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October 27th, 2006

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02:30 pm
DAFFYD: Okay, if you're so gay, who was the gay character in Are You Being Served?
ENTIRE PUB: Mr. Humphries!
DAFFYD: ...was it?!
DAFFYD: Well that's very subtle then. I always thought it was Captain Peacock. He's the one with the moustache.
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.

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.

(9 comments | Leave a comment)


(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:October 27th, 2006 07:45 pm (UTC)
Haven't seen it turn up yet in my usual haunts. Worth a look, is it?
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:October 27th, 2006 08:48 pm (UTC)
Oh yes! I second this.
[User Picture]
Date:October 27th, 2006 08:53 pm (UTC)
Well then! I'll have to put it on my To Do list, right under Black Books and Doctor Who Splashy Splashy Sexy Sexy (er, I mean, Torchwood.)
Date:October 27th, 2006 08:08 pm (UTC)
The idea isn't that the punchline is funny, really, I think - the whole point is that the setup is different each time, at least for the bulk of the jokes. The more elaborate or wild the set-up is, the more of a laugh of relieved recognition at the inevitable punchline. If you want to assign blame, you can blame The Fast Show - that's what started the whole trend of repetitive-sketch-shows in the UK.

I think it's a really hit-and-miss show too. I like some of the sketches - mostly, it has to be said, the ones which aren't single-joke sketches - but others bore me. Still, there's some sneakiness involved even then - at least twice I can think of, a repetitive single-joke sketch has mutated into having a plot arc over several episodes.

But the vomiting women are just boring.
[User Picture]
Date:October 27th, 2006 09:40 pm (UTC)
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.

Sounds like a gross-out variant of one of the best pieces of satire ever done on "Kids in the Hall", in which a political candidate judges a jam-making contest at a campaign stop and ruins his career by choosing the child molester's jam.
[User Picture]
Date:October 27th, 2006 11:55 pm (UTC)
Have you gotten to the episodes with the grotesquely obese nude women (nasty latex bodysuits) at the spa? It makes the vomiting crones seem clever.

I loved the first two, three episodes, and then I agree, it genuinely wore out its welcome.

I did (cringily) like the horrid Weight Watchers instructor who refused to understand a single word that the Indian (maybe she was Pakistani- it's been a while) woman (quite plainly) said. But that's only because I worked for a woman like that once. And I loved that they dragged dear old Molly Sugden out of her crypt, just for a mean punchline in the recurring "I was Molly Sugden's maid of honor" Chinese restaurant sketch.

But, eventually: ehh.

As much as like Kath and Kim, I love the opening credits most of all.
[User Picture]
Date:October 28th, 2006 08:13 am (UTC)
I liked the first two season of Little Britian but the third season was tiring for me. There are two new-ish sketch comedy show in the UK, The Catherine Tate Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look that are pretty funny. The Catherine Tate Show is more character acting and That Mitchell and Webb Look is more punny for a lack of a better discription.
[User Picture]
Date:October 28th, 2006 02:39 pm (UTC)


yeah, some of the things did get repetitive and tired at some point.

but even some of the things that do still get tiring still make you laugh.

daffyd: i'm the only gay in the village. (i'll have another bacardi and coke, myfanwy.)

vicki: yeahbutnobut

andy: yeah i know.

emily howard: but i'm a LADY!

*bacardi and coke is all us homosexuals drink, you know. the inability to obtain bacardi in these parts makes the baby robert cry. captain morgan is crap, and red heart is almost as bad as that shit rum from martinique that someone tried to poison me with in senegal. bacardi. havana club. barceló. mmmm.


as pointed out, the whole show makes fun of the people found in britain. the woman that throws up? it has many people in the home counties (hell, in some of the cities too) sewn up. (that said, living in south africa after living in britain, i never thought i would miss *british* xenophobia.) people recognise exactly what type of people are being mocked.

that said, the first time i saw it, i was reminded of a sketch on "goodness gracious me" when meera syal is on a tour of england for the first time and is telling her friends back in "india" about this backward place called surrey, where she didn't think the natives had ever seen a brown face before.
[User Picture]
Date:October 30th, 2006 09:32 am (UTC)


coming back to comment on this because I've been reminded about my comedy snobbery.

I found bits and pieces of LB funny the first time, but I don't think I watched any of the second or third series, on the grounds, that, uh, bored now.
Without wanting to be too much of a snob...oh, hey, who am I kidding; lowest common denominator.
What proved 'popular' with LB was the vomiting and the catchprases. that's what got plastered onto lunchboxes, that's what people bought as the ring tones for their phones, that's what got made into the 'comedy' cookie jars that make a noise when you open them. LCD.

Just thinking this because I went to see michell and webb last night, and came away with kinda mixed feelings. These guys can honestly make me laugh until I have to pee - until my ribs are sore and I actually want it to stop - but they only really managed it once this show. They moved from radio to TV, and all of a sudden, there was the LCD. There were sketches repeated ad nauseum apparently purely because they have "catchphrases".
I noticed a real divide in the audience too; the couple sat next to Ben and I laughed almost exactly at all the things we didn't laugh at, and were in stony silence at everything that had us peeing with laughter. Swearwords and catchphrases made them squeal, while the slightly more complex sketches left them actually whispering to each other "I don't get it."

The story arc of the sketch show was held together by the two extras, who would "sneak" on stage during costume changes, and try to show us cringeworthy extracts from their own double act, getting increasingly pissed off at being given less and less time, and having a poorer and poorer audience reaction. Most of their act involved repeating catchphrases, which, obviously, without the sketches were utterly meaningless - it was a really, really clever jab at the sort of comedy they've ended up making.
Yet, in the interval, I overhear two guys having a conversation:
"...but those other two are shit. What are they doing in the show?"
"Yeah, I've never heard of them. what's all that 'reverse haddock' stuff?"
"They're really ruining it. they're shit."

It made me want to scream.

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