The New Golden Age of British TV Comedy

Although most of these British TV comedies ended their runs long ago, America is not only catching up on these classics but also learning from them (and, in less subtle ways, outright stealing from them).

“I’m a quitter. I come from a long line of quitters. It’s amazing I’m here at all.”

— Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), Black Books

Every once in awhile, Britain rules over America.

In the mid-’60s, the Beatles stormed the States, leaving nothing but hit singles and classic albums in their wake, with dozens upon dozens of like-minded UK acts soon making inroads following the Fab Four’s success. From 1969 to 1974, Monty Python’s Flying Circus delivered a brand of surrealistic, absurd humor that was so utterly original that no American show has yet to even come close to touching it (the only arguable exception being the gloriously non-PC David Cross/Bob Odenkirk program Mr. Show, which ran in relative obscurity from 1995-1998).

Today, however, there is a small but noticeable sea change happening among the US populace: Americans are gradually discovering what can only be described as “the New Golden Age” of British television comedy: a turn-of-the-millennium phenomenon in which the UK delivered one groundbreaking, innovative comedy show after another. Although most of these series ended their runs long ago, America is not only catching up on these classics but also learning from them (and, in less subtle ways, outright stealing from them).

For a US audience in the ’90s, most (if not all) British television was delivered via countless PBS stations across the country, these local outlets often throwing on random episodes of Red Dwarf or Monty Python during late-night weekend lineups, sometimes with a classic Doctor Who episode thrown in for good measure. Though shows like Mystery would gladly display the latest chapter of Poirot or Prime Suspect, the selection of comedy programs was mighty slim.

More often than not, the average viewer would get to see some formulaic comedy like Are You Being Served? or Keeping Up Appearances, and it was through these somewhat haphazard selections that one would typecast most if not all British television as running in that same vein (the only exception being the Monty Python clan, who kept up their profile with the occasional otherworldly feature film). Yet a small portion of Americans (mostly youth) wound up rallying behind profoundly unique shows like Red Dwarf and Blackadder, all while the then-generous VHS market allowed you to order most if not all seasons of these shows’ seasons at once. Slowly but surely, this combination of heavy re-runs and mass market video cassette releasing began quietly narrowing the Atlantic-sized cultural gap between the United States and England.

Yet right before the turn of the millennium, a small but noticeable shift was occurring in British TV, and it was most certainly not being shown on BBC1. A small batch of unrelated shows began emerging that were written by and directed towards the youth of the British middle-class: shows about getting your first flat, having copious amounts of sex, and working painful, dead-end desk jobs.

Most of these shows started out small, but their influence wound up growing slowly over time, and it wasn’t long before they altered the television landscape forever. Though America would always be a few years behind, the increased availability of both DVDs and internet file swapping (hello there, Torchwood fans) have brought the gap down to zero, and now we can look and understand what was so innovative about these shows to begin with, and why, in some respects, they will never be topped, even as their influence ripples across all broadcast frequencies.

Brian: Do you think I should lose the shirt?

Tim: I think you should burn the shirt, because if you lose it, there’s a chance you might find it again. (Spaced)

To say that Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s Spaced kick-started this “New Golden Age” of British television comedy would be an absolute injustice to lesser-known, innovative shows like This Life and the inscrutable The Royle Family. Yet Spaced is a logical place to start, particularly from an American perspective, as, surprisingly, this was a show that wasn’t just acknowledging American pop culture: it was about American pop culture.

The show’s conceit revolved around two mid-20s nobodies: aspiring comic-book artist Tim (Pegg) and aspiring writer Daisy (Stevenson), both of whom are looking for a flat to live in, but the only deal they could find is a pad that is to house a “professional couple”. So, Tim and Daisy set up a ruse, and convince the perpetually-intoxicated landlady Marsha Kline (the excellent Julia Deakin) that, in fact, they are a couple.

Though the premise is somewhat flimsy, the show was relentless and innovative on multiple counts. First off, there was director Edgar Wright’s distinctive cinematic flair, featuring fantasy sequences, montages, delightful visual gags, animations, and more; all things that you could not get away with in a typical sitcom. Furthermore, due to the show’s movie-like quality, this left no room for a laugh track of any sort. The jokes all had to live and die by their own accord, as the audience would not be assisted by canned laughter.

This was a daring move for a comedy (yes, even for one that ran on Channel 4), but it paid off grandly: the jokes existed in their own universe, which, ironically, was actually the viewer’s universe. As it stands (laugh-track free), we fully believe that there’s a world in which Tim can take too much speed and think everyone around him is a zombie straight out of Resident Evil, or that there’s a transgendered performance artist named Vulva (Little Britain‘s David Williams) out there with mind-numbingly pretentious art pieces, or that Tim’s militant friend Mike (Nick Frost, in his first real screen role) actually stole a tank to invade Paris during an ill-fated trip with the Territorial Army.

The humor, though, rarely comes from base, broad comedy: Spaced was more than happy to make jokes about Tomb Raider, The Matrix, and The Phantom Menace (which gets riffed on multiple times during the second series). When Daisy arrives home in Series Two to find Mike living in her flat, she notices his sub-machine gun lying on the table, and her careful eyeing of the firearm — along with Mike’s emergence from the john — turns out to be a shot-by-shot reenactment from the second portion of Pulp Fiction in which John Travolta meets an untimely end.

Yes, these are clever in-jokes, but for a whole generation of youth that grew up with Buffy: the Vampire Slayer and Say Anything, these winks to pop culture are also nods of acknowledgement, going for obscure laughs while also saying “yeah, we enjoy it too and you’re not alone.” Though Spaced existed in its own universe, it is so heavily indebted to the culture of the real world that we, the audience, are suddenly able to make a leap of believability that most shows do not offer: these characters are not characters on TV — Tim and Daisy may very well live next door to you.

During one of the documentaries on the US Spaced DVD set (released this year), the question is posed to Pegg as to whether a US version of the show is possible, to which he notes that it isn’t: this was a show about British youth being effected by American pop culture, and to suddenly transplant that aesthetic to America — it just doesn’t make sense. Pegg, Wright, and Frost would, of course, go on to make the clever Shaun of the Dead and the deliciously over-the-top Hot Fuzz, but really, neither film derives much from the formula that was set up by Spaced from the get-go.

For a show that began airing in 1999, it’s utterly shocking how well most of these jokes hold up nearly a decade down the road, but that’s the mark of a great show to begin with. Though it’s still viewed almost exclusively as a “cult” TV show, it’s cultural savvy and kinetic film style remains absolutely unprecedented, Pegg & Stevenson mastering the art of the clever parody so well that they stopped riffing on pop culture a long time ago — largely because instead of making fun of the culture around them, they were, incidentally, adding to it.

“When people say to me: would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss? My answer’s always the same: to me, they’re not mutually exclusive.” — David Brent (Ricky Gervais), The Office

As outlandish a statement as it may be, The Office just might be the defining television show of the new millennium thus far. Its techniques have all been used before: the faux-documentary shooting style, the awkward silences, the absence of a laugh-track, etc. Yet there is something profoundly raw about this workplace comedy hatched by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant: it has an identifiable current that rings eerily true to our day-to-day lives, and the only reason why the show’s many awkward moments are so painful to watch is because we’ve all been in similar situations countless times before.

The concept is simple: at Wernam-Hogg, a paper merchant located in the nowhere-town of Slough, David Brent (Gervais) runs a small but tight ship in which he feels that being a “fun boss” is just as important as getting any actual work done. He’s assisted by his perpetually brown-nosing right-hand man Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), the weary yet witty Tim (Martin Freeman), and the worn down young secretary Dawn (Lucy Davis). Tim pines for Dawn, which is a problem because Dawn is already engaged to professional layabout Lee (Joel Beckett). With that, the basic plot is set, and over the course of 12 episodes and one Christmas special, television would never be the same.

Due to David Brent’s continual desire to impress his workers, there is a never-ending string of bad-jokes and poorly-timed moments of seriousness that his staff has to endure. At the start of the second series, the Slough branch takes on the competing (and failing) Swindon branch, causing an influx of new employees and a new boss named Neil (Patrick Baladi), who is everything Brent wants to be: funny, charming, and very, very good at his job.

Brent tries so hard to impress the new batch of employees that when his regular jokes don’t work, he resorts to a middling Basil Fawlty impression that is as forced as it is sad. Brent tries so hard to be liked that he often loses focus of what’s important (at one point going as far to tell the resident black employee that his two favorite actors are Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington). Furthermore, during a routine fire drill, Brent and Gareth help the new wheelchair bound employee down a flight of emergency stairs, but then leave her on a ledge half-way down because they actually would take her all the way downstairs if it were a “real” fire. The poor employee then stares at the camera looking for assistance, which only adds to the awkwardness of the moment.

Indeed, the biggest innovation that The Office brought was the breaking of the fourth wall, as the employees (most often Tim) wound up staring at/addressing the camera directly, fully conscious that there was a “documentary” being made of them at all times. During the staff training episode in which Brent gets his guitar to impress his employees, Tim passes by the camera to mention only that Brent actually went home to get it, soon singing his almost-hit “Freelove Freeway” to his perpetually indifferent staff.

Because the show so willingly acknowledges the presence of the handheld cameras strewn about, the realism is heightened to an almost painful degree, which works in favor of the show’s comedic and dramatic moments in equal measure. Hearing Brent crack a joke like “My parents owned a paper shop … until it blew away!” is bad as it is: the excruciating part is when you see an employee stare directly at the camera lens, unsure whether to feign laughter or stare ahead as if nothing was spoken at all. As bad as Brent’s humor is, seeing his words fall into a sea of deaf ears is about as wrenching a thing as you’re ever to see.

Yet the show’s emotional gravitas always came from the same source: Tim and Dawn’s perpetual quest for each other. Both are level-headed employees that can tolerate Brent’s humor up to a point, but they can tell that they’re meant for each other, which makes Dawn’s engagement to Lee all the more difficult.

The show is never a strictly linear documentary: it is often interspersed with interviews of staff members reflecting on certain events (like when Brent won a particular year’s trivia contest by arguing how much of a Vulcan Spock actually was on the original Star Trek, eventually going home to get a book that proved his point). Because the characters are talking directly to the camera in these closed settings, we get a glimpse of insight into their actions and feelings, a great example being how Brent’s perception of his popularity amongst his staff is far (far) more generous than it actually is.

During the series two finalé in which Dawn is preparing to leave for another job, Tim is talking to the camera, visibly upset by the change, not sure if he’s going to tell her his true feelings because when you roll the dice, you’re never sure if you’re going to get a low number or a high one, and then — abruptly — leaves the interview (the cameras frantically following him). Removing his mic, he asks Dawn the most important question of his life. Because Tim is conscious that a crew is watching, his simple gesture of removing the microphone heightens not only the drama of the event, but also the harsh reality of it, as if the stakes are so high and so real that to have this personal moment captured on film would ruin it: this is something he must do alone. Then, of course, we get Dawn’s answer…

The show was a sensation in the UK, and when Greg Daniels’ American remake (starring Steve Carell) finally hit the airwaves in 2005, it took some time before it finally gained traction with viewers; after all, there were already disastrous US imports done of Men Behaving Badly and Coupling, so NBC had to be patient with the show, the end result paying off grandly, the show becoming a cultural touchstone and spawning spinoff versions in half a dozen countries around the world.

For an American audience, the lack of a laugh track on a show of this stature was daring, but its payoff was inescapable, and it too slowly began working its way into the American landscape: sitcoms filmed in front of a live audience now seem passe, especially following the demise of institutions like Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends. Yet there was something wrong with the American Office from the get-go: it didn’t have an ending.

Gervais & Merchant frequently note that they ended the original program not because they were out of ideas, but because they had taken the characters as far as it could realistically go. Once the Tim-Dawn storyline reaches its conclusion in the Christmas special, well, there are few television sendoffs as dramatic as that one.

With the American version, the Jim-Pam mirror plotline has moved on: they’ve gotten together, and now there are seasons upon seasons to fill with all the dramatic tension of their matchup now erased. It places the show in an awkward position, so much so that there was even a bit of a backlash when the US version’s fourth season underperformed in terms of plotlines. When Gervais & Merchant set up the show’s template from the beginning, they had already perfected it, giving us just enough of the characters without overloading us, and it’s this restraint that, ultimately, makes it the best version out there.

Daring, Convention-breaking, and Un-PC

Black Books

Fran: Do you know nothing about modern culture, Bernard? Beckham? Posh? PokéMon?

Bernard: Pac-Man. It’s pronounced “Pac-Man”.

Black Books

In Julian Hall’s 2006 book The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy, Hall describes the unusual predicament of Dylan Moran’s Black Books quite succinctly:

“Bernard Black’s irreverence is matched by the casual treatment of sitcom rules. There is no straight man, no sustained love interest, no resolution or reason for events …”

All of which is absolutely true. Books was initially designed as Channel 4’s “follow-up” to Spaced, as it was edgy enough to capture that show’s same cult audience, even if it was “old-school” in both its format and setting: there was a live audience, laugh tracks during more “cinematic” sequences, and, yes, no rhyme or reason for a lot of what happened in the small bookstore that bares the show’s title.

The concept is simple: Bernard (Moran) is a wine-fed miser in his 30s who enjoys owning his own book shop but despises the customers. The shop adjacent to him is run by Fran (Tamsin Greig), a one-time fling who happens to be Bernard’s only friend in the world. One day, a distraught customer named Manny (Bill Bailey) asks for The Little Book of Calm, but accidentally swallows it. It dissolves in his stomach and, of course, this makes him a calmer, more enlightened being. His calm counterbalances Bernard’s perpetual state of misery, and he’s soon hired on, himself (and now with Fran) giving the show its simple three-character dynamic.

Yet the dynamic of Black Books is bizarre from the get-go, coming across almost as if Samuel Beckett wrote a sitcom. Yes, events happen (the massive book chain Goliath Books moves next door at the end of the second series, Fran loses her job, etc.), but nothing ever gets resolved. Yes, Manny meets a girl at the end of series three (eliminating all his bizarrely asexual whims), Bernard drinks all of the expensive wine at the place that he’s housesitting, and Fran realizes part-way through a blind date that the man she’s with is actually gay — but none of these things ever move anything forward.

Yet this is not like The Simpsons in which every new episode resets itself: the addition of Goliath Books and the like are happening, but the bookshop trio are practically unfazed by the presence of the ever-changing world around them. Though Bernard does mention his one-time fling with Fran, the possible romantic tension between them is not capitalized upon; in fact, it never even comes up. Even when we get to the final episode of the third series, there is no triumphant send-off or big event that transpires: it’s just another episode. Then the show ends. As a viewer, it’s maddening. From an absurdist standpoint, however, the lack of resolution makes perfect sense: it’s just like life itself.

Though Moran writes every episode himself, he sometimes gets an assist from Father Ted scribes Arthur Mathews and Graham Lineham. The show, therefore, is remarkably surreal at times, as during a time when Manny takes Bernard and Fran out to dinner with his parents (Moo-Ma and Moo-Pa), and, so reviled by their conversations (and Moo-Pa’s continual desire to sing “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo”), Bernard drops his fork to go under the table — which just so happens to contain a full-service bar (with bartender). Fran, at one point, is convinced her apartment is getting smaller, which – incidentally – is true, because the landlord can move the neighboring wall as much as he pleases.

There are also abundant sight gags, but really, the best comedy hinges from Bernard’s otherworldly one-liners. When Manny asks Bernard if he should wash his beard, Bernard simply replies “I think you should, yeah: you should wash your beard, then shave it off, nail it to a Frisbee, and fling it over a rainbow.” Though it appears to be a “typical” sitcom on the surface, Black Books grows stranger and more bizarre with each passing episode, each sitcom convention slowly turned on its head without batting an eye. It may lack a proper resolution, but it makes up for that in spades with its otherworldly substance.

Coupling, Extras, and Little Britain

“Now you’re blushing and you have an erection — no one’s got that much blood!” — Steve (Jack Davenport), Coupling

In the UK, you can mutter the names Susan, Steve, Jeff, Patrick, Sally, and Jane in a row and everybody will know what you’re talking about: Coupling, the show that is eternally cast as the British equivalent of Friends, when, in fact, people mean that it’s the far-raunchier version of the long-running US favorite. Created by future Doctor Who writing superstar Steven Moffat, Coupling started out as a quirky mingling of six 30-somethings trying to figure out their own complex relationships with each other, but over the course of time (and especially by the third series), it had become a bona fide British phenomenon and one of the juiciest US comedy imports.

No, it didn’t break any ground, but it didn’t need to: Moffat was frank with the show’s sexual politics, and the humor, though sometimes crude, was still character-based, and — despite the overriding prominence of Steve Taylor (Jack Davenport) — it was still an ensemble show through and through. Yet what made Coupling so special was simply the fact that it could speak so frankly about sex without the hands of censors descending on each and every episode (though you can imagine that a few things get left out during the US rebroadcasts). The show isn’t revolutionary by itself, but its up-beat attitude towards such a frequently-taboo subject is what ultimately elevated it above other sitcoms.

Yet in the wake of The Office, there was an unspoken pressure on British TV to be new and daring and innovative, a pressure which was felt most by the men who created the show to begin with. Gervais and Merchant followed their landmark show with Extras, a wry look at celebrity culture that expands on themes previously hinted at by The Office Christmas special (wherein Brent becomes a local celebrity and releases a god-awful single). As Andy Millman, Gervais plays a struggling actor looking for his break, his only friends being fellow film extra Maggie (newcomer Ashley Jensen) and his maddeningly clueless agent Darren Lamb (Merchant, stealing every scene he’s in).

Though the show is noted for its numerous high-profile guest stars (Ben Stiller, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McKellen, Kate Winslet, etc.), the actual core of Extras was always much more sincere: it was Gervais’ love-letter to classic British television. Long lost icons like Keith Chegwin and Ronnie Corbett wound up getting key scenes playing twisted versions of themselves, and top-notch talent like Stephen Fry and David Tennant were more than willing to skewer their public images just for the sake of the show. And, yes, Bowie’s “Pug Nose” song is hilarious and Chris Martin is delightfully condescending while filming a starving children PSA (“can they be holding copies of the album?”), but the show’s best bits weren’t from the big-name guest stars.

The best moments were the remarkably human bits of stupidity shared by Andy, Darren, and Maggie in every episode, like when Andy is torn between what amount of change to give a homeless begger, who then promptly returns it to him because he gave it to him so begrudgingly. Though actor’s egos and director’s pet projects are always given a nice riffing, Extras is still the logical extension of the awkward humor that made The Office so endearing to begin with.

Yet not even Gervais & Merchant could fill that gaping comedy hole left by The Office. Shortly following that show’s demise, Matt Lucas and David Williams stepped in with Little Britain, a menacingly twisted sketch comedy show wherein Lucas and Williams — through the aide of an incredible costume and makeup crew — managed to create dozens upon dozens of bizarre, strange, and profoundly memorable characters in each and every episode, ranging from the motormouthed teenage trainwreck Vicky Pollard (Lucas) to Eddie “Emily” Howard (Williams), the least convincing transvestite in the world. The show was appropriately madcap, with most sketches barely even touch the three-minute mark, yet each creation was so fundamentally British and outright demented that it was hard not to notice.

The sudden rise of Little Britain‘s in-your-face sketch comedy was remarkably unexpected and awfully quick, enough to inspire a critical backlash that hit upon the airing of the show’s third series. Furthermore, in a somewhat surprising innovation, Little Britain openly and readily trotted out characters that were gay (Daffyd Thomas, closeted PM-aide Sebastian Love) or transsexual (the aforementioned “Emily” Howard), and — most critically — these characters were not marginalized. Yes, they were taken for a few cheap laughs (like almost all of Williams & Lucas’ creations are), but there was still a strangely sad element to watching “Emily” walk around, convinced he was pulling off his gender deception. As side-splitting as the show was, there was an underlying sense of tragedy to the characters that only emerged in retrospect, making for a surprisingly compelling sketch comedy show.

America & Britain’s Future (TV) Community

Agent: Do you want to be on top of the B-list?

Andy: Yes, but not the hepatitis-B list. (Extras)

At the time of this writing, many things have happened with the aforementioned shows: there are numerous Office spin-offs around the world, there was already a disastrous attempt to bring Coupling over to America (only four episodes were ever broadcast), HBO is in the midst of launching the inexplicably-titled Little Britain USA, and an American version of Spaced is in the works, which, as Simon Pegg pointed out, completely defeats the purpose of the show.

Needless to say, this small-scale comedy revolution is making its presence known in America, and networks are doing what they know best: adapting or out-right licensing these shows without reservation. With BBC America running stronger than ever, more people are turning to the UK for comedic inspiration, which, really, is somewhat ironic given that the States are bandying about fantastically original shows like 30 Rock and Pushing Daisies. Currently, the networks are doing cost-saving yet talent-preserving moves by importing stars like Coupling‘s Jack Davenport for the controversial CBS show Swingtown and — after his uproarious Emmy appearance — possibly tapping Ricky Gervais to host this year’s Oscars largely due to the fact that he’ll be, ya know, actually funny. [Ed. Note: This year, Hugh Jackman will be hosting the event]

America can import as many shows and actors as it wants, but there’s one thing that it will never be able to fully capture about this New Golden Age of British television comedy, and that’s the sense of community and camaraderie that surrounds it. So many of the actors that appeared in these shows happily appeared in the shows of their friends, as if each team of writers/performers were ready to help out their friends just for the hell of it. Simon Pegg appears as Goliath Books manager Evan in Black Books, which also features appearances from the rest of the Spaced clan and even Tim and Dawn from The Office. Of course, Ricky Gervais appears in Spaced‘s penultimate episode, a series which also features a delightfully over-the-top performance by Little Britain‘s David Williams.

Most (if not all) of these regulars got bit parts in Edgar Wright’s dual Pegg features Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, including Peter Serafinowicz (best known as Pegg’s electro-hating roommate in Shaun), who went on to form his own viral-sensation program Look Around You, which, again, featured cameos from Pegg, Wright, and Stevenson. And, of course, you can find just about every actor in Britain cycled through Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who reboot at least once, though sometimes in surprising contexts (like when Jessica Stevenson appears in the two-part “Family of Blood” episode in Series Three, giving a remarkably powerful, understated performance that leaves her virtually unrecognizable from Spaced‘s Daisy Steiner).

Is there any actual purpose to this cross-promotional role swapping? Absolutely not, but the point is that there is no point: these performers are doing it just for the fun of it (unlike, say, when Cosmo Kramer made an appearance in Mad About You, which was as blatant a ratings pull as NBC had ever done). Yes, there are a few mouth-agape moments upon the realization that this person in this show appeared in that show (like Nick Frost as an unrecognizable caveman in the “Music” episode of Look Around You), but it’s more of a clever in-joke than anything else, a treat for the hardcore fans that had followed all of these shows from the beginning.

Yet these cameos have more meaning than just appearances: they are an acknowledgement amidst these rising new television performers they were all in the same boat, all heading for the same goal. This is why Simon Pegg has Dylan Moran playing his best friend in Run, Fatboy, Run and why Bill Bailey takes dual roles in Hot Fuzz: they’re all a part of the same team. This New Golden Age of British Television — as daring, convention-breaking, and un-PC as it is — is in remarkable high spirits, and as each career takes off for these young stars, they will never forget where they came from. This is something that you rarely, rarely see in American television, making this New Golden Age all the more unique and all the more genuinely British in nature.

Perhaps, indeed, Britain will rule America, again.