To any comedy nerd with a knowledge of bittorrents or a region free DVD player, the following British shows aren’t necessarily obscure. But they are obscurish. Most people don’t know about them and no one has tried to fashion an American re-make for all the supposed knuckle-draggers who can’t parse slight accents or understand slang from context. And no one’s really touched them for good reason. They are, for the most part, surreal, sad, abrasive and absurd to the point of severe comedic dissonance – the feeling you get in your head from watching psychedelic fast-paced nonsense like Stella or Xavier: Renegade Angel. These shows are great and some even feature well-known actors, but they themselves are only wellish-known, kinda recognized or quasi-prominent. Though you can find them all on Youtube now, so who really knows? This ain’t tape-trading in the ‘90s – welcome to the future…
Created by satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror ran for three hour-long episodes in December of last year. Essentially a horrifyingly neurotic look at technology, social networking and entertainment, each self-contained episode plays a quasi-believable game of extrapolation with current themes that are weaving their way through culture. For example, the first episode begins with the Prime Minister being wakened in the middle of the night. One of the Royals has been kidnapped, and the kidnapper demands that the PM has sex with a pig on national television and then gives a wide swath of technical specifications to assure it cannot be faked through digital manipulation. If the Prime Minister does not meet the demands, the kidnapper will murder the princess.
Black Mirror takes simple (strange, sometimes disgusting) premises like this and then spins out a believable story based on the logic of our society. What would really happen if the scenario above occurred? Would social networking make it impossible to keep it under wraps? Would there be any technological solution to find the kidnapper? What’s it like for a world leader to make love to a farm animal live on TV?
While it’s billed as a drama – and certainly nothing I’ve outlined above makes it sound like anything less – Black Mirror really plays out more like the blackest comedy that’s ever existed. Because it’s played so real, it’s truly horrifying, knowing that whatever decision the PM makes, his life from there on out will be ruined. But at the same time, one of his choices is to have sex with a pig, which is essentially a comedic idea. Black Mirror is a joke taken deadly seriously. John Lee, the co-creator of Xavier and Wonder Showzen, said the same thing about The Heart, She Holler. “Punchlines are basically horror stories. Often, the joke is something quite frightening.”
Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews co-created one of the greatest shows to ever exist: Father Ted, an absurd series about an Irish priest starring the late comedian Dermot Morgan in the title role. Adding to that, the two have incredible CVs, writing for Christopher Morris shows like Jam (see below) and Brass Eye as well as Dylan Moran’s Black Books. In terms of not-too-obscurish fare, Linehan created The IT Crowd, starring Richard Ayoade, the director of Submarine, and Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig’s love interest in Bridesmaids. In other words, their pedigrees are pure. They’re like comedic Aryans.
Big Train was a sketch show that ran for two series starting back in the late 1990s that the two created. Besides the fact that the writing was sharp and weird and above all silly, the show also starred a number of beloved actors including Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Star Trek, Mission Impossible: Spirit Procedure), Kevin Eldon (Hot Fuzz, Look Around You) and Mark Heap (Spaced, Jam – but not Space Jam).
If there’s a representative sketch, it’s the closer to the last episode of series one. Chairman Mao (Eldon) lays dying in bed. His wife lovingly sits by him and tells him to save his strength as he weakly sings Billy Joel and Rod Stewart songs. A moment later he dies. As the beginnings strains of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” play, he hops back to life, and in the Bryan Ferry role, joins a vaguely-looking Roxy Music band on a set that looks like the Top of the Pops to sing the song. What’s the joke? That Ferry maybe kind of sounds slightly Asian? Otherwise, it’s just oddly juxtaposed ideas executed brilliantly.
This is probably what makes a lot of British comedy so difficult to sell to a mass audience. The concept of almost any SNL sketch is easily explained (perhaps in a handy theme song) but what can you say about this one without having to just discuss the whole thing in its glorious, god-given absurdity?
Christopher Morris is a well known satirist in Britain. He created the satirical news shows The Day Today and Brass Eye (both of which Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan wrote for), the latter which is infamous for both its special on pedophilia and the fact that it often tricked real-life celebrities and politicians into supporting ridiculous ideas and causes. Morris also co-wrote and directed Four Lions, a slapstick, yet sympathetic, film about Islamist suicide bombers.
By the above, it’s obvious that Morris likes pushing buttons, not in a high-school-Green-Day-I’m-going-to-trash-the-world way, but in a way that genuinely gets at the heart of important issues by affecting a visceral reaction in his audience. And nothing is more visceral than Jam was. Ostensibly a sketch show – perhaps the first truly postmodern one – Jam was psychedelic insanity. Shot in a faux-documentary style, it featured constant background music, distorted audio, experimental visuals and was populated with cruel and insane characters.
What’s truly horrifying about Jam is that it often puts you in the mind’s eye of these characters. They abuse, murder and ruin people’s lives. But Morris, his co-writer Peter Baynham and the contributors are great writers, and they’re able to take what could just be shocking and actually find humor in it. Dark humor. Jam is a black fucking hole.
One of the difficulties in writing – TV or anything else narrative, British or American – is in writing characters that are both comedic and sympathetic or comedic and three-dimensional. The desire to write a joke often leaves characters that feel empty or the push to put the situation in sitcom contorts characters out of their recognizable personalities. Allow a show to go on too long, and you even start to reduce a character to their One Personality Trait. In Britain, where often the comedy is based on character flaws, it can be even worse. Instead of creating ignorable characters, you are often left with outright unlikeable, unsympathetic ones.
By all accounts, Psychoville, which is brimming with serial killers and cruel people, should be like this: unfunny and mean. But instead, it’s brilliant and sad and funny and weird all at the same time. Created by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton from The League of Gentlemen, the two play a majority of the characters (which has the potential to add another layer of unfunniness) which include a blind man who collects Beanie Babies, a sad clown with a hook hand, an insane woman who cares for a doll as if it were her baby, a man-child and his murderous mother, and a telekinetic little person. Some of the supporting cast are even more morally disgusting.
However, even in their delusions, all the characters are treated with at least a small amount of dignity. They’re allowed to feel sad and to be self-aware and are not there to necessarily be laughed at for their lunacy. While their insanity is essentially comedic, by playing it real and by giving the characters full lives, the humor comes organically out of the situation rather than being some broad joke at the expense of foolish sadsacks. (Which begs the question of creators who do that: why would you create flawed people just so you can mock them? What kind of god would do that?)
Created by Christopher Morris and Charlie Brooker, one might assume, based on the above, that Nathan Barley is the most abhorrent, horrid show in the history of television, a moral shitpit of negativity and the comedic equivalent of the demon in Event Horizon. However, the show itself is actually rather lighthearted and fun – dark, surely, but not too dark – and if any of the shows listed here could actually support an American remake, this would be it, as the subject – London hipsters – is easily translatable. Nathan Barley happens every day on the streets of Williamsburg.
The title character is the proprietor of trashbat.co.ck (registered in the Cook Islands specifically to get a domain name with “cock” in it), a website of pranks and internet memes. In the first episode, we’re introduced to Nathan riding a tiny bike, wearing two Bluetooth earpieces and slapping his website’s sticker on anything he can. Joe Mande’s Look at This Fucking Hipster is essentially the non-fiction book form of the show.
While at this point, bashing hipsters has become passé and easy, akin to making fun other sad, soulless wraiths like investment bankers and politicians, Nathan Barley grays it up by making Nathan somewhat sympathetic and by giving him foils in the form of magazine writer Dan Ashcroft (The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barrett) and Dan’s sister. While not as purely fun as Big Train, Nathan Barley is at least a reprieve from the procession of sadness above.
Lead Balloon is often described as the British Curb Your Enthusiasm due to its basic genetic makeup of awkward and embarrassing situations. However, where Larry David’s character is often right and sympathetic for being right (and is just someone who illustrates that he’s right in the worst possible way), Lead Balloon’s Rick Spleen (played by Jack Dee), a failed, third-tier comedian, is never right, continually lies and generally makes bad situations worse, completely though his own fault.
Earlier this year, Mark Maron had a comic named Matt Graham on his podcast WTF. Graham had written for Conan and SNL for a bit but has since become rather destitute. Through the interview, Graham showed himself to be thoroughly unlikeable and completely un-self-aware about his unlikeability, blaming basically everyone except his own personality for the fact that he never got any breaks in show business.
This is an extreme version of Rick Spleen. While softened by his supporting cast, some of which are used to actually make him look sympathetic, Spleen is opportunistic and moderately untalented, always looking for shortcuts to fame and bordering on the edge of pathological liar. Like Curb, Lead Balloon can be excruciating to watch, but…well, it’s excruciating to watch. Period. Excruciatingly enjoyable?