Jam: Revisiting A Cult Classic 20 Years Later

Two decades later, Chris Morris’s pitch-black comedy Jam is still like nothing else on television.

jam chris morris mark heap

All too often, comedy can be a genre which is somewhat overlooked by critics. There are exceptions of course, as seen with Fleabag’s recent Emmy wins. But this, and other critically acclaimed comedies such as BoJack Horseman, are often just as strong in terms of drama as they are comedy, both series being incredibly hard-hitting at times. It’s altogether rarer that something like a sketch-show will get the same kind of reception, which is a crying shame since it’s format which can allow for tremendous amounts of experimentation and innovation – as we will see.

Turning 20 this month is Chris Morris’s cult-classic ‘Jam’, a surreal, genre-defying sketch-show that aired between 23rd March and 27th April 2000. This was a period which in general stands out as a truly great time for comedy – especially in Britain – as a new generation brought in a whole new style and outlook. There were a whole host of new shows, including Spaced, The Office, and The League of Gentlemen, which felt completely fresh, and which have since paved the way for a thousand imitators. But it’s the far less well-known Jam which, two decades later, is still utterly unlike anything else on television.

Chris Morris is best known for creating and starring in The Day Today and Brass Eye, which mercilessly parodied the modern news media, and more recently for Four Lions, a comedy film following a bunch of hapless wannabe Jihadists. From how it set up real-life celebrities and politicians to advocate ridiculous bogus causes, to its controversial 2001 ‘Peadogeddon’ special, it was Brass Eye in particular which Morris got in the headlines for – but, it’s Jam, which slipped under the radar somewhat in comparison, which is perhaps his most unique, and certainly his most underappreciated project.

Jam was written by both Morris and his long-running writing partner Peter Baynham, with contributions by numerous others, such as Graham Linehan. Consisting of just six twenty-five minute episodes, Jam immediately goes for an entirely different style to most sketch shows, with an incredibly dark sense of humour, and some surreal, absurdist setups that are very reminiscent of Morris’s other works.

Unlike Brass Eye, where he features throughout as a harsh, dismissive newsreader, Morris himself doesn’t feature in many of the sketches, with the exception of one or two where he’s largely a narrator. The rest of the cast however are all great, all being artists who showed up in some of the best comedies out there at the time. Probably the most widely known of them is Mark Heap, who is just ideally suited to this kind of show. As he’s shown in Spaced, Green Wing and Friday Night Dinner, Heap is brilliant at bringing to life weird, oddball types, making him perfect casting for many of the more sick, disturbed characters who show up throughout Jam.

Kevin Eldon, Amelia Bullmore and Julia Davis are three others who have appeared in many other projects since but who have generally received far less recognition – a crying shame, because they’re just perfect here. Eldon is particularly good as the straight man reacting to everything else going on around him, such as in one sketch where he’s almost incoherent with frustration at how, after picking his car up from the garage, it’s now only four feet in height. Another who’s largely just had bit parts outside of Doctors and Eastenders, but who displays some incredible comic timing and delivery is David Cann, who features in the closest thing it has to a recurring sketch – as a rather posh, uptight GP who appears increasingly disturbed each time he appears, insisting on examining patients’ genitalia despite their only coming in for a headache, or deliberately blinding himself so as to avoid having to deal with one who confronts him.

Most of the sketches are taken directly from the radio version, Blue Jam, which had three seasons air in the early hours of the morning on BBC Radio 1. The TV version however ended up being produced by Channel 4, who, having produced shows like Spaced and Green Wing, had acquired a reputation for being far more experimental than other broadcasters. No other broadcaster would likely have dared air something like it on one of their main TV channels. Even for 4, it’s frankly amazing that the show got developed at all.

Jam is, by far, one of the most experimental, boundary-pushing shows of its kind out there. It is almost impossible to put into words just how dark and surreal the series gets – it’s one that truly needs to be seen to be believed. It’s the same sick, unhinged sense of humour that made Brass Eye so controversial but, if anything, it’s even more extreme here.

Ever episode touches on all kinds of disturbing ideas, with numerous sketches revolving around such jolly topics as infant death, suicide, sexual assault and perversion, and all manner of topics many would argue simply should not be joked about at all. Right from the start, the opening sketch of the first episode makes absolutely clear what to expect from this show, with a skit in which two prudish, homophobic parents explain how, in order to steer their teenage son away from getting involved with a gay classmate, they’ve engaged in a tryst both with the classmate and the son – to the godfathers utter horror.

Predictably, Jam provoked quite a reaction, with many critics dismissing it as crude and in incredibly poor taste. It even got called out by the Broadcasting Standards Commission following complaints over three sketches in particular – one where a bereaved mother is gifted a miniature coffin, another where a house is sold in exchange for sex, and most infamously, one where a plumber is called round to fix a dead baby.

It’s easy to see therefore why it didn’t catch on in the same way as Morris’s other stuff, and if you don’t have a dark sense of humour, it probably won’t be for you. But to dismiss it simply as being juvenile would be wrong. It works on a completely different level to, for example, the worst aspects of shows like Family Guy, which will just casually throw in jokes around issues like race or religion like a teenager trying to be edgy with one slur and no life experience. Rather, this is a show which is very hard to pin down as being in any one specific genre – ostensibly it is a comedy, but it’s one which frequently blurs the line with horror, satirising some of the darkest aspects of society, and delighting in breaking numerous taboos.

Many moments in it, such as the opening sequences where we’re treated to images of a man feeding milk to an unseen something in a cabinet, or a woman dragging a dead dog around, reassuring children that “it won’t bite,” are quite obviously designed to be unsettling and disturbing, rather than particularly funny. Jam was even included in Channel 4’s list of ‘100 Greatest Scary Moments’, appearing alongside iconic horror movies such as The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now.

Horror-comedy is almost always a genre which, essentially, parodies a lot of the old horror clichés. Films like Shaun of the Dead or Young Frankenstein will, aside from the odd moment here and there, rarely aim to be genuinely unsettling, preferring to subvert these moments by poking fun at them. Jam is a rare example of this tendency being reversed, throwing in some truly creepy moments for comic effect.

Jam mines its humour from making things so extreme, so horrific, that it becomes absurd. Many might have dismissed it as crude and offensive, but this is often the entire joke. Sketches such as one in which a six year old is the cleaner hired to dispose of a body, or where parents of a missing child sing their appeal for information while playing a xylophone, make for some truly surreal, hand on mouth moments, where you can’t help but laugh in reaction to them. But it’s an almost nervous, incredulous laughter, one of shock as much as anything else.

Viewers are left unsure how to react – one sketch, where a socially awkward woman forces people into horrendous situations where they then need her help, is at once hilarious and utterly disturbing, as we go from her trying to engage in friendly small talk with people who’ve been injured, to her confessing directly to the camera, in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie, that she electrocutes people to get them to talk to her, laughing manically as she does so.

Probably the best example of this kind of black humour is one sketch where two pretty casual, easy-going parents barely notice when their child goes missing. It’s a darkly satirical scene which takes the same pot shots at vacuous, self-satisfied, middle class types as a lot of Brass Eye, as they worry over their son’s eczema, or how he can only tolerate goats milk, after it’s reported he’s been bundled into a van by a stranger. After his body is found, the father informs his wife “he was buggered quite a bit, then strangled” to which she simply tuts “that’s a bit much”.

Jam isn’t so much a show which makes light of this kind of horrific stuff, but rather one that derives its humour from just how nonchalantly these situations are treated. It presents viewers with a surreal, nightmarish version of the world, that’s unlike anything else on television.

There’s a real haunting quality to the entire show, even those sketches which aren’t particularly dark in content. Much of this is due to the way in which it’s filmed and edited. A large amount of the stuff in Jam is not nearly as horrific as those scenes mentioned above, these simply being the ones which drew the most controversy. A lot of them are just pretty conventional skits in terms of the jokes and situations themselves, and could quite easily fit in any other sketch show. For example, one of the show’s funniest moments, where a business employs thick people specifically to win arguments, is just brilliantly witty. The sketch, where a clerk, played by Eldon, gets increasingly frustrated by one such thick persons complete inability to grasp why she’s needing to pay a fine – or even that she’s being thick, feels so true to real-life, it being a situation which probably everyone feels like they’ve been stuck in at some point. Even these kind of scenes however are shot in such a way as to make them feel incredibly bizarre and off-putting.

Numerous sketches have filters over them, giving them a distorted, unearthly quality. In many, the images are hazy and the colours altered, or the camera is off-kilter, shaking around or placed deliberately at an angle, so that you can barely even see what’s going on. Others are in slow motion, or have moody, ambient music playing over them. All this gives even the more conventional sketches a surreal, uncomfortable edge, that really adds to how they play out.

There’s a brilliant sketch at the end of the first episode where a woman goes to see her doctor about a sore knee, only for him to start caressing his own knee, with her protesting that “this isn’t right”. On its own this would make for just a pretty unremarkable, throwaway, 2-second gag – not very different to any typical ‘doctor, doctor’ joke. But with the addition of slow motion and the ethereal, meditative music that plays over it, it becomes an altogether stranger scene, one that feels far more absurd and otherworldly.

The show doesn’t even bother with anything so standard as a proper credits or title sequence. Each episode sets the tone right from the start with disjointed, macabre monologues in place of an intro, and ending simply with a link to a website detailing the cast, rather than any actual credits.

What Jam does really well – perhaps more than any other sketch show – is to build a real sense of atmosphere. Even the more conventional, less outrageous sketches give the sensation that you’re seeing through the looking glass, at a slanted, disturbed world. From sketches where a TV is pouring out lizards, to the sadistic glee of Mark Heap’s repairman, or a cleaner who spends hours using these absurd, miniature hoovers, it almost feels like there’s a kind of logic behind a lot of it, but one that’s been completely twisted out of shape. It’s almost like a lot of David Lynch’s stuff, carrying the same odd, dreamlike feel. There’s a rather disassociated sense to it, one that seems somewhat out of step with the reality we know.

It becomes very clear this is exactly what the show is aiming for if you listen to the radio show, which features monologues from disturbed, ill characters who don’t understand what’s going on around them, as well as frequent musical interludes between sketches, which lends an abstract, ethereal mood to the whole thing – and again, a rich sense of atmosphere. The radio version was, at Morris’s insistence, aired only in the small hours of the night, helping to add to this sense of disconnect from the normal world.

More than any other sketch-show, Jam is a show that genuinely feels like art, rather than simply trying to get a laugh out of you. It’s a show which aims to challenge viewers, taking them completely out of their comfort zone by giving them an experience that’s utterly different to anything normally seen on TV.

Twenty years later, there’s still been nothing that’s remotely like Jam either in just how far it’s willing to go in terms of its sense of humour, or in the unique style and atmosphere it builds throughout. It broke new, unprecedented ground when it first aired, and it still very much has the power to shock to this day. More than anything it shows just how creative television can be when it’s allowed to be that bit more experimental, and to push at the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable. It’s not for everyone, but for those who aren’t easily offended, it is a lost gem that simply must be experienced.

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