James Norton as a disabled jazz drummer? How Jerk’s black humour is revolutionising comedy (Guardian Review)
The deliciously dark comedy about a man with cerebral palsy isback –and now, celebs are lining up to star in it … and to makeyou squirm like never before.
Standup comedian Tim Renkow’s blacker-than-black comedy Jerk is uppingits game for its third series. The sitcom, about a man called Tim who hascerebral palsy and is a self-described terrible person, deserves a biggeraudience. It has been given more episodes, moving from four guest starsper series to six – in the form of Sally Phillips, James Norton and Big Zuu, whichshould help it to gain the recognition it deserves.
Renkow, who co-writes with Shaun Pye (There She Goes, The Increasingly PoorDecisions of Todd Margaret) has come up with the sort of comedy that wants you tolaugh and dares you to laugh, at the same time. This is a show that began, in 2019,with the fictional Tim pretending to wet himself in a cafe to embarrass a fellowcustomer for using the disabled toilet. This turned out to be a relatively gentle start.The first series saw Tim testing whether, as a disabled employee, he was“unsackable”, what happens when you pose as an asylum-seeker for free food, andthe surprise discovery of Nazi relatives. The second kept it breezy with methadone,going to the gym and organised religion.
The third reaches for the darkness and the light. It has found an appetite for thecasting debate, and sinks its teeth in. An up-for-it James Norton plays himself, castas a disabled French jazz drummer in an Oscar-bait film called Unbeaten. Thecasting of Norton angers activists, who stage an on-set protest, while Tim – alwayson the lookout for what benefits himself or upsets other people – decides to appearas an extra. This mess of bad PR, poor image management, do-gooders, superficialallyship and woeful ignorance ends up in a tangle of spectacularly silly slapstick.Later, Tim gets roped into politics, policy and an alternative career as a drug mule, ajob for which he turns out to be particularly well chosen, though not for the reasonshe initially thinks.
But, perhaps the bigger surprise is that, for all its sharp fangs, it has opened up itsheart, too. The friendship between Tim, his carer Ruth (Sharon Rooney) and hisformer employment officer Idris (Rob J Madin) has always been briskly sweet –though, in the world of Jerk, “sweet” usually just means marginally less brutal thanother social interactions – and it remains the framework on which the rest of thestory hangs. They each have a cross to bear – Idris semi-accidentally starts running aBlack bookshop, while Ruth corrupts a guide dog – but as a trio they shine. Tim’smother (a brash, brilliant Lorraine Bracco) still mostly appears by video call, butsteals almost every scene she’s in. “As the world’s leading internet expert oncerebral palsy, I can tell you categorically that being a pussy is not a symptom,” shetold her son in the first ever episode, making it clear where his personality comesfrom.
Bracco has more reason to appear in person this time around, as Tim is gettingmarried. Cleverly, the question of “who to?” is kept open for a while. One might beforgiven for, briefly, wondering why; there was a moment when his mothersuggested getting married for a visa. As it gradually becomes clear what’s going on,it turns into a love story, though the show is so allergic to romance that it practicallyruns screaming from it every time it gets close. Even so, the idea is intriguing.Ramping up the discomfort of a man who revels in the discomfort of others, by
exposing his potential for sentimentality and even selflessness, leads to some next-level awkwardness.
Much like Alma’s Not Normal, Jerk shows that the BBC is still capable of gettingbehind comedy that pushes at the edges of mainstream humour. It doesn’t feelsanitised, or overly considered. Despite its new romantic streak, or perhaps becausethis is Jerk doing romance, it often still feels close to the bone, which is what it doesbest. I am glad there is even more of it to squirm at.