretence? Similarly, the makers of I’m Still Here seem to have encouraged ambiguity about whether the film is the reason for, or simply recording, Phoenix’s bizarre transformation.
Turning striptease into work
From behind these masks that may or may not be their own faces, the performers can play teasing games. When "Simon Amstell" in Grandma’s House keeps insisting that he is desperate to leave BBC2’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks, neither the viewer nor the channel executives can be entirely sure that this is not a genuine feeling in the form of a gag rather than the more usual phonecall from the agent. Similarly, if Phoenix harbours frustrated musical ambitions, how much cleverer to express them in a project that can later be recategorised as irony than to release an album and risk humiliation.
Such tactics can be attributed to two dominant phenomena in modern culture: increasing interest in the private lives of celebrities and the rise of reality TV.
Looking back at the first decade of 21st-century TV, it’s striking to see how much of it was, at some level, asking the question: how real is this? The query arises not merely from various scandals over fakery and hoaxing, but through frequent blurring between actuality and entertainment: comedies (The Office, Marion and Geoff) that look like documentaries and supposed documentaries, such as various observational series featuring Katie Price and Peter Andre, that look more scripted than any comedy. The popularity of the sim-com is encouraged by – and further encourages – such confusion.
And with so many magazines, TV shows and websites devoted to the question of what famous people might be like in real life – a prurient fascination that in turn exerts pressure on celebrities to tweet or submit to Osbournes-style at-home TV shows– it’s unsurprising that some of the objects of this interest should choose to turn the striptease into work. To the reader of Heat or viewer of Entertainment Tonight, sim-coms say: you think that’s me; well, who is this?
It would be unfair, though, to rank these is-it-me? pieces purely as products of a modern fashion for self-obsession and self-reference. Similar practices can be dated to the early days of cinema, when it became standard for music-hall acts to retain their stage names when they played characters in first silent movies and then the talkies. Laurel and Hardy, for example, usually took the roles of "Stan" and "Ollie", while Buster Keaton regularly appeared as men called Buster.
Because television entertainment began by recruiting music hall and movie stars, the habit rapidly spread to the small screen. The motherlode of these clone shows can be found in a pair of comedies that began in the 1950s on either side of the Atlantic.
Hancock’s Half Hour now seems spookily prophetic of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and many other shows depicting clowns in down-time. The central concept of the scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – presenting a fantasy version of Hancock’s home life, with his less attractive characteristics magnified – set the model for most subsequent attempts.
The American pioneer was I Love Lucy, transmitted by the CBS network between 1951 and 1961. This show was based on a radio comedy called My Favourite Wife, in which Lucille Ball’s character had been called Liz Cooper. But, crucially, in the visual spin-off she was renamed Lucy Ricardo, a housewife with singing ambitions who was married to a Cuban bandleader, played by Desi Arnaz, who in real life was a musician from Cuba and the husband of Lucille Ball.
The series Roseanne (ABC, 1988-1997) is a classic example of this strategy. Roseanne Barr (later Arnold) retained her first name but adopted a fictional surname (Connor) to play a working-class matriarch heavily reminiscent of the persona she had developed through her standup routines. There seems to be a nod to this US concept from the young British comic Miranda Hart, whose recent BBC2 sitcom used her own name for both the title and the protagonist.
This approach is not necessarily due to a lack of faith from the producers in the transformational abilities of the performer and the imagination of the audience. Comedians and actors are significantly different in nature: Simon Russell Beale, for example, is a person who becomes other people for professional reasons, while "Roseanne Barr" or "Jerry Seinfield" (or, previously, Laurel and Hardy) are already semi-fictional characters created on the comedy circuit. So for Barr to play Sandy Connor in a sit-com called Sandy, or Seinfield to create a fictional comedian called Jack Katz, would have been to misunderstand their appeal and technique.
In the same way, while Russell Brand is supposedly playing "Aldous Snow" in the films Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the sequel Get Him to the Greek, the producers were sensible to ensure that the role was a wacky, wild-haired showbiz shagger rather than, say, a junior civil servant at the Australian high commission, which would have been a waste of the Brand brand.
This tension about the degree to which comedians are being themselves informs the spoof behind-the-scenes sketches in the French and Saunders and Mitchell and Webb series, where, like Trinny and Susannah, they play out a fictionalised relationship that tantalises as possible fact.
Mask or face? The drawback of the strategy is that it can limit a performer’s possibilities. Desperate to break into movies, Tony Hancock was cast as "Anthony Hancock", again, in The Rebel. He did get to be "Wally Pinner" in The Punch and Judy Man, although even that figure was openly biographical. Larry David was "Boris" in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, but the enthusiasm of reviewers was curbed by the complaint that he was just being himself from the telly.
And another problem is that playing yourself – or even your "self" – can be tougher than it looks. It was probably unwise for the opening episode of Grandma’s House to include quite so many moments of comic astonishment from the "family" of "Simon" at his revelation of a plan to give up hosting Never Mind the Buzzcocks for acting.
"Act? You can’t act, can you?" says Rebecca Front as the protagonist’s mother, a line that tipped the sitcom over from ironic realism into TV criticism. Amstell frequently looks unsure of whether to do what he does on stage and on game shows, or to send himself up. As a result, he feels less real than the invented characters played by experienced actors around him.
People who are inexperienced in broadcasting or public performance are often given the reassuring advice: "Just be yourself." But, in comedy, to attempt this can be a complex and often treacherous business.
LINK: The Guardian