A panel of five comedians convened Sunday evening at the Oxford Playhouse to dispense help with personal problems submitted by members of the audience. Does the airing of one’s soul in front of 600+ strangers provide good advice, if not solace, for the questioner? Why would comedians want to partake in such an exercise? For two hours the panel on Jack Dee’s Helpdesk, which consisted of Rich Hall, Roisin Conaty, Diedra O'Kane and Charlie Baker, engaged with willing participants, and with each other, in often amusing psychobabble.
Examples of the diverse array of dilemmas and malaise that taxed the panel included: a man who complained that his wife had the temerity to serve liquorice gravy at Christmas dinners, the man who had recently swallowed Blenheim lake water during a triathlon - is he going to be ill?, and the poor suffering family of a gap year explorer who returned home with 5 anklets (one for each country he'd visited) wearing a spirit ring and, worst of all, sporting a beard!
Lest we forget the ladies (although a predominance of the problems read out belonged to men – what are we to make of this?) a young woman studying for her A levels wanted to know what could be done to change the practice of sitting exams. The information regurgitated would be useless in later life. Unfortunately, as Jack Dee said, the event was not Question Time and the panel could not help her, except to provide assurance that all knowledge was useful, eventually, even if only to show off during pub quizzes.
The panel attended to these and other problems with more earnestness than was expected, especially the input by Roisin Conaty. Rich Hall was particularly philosophical with his comments and advice. To the man who swallowed germ-laden water, Hall questioned why anyone voluntarily puts himself into such a situation at the outset. Was he depressed? Or suffering from decompression? It was important to distinguish between the two. To the newly hirsute young man, Hall’s advice was to look elsewhere for spirituality. It is not to be found in a bought ring, but is in fact embedded within the left rear wheel tyre of a car, the one furthest away from the driving seat. And, to the man who wanted a millionaire’s lifestyle without being a millionaire, the spare tyre apparently is where monetary concerns are located, evidenced by it’s thin, worn tread.
Speaking of thinness, is humour derived from this show’s format thin on the ground? All of the panellists were intelligent and quick witted, able to riff on the matters to hand before a receptive audience. Audience members were willing participants in couching what in some cases were nuanced complaints (most involved married couples) within an amusingly composed query. Often an audience member was as quick witted as the panellists. How then was this evening different from being with a group of friends and contributing to good-natured ribbing in a pub or sitting room? In these circumstances, personal problems are tackled using a code of light-heartedness and amusement, underlying the attention necessary to speak directly to the problem. In Jack Dee’s Helpdesk, who received the most value out of this exchange, the audience in general or the comedians? The panel show format has proved successful for the simple reason that viewers/listeners enjoy intelligent banter. However, on radio or television we indirectly pay for the experience. Buying a ticket to possibly interact with the panel extends the format and becomes an anecdote for some audience members whose problems were addressed. Panellists also benefited by gleaning ideas for new comic material, for which they were paid in the process. Does the audience therefore subside the panellists’ working method?
It will be interesting to follow Rich Hall in the immediate future to see if he develops and incorporates the car tyre metaphor into a routine. There is potential to exploit the idea. Perhaps an audience member will do so within the confines of his local. In any case, more work needs to be done. The evening provided a starting point for thinking and understanding on a superficial level about interesting problems that arose. It is hoped that the deeper stuff will come later. If and when this happens, we will have, dare I say, a more profound laugh worth paying for.