In a previous post I talked about finding an old VHS of Pen Monkeys, a late-night animated comedy show we made for C4 back in 2001 (if you're wondering why what follows looks so rough, then nip back and read that first).
The one sketch from that show that I remembered most clearly was this one:
Now, it appears there are two types of people in this world - those who enjoy seeing Margaret Thatcher shot through the head with a crossbow, and those who don't. I spent the eighties and early nineties in North Wales and Liverpool, so I had no idea that the later category existed. But, apparently they do.
Even when I wrote that, I knew it was not ideal. Our brief was to make a topical satire and in 2001 there was nothing topical about Thatcher. Or Davros, come to that. Also, it wasn't actually satire. Heck, it's not even a sketch, for there's no real joke there. I just assumed that people would want to see Thatcher shot through the head with a crossbow. I have always had a fondness for clunking ham-fisted directness, having spent my teens listening to The The and Iron Maiden. But such blunt delicacies are an acquired taste, and most people require some form of sophistication or subtlety. Fortunately the folk at Channel 4 are not those people, and it stayed in the script despite strong arguments that it should go and be replaced with some jokes.
After Pen Monkeys was broadcast, all agreed that it was funny, but patchy. Unfortunately nobody could agree on what the funny bits were. The killing of Thatcher was a classic example. Some people - me, basically - claimed it was very funny. Others - pretty much everyone else - disagreed. Crazy! But there you go.
Then a week or so later I met up with an old friend, and discovered that he had watched the show go out, unaware of my involvement. He got very animated when he heard that we had done it, and immediately started talking about the killing Thatcher bit. It had made him laugh so hard, he explained - and he was completely serious about this - he had laughed so hard that he nearly died. That was how he described it.
Now, I have made a lot of media over the years - TV, radio, a book, articles, games - and some of that has been ropey and some of that has been almost competent. Very little has caused people to nearly die, to the best of my knowledge. That one reaction to this still fills me with a merry pride, long after I've forgotten most of the stuff we did back then. The issue here is that almost all media is judged via a headcount of its audience, rather than the strength of their reaction. But does making ten people mildly entertained in the short term count for more than making one person love something which they remember for years? How many content viewers does it take to equal the reaction on one poor sod who nearly died, in a good way?
Sadly there are no accountants fit for the job of reckoning these things, so the audience size is all that we fret about. But if you ever get the chance to slip in a little bloody-minded wrongheadedness, then I say go for it. These are the things, I think, that make it worthwhile in the long run.