I’m the first to admit I watch some garbage, but rarely have I watched something so bad that I felt completely ashamed of myself for owning it – however this, ladies and gentlemen is hands down the worst thing I’ve ever owned. Me and a few buddies picked this up for a joke about ten years back while at university, but we weren’t prepared for what was in store – an hour of the most painfully awkward comedy ever put to video.
JOHN VIRGO: PLAYING FOR LAUGHS
UK, 1993, Eugene O’Connor
So successful was the show (it ran for at least ten years) that they decided to do a few spin-off tours. Playing for laughs is a recorded version of one of these tours – and Christ is it hard work. The show is based around snooker legend John Virgo’s trick shots and his ability to do bad impressions of other snooker players in front of a pitifully small audience. Seriously, there are like, fifty people at this show, max.
On paper, this doesn’t sound very promising, but there is gold hiding just below the surface in the shape of ‘co-host’ Mickey Pugh. I don’t know why Jim Davidson couldn’t be part of the tour. He isn’t the best comedian at the best of times, but at least he knew a few funny jokes. Mickey Pugh on the other hand is the cut price version and from the minute he entered the stage I knew I was in for a good time. Not one of his jokes are funny, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t fully committed to delivering lame punchlines.
After the cringe worthy opening sequence, we’re treated to a couple of trick shots which are, admittedly, pretty impressive but hardly interesting to watch. Then, ten minutes in, just as you’ll be contemplating switching it off, the first priceless WTF moment happens when Hooks from Police Academy (Marion Ramsey) shows up, complete with a whistle and a massive plastic water-pistol. Hooks insists she traveled all the way from the USA because she heard there was a rowdy crowd in the studio. I spent the rest of the show praying for Michael Winslow to show up. Sadly, I was let down.
From this point on, we are treated to a succession of incredibly awkward ‘celebrity’ appearances. Most of whom were staples of Saturday night entertainment. Soap stars, musical performers, radio DJs, Police Academy actresses, you name it. If they were available, and cheap, they were booked. The more obscure the celebrities become, the more surreal it all gets. The worst one being old time crooner, Jess Conrad who tries his best to be worse than everybody else.
But the best part is when the 16 year old daughter of one of the guests is brought on stage, for ‘fun’. After a few trick shots, John Virgo pulls her aside for a really cringy chat that feels as though you’re eavesdropping on a quiet moment between your sister and your creepy uncle. It all gets a bit touchy feely and makes for genuinely uncomfortable viewing. While I’m certain it’s all innocent and out of context, you still don’t really see Virgo hugging anyone else quite as much as he does with this girl.
I think the director must have felt how awkward it was too, because the interview is quickly broken up by Hooks from Police Academy, impersonating Lt. Harris from Police Academy and carrying a fish bowl, which I can only assume is a reference to Commandant Lassard’s fish, also from Police Academy. It’s like a Police Academy best of, performed by Marion Ramsey. She then offers a goldfish to John Virgo. He bites off its head and passes it back to Hooks, who eats the rest of it. Then she leaves the stage. If this all sounds surreal, that’s because it is.
We’re then treated to another comedy master-class from Mickey Pugh before a frankly baffling round of impersonations which mostly consist of John Virgo wearing silly things on his head and sitting in silence in the corner of the studio.
After that hilarious gag with the rubber chicken, Mickey Pugh is invited to do a trick shot of his own, but he’s stopped in his tracks by a ‘sleepwalking’ model who appears from nowhere to slowly remove his bow-tie and jacket, before leading him off stage – implying heavily that she’s going to hump the hell out of him. Don’t worry though, he’s back on stage five minutes later like it never happened, ready to deliver more stunning gags.
You’d think that after an hour of this garbage Playing For Laughs would be losing steam, but this is the show that keeps on giving and the final five minutes make this video a keeper. Marion Ramsey returns to the stage, dressed not as Hooks from Police Academy, but as herself pretending to be Tina Turner. She interrupts the show, much to the dismay of John Virgo who genuinely looks fed up with the whole thing by now and he slumps back in the corner in a huff. Marion/Tina then starts asking the audience if they’re having a good time and the opening beats of ‘Simply the Best’ start up. For the following four minutes, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes as Marion starts doing a pretty decent Tina Turner impersonation while some of the audience clap along with minimal enthusiasm. Marion then approaches John Virgo and starts slowly wiggling her backside to him, enticing him to his feet. He doesn’t looks as though he’s going to get involved but he suddenly jumps to his feet and joins in, treating us to a truly stiff shuffle that the audience absolutely love.
So far, so dreadful, but then it all gets a little out of control when Virgo dances up close to Marion and they start slowly grinding each other. Marion is even about to start twerking him until Jess Conrad, who clearly made the most of the complimentary wine, decides that he “WANTS A BIT OF THIS!”, jumping off his chair and starts grinding behind John Virgo who’s grinding Marion Ramsey/Tina Turner who’s singing to the camera. It’s like a human centipede. Not as dirty, maybe, but just as shameful. John Virgo looks very uncomfortable now, and the audience has all but stopped clapping in astonishment at how out of control Jess Conrad is getting, insisting over and over again that he “wants a piece of this” and “oh baby, give this to me”. All except for Marion Ramsey whose clearly loving the hell out of the whole thing. Eventually, Virgo has to take Jess Conrad aside and if you listen carefully, you can just hear Virgo losing his rag and telling Conrad to get back in his seat and calm down. The song climaxes on the line “you’re simply the best” with an awkward freeze-frame on John Virgo.
This is hands down, one of the most awkward set-pieces I’ve ever seen. It lasts for a painful four minutes and it’s just glorious.
I can’t recommend Playing for Laughs enough. It’s undeniably crap, yes. But taken out of context for its time and reason for existing, it’s also incredibly surreal and entertaining. Definitely one for late night WTF viewing, snooker fans, or the Police Academy completest. Or maybe, just maybe, fans of Mickey Pugh, Comedian Extraordinaire.
Sadly, Playing For Laughs isn’t available on DVD, but a few copies still remain on VHS and can be picked up on eBay.