Thursday, September 3, 2009

Stephen! Just Coming!

Although summer might be drawing to a close, some things still bring a smile to my face – like the return of Adam and Joe to their 6 Music show on Saturday morning, or more specifically in my case, their wonderfully funny podcast, which is a one hour collection of the best bits. The only problem is the choice of where I listen to it, as there have been too many times when I have suddenly burst out laughing in public, leaving anybody near me convinced that they are in the presence of some kind of nutter.

Adam and Joe are Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish, a pair of polite, well-educated, slightly posh (late) thirtysomethings. They are two genuinely likeable personalities, whose humour is gentle, slightly zany and extraordinarily engaging. This double act exhibits an unforced charm, intellect and wit that few other performers possess. Their comedy is innovative, offbeat, sharp and deliciously subversive, even though there is no malice – naughty and nice. In short, Adam and Joe are just plain funny.

"Nobody mention the Hairy Cornflake"

Friends since school days, they have a terrific chemistry and are clearly comfortable in each other’s company. It’s clearly the Adam and Joe show – there are no ego trips. Although they sound disconcertingly similar, both being articulate, amusing and self-deprecating, there are obviously differences: Adam is shorter, sillier and sometimes has a beard; Joe is taller (a “man-giraffe”), drier and slightly forbidding. Theirs is an innocent world and they often talk about childhood memories or look at the world with the artlessness (and mischief) of youth.

After a period away from the limelight, last year they broke into the Big British Castle (BBC) to triumphantly re-emerge with the perfect Saturday morning show, which has the unique quality of Saturday mornings when you were a kid, capturing the excitement at being off school and the many possibilities offered by the weekend. The show is a pleasing mix of casual chat, silly voices, observations on pop culture and juvenile toilet humour and has been likened to listening in on a pub conversation between two extremely witty, frivolous and literate mates. It’s difficult to sum up, but essentially they talk rubbish about life, TV, films and music. Fun for all teenagers manqués and indeed manky teenagers, it’s the sound of men who should really know better, which will explain why it’s a source of constant joy and stupidity and makes the show addictive listening.

"A couple of prongs"

Some of their chats are pant-wettingly hilarious. When Joe spoke about the new series of Skins, he superbly summarised how in the first five minutes the director had tried to cram in every possible thing that might lure an irresponsible teenager to watch: “digital, skateboard, turd, spliff, text, trilby, swearing, indie rock, community police, ponce, pub, lady”. Equally good was his impression of Jools Holland, when he imagined him at home in the morning: “Wonderful bacon and eggs. Over here’s the cooker. You also have the toaster. This is my wife. Here’s my wife. My children. Get in the car. Brilliant. The car. Round of applause for the car”. They should also be applauded for coining terms like “idiothole” and “airborne toxic event” (take a guess).

The show has a couple of regular features, including Text the Nation, where our heroes choose a topic from their own experiences and get the listeners to, er, text in their anecdotes or ideas:

Text the nation, text, text the nation.

But I’m using e-mail. Is that a problem?

It doesn’t matter – TEXT!

Rather than aiming to provoke an angry reaction from the public, they prefer to encourage people to look at the quirky aspects of life. Recent themes have included bad interviews/auditions, strange things you do to cover up public embarrassment, t-shirt slogans that you would never see (“Home honey, I’m high”) and domestic annoyances. The podcast has added Retro Text the Nation, which recaps the previous week’s theme to allow listeners to the podcast to also contribute to the discussion:

I like to listen to Adam and Joe, but I listen to the podcast not the live show.

I used to feel acute frustration, cos’ I couldn't join in with Text the Nation.

But now my problems have disappeared, cos’ Retro Text the Nation's here.

And now my letter might be read out instead of thrown in the trash and forgotten about.

"Come on, it's not that bad"

Another recurring feature is Song Wars, where they use the Garageband application to write competing songs on the same subject, then invite the public to decide which one wins:

It's time for Song Wars, the war of the songs.

A couple of tunes by a couple of prongs.

Which will you vote for, which one is the best?

We're putting our songs to the listener test.

So check it out.

Normally, such comedy songs would stink out the place, but their compositions are so good that you can even purchase a compilation of the best ones on iTunes. The themes have included family-friendly erotica, revisited TV theme tunes, Kate Nash parodies, Quantum of Solace, internet piracy, Grazia magazine and, best of all, Adam’s Middle Class Festival Song with its razor-sharp dissection of the green welly brigade (“Load up the 4x4, it’s festival time/We’re stuffing the chill bag with nibbles and wine”). In the beginning, Joe won week after week, which seemed to genuinely upset Adam, but now the roles seem to have reversed. In fact, the show’s excellent jingles are mainly written by Adam.

Unlike most radio shows, they rarely have any celebrity guests plugging their latest product and indulging in banal, pointless conversations (step forward, Chris Moyles). Actually, the only celebrity I can remember making an appearance is Sir Roger Moore, which resulted in Joe corpsing on air, struck dumb by the presence of a living legend. The one famous artist they would dearly want on the show is David Bowie, but as that seems unlikely, they make do with a regular impression of the thin white duke (though it’s more like the laughing gnome).

"Adam is only half the man he used to be"

As with all great radio performers, they create a little world where the listener feels included and at home. Their knack is for building a sense of comradeship among their fans, like a club with a particularly loyal following. They make us feel better about our own weird little obsessions and self-delusions. Indeed, people who listen to the show live between 9 and 9.30 are known as “Black Squadron” in recognition of their ability to rise so early on a Saturday morning.

This also means there are lots of running gags, most notably the minor social phenomenon known as “Stephenage”, whereby listeners shout out “Stephen!” in a public place, hoping to identify other listeners who will reply “Just coming!” The origins of this nonsense lie in one of the Text the Nation stories on the juvenilia theme, when a listener recounted his youthful creation of a self-referential magazine depicting him as a superhero with the unlikely name of Stephen. The recounting of this story is among the funniest things I’ve ever heard.

Adam and Joe are improbable media darlings after their only shot at mainstream success, The Adam and Joe Show on Channel 4, fizzled out almost ten years ago, despite being one of the funniest things on television, stuffing more ideas and jokes into half-an-hour than most programmes do during their entire run. At a time when new laddism was almost inescapable, amongst other things they used to spoof Hollywood movies using soft toys. One other very humorous sketch involved Adam going to a supermarket, selecting products that had 20% free written on the packets, consuming just the “free” amount and then returning the packet to the shelf.

"Which one is the best? It's Joe"

Other TV appearances have included some excellent guest slots at Glastonbury, proving that not all presenters there are contractually obliged to annoy the hell out of the viewers like the clueless Reggie Yates, the fawning Zane Lowe and the insufferable Edith Bowman. However, these days they are better known for their work on the airwaves, having produced consistently astonishing radio ever since they started on XFM in 2005. Nobody could forget the riotous re-cap of R. Kelly’s mind-boggling “Trapped in the Closet” mini soap opera.

Incredibly, Adam and Joe are still as fresh and inventive as they were ten years ago. In fact, I think that they’ve actually got funnier as they’ve got older. Listening to their podcast, they are without doubt at the peak of their form, maybe because they are most comfortable in that medium. Radio suits them well, as they are given space to talk about whatever they want, so they can be a lot more relaxed and things can be more spontaneous and therefore funnier. Their brand of humour certainly works extremely well in that format, which may explain why they are more popular now than during their first flush of fame. As Joe said, “the thing we seem to get rewarded for is just when we’re being lazy and talking rubbish to each other”.

"Of course we can do zany"

Some may think that it’s a shame that television does not give more prominence to a couple of comics who speak eloquently and hilariously on pretty much any topic, but Adam and Joe’s original, intuitive whimsy is almost certainly beyond the intelligence of today’s commissioning editors, who are incapable of recognising comedy unless it’s accompanied by a fatuous catchphrase. As the great Stewart Lee said, “TV is run by twenty or thirty people who are insensitive to beauty, truth or thought in any form”. Sure, they deserve a bigger audience, but then they might be obliged to change in order to toe the corporate line. At the moment, they shoot the breeze without putting each other down, are not vicious and laugh as if they mean it. I for one would not want them to become a less amiable, charmless, more frantic version of themselves in order to fit in with the moron-fest on BBC3.

Adam and Joe have provided some of the funniest radio ever broadcast. In terms of podcasts, it doesn’t get any better than this. Their show is essential listening and will have you in stitches. Just don’t listen to it on the train or bus - unless you like people pointing at you.

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