Euan McColm: Jealous hack tells pal to ‘break a leg’ on TV

Paul Stokes and Neil Rafferty, whose first show will air next week. Picture: Geraint Lewis
Paul Stokes and Neil Rafferty, whose first show will air next week. Picture: Geraint Lewis
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That The Daily Mash has a television show that’s as hilarious as the satirical website is a great story, says Euan McColm

We hate it, sang former Smiths frontman Morrissey, when our friends become successful. For shame, I recognise the sentiment.

There is - no, can be - something irksome about the triumphs of those to whom we’re closest. It’s especially infuriating if a chum’s success is down to luck: Why didn’t I pick those six numbers? Why couldn’t I have slipped and fallen in the fish aisle and got eight grand for my knee?

Fortunately, for the good of the nagging sense that I might have done something wrong that passes for my soul, there are times when even my bitter and envious nature is defeated by the sheer pleasure to be gained from watching someone else doing well.

Over the past few days, the BBC has been screening teasers for a new satirical comedy show, The Mash Report. Whenever it appears, I feel a shiver of excitement.

I first met Neil Rafferty when he was a 22-year-old university drop-out, managing a pub in Edinburgh and publishing a tiny, and hilarious, magazine called The Smear. Unlike most funny men in pubs, Neil was actually funny - properly, cleverly, originally funny - and we quickly became friends.

When he decided to enter journalism, I wasn’t at all surprised that he became a success, reporting on politics for a number of national newspapers.

And, knowing how utterly bored he had become with the whole business, I wasn’t surprised, either, when, a dozen or so years ago, he packed it all in and moved to the country to raise chickens.

After a couple of years of fannying about, trying to grow rocket in the Borders, Neil and another pal - Paul Stokes - cooked up a wheeze. They gambled £500 each on a new website.

The Daily Mash was, instantly, a creative success. Its format - a mix of sharp satire and wild surrealism delivered in perfectly deadpan news reports and poker-faced opinion pieces - was recognisably, to anyone who knew him, the distillation of Neil’s obsessions. From day one, it worked because it knew exactly what it was.

With Neil looking after the creative side and Paul taking care of business, the Mash swiftly became a commercial success, too. In its wake, a number of copycat websites emerged and quickly floundered. The Daily Mash made the very difficult business of comedy look effortless.

Think of contemporary Scottish comedy and perhaps the disturbing poetry of Limmy’s work comes to mind; maybe you think of the pathos-filled weirdness of Robert Florence and Iain Connell’s Burnistoun, of Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan’s pitch-perfect Still Game, of the laconic patter merchant Kevin Bridges or the small droll Susan Calman.

Despite the anonymity provided by the internet, Neil Rafferty is easily the comic peer of these pre-eminent practitioners of the art.

Tens of thousands of Scots may have gone to see Still Game live. More than nine million people read a Daily Mash story suggesting the Queen had the legal right to kill Donald Trump with a sword should he set foot on British soil. (In a delightful turn of events, this story was analysed by the fact-checking website Snopes, which conformed that it was, in fact, a joke.)

In the decade since its establishment, the Daily Mash has discovered and nurtured bright new comic writers. It lets funny people make a living and that, I would submit, is good news for all of is.

A few years ago, a pilot of a Mash radio show was commissioned. Creative control seized from their hands, Neil and Paul rejected the offer of a series which, at that point, might have considerably boosted their profile. What’s the point of having a high profile if the thing’s crap?

Seven years after a young television producer got in touch with them to talk about the possibility of developing a show, the Mash is soon to be onscreen.

A half-hour show, hosted by Nish Kumar, will start its run on BBC 2 on July 20. I think it will be roaring success.

My confidence in this regard is boosted by the fact that I’ve seen the pilot.

You will know, I am sure, the sense of dread one feels when a friend asks for an opinion on something her or she has created. What if the thing’s no good? It usually isn’t, is it? It’s usually a terrible song or a painting of a child with the eyes all out of proportion or a poem about a bird that makes no sense.

I didn’t doubt the Mash team’s talent but having heard how badly wrong their experiment with radio had gone, I was tense when I began watching the TV version.

The great news is it’s properly, relentlessly funny. It’s a sharp, fresh, brilliantly cast take on a late night news show and the jokes keep coming.

Critics and viewers will make up their minds, soon enough, and the Mash Report will live or die based on their judgement. Me? I’m cheering on the team, willing the show to become a regular fixture in the schedules.

It will, I think, be easier for me and other friends to celebrate what I hope will be the success of the Mash Report than for Neil and Paul to do the same.

Blessed with the neuroses that form the solid foundations of comic talent, they will fret and mutter about every detail. Comedy is a serious business and they’ll have no time for fun.

It has been one of the great pleasures of my life these past 10 years to watch The Daily Mash grow. It is - if you insist on labelling these things so - a great Scottish creative success story, reaching a global audience of millions.

Neil Rafferty and Paul Stokes are now significant players in the ultra-competitive world of comedy and I could not be more proud of them. I love it when my friends become successful.