Chris Morris' one and only publicity shot for Blue Jam

Blue Jam

It starts with an invocation of sorts.

When you footsack be bootsack vam kick sharp in gob, while you wish satsuma...

When ee heads fall tails a thousand times, so call heads tails both, but coin then lands on third side: the inside...

When you park so wrong ee headlights smash bumper breaky shuttle bang bang bang like fucking pinball...

And when you are inside the infinite misery jumper pulling it over and over your head with no hope of ending because it is replicating at the waistband and you never get out...

Then ee welcome... oh then ee arth welcome... in Blue Jam, Blue Jam, Blue Jam, Blue Jam...

It may not be immediately obvious, but you're about to listen to the best comedy programme on radio today. And amazingly, nobody seems to be trying to stop it. Which is particularly amazing given that it's the work of legendary media terrorist Chris Morris.

Most people know Chris Morris from his work on television. As the Paxman-like anchorman on BBC2's The Day Today, he kept an aloof distance from the rest of the team, only interacting with them to abuse them during links. It always seemed significant that the only sketches he participated in were the ones where he played all the roles. A couple of years later, he developed his fake newsman persona in the notorious Channel 4 spoof current affairs series Brass Eye. It quickly led to a host of condemnations from the Daily Mail and other wankers for its take-no-prisoners approach to the spoofing of celebrities, reaching its peak in the episode where MP David Amess raised a question in the House of Commons concerning the "made-up drug" known as Cake.

But Morris' real home has always been radio: in fact, The Day Today was just a TV version of an award-winning Radio 4 series, On The Hour. Early in his career, he was been sacked from Radio Bristol for allegedly filling a newsroom with helium during a live broadcast (or so the story goes: the line between truth and fiction gets incredibly blurred when you're dealing with this man). On London's GLR, the highlight of Morris' Saturday morning show was The Sock Game, a phone-in quiz that could only be played by children under ten with socks in their mouths. The final question of every game, whose answer always had to be repeated by the child at least five times, was "You can't teach your grandmother to what eggs?" As an excuse to get children to say "fuck" on daytime radio, it's never been surpassed.

Morris' most high-profile radio slot came in between The Day Today and Brass Eye, when he did a weekly Radio 1 show for six months which mixed his eclectic musical selections with sketches, pranks and the celebrity wind-ups that would subsequently become the centrepiece of Brass Eye. Once again, he ended up in trouble, this time as the result of an episode where he asked MPs and pop stars to comment on the death of Michael Heseltine. (Morris, who is nothing if not a painstaking verbal craftsman, opened the show with the splendidly ambiguous statement "If we have any news in the next hour concerning the death of Michael Heseltine, we'll let you know.")

I'm at a modern drugs party. They're taking charlie, he's got spliff smoke coming out of his drughead, there's someone over there smoking a crack... (from Brass Eye)Given the outrage this caused (not to mention the problems encountered just a month or two later when the final show of the series attempted a similarly premature burial of Jimmy Saville), it was a surprise to find Morris returning to Radio 1 at the tail end of 1997, particularly given the high profile he'd achieved on TV with Brass Eye the year before. But the signs were always there that the new show, Blue Jam, would be something very different. The press releases for the programme concentrated on the description "ambient stupid". It was buried in the schedules at midnight on Thursdays, and was reputedly recorded at a similarly late hour to give it a suitably relaxed-verging-on-monged feel. Morris' previous radio outings were basically little more than records plus wacky links, but Blue Jam promised a whole lot more. And it delivered in spades.

Basically, Blue Jam is an hour-long continuous mix of comedy and music. The music is very laid back, impeccably chosen (Morris has always had a fabulous ear for a tune) and overflows into the sketches themselves: quite often a comedy piece will be played to the accompaniment of a small piece of looped music that expands to a full-length song at the end of the sketch. The comedy is a mixture of sketches, monologues and the odd Brass Eye style windup, and is very, very dark. This has to be a late night programme: aside from the definitively adult nature of its content, the resulting atmosphere only really makes sense when you're flat on your back and in a slightly confused state. (The best alternative position I've found is listening to it on tape in bed on a Saturday morning with a hangover.) Despite the ambient tag, this is radio that refuses to stay in the background: it deserves your undivided attention, and demands it with menaces.

A show this radically different needs some sort of hook to keep audiences listening, and although he doesn't make much of a fuss about it, Morris and his small crew of writers and actors have assembled a cast of regular characters over the twelve episodes broadcast to date. The most obvious one is the doctor, although quite how this character ended up in the medical profession in the first place is hard to fathom, given the consultations we've heard so far. He argues violently with his fellow GPs over a diagnosis. ("It's nothing like a pulled tendon, you sooty wankstain... don't be taken in by his swoony arsepiss.") He prescribes heroin to a patient with a cold. ("Won't I become addicted?" "Well, probably, but the treatment for addiction is a substance like heroin, so you win either way.") One of his most radical cures for disease is to offer the patient 200 to never come back again.

Although events at the end of the second series suggest we may never hear from the doctor again, other recurring characters are there to take his place. There's a sexy couple whose lovemaking involves a series of ever-increasingly bizarre demands on each other. ("Roar up my twat!" "Disagree with my balls!" "Whack my bonobo!" "Sell me a paper!" "STANDAAAARD!") There's an incredibly scary four-year-old girl who people call in to clean up after gruesome murders. ("I need buckets, a saw, an axe if you've got one, a breadknife, mops, rubber gloves and some juice.") Best of all is Morris himself as the narrator of a series of strange and macabre short stories, which deserve to be collected and published in their own right.

A terrifyingly young (but still rather blue) Chris Morris circa On The HourNo Morris series would be complete without a bit of controversy, and the final show of series 1 (broadcast in December 1997) provided it in abundance. Morris has always enjoyed taking recordings of other people and hacking their words around to produce surreal and obscene permutations. In retrospect, doing this to the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech from Princess Diana's funeral wasn't the most tasteful idea in the world. The show was literally pulled off the air in mid-sketch, and that episode was omitted from a subsequent repeat run. The only way you'll get to hear the offending piece now is to find someone who happened to be recording it (like the good people at Cabinessence - see the links below).

The Diana sketch is undeniably shocking, but is a good illustration of one of Morris' key aims in Blue Jam: to find out just how far you can push an idea before it stops being funny. Many of the sketches start out as typical surreal comedy, but by the end have descended into madness and psychosis. A good example of such a sketch involves a couple who call in a TV repair man because their new set is full of lizards: the repair man refuses to accept responsibility and insists the couple did it themselves. Most people would stop the sketch at this deadlock, but Morris takes it further and further until the repair man becomes sadistically unhelpful ("What's the name of your boss?" "Mr Lizard [giggle]...") and the husband is a sobbing screaming wreck.

Nobody else is making comedy like this, and to be honest it would be a very unnerving world if lots of people were making comedy like this: but compared with any other radio show you can name, Blue Jam crackles throughout with electrifying genius. At the time of writing, series 3 is about to start transmission on Radio 1 (Wednesday nights at midnight, from January 20th for six weeks). Stay up late, try to work out some means of taping it - just do what you can to hear it. Chris Morris is one of the most inventively funny people walking the planet right now, and anything he does has to be of interest. Besides, I've got to admire a man who considers "whack my bonobo" to be an erotic thing to say during sex. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

Cook'd And Bomb'd is a Chris Morris site that didn't even exist when I wrote this piece back in 1999. But since then, it's become the best collection of Morris guff on the web (no matter what you may read in the paragraphs below this one, which I can't be bothered going back and editing). And I'm not just saying that because they're nice to me on their links page, honestly. Go here for clips, transcripts, articles, and the infamous Richard Geefe columns, in which a splendidly appalling idea from one of the Blue Jam short stories is stretched as far as it will go.

Radio 1's home page has a Blue Jam official site currently under construction: if previous series are anything to go by, it should include details of the cast and writers involved, as well as information on the music played in each episode - the sort of stuff that Morris tends to regard as embarrassing clutter not worth including within the show itself. The site also seems to be promising audio clips in the near future.

Glebe's Thrift Funnel is the best unofficial Morris fan site on the Net. Lots of sound clips, articles and transcripts (including full transcripts of a number of Blue Jam episodes), information on all the shows he's worked on, and a database of Morrisisms where you can contribute your favourite line from the man's oeuvre.

Christ's Fat Cock (it doesn't say that on the title page any more, but it really is called that) comes a close second to the Thrift Funnel, and again has a good selection of downloadable stuff. It includes rare material from an episode of The Time, The Place where Morris secretly invaded the studio audience and wreaked typical havoc on live daytime television.

Cabinessence is the ultimate site for the Blue Jam virgin: every episode from the first two series is available in Real Audio format for streaming or download (each episode comes in two lumps of around 3.5Mb each). If you want to pick one download just to get a flavour of the thing, go for Series 2, Episode 4, Part 1, which includes a staggering 12 minute short story by Morris about his adventures with Rothko the talking dog. The Princess Diana sketch is in Series 1, Episode 6, if that's what you're looking for.

The Block Bonobo Foundation should head off all those "what's a bonobo?" emails I'll probably be getting for weeks on end now.

January 16th 1999

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