At six episodes apiece, the average season of a British comedy series requires the financial commitment of the typical mid-budget indie film, and as a result, they tend to exhibit some of the things you’d expect from one: close-knit troupes of performers and behind-the-scenes creative people, narrative experimentation and, perhaps most shockingly, decent jokes. Their short lifespan has also made them rapidly evolving wit machines, the hilarious bacteria of the British TV petri dish. Unlike U.S. comedy series, these shows find their voice, speak their piece and get off your television before you have a chance to change channels. Also unlike American sitcoms, they’re not forced to whore their mirth for the benefit of corporate sponsors.
Below is a quick, by-no-means-definitive guide to Britain’s post-Office comedy landscape, beginning with Nathan Barley—a show which stands out as the most obvious candidate for syndication on MTV since the cable channel once acquired the BBC’s 1982 off-campus-housing farce The Young Ones. (And it’s a testament to the network’s zeitgeist-fumbling irrelevance that today I can’t even imagine it appearing on the supposedly edgy MTV2.)
Nathan Barley: Piss artists, terrorism comedy and a taxonomy of hiptards
Currently available from U.K.-based web vendors on a universally compliant Region 0 DVD, Nathan Barley follows its titular character, a 20-something DJ, doltishly exuberant clothes pony and “self-facilitating media node.” Barley ruins the life of his involuntary mentor, Dan Ashcroft, a lost and bullshit-weary senior writer for an urban-lifestyle magazine. Ashcroft has just published a screaming jeremiad, “Rise of the Idiots,” targeting exactly the kind of fatuous hiptards (e.g., Barley) who immediately begin lauding his piece’s “awesome fuckin’ opinions.” Plagued by a pervasive distrust of the adult world, Dan lives trapped in a mid-gentrification Never-Never Land surrounded by his idiot fan base, whom he labels, to their rapt adulation, “self-regarding consumer slaves, oblivious to the paradox of their uniform individuality.” And worse still, as he proceeds on his six-episode descent into hipster hell, Dan Ashcroft becomes increasingly afraid that he might be one of them.
Finally, we have the first sustained critique of youth culture’s devolution into Kevlar post-irony, and, as a bonus, we’re getting it as a hilarious new British sitcom. (Well, factually, it’s already been on DVD for a year.) Where Gawker’s “Blue States Lose” and Robert Lanham’s The Hipster Handbook have thus far provided merely a derisive taxonomy, Nathan Barley models entire ecosystems, comprehensive lifecycles of viral aesthetic trends.
It’s difficult to gauge exactly how America will react when it finally catches on to the existence of this 2005 series. Saddled here with self-satisfied, by-scenesters-for-scenesters fare like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or the online Williamsburg sitcom The Burg (entertainment whose bleakness falls closer to hipster Seinfeld than Swiftian saeva indignatio), the question becomes: is there even a stateside market for sight gags that involve a trust-fund baby wearing a neon-green T-shirt as a pair of pants? Are we ready to laugh at a cocksure twat like Nathan Barley referring to his jailbait pussy score as “technically a Polanski” while riding on a crowded bus? And, mind you, while speaking into a cell phone that folds out into twin mp3 decks?
Hopefully yes, but the initial response could easily be just as bad as Britain’s, where the show garnered only 5% of the available viewers for Channel 4’s Friday-night time slot. (The series ended with under 700,000 viewers by its final episode.) However, as The Sunday Times noted, Barley “more than made up for disappointing ratings with its disproportionate social impact,” having, by series’ end, “garnered more column inches than the return of Doctor Who.” And now Channel 4 has green-lit a second season, tentatively due to air sometime in 2008. “Shooting won’t happen till we’ve completed the scripts,” series co-creator Christopher Morris told me via e-mail, “and we’re working on those around more immediate projects.”
Part of this newfound interest can undoubtedly be attributed to Barley’s generally high quality and its ubiquitous presence on YouTube. The deciding factor for Channel 4’s decision to pursue a second series, however, may have been increased international sales due to the ingenious release of Barley as a Region 0 DVD. When I asked Morris if the station had expressed any piracy concerns over the region-free encoding, the kind of wonderfully forward-thinking journalistic maneuver that could easily get aerosolized into an entire puff piece for Wired, he hazily recalled, “There may have been a stifled bleat.”
It’s a blithe response typical of his casually avant-garde approach to comedy. Routinely described in the British press as a “media terrorist,” Morris began his career in radio, where he repeatedly courted unemployment by conducting pranks (including two fabricated items on the deaths of Top of the Pops host Jimmy Savile and Conservative MP Michael Heseltine) with a War of the Worlds-level verisimilitude. A critically acclaimed TV and radio news satirist throughout the 90s, Morris disappeared for four years prior to Barley, after broadcasting a beyond-controversial satire about “pedophile hysteria” and the salacious current-affairs television feeding it. (“This man is having sex with a 10-year-old girl. In our reconstruction, she’s played by a 25-year-old woman. The breasts are inaccurate.”) Anticipating the furor over the “Paedogeddon!” special, Morris scheduled a holiday in France with his wife and two children coinciding with its 2001 airdate. When news of his involvement with Nathan Barley surfaced, media attention focused on the fact that the comedian the Daily Mail had once called “the most loathed man on TV” was returning with what was ostensibly a conventional sitcom.
As a character, Nathan was originally conceived as the subject of a nonexistent documentary series entitled Cunt, a show that enjoyed recurring capsule reviews at TVGoHome.com, a web-based parody of the Radio Times magazine’s TV listings. (Got all that?) It had been devised and written by the London Guardian’s media critic Charlie Brooker, who explains that the notion of adapting the character for a sitcom occurred when he first met Morris “through mutual friends at a dinner party, which is very bloody middle-class.” After three years of writing about the imaginary Nathan Barley on TVGoHome, Brooker recalls, “[He had] expanded to cover virtually any stripe of modern poseur I could think of. There were lots of different ways you could ‘do’ Nathan. You could easily turn him into a detached Patrick Bateman type, for instance—but the wide-eyed, barging, try-too-hard, insecure-but-over-pleased arsehead was the funniest way to go.” As a script consultant, Morris enlisted the aid of a long-standing writing partner, Peter Baynham, today the Academy Award-nominated co-screenwriter of Borat. He’s someone who “talks as if sticking to the point is pure evil,” according to Morris. Stephen Merchant, co-creator of Extras and The Office, also contributed notes on the material.
Though deflating the pretensions of “an imaginary cocksure twat was satisfying,” Brooker admits that for the early TVGH listings, “the main joke was always the insane degree of anger blasted in Barley’s direction.” (For instance, an average synopsis reports, “Barley […] visits a loud, overpriced South London bar to share wood-fired pizza and smug conversation with an equally vile companion.”) “Re-reading the very first Barley listings,” he says, “it’s really just me getting annoyed at the very notion of upper-middle-class kids slumming it.”
This dangerous roman à clef aspect, which lead some to incorrectly view Dan Ashcroft as a composite of Brooker and Morris themselves, is rumored to have almost cost the show its second season. Still, it’s not hard to see dozens of obvious real-world analogues in Barley’s cast of characters. The series includes a great joke on the logical extremes to celebrity portraiture necessitated by the likes of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Terry Richardson and David LaChapelle. (All three combine in the form of media darling 15Peter20, whose “truly vulnerable” photographs depict celebrities like David Bowie and Kylie Minogue urinating in public.) The show fashions giddily insulting caricatures out of Dazed & Confused cofounder Jefferson Hack and ex-Eurythmic David Stewart, parodies the art-damaged narcissists who star in Burning Angel-style alt-porn and gleefully lampoons radical-chic graffiti bombers like Banksy and the Adbusters’ Culture Jammers. “Incidentally,” Brooker adds, “the Sugar Ape ‘Vice’ issue from Episode 5 wasn’t an assault on Vice magazine—I think it just (understandably) ended up looking that way.”
Perhaps even more so than the piss-poor timeslot, wounding the pride of London’s style-mag tastemakers may have been the deciding factor in the show’s poor ratings and relative anonymity. Early in its run, the series was panned for the Times of London by Neil Boorman, a former editor for the Shoreditch-based Sleazenation. While publicly acknowledging his hopes for Nathan Barley’s success—particularly after the failure of his similarly themed reality pilot Shoreditch Twat TV—Boorman pronounced it “five years late and woefully out of touch.” He might have had a case if the show was meant merely as a play on the (circle one) ür-trendy/so-over Hoxton and Shoreditch districts in northeast London and not something more accessible. As Morris and Brooker emphatically told the press, Hosegate—the fictitious London district of Nathan Barley—could easily have been any place of its kind: Echo Park or Silver Lake in L.A.; Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin; Shibuya in Tokyo; Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; or, of course, Williamsburg.
And Vice itself, unable to risk either popularizing or ignoring the series (ctrl+f “Nathan Barley” at their U.K. message boards to see what I mean), published an utterly inscrutable capsule review that seems to employ all seven types of Empsonian ambiguity in just four sentences:
Anybody who’s a target of this show either pretends they haven’t seen it or they think it’s boring. Truth is, it’s fucking funny. There’s even a nod to Vice on here, which is not surprising because we’re Charlie Booker’s [sic] favourite magazine. When he’s not propping his half-formed “extreme VIZ” shtick up with Chris Morris’ genius he sits on the bog crying and wanking off at how much funnier/popular we are than him, the fucking miserable cunt who never gets laid.
Suffering my attempts to parse the review’s layers of meaning (the use of the show’s protagonist as a pseudonym, the crypto-deferential “cunt” insult, etc.), Brooker concluded it was “sort of handshake and head-butt” but decided to “assume it’s positive, just for the hell of it.” He remains remarkably convivial about the magazine. “We looked at some copies of Vice when developing Nathan and co., and despite expecting to hate it, I found bits of it hilarious. Intentionally, I mean. Some of the writing had a gleefully obnoxious, Jackass-y quality to it.”
Early critics of the series would seem to have been proved wrong by the show’s ever-increasing cult following and rumors of a second series, which Morris personally confirmed this past March during a rare speaking engagement at Bournemouth University. He told the largely student audience that he was working “seven days a week” on writing the second series of Nathan Barley and that shooting would follow work on a larger project that reportedly “would take him back to his current-affairs roots.” (It is allegedly either a spoof of United 93 or a comedy about suicide bombers in London.) He also told Bournemouth that series two of Nathan Barley would feature a largely new cast and explore significantly different situations.
When I pried for season-two news last December, Morris responded with the cryptic e-mail missive, “Nathan has a brother.” Turns out he was being quite literal. Nathan does, indeed, have a sibling, Jason Barley, who will be featured prominently in the upcoming season.
I’m sorry. I’m still too busy fantasizing about a comedy version of United 93 (one that manages to dissect Airplane!-like film parodies and our increasingly surreal War on Terror) to offer a coherent ending to this piece. Just consider buying season one of Nathan Barley now, before the dollar-to-pound exchange rate gets any worse.
Time Trumpet: Faux-nostalgia and rampant ape-raping
55.9% indecipherable to American viewers, Time Trumpet is admittedly most noteworthy for its conceptual brilliance and clockwork execution. (Though experts tell me that the numerous jokes hinging on impenetrable Anglo-centric minutiae are, in fact, quite funny.)
Ostensibly a somber BBC Two nostalgia program produced in the year 2031 and reflecting on life in the early twenty-first century, Time Trumpet operates as a satirical extrapolation of foreboding current affairs, pop-culture trends and, most effectively, VH1-style fundits. “Devised and directed” by Armando Iannucci, the writer/producer/comedian, one-time visiting professor at Oxford, regular Guardian columnist and arguably the reigning godfather of British comedy, the series melds viral-video editing of found footage, expensive CGI effects, actors playing elderly versions of contemporary celebrities and dimwitted color commentators, as played by obscure British comics, into a dense, artificial clip-show format.
Though not the first mockumentary of its kind by Iannucci, who has previously produced two stand-alone specials from the future (Clinton: His Struggle With Dirt and 2004: The Stupid Version), Time Trumpet is by far his most fully realized. The unknown actors playing today’s notables do an exceptional job pre-creating their characters’ actions two decades hence. Joint U.S. presidents Venus and Serena Williams confuse the name of Labour Party politician Jack Straw with some kind of “gay slang.” And an “increasingly odd,” elderly Tom Cruise engages his interviewer in brilliantly scripted alpha male ramblings. (“Pound for pound, I am the strongest man on this planet. Feel my bicep. Hey! Don’t touch me, or I’ll break your fucking neck! [laughs] And I won’t even have to touch you to do it!”)
Time Trumpet’s overall look comes courtesy of Iannucci’s longtime collaborators at Framestore Design, who also did work for Nathan Barley. The futuristic series achieves a chilling level of credibility, imbuing its darker segments (including several vignettes from the War on Terror) with an unsettling majesty. The show’s hands-down best executed, most hilarious SFX set piece is news footage of a 2013 paramilitary invasion of Denmark by Tesco, the third largest grocery retailer in the world. Copenhagen is demolished by the chain’s corporate attack helicopters and what look like machine-gun-mounted AT-ST walkers.
If there’s a purpose to the series (apart from, you know, jokes), it’s to offer a grave warning about cultural commentary’s increased commoditization in the age of user-generated-content websites and hypertrophied media spectacle. Nothing brings this point home more than one sound bite by Richard Ayoade, who puts on the same foppish buffoonery in Time Trumpet that made his appearances in Nathan Barley so memorable. Discussing the moral implications of Rape a Celebrity Ape (a spin-off of the BBC’s 2010 hit reality series Rape an Ape; this time the ape is now actually a famous person in costume), Ayoade asks himself, “When someone like [retired BBC weatherman] Michael Fish dies of anal trauma in a hospital ward, you do think, ‘As good as that was…should I be watching this?’” To which he immediately interjects, “I mean, yes, because I have to take the pulse of the nation.”
The Thick of It (killed stateside by the Geico caveman)
Nothing captures what makes watching Armando Iannucci’s incredible backroom political satire The Thick of It so terrifying more than the “zeitgeist tapes,” the show’s fictitious weekly pop-culture digest for the prime minister as put together by his New Labour Party handlers. “EastEnders highlights, choice bits from reality shows, ten-second music videos,” all culled together to help the PM appear “clued-up” under the direction of his chief media fixer, Malcolm Tucker (Scottish actor Peter Capaldi doing an obscenity-laced caricature of Tony Blair’s influential director of communications, Alastair Campbell). It’s the ultimate pop-culture CliffsNotes for a blissfully naive head of state.
The concept undoubtedly shares its origins with the show’s earliest inspiration: an incident in 1996 between Tony Blair’s then-imagemaker, Peter “Prince of Darkness” Mandelson, and Iannucci himself, who by then had already co-created and produced Chris Morris’ TV-news spoof The Day Today and its pair of spin-off series about the life of deluded sportscaster Alan Partridge. Invited to a Labour Party conference in Blackpool for a staged comedic “interview” between Partridge and Tony Blair, Iannucci and Steve Coogan (who plays Partridge) were greeted by an absolutely furious Mandelson. As Iannucci told The New York Times years later, “[Mandelson] had to be taken to one side and explained that Alan Partridge was a fictional character played by Steve. On the one hand, they tried to demonstrate this finger on the pulse of popular culture by knowing Alan Partridge was the one to be seen with. On the other hand, they demonstrated how little they know of popular culture by not realizing that it was a fictional character. That’s when I started thinking, ‘Something is very odd about British politics right now.’”
Intent on making a political sitcom whose attention to detail, partially improvisational dialogue and vérité camera work would leave audiences thinking, “That’s what it must be like,” Iannucci began quietly discussing ideas with journalists and public officials. The cast and writers had discreet lunches with anonymous Whitehall sources who would tell them horrifyingly absurd anecdotes. Jesse Armstrong, of Peep Show and Smack the Pony, was brought onboard, a comedian who worked for a Labour Party MP and a member of the shadow Home Affairs team before becoming a full-time writer in 1997. Martin Sixsmith (a seasoned foreign correspondent for the BBC who has more recently held the positions of press secretary and director of communications for New Labour’s Department of Social Security) joined the production as a reality consultant. And to drive the series even closer to home, many of the needed exterior shots were filmed on location. (While filming the Christmas special, Peter Capaldi bumped into former Conservative prime minister John Major on the street, with whom he interacted in character. The shot went unused, however, as no release was signed.) Recombinant critical superlatives have drafted the show as The West Wing meets Yes Minister and The Office meets Yes Minister (Yes Minister being a much-praised 1980s U.K. political sitcom). However, Armando Iannucci has personally weighed in that The Thick of It more correctly resembles Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders. It’s fitting, then, that before it all fell apart, Richard Day (co-executive producer of The Larry Sanders Show) had been enlisted to give the series its requisite American remake, with Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz producing and Christopher Guest directing the pilot for ABC’s fall 2007 lineup. However, seemingly afraid of looking both incompetent and unscrupulous as the second major U.S. network to scalp a British comedy, ABC unfortunately opted to appear merely incompetent by picking up Cavemen, a sitcom based on Geico’s popular series of auto insurance commercials, instead.
Smooth, ABC. If only you were still running Dinosaurs, you could broadcast them back-to-back for “an hour of hilariously primitive comedy!”
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (or, why Stephen King has no sense of humor)
Not since Wet Hot American Summer has a group of comedians produced so accurate a parody of such a thoroughly extraneous 1980s subgenre. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (a smirking cousin of George A. Romero’s Tales From the Darkside or, for that matter, ABC’s similarly themed, James Coburn-narrated flop, Darkroom) positions itself as the no-budget vanity project of fictitious horror novelist Garth Marenghi, a suspiciously prolific, genre-fiction peddler in the Clive Barker/Stephen King mold.
As Marenghi explains in one of his retrospective introductions for the series, Darkplace actually never succeeded in getting airtime back in the 1980s because it was too radical for Channel 4 executives. (It did, however, enjoy “a brief run in Peru.”) It’s seeing release today, twenty years later and in the midst of “the worst artistic drought in broadcast history,” remastered and interspersed with supplemental cast interviews that an exasperated Marenghi has personally “spent over three hours of [his] life knocking together.” Tellingly outfitted in the Coke-bottle aviators and leather-jacket-with-shirt-and-tie ensemble that typified young Stephen King’s “rebel author” aesthetic, Marenghi writes, directs and stars in the series as Rick Dagless, M.D., the maverick head doctor of Darkplace Hospital, a reformed warlock who’s renounced the occult and is inexplicably a veteran of both the Vietnam War and the invasion of the Falkland Islands.
Much as the former members of MTV’s The State fashioned a pitch-perfect re-creation of Meatballs-era summer-camp pictures with Wet Hot, Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade (who, like Barratt and Fielding of The Mighty Boosh, first developed the Marenghi character as a stage act) have crafted the ultimate, needlessly faithful mish-mash of 80s medical drama and B horror movie. Imagine it as the supernatural meta-soap Twin Peaks, with Christopher Guest at the helm instead of David Lynch. The show features an Ed Wood-worthy combination of gravitas and incompetence: stilted acting, miniature exteriors, moody, ambient scoring courtesy of a Casio keyboard and gory-yet-laughable special effects from that era when every demonic monster was an evil, Vaseline-covered Muppet. Most impressive of all is the show’s bravura-comic credit sequence, which manages to check off every regrettable period cliché, from the potboiler typewriter openings of Murder, She Wrote and X-Files precursor Kolchak: The Night Stalker, to the ensemble-cast montages of St. Elsewhere, Airwolf and The A-Team—with an absurdly fast Twilight Zone homage in between.
What really elevates the show to the level of genius, however, is the improbably coincidental premiere of Stephen King’s ABC miniseries Kingdom Hospital directly on the heels of Darkplace’s final episode. Set perfunctorily in King’s home state of Maine, Kingdom unintentionally appears to do everything in its power to validate Holness and Ayoade’s comic ingenuity. Few satires have had the benefit of such a prominent figure pompously and ineptly attempting to pass off material identical to their parody as serious entertainment. Of the available historical precursors, the only comparable instance would be the concurrent production of Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove and Sidney Lumet’s identically themed, straight-faced political thriller, Fail-Safe.
Like Darkplace Hospital, ABC’s Kingdom Hospital resides over an unpleasant reservoir of paranormal energy. In Holness and Ayoade’s farce, it’s simply the gates of hell; in King’s earnest thriller, it’s a Civil War-era military-uniform manufacturer that was using child slave labor before it (and its innocent occupants) burned to the ground. Both series cover similar thematic territory: sensitive women characters with telekinesis and/or telepathy, military experiments, occult jibba-jabba. And both series display the inept narcissism of their creators with the inclusion of thinly veiled, autobiographical elements. (As New York Magazine commented on Kingdom, “Obviously, […] King is still working through his own [medical] accident of several years ago.”) However, to be fair, there are some major differences. Of the two series, only Kingdom Hospital features a giant spectral anteater serving in place of the Egyptian death spirit Anubis—an anteater with terrifying sharp teeth. So long as he can produce these visionary nightmares, our own Stephen King will remain the indisputably awful “master of horror,” and that’s something the limeys can never take away from us.