(2011 - DVD, 2006 - Series)
I've been many kinds of nerd, geek and wonk in my life. Star Wars obsessive, comic book fanatic, movie buff, indie music snob... but it's only in the past two years that I've discovered, truly, that I am a comedy nerd. I love things that are funny, but moreso I love the exploration of what makes something funny, where the funny comes from. The recent surge of comedy podcasts (primarily Marc Maron's WTF, Chris Hardwick's Nerdist and Scott Aukerman's Comedy Bang Band nee Comedy Death Ray) have provided not just an inroad, but absolute immersion into the world of comedy and the minds of comedians. In large part we're talking stand-up comedians and sketch performers here, but stand-ups frequently transition into acting, writing, directing, producing, songwriting/performing and pretty much every role in every form of media out there.
I have great appreciation for the craft of "funny". It's not an easy thing to do, and certainly not a easy realm to innovate in. Humour can stem from many sources -- wordplay, situational, character-based, physicality, and just straight personality amongst many other thing -- but what's funny is such a subjective thing, and no two people will consistently laugh at - or be amused by - all the same things. Comedy is so often relative to someone's frame of reference or experiences, and sometimes depends on the communal nature of laughter in order to come across as funny, rather than sad or lame. It's part of the reason situation comedy has become so reliant on laugh tracks to sell their jokes.
Snuff Box certainly doesn't sell its jokes, and much of the humour within is next to impossible to relate to, and it treads a fine line between innovative and incomprehensibly absurd on one end, and innovative and immaturely inane on the other end. In the end it is the product of its creators, Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher, an uncommon comedic pairing of a British and an American, but to say it's got a British or American sensibility (or some combination thereof) would be to say Berry has a British or Fulcher an American sensibility, and these two writer/performers are so far beyond that type of classification.
Debuting on BBC3 in the Winter of 2006, the six episodes of Snuff Box played late at night and to no fanfare, an oddity buried away to be forgotten, except by those comedically like-minded who embraced the show and spread the oddness across the internet. As I believe Paul Rudd described the show on one of the bonus features on the DVD, "It's comedy for comedians", the type of stuff that makes people who make comedy laugh.
This same description has been used to describe the legendary HBO sketchcom Mr. Show with Bob and David, and my initial reaction to both shows was the same... remarkably underwhelmed. At first. With Mr. Show, I came to appreciate it more upon listening to the audio commentary tracks on every episode, featuring most of the writers/performers on the show, sometimes delving into characters as they discuss (and fabricate) the creation and history behind the sketches (very much the atmosphere of many podcasts I listen to). The humour of Mr. Show doesn't rely upon knowing the background of the sketches, but it's not a face-value show, and for all its funny at face value, it's at the conceptual level that it achieves its brilliant reputation.
In that same regard, through two episodes of Snuff Box I could see where the outright jokes were, but the show is not a joke machine, it's funny comes from concept and performance. I paused from watching the episodes to watch the first feature "Taking Control of Your Body" which was equal parts testimonials from semi-famous fans like Rudd, Simon Pegg, Weird Al, origin-talk from Fulcher and Berry and a bit of shop talk from their friend/Mighty Boosh creator Noel Fielding. It was from their appreciation (and a bit of a peek at what else the show had to offer in the remaining 4 episodes) that I started to understand the draw, and moreover, the impetus for the show.
It is, indeed and original, unique work. Barry and Fulcher are two diametrically opposed voices, Barry's sloppy, cavalier bellowing cuts sharply against Fulcher's sniveling, juvenile, socially inept, curse-laden persona, to the point that one has to wonder how they can possibly work together at all. It's within this conflict, with the characters of Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher constantly at odds with one another, rivals yet friends, comrades who completely disdain the other's existence, that the show lives.
It's definitely not a sit-com, it's not really a straight-up sketch comedy either, although it does have plenty of those, it's an nondescript hybrid of both, a singular entity in the world of comedy existing in its own space. The characters of Barry and Fulcher sustain throughout the 6 episodes, and there's an almost-narrative that strings throughout, mainly addressing the contention between the two characters, while the sketches sort of weave in, sometimes starring Barry and Fulcher as their namesakes, and sometimes as completely other characters. There's a hefty dose of repetition, with sketches repeating themselves, but not in the SNL vein where reoccurring characters spout familiar catch phrases to familiar and expected laughs, but rather complete sketches which repeat almost verbatim, beat by beat, as before yet somehow building upon the idea in each iteration.
It's not a show for everyone. It's not a show for most people. It's for people who genuinely like to see scripted and sketch comedy push its boundaries. It's a level beyond Tim and Eric, who have a much more visceral comedic sensibility. Snuff Box burns, slowly, and it moves at its own pace without any expectations to live up to, not serving any distinct audience beyond Barry and Fulcher. I'm not even sure I find it all that funny, and yet I'm utterly impressed by it.