One unquestioned article of faith in political thrillers is that the bad guy is a genius the supervillain as megamind. In reality, criminals are no smarter, maybe a lot dumber, than the rest of us. That's certainly true of the self-appointed jihadis who, in the wake of 9/11, concocted harebrained plots that hurt no one but themselves. We think of the Christmas Day airplane bomber who blew up his groin; the Times Square guerrilla who left the keys to his getaway vehicle in the car with the bombs; and Iyman Faris, who believed he could destroy the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch.
Chris Morris, the English satirist, is ever on watch for examples of toxic lunacy, and a few years ago he found a piquant news item. It was about "these Yemeni jihadis who were plotting to blow up a warship that was moored in a bay," Morris told Jesse Thorn last week on public radio's The Sound of Young America. "Their plan was to ram it with an exploding boat. So they assembled on the quayside at 3 in the morning. They put their launch in the water, and they filled it full of explosives. And it sank."
There could be a similar crew of Islamic doofuses in the city of Sheffield in north England. What explosive mischief might they create? That's the premise of Morris' brilliantly incendiary new comedy Four Lions: a few radicalized English Muslims plan an attack on the London marathon while dressed in clown outfits. These guys really are clowns, wild and foolish but no less dangerous, at least to themselves, since they have dynamite strapped to their stomachs. Their incompetence is on display in the movie's first scene, as Omar (Riz Ahmed), the group's leader, is showing his pretty wife and sweet kid a video that he and his mates have made: arms cradling machine guns, they spit out death threats against the West. But the other guys keep tripping over their lines. "These are the outtakes, y' know, the bloopers," Omar says apologetically. He looks at the rest of the video and sighs, "They're all bloopers."
For a quarter-century, Morris, 45, has been lobbing comic grenades at the British media from deep inside it: first as a late-night DJ who muttered derisive comments about news headlines on the air while they were being read, then in 1991 as the host of BBC Radio 4's news-spoof show On the Hour. Morris presided in splendid arrogance over a team that included feckless sportscaster Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan), snooty business newsreader Collately Sisters (Doon MacKickan) and the serially incompetent correspondent Peter O'Hanraha-hanrahan (Patrick Marber). Produced by Armando Iannucci, later the mastermind of the fiendishly funny Whitehall sitcom The Thick of It (which spun off into the 2009 film In the Loop), On the Hour didn't deal in topical humor, like the '60s That Was the Week That Was or Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment. Instead, it meant to skewer the tone of TV news, by turns omniscient and truckling, in the production of what the show called "genutainment."
In 1994, On the Hour transferred to TV as The Day Today. This news-show burlesque would lead with Morris' shouted headlines ("Exploded Cardinal Preaches Sermon from Fish Tank"), investigate some big story (a Buckingham Palace fistfight between the Queen and then Prime Minister John Major) and broadcast a disaster video sent in by viewers ("The unnamed woman had been pierced by a shaft of frozen urine which had fallen from the toilet facility of an overhead plane"). Morris and his team would also go on the street to interview prominent politicians and innocent citizens, whose comments would be aired blissfully out of context. Before The Daily Show, this show was mocking the news format in Morris' words, "hijacking the delivery system." Before Ali G, Morris was pranking the public. The Day Today also ran excerpts of a reality sitcom called The Office, seven years before Ricky Gervais did his show of the same name.
Morris' next assault on genutainment was the 1997 Brass Eye, a parody of sensationalist news theme shows. He'd introduce a perplexing issue, like "Animals: Are We Too Nice or Too Nasty?" and tell the audience, "You haven't got a clue, have you? But you will do if you watch for 30 minutes." The "Sex" episode began with a naked Morris shagging a woman, then saying to the camera, "If this were really happening, what would you think?" This time Morris was not just the host but, in various silly disguises, all the correspondents. He often badgered famous people into agreeing with the silliest propositions (one MP protested he was misrepresented and got an apology when the show went on DVD). In the "Decline" episode, Morris barged into an Anglican church during services, stormed up to the altar, pointed to a copy of the Bible and proclaimed, in the accusatory tone of a British Geraldo Rivera, "We've had this book analyzed. It reads like the ramblings of a drugged horse."