Funny Faces on the Telly: Whose to Watch

Still from Mock the Week: S13E08

Every few years there's a new batch of funny faces making the rounds on Britain's television panel shows. Here are a few faces worth watching.

Because of Britain's love for (and abundance of) panel shows, they are often the place where stand-up comedians can get noticed by members of the public not interested in (or not bothered to go to) live comedy venues. Every few years a new batch of faces hits our television screens. Jon Richardson, for example, did his first comedy gig in 2003 and was nominated for and won many stand-up awards while also appearing on BBC Radio 6 Music. We began seeing his face on television in 2009, but it wasn't until 2011 when he became a team captain on Channel 4's 8 Out of 10 Cats that he became a household name, and ladies of all ages fell in love with his obsessive-compulsive behaviour, soft-spoken jokes, and cardigans.

So panel shows and television appearances are a clear (but not definite) route to making it big in comedy. Here are some funny faces you'll want be on the lookout for.

Rob Beckett (publicity photo)

Beckett has been doing stand-up since 2009 and has co-hosted I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Now (a reality show spin-off) since 2012. In 2010, he won both the Amused Moose Laugh Off and the Outside the Box New Act of the Year, but more recently he's been appearing on panel shows like Would I Lie to You? and 8 Out 10 Cats.

His shtick is being working class. He claims you're properly working class if your telly is bigger than your bookcase, which mostly holds DVDs anyway and "sometimes books, books like Oi, I Know the Kray Twins, You Mug" or "a copy of The DaVinci Code, when your mum got a bit cocky." His middle class girlfriend and her family are often topics (her brother is called Rupert -- Beckett’s got nothing against the name, he just never thought he’d actually meet one). There are also quite a few jokes about his face (and large teeth). He claims hecklers have accused him of looking like everyone from Boris Johnson, James Earl Jones, the Milky Bar Kid, and Princess Diana to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Myra Hindley, Miss Piggy, and a lesbian. (To be fair, of all the suggestions, Bam Bam from the Flintstones probably suits best.)

His confidence has grown as his appearances get more frequent. He's quite good with the banter on Mock the Week, as well as the stand-up rounds (his unlikely thing to be heard on a motoring show was "it's just a car, isn't it, who gives a shit?"). On a recent 8 Out of 10 Cats, when Sean Lock challenged guests to name him one good thing about the Internet, Beckett seemed genuine when he offered his evidence: a video of a baby monkey wearing a coat while riding a pig. He occasionally plays the 'dopey youth' card (later in that episode, Lock accused him of being anti-learning), but he generally comes off as a pretty likeable cheeky chappy.

Katherine Ryan (publicity photo)

A Canadian comedian living in the UK, Ryan stands out partly because of her accent and the fact that she's quite traditionally beautiful with her long blonde hair and red lips. In 2008 she won the Nivea Funny Women award. Her TV appearances include Have I Got News For You, 8 Out of 10 Cats, and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. She performed as Nicki Minaj on Let's Dance for Comic Relief 2013 and has had small acting roles in shows including Count Arthur Strong and Episodes. She's often on Mock the Week; in fact, Richard Herring called her "the only woman they have on”, which isn't quite true, but she does make regular appearances.

Her comedy is often celebrity-based -- references to Beyoncé abound -- and she says she's okay about having divorced in her 20s because "it makes me that much more like Britney.” Like most stand-ups, she talks about her personal life; on Live at the Apollo, she introduced herself as a "typical British mom -- a young, uneducated immigrant,” and she was recently called "the queen of confessional comedy,” thanks to her 2014 stand-up show about finding out her boyfriend cheated with a glamour model (Viv Groskop, "Meet the Queen of Confessional Comedy: Katherine Ryan", London Evening Standard, 8 August 2014).

She's a quick comic. While it's hard to know, of course, how scripted panel shows are, she does seem to come up with funny, off-the-cuff lines. Unfortunately, part of her appeal is that she's occasionally quite brash, working the outrageous-things-out-of-a-pretty-mouth angle (see: Sarah Silverman). Usually the jokes are worth it, though sometimes it's probably the shock factor that gets the laugh.

Romesh Ranganathan (publicity photo)

Ranganathan used to be school teacher before he became a comedian. He's the current host of BBC Radio 4's Newsjack and was nominated for Best Newcomer in 2013 and the main prize in 2014 at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival.

His persona is a bit impatient and grumpy (quite frankly, it's easy to imagine him as a frustrated teacher), and he often jokes from his position as an oppressed minority: a vegan. "I made a vegan brownie because I am one." A lot of his material is based on his role as a father and husband, giving the impression that he is not particularly good at either role: when he discusses his worry about having put on weight, he realises, "Hold on a minute -- I'm married, I don't need to look good. I just need to look better than the prospect of single parenting."

Brian Logan, comedy critic for the Guardian, wrote that he found the "everyday misanthropy" of Ranganathan's 2013 Edinburgh show "unloveable", whereas this year's show was "a big improvement because the cynicism is now balanced by flashes of idealism, and because, in his best jokes, he finds a context to make the grumpiness funny rather than obnoxious." (Brian Logan, "Romesh Ranganathan's Grumpy Show is Often Bluntly Funny", Guardian, 17 August 2014). Luckily, the nature of panel shows, especially current events-based ones, provides appropriate context for Ranganathan's cynicism, so he's able to be consistently funny.

Sara Pascoe (publicity photo)

To be fair, Sara Pascoe has been on the telly for a while: she's had recurring roles in Free Agents, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Twenty Twelve, and W1A. However, she is also a stand-up who won the 2014 Chortle Breakthrough Award. She has been seen on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, QI, and Mock the Week.

Pascoe is clearly intelligent and interesting. Her stand-up shows have addressed history and philosophy. When she was a guest on Frankie Boyle's Referendum Autopsy, she offered an insightful take on the media, and she won her episode of QI (which I appreciate doesn't prove her intelligence, but she did impress Stephen Fry with her answers, so that's got to mean something).

She also has a smart political edge, which means her answers on Mock the Week are actually well-informed and thoughtful, rather than just being quirky quips when the men aren't talking. However, her feminist approach doesn't keep her from being funny. When asked about the balance between making statements and making people laugh, she explained, "I love it when an analogy enables me to tackle a subject I am earnest about in an humorous way and I always regret it if I feel like I've tipped over into being preachy on stage. I wouldn't want a comedian to tell me what to do or how to live my life. The joke comes first, or should come first" (Nancy Groves, "Sara Pascoe Answers Your Questions", Guardian, 23 May 2014). She's evidence that cleverness doesn't have to be sacrificed in the name of comedy.

James Acaster (publicity photo)

Acaster has been performing live comedy since 2008. His most recent Edinburgh shows – Recognise (2014), Lawnmower (2013), and Prompt (2012) – were all nominated for the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Awards main prize. He appeared on Chris Addison’s Show and Tell in 2011, and we're now seeing him on the long-running panel shows.

His comedy style has been described as low-key and whimsical, and it is. He's quite a gentle performer; a nice contrast to some of the louder young comics (Acaster is just 29). He's also clever, which means you do have to listen to him, especially because he's quite good at the callback. Additionally, he uses silence well; he knows how to time his pauses and can pull effective reaction faces.

He's got a slightly awkward vibe -- yes, he's a bit lanky and nerdy -- but it's quite sweet, because it seems genuine. On Never Mind the Buzzcocks, he admitted he was a fan of the one-hit wonder Wigfield, and had actually performed the dance at his school disco (he was, of course, urged into reprising it on the episode). And while his jokes are often about the mundane, he builds them with a kind of surreal sincerity. During a stand-up challenge on Mock the Week, he was given the topic of adventure, which he covered via a thorough explanation of his relationship with his cheese grater.

Of course, not every comedian who appears on panel shows is funny and not every funny person is successful on television. British audiences are lucky, though, that they've got access to such a variety of styles of stand-up comedy, both in the clubs and on the box.

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