The Gallows Humour of British Sketch Show Jam

A man with his mouth open in the Jam intro

A man holds up a corner shop with a gun lodged in his stomach, a six-year-old girl hired to cut up a body, and the world’s worst, strangest doctor are all common, unadulterated features in the venomous, astonishing realm of Chris Morris’ Jam (2000). It’s every bit cruel as it is comedic. It practically cannot be compared to anything else.

To describe Jam is like trying to talk your way out of suicide whilst hanging from the noose. It’s a fever dream comedy that forces your attention and attempts to make you laugh at the seemingly unlaughable. It’s a gorgeously disturbing bit of British sketch show history that embraces experimentation and the darkest recesses of black comedy. It’s disgusting, it wears taboo like a skin-tight suit (made from skin) and it will push you to laugh out of your comfort zone.

Originally a radio show called Blue Jam, the TV series is performed brilliantly by David Cann, Kevin Eldon, Julia Davis, Mark Heap, and Amelia Bullmore. Every single one of these actors flesh out the sketches masterfully. Like they just got it. They knew exactly how to work the discomforting mind of Chris Morris and delivered legendary performances that almost deserve an entirely different article of their own. Morris himself often pops up to helm his own sketches and does an equally good job at encapsulating the darkness.

The Dark Formula

Jam is pure horror-comedy. The majority of the sketches follow a wicked formula. Average, normal people or couples finding themselves at the nightmarish mercy of depraved characters who are totally committed to their darkly unusual ways of life. The hapless characters slip further and further down a poison-ladened rabbit hole and we, as the audience, are drip-fed that same poison perniciously. The sketches are disguised in normality, but if you lean in closer, you’ll start to unmask the horror. The sketches go from worse to abysmal in terms of subject matter and when you get to the end of it all, you’ll want a hot wash.

Other sketches take the form of micro, morbid documentaries that wouldn’t look out of place on a dark web website. These present characters narrating a way of life that is stonking with disgusting bliss. Their resemblance to darknet versions of YouTube videos goes as far as looking like evil vlogs. This work was ahead of its time.

Finally, you have what I can only describe as transitional sketches. Minute sketches that jab you with a quick one-two of laughable shock, then disappear. It amazes me how these feel not too dissimilar to TikTok content; cementing the forward-thinking power Morris’ work commands, twenty years later. They also reinforce the dream-like quality of the show, replicating that feeling of going in and out of sleep—an effect Morris wanted by broadcasting it so late and without warning.

All of the sketches are accompanied by a chilling sound design. Not only does this hark back to the show’s format origins, but serves to chill you just as much as the visual content. Each piece of music sounds like disturbing elevator tunes, which is fitting since it helps descend you into the madness. In fact, the music is so good it could hold up on its own.

A League of its Own

Even the form in which the sketches are presented is often ludicrous. For example, one sketch about a guy complaining about getting a very small car is presented as a series of slideshow images. Similarly, a couple having an ordinary tiff over something overly sick is shot with a garish effects filter on top. This proves that Jam absolutely stops at nothing to consume your attention, and wanted to creatively distance itself from its radio origins. Morris took every opportunity at his disposal in the editing suite to deliver an other-worldly on-screen debut for his material. And he succeeds in its strangeness.

It should also be noted that the DVD itself is one big joke. Fancy watching only the first 19 seconds of Episode 5? You can select that. Or maybe you’d prefer to watch an episode in a tiny box (or lava lamp format as the DVD describes) that’s constantly bouncing around the screen? You can do that as well. Jam is the king of absurd across everything that it did and that level of creative detail is why I consider it one of the best British sketch shows.

So, you malignant cat paws, I’m going to highlight some of the very best Jam has to offer. These sketches are my opinionated gone-off cream of the crop. And with a bit of luck, if you’ve never seen this series before, you’ll at least do a Google search. It’s all on YouTube. Welcome in Jaaaaaaam.

A Talk at the Dinner Table

A grainy and blurry Mark Heap and Amelia Bullmore with a lamp in the background between them during a dinner table chat
I need you to take over for a bit

This is the very first sketch of the series after Chris Morris is done monologuing demented poetry, which became the staple introduction beginning each episode. It’s a fantastic set up of both formula and content that is the template for what’s to come in the series. A trio of adults appears to be having a normal conversation. That conversation is about a son of the two parents turning gay. They are talking to the boy’s godfather about having to take over “certain duties” to stop that from happening.

It’s got it all: the nuanced, subtle performances from Mark Heap and Amelia Bullmore; the grainy, blurry look of the scene that denotes an other-worldly feeling; and Kevin Eldon’s remarkable reaction to what is being asked of him. The sketch takes its time to seep into your system, relishing in its own petrified content right till the end. The pair of abnormal parents paint such a grim picture through dialogue alone that it leaves your imagination to piece the horror together.

A fantastic opener that sets the scene for the rest of the show.

Lizards on the TV

Mark Heap looks on quizzically as he stands in front of a wall with patterned wallpaper and a framed picture
No, you sweep them up

This is one of my personal favorites. An annoying couple calls a member of a TV company responsible for delivering a new TV complaining that it’s full of lizards. The company man seems only concerned with the telly itself rather than the invading lizard army surrounding it. As the couple gets more and more agitated with the nonchalant behavior of the company man, it starts to divulge that the man might not quite be a man.

Definitely one of the more tamer sketches, Lizard TV triumphs in being surreal, unexpected, and amazingly daft. It succeeds in how utterly pointless the direction the sketch heads in. Mark Hemp, the actor who plays the lizard-man, goes from suggesting banal ways of clearing the lizards to hinting he is a lizard himself—but only subtly. This, contrasted with the couple’s growing frustration, creates a sketch that takes itself so seriously that you die of laughter. It’s a pure absurdist comedy bit that should definitely be seen.

The more astute viewers can just about see the moment Amelia Bullmore nearly cracks from her co-star’s performances.

Baby Boiler

Amelia Bullmore offers a plumber some serious cash for a morbid duty in episode 2
£1,000 an hour

Jam got itself in hot water for a few of its sketches back in the day. This was one of them and for obvious reasons. A plumber is hired to fix an enthusiastic woman’s dead baby. For a thousand pounds an hour. The reaction to Eldon’s play on the plumber when he discovers the woman mistakenly meant baby instead of boiler is priceless. Similarly, when he contemplates pulling out until the large money incentive is revealed, creates another hilarious reaction. The woman creates this moral pitfall for the plumber who would really do anything for the cash.

The episode peaks at its darkest when the plumber’s work is partially revealed. The boiler baby hybrid is never shown on camera, but the peculiar description of him (tap on the ear to make his plughole mouth gargle) will have you gasping and laughing at just how horrendous this all is. That’s one of Jam’s distinctions: it has the ability to make you laugh at things you wouldn’t dare laugh at. It tricks and shocks you into laughter and once a giggle has escaped, you’ll quickly question yourself as fast as you ask, “did I really just laugh at that?”

To top it all off, the mother is over the moon with his work. We leave the sketch as she fusses over her new “baby” whilst jostling copper pipes suspended into his crib. The back end of the episode feels like a horror short; with darkened corners and atmospheric lighting. This one dares you to laugh and you probably will.

The Gunman at the Corner Shop

Mark Heap holds a man up in a shop with a gun, demanding his change in episode 2
Of course I want the change, what do you think the guns for?

Another so-stupid-its-funny sketch displays a sort of reverse stick up. A gun-toting dreg holds up a cashier for a packet of cigarettes. Which he then pays for quite normally, only demanding his change (because that’s what the gun was for). I’m actually finding it harder to describe these sketches as the majority can be summarized with: a normal situation with something extremely abnormal happening—both wrestling for attention.

What works here is the gunman’s utter glee from discovering his pointless endeavor works. He’s shocked that a man holding a gun can demand so much. Even though his results would have been the exact same without the gun. Hemp masterfully creates a character that is so whimsically enchanted by his own actions yet grounded in stark reality. I love it. Morris’ writing here is genius. How he can take a generic scene we’ve seen a thousand times and tweak it just a little bit to make it absurdly humorous.

Most of the Doctor Sketches

David Cann's doctor looks downwards while preparing for his next patient in episode 1
What seems to be the problem?

I adore David Cann in Jam. I especially adore his depiction of probably the world’s worst GP. Or certainly the strangest. I honestly don’t know how he kept a straight face doing these sketches but they are marvelous. The collection of doctor sketches are the epitome of nonsense. They involve a hapless patient going to see him, and he does everything but settles their ailments. For example, a lady sees him about a sore leg and he ends up touching only his own instead. Or a man with a dodgy muscle is asked to conduct the consultation over the phone—Cann of course calling him from the room only next door.

Cann’s commitment to the role never ridicules the ridiculousness. His total conviction allows the nonsense to land fully in its comedic power. He commands the integrity of Morris’s material and as the audience, you slip into the lunacy with ease. This is important since the lunacy is the purpose of the sketches. These sketches wouldn’t be half as good if it wasn’t for the dumbfounded reactions from the patients as well, but it’s Cann that truly cements these as great additions and respites from Morris’ more sinister work.

The Most Uncaring Parents

David Cann and Julia Davis lazily discovering their son is dead via a phone call in episode 5
Can’t you just bung him in a cab?

Speaking of, imagine watching a pair of parents react to the kidnapping, raping, and murdering of their child with the same emotional offerings as someone buttering a piece of toast. David Cann and Julia Davis are those parents in this sketch that is amongst the quietly sickening. Every time we see them, they are unenthusiastically living out a normal day (reading a newspaper, trying on a dress) whilst equally unenthusiastically wondering where their seven-year-old has got to.

It transpires through a series of phone calls that their son is dead and the parents really couldn’t care less. The strong dark material coupled with the blatant no-f****-given approach the parents take is a prime example of uncomfortable humor. You just can’t believe parents like this would exist, and again it comes down to the committed performances that hold the comedy by the throat. It’s also effective that we learn the demise of their son as the characters learn, allowing the parents to take us on their twisted journey.

My favorite thing about this one is when the dad finds out who did it, Mike Holland, and he stoically proclaims, “I’ll have a word with him next time I see him.” As if Mr. Holland had done something mildly annoying. It’s dark in all the wrong places and if you laugh at this, you get Jam.

A Malignant Legacy

I could go on about many more sketches, but this has already proven quite lengthy. Jam has exampled that nearly twenty years on, black comedy hasn’t really matched it, which leaves a gigantic Jam-shaped hole. Nowadays, if something like Jam was to be made, it would probably be at the furious mercy of the Twitter engine, the offense offensive, and cancel culture. But I still think there is something to be mined from uncomfortable comedy. Gallows humour is tremendously underrepresented and it’s probably because it’s a bloody bold thing to do. Especially now, where I feel comedy is forced to tread the boards of appraisal and head-patting to escape loud mouths and typing fingers spouting, “No”.

Looking back, I admit some of the sketches were in bad taste and some don’t hit any sort of mark apart from being shocking for its own sake. A couple of them are even quite dull. But when Jam really works, you feel it in the back of your gullet. You hear the snickers bubbling from the bile in your throat. And you’ll check to see if anyone was watching when you did laugh at that one joke about baby-sized coffins—and that is a powerfully dark comedy.

You can watch the entire series on YouTube if you dare.

Written by Christopher Blackmore

Christopher is a peculiar creator of playable theatre, live game design, and surreal horror. Partial to a bad film any day of the week,

Follow him @cmblackmore14 for more of his world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings