“Here’s an example,” begins Arthur Studholme. The co-creator and director of Uncle Shortbread, the enigmatic but steadily growing online sketch series, is talking to me from his friend’s place in New Cross, south London. “If you’re at a garden centre and you walk past a stack of compost bags, there is an irrepressible desire to pat the top of the bags.
“We’re trying to take that secret understanding and blow that tiny thing up into a huge thing.”
If our new world has taught us anything, it’s that humans are a remarkably detail-oriented species. More time at home and ever-shrinking social circles have created a climate where the micro becomes the macro and the minor behavioural quirks of others turn into defining – not to mention annoying and/or entertaining – personality traits which you can’t get out of your mind.
Of course, it’s a worldview many comedy writers adopted long before the age of elbow-based greetings and QR codes for pints. Microscopic observations are normally used as a jump-off for some shared experience, a tool for winning over audiences who have noticed the same things as you. But in the case of Uncle Shortbread, while finding moments of shared understanding is still but firmly on the agenda, turning those moments into traditional, formalised jokes is less of a priority.
The show is created by Studholme and his friend Cosmo Wellings – two twenty-something Londoners. Going by what’s been released so far, Uncle Shortbread is a sketch series without any recurring characters or narrative continuity. Indebted to staple British surrealist comedy like Vic & Bob, the winking pathos of Spaghetti Western cinema and the extreme absurdity of Netflix’s hit bitesize sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, it is a distinctive recipe. And it’s a formula that feels tailor-made for this ceaselessly unpredictable year where up is down, time is elastic and the worst (or weirdest) case scenario seems to play out every time without fail. No surprise, then, that they’ve amassed tens of thousands of views with next-to-no promotion or previous credentials.
Their videos, acted out by a cast that sometimes includes Wellings, are short and purposefully presented without context: the Pope incinerates a dog using lasers from his eyes, a man is chased out of town by people wearing sandals and socks, a policeman rugby tackles his colleague and takes his clothes off. He’s wearing a thong.
In the words of a short biography-cum-manifesto they send ahead of our conversation: “We generally seem to be drawn to small things that probably aren’t all that funny when they happen in everyday life, but when they’re examined in far too much detail and placed in a cinematic world, they become funny.”
The pair went to Goldsmiths University at the same time but never met. A few months later Wellings was modelling at a fashion shoot which Studholme was filming as part of his day job as a cameraman on commercials. On set, Wellings showed Studhome some “fucking mental” animations he’d been working on. Set to a self-recorded song entitled Is it a Rat or is it a Penis?, scrawled Flash animations of a phallic, whiskered rat were brought to life.
The pair started chatting and found a shared love of spiky, visually-driven humour that stretches simple ideas and observations to their outer limits. Later, they decided on a name – Uncle Shortbread – in memory of Arthur’s gerbil who died in a traffic accident five years ago. “He was in the boot of my mum’s car and he got crunched,” remembers Arthur. “Badly crunched,” adds Cosmo.
Cosmo and Arthur are joined on our Zoom call by Liam Toon, a drummer from London who met Wellings at a party some years ago. Toon appears as the lead actor in a number of Shortbread sketches. His doughy, wide-eyed face nicely counterpoints Wellings’ slightly more jagged on-screen energy. Toon hadn’t acted before but, in his own words, “kind of just rocked up and blagged it”.
“There’s a very specific thing I need to mention about Liam’s face,” Wellings interjects. “It’s just a ripe bed for comedy. Certain parts of it behave in ways I’ve never seen before.” Liam laughs to himself, before his Zoom cuts out.
Beyond Toon’s face, it’s clear that visual impact is important to the Shortbread formula functioning successfully. They work closely with a Director of Photography to give their shorts a cinematic sheen. This isn’t just a matter of quality control – applying high production to concepts this inane is all part of the plan, according to Studholme.
“I don’t think that comedy is any worse off when it’s shot low-budget. Often that works incredibly well. But for us, the cinematography is an integral part of the joke. It’s about taking an idea that shouldn’t be given this level of time and attention – when you raise a trivial or incidental joke to the level of cinema it becomes something else.”
It’s a philosophy which reminds me of Nathan For You – Nathan Fielder’s hugely successful Comedy Central prank docu-comedy series, which ran from 2013 to 2017. The ridiculousness of his premises are made even funnier by the level of effort that goes into executing them.
“I think there’s a kind of laughter that sits just in your brain,” explains Wellings. “It never expresses itself. It appreciates the subtle strangeness of something and doesn’t necessarily verbally communicate that.”
Creating work that tickles the cerebral nerves isn’t a purely visual pursuit. Take Spaghetti?, for example. It’s a two-minute film where the sounds of two people mmm-ing in approval to a plate of spaghetti collapses into an undulating fever dream sequence with a trudging ravey soundtrack. This isn’t just about what you’re looking at or what you’re hearing – it’s both. And more. It’s just extreme. The kind of video that makes you laugh, roll your eyes then laugh even harder as they continue to push it.
You might call Uncle Shortbread a product of the lockdown headspace – an example of what happens when two mates are left alone, really alone, with their thoughts. But Studholme and Wellings have long-term plans.
Across the course of their various self-funded shoots, they’ve managed to bring together a crew of creatives who share their vision for surrealism with a cinematic finish. The plan is to keep releasing shorts with a view to putting together a pilot to punt to streamers and broadcasters.
But for now, their target is to release two sketches a month, slowly inviting audiences into their offbeat, proudly anti-topical comedy universe.
“Sketch shows are always quite collaborative, which is a quite a nice aspect of them,” reflects Wellings as he considers the motley family that’s forming around Uncle Shortbread.
“We just want to push further and further every time,” adds Studholme. “Maybe at some point we’ll find out where the line is.” Bold ambitions. Spare a thought for Uncle Shortbread next time you find yourself patting the compost.