Life & Culture

As Mock the Week is set to end, the man who devised the show explains its charm

Dan Patterson looks back on the show's 17 glorious seasons and explains why satire remains so vital


Dan Patterson, producer and deviser of Mock the Week with long-time collaborator, Mark Leveson, was sitting at presenter Dara Ó Briain’s wedding when the best man stood up to give his speech.

The best man was comedian Ed Byrne, who went on to become one of the mainstays of the show. He confessed later he hadn’t bargained on his best man speech becoming his Mock the Week audition.

But that was part of the charm of a show, which spread its net far and wide to showcase the best stand-up comedians in the business. And yet, 17 years after its inception, the BBC unexpectedly announced last week that this season would be Mock the Week’s last, to the consternation of many fans and the deep disappointment of its makers and presenters.

But Patterson — the man behind other such long-running comedy shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Room 101 — is not yet ready to write Mock’s obituary. He says there’s life in the old girl yet; and though there are behind-the-scenes discussions about the programme’s future, he and Leveson and the rest of the production team are currently preparing a two-part history of Mock The Week as an end to this last season of the show.

Patterson, 62, was brought up in Oxford where his late father, David, was the founder and president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Like his father, Patterson embraced the Zionist youth movement, Habonim, eventually becoming part of a cohort of well-known smart entertainers including Mark Leveson, David Baddiel, and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Other Habo graduates include playwrights Mike Leigh and the late Sir Arnold Wesker. The link which marks them out — a legacy of the renowned Habonim “ziggim” or sketches — is speedy thinking, an ability to think on their feet, something which has become a hallmark of Patterson’s shows.

Mock the Week began life “as a show for stand-ups rather than improv”, says Patterson. “We thought impressions would be very important, so we had Rory Bremner in the first series, and he’s great. But as the show progressed, it hasn’t been about impressions. It’s just been more about funny conversation and one-liners — it moved on from its original concept. And we’ve had so many different people on it in the 17 years of its run, that the tone has changed. It’s regenerated more times than Doctor Who.”

The stars gracing the show are a who’s who of British comedy. Apart from Ó Briain and the constant presence of Hugh Dennis, viewers have seen Russell Howard, Frankie Boyle, Chris Addison, Andy Parsons, Micky Flanagan, Katharine Ryan (a rare female voice), Romesh Ranganathan, Josh Widdicombe and Rob Beckett.

Present-day big names such as Milton Jones, Michael McIntyre and David Mitchell also all did stints on the show in the early parts of their careers. “Throughout the seasons, the tone did change, but I think we kept the standard up,” says Patterson. “It’s always been funny. We’ve always spent a huge amount of time looking at people and saying, are they right [for the show], and if they’re right, are they ready? Micky Flanagan, for example, for a long time did the warm-up for the show — and then he found his voice as a working-class guy commenting on middle-class mores.”

With some deprecation Patterson says “we’d have to be very, very, very desperate” for him to take part in Mock himself, front of camera. More seriously, he says: “I think people underestimate how good these people are. These are all top-class stand-up comedians who work at the coal face, who go out and perform every week, and they are very used to being on their feet, to talking, to reacting to audiences and each other.

“The stuff I really love on the show is where they are bantering back and forth. The actual news dates: but you can see previous episodes on [UKTV channel] Dave from eight or nine years ago, and people see something, and though the stories aren’t relevant any more, they do remember the jokes.”

Mock, Patterson insists, was never a news programme as such. “We were always trying to say, where’s the funny coming from? What is the way we’re going to make jokes out of this? We’d have 50 to 100 jokes in every show."

It is, Patterson reckons, “a very weird time for us to be stopped. People right now, more than ever, need to laugh at stuff. There’s so much division, so much extreme, bonkers stuff going on, that I think people want to laugh. I don’t think satire really changes stuff, but I do think satire shows a society in good health. When you laugh at something, it’s like a little pressure valve, and perhaps people get a little less angry.”

Among the criticism of Mock the Week has been the claim that there are too many jokes about the Tories. “But they’re in government,” Patterson responds. “We actually looked at this a year or so ago, when we were getting some flak and we found that when Labour were in power, we were doing just as much stuff about them.”

The most acute question is what jokes are unacceptable; specifically, for Jewish readers, those about the Holocaust. Patterson acknowledges that he personally would “probably feel uncomfortable” about such jokes, but doesn’t believe there were many examples of this during Mock the Week’s run.

He explains his central tenet: “‘Can we justify this joke?’ In our editorial process, in conjunction with the BBC, it’s always worked very well in this regard. It’s not enough to say that something is funny. So there are times when we say, we just can’t put that joke out. We spend an enormous amount of time editing it and considering repercussions.”

Patterson is well aware of people’s sensitivities: “There will always be people who don’t find something funny, if, for example, there is a joke about a heart attack and a person says their parent has had a heart attack.

"But you can’t legislate for that kind of thing because otherwise you’ll never be able to make jokes about anything.” Just the same, changes in social attitudes since Mock began has meant that there were jokes in the early shows “that we simply wouldn’t do now. But that applies to all comedy.”

Away from UK television, Patterson has had one foray into the theatre with his political farce about the MPs’ expenses scandal, The Duck House, co-written with Colin Swash, which he “absolutely loved” doing. He’s also produced a new show for American TV, not yet aired, and is waiting to see how that does.

“I don’t think Jews are inherently funny,” observes Patterson. “But there are a very high proportion of Jews who tend to be funny, particularly in the US. Perhaps the Jewish experience means that comedy is always there. Look at [Fiddler on the Roof] Tevye’s relationship with God. It’s very jokey. I think humour is built-into our DNA.”

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