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From Brass Eye to Four Lions: Who is Chris Morris?
I'm now a self-proclaimed anglophile, specifically because of my love for everything British comedy. From Monty Python to Ricky Gervais, I can't get enough of the brilliant dry satirical humor that typically outmatches our usual slapstick immaturity (although Python delved into hilarious slapstick pretty frequently). There's one name that always pops to mind, one that is the most mysterious out of all of those familiar faces in the British Isles, and that name is Chris Morris.
I became aware of Morris when I discovered him on YouTube in 2009, in a series called Brass Eye. I couldn't get enough of the news show set-up, and the way it mocked every aspect of a typical broadcast, in everything from the way the media handles a certain story to the insanely over-the-top animated transitions between clips. It was like a full-length version of The Onion news, with real interviews conducted with people on the street, as well as certain famous British figures. The show may have targeted British news culture first and foremost, but even if I couldn't understand some of the jabs—especially on certain British celebs and politicians—the entire premise was as relevant to my country as it was to the times in which I was living. I could see where Sacha Baron Cohen (of Da Ali G Show and Borat fame) got his inspiration.
The short-lived series Brass Eye, first aired in 1997, was not Morris' first series, but it's been argued as being his most successful and controversial simultaneously. The show was a mix of often surreal skits mocking real news, combined with almost entirely nonsensical interviews with Britain's more respected citizens in an attempt to confuse them.
The series only lasted for six episodes, each covering different topics such as animals, sex, science and decline, but the truly defining moment of the Brass Eye legacy was that of the later seventh episode, the 2001 “Paedophilia Special”—which saw celebrities such as Phil Collins endorsing the fake anti-pedophile group “Nonce Sense”. Other celebrities in this episode were duped into making insane statements about new computer technology utilized by molesters, such as chemicals released through keyboards via the Internet that could sedate kids and make them “smell like hammers.” This episode caused so much outrage that the show was inevitably permanently canceled, and Chris Morris retreated to the shadows, away from the brass and public eye, never to produce a show quite like this again.
One of my favorite episodes in this series was of course “Drugs”. The episode centered around the discussion of a fictional Czech drug called “cake”, which was simply a yellow pill literally the size of a softball. Celebrities and MPs were amazingly convinced to endorse the anti-drug group “Free the United Kingdom from Drugs and British Opposition to Metabolically Bisturbile Drugs”, or as it appeared on their T-shirts, “F.U.K.D. and B.O.M.B.D.”. Cake purportedly caused some of the most bizarre side-effects, such as inflation of the neck that could cause users to suffocate on their own neck skin, and caused users' brains to speed up to the point where one second of noise sounded like an entire EDM track.
The show as a whole truly proved how celebrities are more concerned with how they're saying something as opposed to what they're saying, inflated by ego and vanity, while always believing their image is being used to promote a noble cause. It didn't matter how ridiculous the subject was, such as “heavy electricity” that physically crushed and miniaturized every creature on impact; it was always discussed with complete seriousness. It made me wish that I could see some of the Hollywood A-listers in this country spout on about some equally bullshit cause or problem.
Chris hassles an actual drug dealer with fake street lingo:
The Day Today
I'm not really going in order here, but this was Morris' first TV show, started in 1994. It spawned from a radio show that Morris had worked on, On the Hour, which parodied the news the way only he could. The show was a tamer version of Brass Eye, with much of the same cast, only this show included the talents of Patrick Marber, Rebecca Front and David Schneider to add to the series. Steve Coogan launched his comedy career here, helping give rise to the annoying, egotistical-yet-ever-insecure Alan Partridge that would be everyone's favorite character of his—until Saxondale came along, anyway. Although Partridge was a character originally appearing in radio shows On the Hour and Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge, this show single-handedly put a face to the name.
The show lasted a little longer, standing at about twelve episodes, when Morris took a break prior to the brilliant Brass Eye. Highlights of the series included interviews with real people as well as some of my favorite sketches, like the awesome rapport between Morris' character of the same name and Marber's Peter O'Hanraha-hanrahan, the show's economics correspondent (“Peter, you've lost the news!”). It's just a shame that the real news couldn't learn from reporters' incompetencies expressed here.
Classic Peter O'Hanraha-hanrahan bit:
Around the same time Brass Eye was a fiery success on television, Morris invaded the airwaves as well with a unique radio show entitled Blue Jam. Equal parts hilarious and disturbing, Blue Jam ran about an hour long in each episode, and had some of the best music I've ever heard accompanied by some of the most bizarre, brief and off-the-wall sketches I've ever enjoyed.
Beating all of our American equivalents like A Prairie Home Companion and other tamer shows to a bloody, macerated and screaming pulp, this radio show was unrelenting in its efforts to both shock and get you to emit that guilty laugh that feels the best of all. It takes a sick and twisted sense of humor to enjoy Blue Jam like I have, as Morris takes you on a mellow journey through the insanity, banality, confusion and just plain tragedy that is our society. Or, you can just view it as random and sick humor, which is what a few critics among the mixed reactions had said of it.
Some of the skits included a seemingly professional doctor (voiced by David Cann) who had bizarre means of treating people's ailments, as well as financing his offices by doubling as a phone sex operator during the same hours as his profession. Others included Chris Morris as an insane man calmly discussing, in short story form, his highly unusual perception of people and the world. Many sketches sounded like bits from documentaries, with the narrator discussing events as if being interviewed by a film crew. Every show began with a nonsensical, relaxed monologue that concluded with the equally meaningless intro to the rest of the show, “Then ee welcome. Oo ab welcome, in Blue Jam,” or other gibberish variations.
The television version of this series—entitled Jam and one remixed version called Jaaaaam—basically took the exact format of the radio show, but included live action performances of all of the skits in twenty-minute episodes. The show aired in early 2000. Many of the usual Chris Morris regulars like Mark Heap, Julia Davis and Kevin Eldon reprised their radio roles, oftentimes simply lip-syncing over the audio. Editing techniques, such as reducing the framerate and adding filters, contributed to the overall disturbing and surreal experience.
Neither works are my favorite of Morris', but they stand as fun and unique entertainment that removes some of life's overwhelming boredom.
Clip from Jam:
This is Chris Morris' first attempt at co-writing and directing a series without appearing as a main character. Working with writer Charlie Brooker (who used one of my favorite animators', David Firth's, animations for his show Screenwipe), the two created a show that parodied the Internet culture and those in my generation who believed they could be the next great journalists even if they were vapid idiots. I found this show to be fairly funny, although it didn't quite match the brilliance of some of his other work.
Notable actors from this series include Nicholas Burns as the titular character, Ben Whishaw (Skyfall and the “meh” Cloud Atlas), Richard Ayoade and Noel Fielding (both from The IT Crowd and many other great series).
The Chris Morris Music Show
This series of radio shows broadcast in 1994 and was one of the funniest shows recorded, next to his previous 1992 hit On the Hour, which was the precursor to The Day Today. Morris originally performed these shows live until BBC's Radio 1 got upset with him, to the point where he had to record these prior to broadcasting. The reason for this is that he reported the false deaths of Michael Heseltine and Jimmy Savile, but he still got to keep his show until he was ultimately banned after the Christmas episode, in which he cleverly remixed the Queen's speech given on Christmas Day.
The show often contained hilarious conversations between him and Peter Baynham, which often consisted of rants about society, such as the whole New Age medicine phenomenon that set off in the 90's. He also sent one of his correspondents out with a phone to various venues and told him to say random things to store clerks and other employees, such as “I think this coin's asleep” when being handed change. Another correspondent, Paul Garner, was sent by Morris to get airport staff members to report false names over the Tannoy System that sound like phrases such as “I hate this fucking job and I will be fired” and “I need a piss quick and my legs are crossed.” Chris Morris also made several prank calls, including one made to a veterinarian asking questions about what to do regarding a tortoise he had on the show, whose shell he'd ripped off simply to see if it would live.
The show is definitely a lot of fun to listen to, with many celebrity interviews included in the style of Brass Eye.
The tortoise prank call:
One of his best efforts—and unfortunately his most recent—is the 2010 feature-length film Four Lions. The film follows the misadventures of four British Muslim terrorists, three of whom are British-Pakistani while the other is the twisted white convert Barry. They plan to conduct a serious, devastating terrorist attack on a major target, but through their own incompetence they can't get past the planning stage. With inadvertent suicides and killings, Omar, Fessel, Waj and Barry each display somewhat sympathetic yet hilariously delusional personalities. With some great dialogue and a great premise, Lions is easily the best movie on terrorism I've ever seen apart from tragic biopics.
While Chris Morris hasn't done much else recently, he has still shown up in others' work such as his role as Denholm Reynholm in Graham Linehan's The IT Crowd, co-writer and director of episodes of HBO's Veep, and a minor actor in the upcoming Richard Ayoade comedy The Double. I just hope he returns to the spotlight with something that could possibly even top Four Lions. As a controversial figure, he's inspirational as a comedy writer and as someone who isn't afraid to attack the shallow sensationalism and exploitative nature of international media.
What's most puzzling is his true-life personality. He is hardly ever interviewed as himself, photographed or seen in public appearances such as movie premiers. All I know about his personal past is his “dull” childhood and semi-dysfunctional family, which gave birth to his obsession with tape recorders. He prefers to hide behind his charismatic radio and TV alter egos, letting people view his art rather than the man behind it. I can't say I'm disappointed in any way about it, either. I believe more artists should be like him; then the media wouldn't be able to focus so much on simply inflating egos and tearing them down.
For free (and legal) downloads of Morris' radio shows and other extra sound clips, visit the amazing Cook'd and Bomb'd website.