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"Monkey Tennis" is a British pop culture phrase, first used in the late 1990s and popular throughout the 2000s. Originating as a joke in a television sitcom, it has come to be commonly used as an example of the hypothetical lowest common denominator television programme that it is possible to make. Programmes believed to have been poorly-conceived or of particularly low quality, especially within the reality television genre, are sometimes compared with the "Monkey Tennis" idea in media coverage and popular discussion in the UK.
The term originates from the opening episode of the sitcom I'm Alan Partridge, originally broadcast on BBC Two in the UK on Monday 3 November 1997. In one scene, Partridge, a failed chat show host, desperately attempts to pitch programme ideas to uninterested BBC executive Tony Hayers (David Schneider), who cancelled his first series. After failing to interest him in ideas plucked from thin air such as Arm Wrestling With Chas & Dave, Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank, Inner-City Sumo and Cooking in Prison, Partridge comes up with a final spur-of-the-moment suggestion, "Monkey Tennis?", which is met with similar disdain. Steve Coogan, the star and co-writer of I'm Alan Partridge, said on a DVD commentary for the episode that the writing team came up with the idea when they decided that: "It had to be a two-word pitch that created an immediate visual image". In a 2011 interview with Richard Bacon on BBC Radio Five Live, Alan Partridge claimed that Monkey Tennis was picked up and was a popular show in Taiwan and Laos for two years after which it had reached the end of its natural life, as had some of the monkeys. He noted that surviving monkeys were "quickly and humanely destroyed".
The title became used by some as a shorthand for poor programming ideas, and has been mentioned or referred to in the media in the years following the original broadcast. When describing the opening ceremony of the 2001 World Athletics Championships in Edmonton, BBC News Online correspondent Tom Fordyce wrote that "The organisers exceeded my wildest dreams. All that was missing was monkey tennis and I could have died a happy man." Reviewing an evening's television for The Observer newspaper in 2005, Kathryn Flett wondered "Why did I recently squander such a lovely big bunch of superlatives on something which looks like Monkey Tennis, compared to this stunning work of unparalleled comedy genius?". The phrase has been used several times in The Guardian and The Observer's television review articles.
Another television reviewer, Ian Johns of The Times, called Five's True CSI "about as misguided as picking up such Alan Partridge programme pitches as Monkey Tennis and Inner-City Sumo. Then again, I think his Cooking in Prison idea might now have a chance."
TV and restaurant critic AA Gill, writing in his Sunday Times column of 14 February 2010, made reference to the fictional programme when giving a critical review of the BBC Three series Dancing on Wheels, stating: "You remember Monkey Tennis? From Alan Partridge’s list of TV proposals that were patently absurd? This could be one of them. Dancing on Wheels. Almost literally car-crash broadcasting. I wish they’d filmed the meeting where the disability access convener proposed it. And, one by one, editors and commissioners nodded that they thought it was an innovative and entertaining idea whose time had come".
Sky Sports' light-hearted football show Soccer AM featured the term on numerous occasions, as former presenter Tim Lovejoy would use the phrase when describing women's football, usually in a derisory manner such as "Women's football? What next, Monkey Tennis?" The joke was phased out after Lovejoy's departure from the series.
When Peter Fincham, the executive producer of I'm Alan Partridge, became controller of the BBC One channel in 2005, the show's producer and co-writer Armando Iannucci attended the press conference at which his appointment was officially announced and asked Fincham whether there would be a place for Monkey Tennis in his schedules. According to the Guardian Unlimited website's media section report, Fincham jokingly replied that he had "always said quite a few of those shows would have been commissioned."
- Writers Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci; Director Dominic Brigstocke; Producer Armando Iannucci (1997-11-03). "A Room With an Alan". I'm Alan Partridge. BBC Two.
- Steve Coogan (2002). Commentary, "A Room With an Alan" (DVD). I'm Alan Partridge, disc one: BBC Worldwide.
- Fordyce, Tom (2001-08-04). "Edmonton's opening ceremony". BBC News Online. Retrieved 2006-09-20.
- Flett, Kathryn (2005-05-22). "Spin deep". London: The Observer. Retrieved 2006-09-20.
- Mangan, Lucy (2008-07-08). "Last Night's TV". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2008-07-08.
- Johns, Ian (2006-08-09). "Home is where the hearth is". London: The Times. Retrieved 2006-09-20.
- Gill, AA (February 14, 2010). "Sir Christopher Meyer makes his move for more telly work". London: The Sunday Times.
- Plunkett, John (2005-03-24). "'Is there a place for Monkey Tennis?'". London: Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved 2006-09-20.
- "'Gordon Behind Bars'". Retrieved 2012-06-20.
- Iannucci, Armando (2012-06-18). "'Aiannucci Twitter Feed'". Retrieved 2012-06-20.