DAFFYD: Okay, if you're so gay, who was the gay character in Are You Being Served?I watched several episodes of the first series of Little Britain last night when you weren't looking. Then I went and watched the first few episodes of the second series. After the first episode, I loved the series. But then after I watched subsequent episodes, I wasn't so much in love anymore.
ENTIRE PUB: Mr. Humphries!
DAFFYD: ...was it?!
ENTIRE PUB: Yes!
DAFFYD: Well that's very subtle then. I always thought it was Captain Peacock. He's the one with the moustache.
I mean, after the first episode, I thought "This was pretty well done and quite funny at times. I wonder what they'll do next?" Turns out the answer to "what'll they do next?" was "pretty much the same things they did in the first episode." Sigh.
It's such a wildly disparate show, veering irrationally from incredibly clever and entertaining to sadly derivative and all-too-reliant on catchphrases. It's even more unreliable than Saturday Night Live.
The writing in the show is solid sketch comedy. Tom Baker's dry, surreal narration, in the vein of the first series of Look Around You, is great. The first episode opens proudly with "Britain, Britain, Britain, land of technological achievement! We've had running water for over 10 years, an underground tunnel that links us to Peru, and we invented the cat." It's strange non-sequitur, it's the first words we hear in the entire series, and I liked it. The sketches themselves demonstrate tight comedy writing; excellent structure with a reversal punchline, usually, and none of the sketches drag on too long (so at least it's one up on SNL in that regard.)
The characterizations are great, even from an American perspective. I may not be familiar with all the eccentric Briton stereotypes portrayed, but you can easily get the humor. The highlights include Daffyd, the only gay man in his Welsh village and very protective of his unique status; Andy, a wheelchair-bound man and Lou, his overprotective caretaker; Vicky Pollard, a young lady of high school age whose style would be what Americans would call "white trash"; and Anthony Head, who plays the Prime Minister ("But he's not the real Prime Minister," Tom Baker is quick to let us know. "Just the guy who was in Buffy.")
Also nice are the little pun touches; the Kelsey Grammar School, the pub named "The Scarecrow & Mrs. King", the Hill Grange health spa, that sort of thing.
The show is also gifted with two great comedic actors -- Matt Lucas, most notably, is an incredible character actor. He is capable of getting into the whole persona of one of his creations, rather than just slapping on a costume and saying silly catchphrases.
But, unfortunately, the majority of the shows I saw did involve the recurring characters saying their regular catchphrases. For instance, Andy and Lou are featured regularly, but their sketches always fall back on one of two jokes: in the first joke, Andy repeatedly insists on something (tickets to the opera, a birthday visit from George Michael) and then, once he gets what he wants, he doesn't like it. Yeah, that's the joke.
The second joke involves Andy climbing out of his wheelchair and doing stuff while Lou is oblivious to his charge's ability and activities. The joke works great in the first episode; Lou wheels Andy up to the swimming pool, and then engages in a long, detailed conversation with the lifeguard ("You know he likes the water but he's not a strong swimmer, he's really doggy paddle if anything. And really I just need help to get him in and out because I like him to go swimming because it’s good exercise. You know what I mean?") Meanwhile, Andy has gotten out of his wheelchair, climbed up to the 3-metre board, jumped into the pool and swum around. He climbs back up and gets back to his wheelchair by the time Lou is done explaining Andy's special needs. Ok, that's pretty funny, and the scene is shot in one so the camerawork is top-notch (Diving off the board in the background, Andy hits the water right between the talking heads in the foreground) and I have to admit I laughed.
But the next time Andy climbed out of his wheelchair, and the time after that...
There's another recurring sketch involving two older middle-class ladies tasting jam at a fair or church social. One lady tastes each jam, asks who made the jam, and when she's told it was made by a lesbian or Pakistani or some other such "undesirable", violently and viscerally bazooka-barfs. Then it's on to the next jam, where of course this joke will repeat itself three, maybe four times. (Again, comparing it to SNL, I am reminded of a time in the early-mid 90s when some writer or group of SNL writers were really, really, really fond of vomit reaction takes, and almost every cast member at one point seemed to have had to endure that vomit tube running through their sleeve for a sketch or two.)
The concept of this sketch works well at first due to the extreme contrast between the middle-class church ladies (and their worldview) and the horrific vomiting. But when the sketch is repeated, nearly word-for-word, just in another setting, it's lost. It's gone. Surely these ladies could have done something new, something that wouldn't involve vomiting.
I really liked a lot of the shorter sketches, especially involving a stage hypnotist on a date ("Look into my eyes. Look into my eyes. The eyes. The eyes. Not around the eyes. Don't look around the eyes. Look into my eyes. You're under. In a moment the waiter will appear and when he does you will order from the set menu. Three courses, eight ninety five. You will not order the lobster. Three, two, one, you're back in the room.") But most of that was due to Matt Lucas' acting and the fact that it was, again, solidly-written sketch comedy with a lovely reversal punchline.
But overall I'm not sure. There's more but I'm tired and don't want to keep writing about it. I would like to hear some actual British impressions of the show, seeing as how I'm watching episodes from 2003 and 2005 without much knowledge of the third season. I've heard the show was embraced almost as a national treasure at some point, but honestly, with such repetition, I can't see it like that.
But I do know that with the concept and the way the strange and stereotypical characters are conceived, presented and portrayed, it doesn't seem like it'd be too hard to translate that part of the formula to other locales. But leave behind the derivative, repetitive part of the formula.