The Day Today was a British television comedy programme, first broadcast in 1994. It had much the same impact on British television comedy in the 1990s as Monty Python's Flying Circus
and Not the Nine O'Clock News
in previous decades. The show seemed to appear from out of nowhere, and introduced a new generation of comedy performers and writers to a television audience temporarily bereft of inspiration. It made previous shows in its genre - notably KYTV
- seem stale and was influential to such a pervasive extent that phrases and techniques subsequently entered the British language. And all from just six half-hour episodes broadcast in January and February 1994, at a time when the "comedy is the new rock'n'roll
" boom of a couple of years previously seemed to be running out of steam.
The show was essentially Radio 4's On The Hour translated to television, retaining most of the same cast and many of the same ideas, although the jokes were all-new for television. As with its predecessor it was a savage and accurate lampoon of the pomposity and triviality of the news industry - not so much a parody of current events, but a parody of news programmes. To this end The Day Today had production values and computer graphics to rival any contemporary current-affairs programme, most obviously BBC2's flagship Newsnight, which at the time opened with an ostentatious CGI flight from space into the face of Big Ben. The show's content was almost immaterial, a collection of ludicrously surreal news stories delivered with utmost gravity by the show's nightmarishly aggressive front-man, Chris Morris.
Throughout the course of the show we were treated to a soap opera set in a Bureau De Change; the revelation that Prime Minister John Major and the Queen had been fighting; Nirvana plugging tampons with a modified version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; and a report from America, on a plan for convicted murderers to have the switch of their electric chair tripped by the re-animated corpses of their victims, uttering the word "justice" with the voice of Martin Sheen. The show was introduced with capsule headlines such as "'I'm so sorry!' yells exploding cleaner" and "Headmaster suspended for using big-faced child as satellite dish". Each story was delivered as if it was the most important thing in the world, but only for five seconds, after which it was forgotten.
Many of the stories seemed impossibly surreal in 1994, although some of them seem increasingly likely to come true in our time (cosmetic surgery on babies still in the womb, for example, or the post-mortal fame of a re-animated corpse). The show's parodies of docusoaps, a genre then it its infancy, proved to be surprisingly prescient, and one segment in particular must have been a direct inspiration for the popular twenty-first century sitcom The Office. A decade has passed and only a few things date it, apart from the lengthy plug for the 1994 World Cup; most of the cast look very young, the defunct newspaper Today appears several times, the Prime Minister is John Major, and there is a short routine satirising the contemporary fact that, for tenuous national security reasons, Sinn Fein spokespeople had to be dubbed by the news media.
The cast was essentially unknown to television. The most visible was Chris Morris, who played a newsdesk anchor also called "Chris Morris". His performance was a fusion of Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys and Peter Sissons. He generally wrote his own material. The show's other main writer was Armando Ianucci, who appeared in a few roles and also produced the show. The cast included Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber (as humble, incompetent newscaster Peter O'Hanraha'hanrahan, based in name only on Brian Hanrahan of the BBC), Doon MacKichan, David Schneider, Peter Baynam, Rebecca Front and others, all of whom went on to subequent fame elsewhere, Patrick Marber quickly abandoned the world of comedy to become an award-winning playwright. Notable in their absence were Stuart Lee and Richard Herring, who had written parts of On the Hour before apparently falling out with Ianucci and Marber over ownership of their material and concepts. A pre-fame Minnie Driver made a brief appearance in an interview segment, having previously appeared in the show's pilot.
The Day Today also marked the first television appearance of Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge character, a brutalised parody of Jim Rosenthal. The Partridge of On the Hour was a sketchy throwaway joke, whereas The Day Today put more flesh on his bones, although he was essentially just a lot of awkwardness and orgasmic catchphrases until 'Knowing Me, Knowing You'. Although The Day Today was gone too quickly to be a popular hit, some of Alan Patridge's utterances - such as 'Eat my goal!' and 'That was liquid football!' - are still heard in pubs and bars to this day. Steve Coogan went on to further exploit the character in I'm Alan Partridge, also produced and co-written by Armando Ianucci and Peter Baynham.
It is hard to explain the show's influence. It was not a ratings success, although it appealed to an influential demographic of young people who went on to work in the media. The only direct competitor was The 11 O'Clock Show, which was inferior in every possible way and is nowadays forgotten. The cast and crew of The Day Today went on appear in an awful lot of subsequent comedy programmes, including Smack the Pony, Brass Eye, Knowing Me, Knowing You, The Friday Night Armistice, The Thick of It and of course Steve Coogan is a one-man industry. As previously mentioned, The Office was very similar to one of The Day Today's "fly on the wall" sketches, although its brand of comedy was closer to the awkward realism of I'm Alan Partridge.
Perhaps because he was the anchorman, Chris Morris became the "star" of the programme, just as John Cleese had been the "star" of Monty Python; as with On the Hour he functioned as an independent entity within the programme, writing and performing his own sections, often in isolation from the others. Apart from being the show's anchorman, his only other significant role was as roving reporter Ted Maul, an older, moustachioed variation on the Chris Morris character. Chris Morris was eventually given the go-ahead by the BBC for a show of his own, TorqueTV, although after a pilot was produced, the BBC passed. The show eventually became Brass Eye and was broadcast by Channel 4 amidst much controversy. Morris thenceforth ping-ponged between the BBC and Channel 4, radio and television, with Blue Jam, Jam and Nathan Barley. He appears to have peaked.
The six episodes were released on two VHS tapes in 1995, complete with two of the mini-news snippets used to trail the programme. The show was released on DVD in May 2004, complete with the pilot episode, a couple of modern-day audio skits featuring some of the show's characters, and an Open University documentary which used the show as a means of teaching people about the news media.