Audio: Comedy: BBC – Listomania

Hosted by Susan Calman

There must, presumably, be a whiteboard in the back room planning hub of BBC Radio comedy panel shows that declares “There is no such thing as a stupid idea.”

This is clearly – and not just clearly but provably – false. Some of the comedy panel shows the Corporation comes up with see only one series and then quietly slink off to die an ignominious death in a dark and soundless corner of an unmarked radio studio, never to be heard again.

Annoyingly though, it’s remarkably difficult to decide which ideas are actually stupid until they’ve been made, broadcast, and garnered a reaction. On paper, both Just A Minute and I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue should have died before broadcast – they’re both essentially riffs on parlour games, done on the radio. (It’s also worth remembering of course that one of the most successful radio comedies of the 1950s was Educating Archie – featuring a ventriloquist’s dummy. On the radio. British people are, experience suggests, just inherently weird).

The Weirdness of Radio Comedy

Which brings us to Listomania.

As a fundamental idea, Listomania is weird. It takes the idea that we all write lists every day, from Shopping Lists to To Do Lists, to Bucket Lists, to Celebrities We’re Allowed To Sleep With And Get A Free Pass Lists – you name it, we as humans write lists about it, because either we’re fundamentally organised people, who like the process of measuring our progress against the number of things to be done before we die, or alternatively, we’re disorganised people who would never get half the things we need to do done if they weren’t written on a list somewhere, demanding that we do them.

So much for the eternal truths of human nature – but does it quiz?

Well… yes. And also, at the same time… no.

Listomania works because it’s hosted by Susan Calman, and filled with the kinds of comedians who, in seeking to boost both their profile and their income, regularly appear on BBC radio panel shows and make them work. Everyone from Joe Lycett to Aisling Bea, and Miles Jupp to Sarah Millican, pops up at some point during the recording of Listomania, and the combination of Calman’s winningly quirky presentation style and the versatility of this comedy smorgasbord makes Listomania a fun enough way to spend three hours.

A Lack of Adaptability

Is the world crying out for more Listomania? Probably not, because the central premise of the show is not massively adaptable week in, week out, and depends on finding ever more odd things to make lists of. In essence, after three hours, it feels like it’s run its course. Compare that with the likes of Sue Perkins’ Dilemma, which had a similar format – funny host, comedy guests, etc – but which involved the guests’ answers to fundamental moral dilemmas, and it feels like no surprise that the latter ran for four seasons and topped 11 hours of BBC comedy, where Listomania lasted only three of those hours. Moral dilemmas can be churned out week after week, and even added to with topical content without necessarily resulting in bland or predictable responses. Try and do that with lists and you’re on a hiding to nothing.

For all that, Calman absolutely nails the frothy authority needed for this kind of show – exactly as you’d expect of someone who currently, among other things, makes TV shows celebrating the quirky wonders of the British seaside. And while on quite a few occasions, the guests feel as though they’ve been pushed through a random gap in the curtains and told to be funny, without necessarily ever having had the show explained to them, most of them rise to the occasion, and a few, like Lycett and Bea, actually manage to excel by taking an off-beat approach to the subject matter and using it to power their imaginative bursts.

The Magic of Calman

As we say, Listomania is a perfectly pleasant way to spend three hours – but then, listening to Susan Calman read the back of a packet of dishwasher tablets would be a perfectly pleasant way to spend three hours.

At the end of the day, that’s more or less what Listomania amounts to – Calman and Co, dissecting both the absurdities and the perfectly standard fare of life, but doing it in a list-based format that grows tired far more quickly than either its host or its guests do. It would be difficult to imagine listeners willing the week along to catch the next episode in a weekly format, but collected together, it makes for an enjoyable, nonsensical, off-beat, slightly too structured experiment in ways to be funny on the radio.

It arose in somebody’s head at the BBC, it was tried, and made, and it was good-ish fun. The fact that no-one’s especially clamouring for any more of it is sad, inasmuch as more radio Calman is always a good idea, but ultimately fair, in that list-based comedy is one of those ideas that sounds like it might fly, but never, ultimately, entirely manages to hit the heights one instinctively hopes it might. Tony Fyler

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