In this weekly column, I’ll introduce you to the world of British comedy in the chronology of how I, an American anglophile, discovered it in my life. This week: High Spirits With Shirley Ghostman.
I am an absolute junkie for shitty paranormal reality shows. As a kid, I obsessed over any program that offered even a whiff of “real” occult incidents. I particularly remember watching Maury Povich or some other day-time chat show host interviewing a, “haunted” family from Connecticut (where I grew up!), who had demons tormenting them day and night. If it could happen to them, it could happen to me!
Ghosts fascinated me. Tarot, Ouija, automatic writing…I did all that stuff as a kid, just so I could ask departed souls important questions like, “Will I ever have sex?” and, “Will you help me get a SEGA Master System?”
As I got older, I realized just how crap these shows were and how fake their so-called psychics were. But I kept watching…ironically, of course. The modern wave of Ghosthunting and Psychic Medium programs are so ludicrous, it’s almost difficult to parody them. I mean, you’d have to go pretty big to out-flamboy someone like Chip Coffey. (Chip, if you’re reading this, no offense…I’m a big fan, for realz.) Could a parody of these already unintentionally hilarious shows work?
Enter, High Spirits With Shirley Ghostman. An impossibly over-the-top send up of all things psychic. Premiering on BBC 3 in 2005 (though I first saw it on BBC America in 2006), High Spirits enjoyed a popular, 8 episode run.
The show followed the exploits of the titular Shirley Ghostman (and his ghost-dog Sheba), a phony psychic medium primarily concerned with famous dead people. A kind of spiritual star-fucker who, much like Ali G, worked his comedy on unsuspecting live audiences who believed they were indeed there to see a genuine ghost-whisperer.
Shirley gets it wrong with a couple:
In one of my favorite bits from any show ever, Shirley “channels” the dead spirit of Colonel Sanders:
Played by the very funny, Marc Wooten, High Spirits shared comedy DNA with The Ali G Show in the sense that Wooten, much like Sacha Baron Cohen, played multiple characters, pranking audiences and “experts” alike.
Shirley, “reads objects”:
Shirley’s apprentice, Ian Jackson:
The show did quite well and was slated for a second season on BBC 2, but an unfortunate talk show appearance with Wooten, where he made several off-color jokes, turned the BBC against him and ended High Spirits after just one hilarious season.
Luckily, the character (and Wooten) are back with the new series La La Land, which I also recommend checking out.
I leave you with another of my favorite clips from the show. After a row with his familiar, the ghost-dog Sheba, Shirley has lost his psychic powers. Here, he tries to soldier on anyway…
Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m scrolling through my DVR and I see that I have 4 episodes of Paranormal State and Psychic Kids to watch. Ironically, of course.
Curtis Gwinn is a writer and comedian living in LA. He’s written for The Onion, MTV’s Human Giant, Comedy Central and FOX Searchlight Pictures. He also co-starred in and co-wrote Fat Guy Stuck in Internet on Adult Swim.