Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Appreciating British Humour...Quite!

I've been living it up in London practically since school ended with ND's London Summer Programme. I came here 10 years ago with my family, but the only thing I remember is spending my days searching for places to sleep...whether that be posh hotel lobbies or sunny park benches. Needless to say, I'm enjoying the 2nd most expensive city in the world (after Moscow according to one source) a lot more this time around.

Our classroom building--besides being around the corner from Trafalgar Square--is in the heart of the theater district, and as I walked to class this morning, I noticed excitedly that Noël Coward's play, "Brief Encounter," was showing at one of the theaters. I am completely obsessed with British humor...probably the only American humor that can compare is that of "The Office," which is my other obsession. (For some reason, my Romanian parents nursed my brother and me on shows like "Fawlty Towers" and "Keeping Up Appearances" instead of SNL and other late night American comedy shows.)

As I was musing over dinner about how I'd get tickets without paying an arm and a leg, I remembered that my friend had somehow gotten tickets to see Stephen Fry live on June 11! For those of you who don't know who he is--poor unfortunate souls!--Fry is the erudite and lovable valet Jeeves to Hugh Laurie's incredibly idiotic yet hilarious Bertie Wooster in the British TV series "Jeeves and Wooster" (based on P.G. Wodehouse's novels).

All this babbling brings me to my point: everyone, at some point in their lives, must be exposed to the humor of the Brits. It is deliciously dry, and for the most part, not quite as coarse as ours. With the exception of Monty Python, I've met only a handful of people who have benefited from the brilliance of British comedy. So, I've compiled a list of some must-sees (and must-reads!) below [summaries courtesy of the ever-useful imdb.com and BBC website]:
  • Fawlty Towers: Justifiably voted number one in the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in 2000, "Fawlty Towers" is a jewel in the BBC's comedy crown--albeit running for a mere 12 episodes. The show was famously inspired by a seethingly rude hotel proprietor John Cleese encountered whilst away filming with the Monty Python team. Inept and manic English hotel owner and manager, Basil Fawlty (Cleese), isn't cut out for his job. He's intolerant, rude and paranoid. All hell frequently breaks loose as Basil tries to run the hotel, constantly under verbal (and sometime physical) attack from his unhelpful wife Sybil, and hindered by the incompetent, but easy target, Manuel; their Spanish waiter. Fortunately he has an intelligent and attractive maid, Polly, to help him out of the various situations he gets into. Basil was the perfect vehicle for Cleese's unbelievable comic talents: mixing the biting verbal tirades against his wife and guests with the physical dexterity utilised to charge about between self-induced disasters. For a hilarious sample of the show, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0tNAclytdY
  • Keeping Up Appearances: British sitcom has always been fascinated by snobs, but few were ever as monstrous as Hyacinth Bucket (who insists it's pronounced "Bouquet"), the central character in "Keeping Up Appearances." Played with aplomb by Patricia Routledge, Hyacinth is a character with few, if any, saving graces. Her pompous, self-serving attitude makes life miserable for all around her. Long-suffering husband Richard gets the brunt of it, with Hyacinth quick to chastise if he steps out of line ("I don't like you making decisions unilaterally", she tells him). But there are others in the firing line, including nervous neighbour Elizabeth, her brother Emmet, and Michael the Vicar. However, the real ire is reserved for the snob's council estate dwelling sisters: Rose and Daisy. While the former irks with her man-eating ways, the latter absolutely appalls thanks to her slobbish lifestyle and indolent, scruffy husband Onslow. Sofa-bound, unshaven and absolutely unbowed by his harridan of a sister-in-law, he remained Hyacinth's nemesis across the show's five series. Most episodes involve a phone call from Hyacinth's unseen sister Violet, you know, "the one with the Mercedes, sauna, and room for a pony!" and, at some point, a telephone conversation with off-screen son Sheridan, who's always the cadge for money to pursue his homosexual lifestyle (although that's never recognised by his proud mum).
  • The Vicar of Dibley: When their vicar passed away in the middle of a service, the inhabitants of the small Oxfordshire village of Dibley expected his replacement to be another old man with a beard, a Bible and bad breath. Instead, they got a babe with a bob-cut and a magnificent bosom. Geraldine Granger is a woman - yes, woman - who enjoys nothing more than a good laugh and a packet of chocolate hob nobs. The thoroughly modern, pop music-loving vicar is far from the only eccentric character in the village, however.There's local Tory counsellor David Horton CBE, gentleman farmer and self-acknowledged pillar of the community. As chairman of the parish council, he is generally the first person to oppose anything that even remotely sounds like fun. His dim but well-meaning son Hugo is his father's opposite in every way. He eventually manages to woo Alice, the equally spaciously-brained verger and Geraldine's best friend. Though her lack of smarts can sometimes make her more of a hindrance than a help, Alice's relationship with Geraldine is genuinely affectionate: she even named her first child after the vicar. Actually, she named her first child after the vicar, her favourite Tellytubby and her favourite TV chef: Geraldine Laa Laa Ainsley Harriott Horton. Other locals who keep the vicar busy include foul-mouthed farmer Owen Newitt, who takes a rather unhealthy interest in the bowel movements of his cows. There's also pedantic parish council secretary Frank Pickle; when Mr Horton called him a "pedantic old fart" for keeping the minutes so fastidiously, Frank's response was "Should I actually write 'fart', or 'f**t'?". At last, there's stammering Jim Trott, who prefaces every sentence with "No-no-no-no-no-no", generally leading to confusion about whether he's supporting or against something. "The Vicar Of Dibley" was the brainchild of Richard Curtis, famous for penning the likes of "Blackadder," Four Weddings And A Funeral and Love, Actually.
  • Jeeves and Wooster: Bertram Wilberforce Wooster is a young, wealthy, bumbling buffoon of a bachelor who lives in his London flat with his valet, Jeeves. Bertie always seems to be on the run from his formidable Aunt Agatha. When that isn't the case, though, he's usually caught in a spot of bother due to the mishaps of his friends, such as Bingo Little and Tuppy Glossop; or those of his enemies, Sir Roderick Glossop and his daughter, Honoria. Then it's up to Jeeves, Bertie's valet, to think up a plan to save the day, usually involving a hilarious and clever scheme with unexpected twists. Both Wodehouse's books and the TV series itself are delights that can't be missed. Check out this video to see their amusing repartees: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYf5YPNnfRY&NR=1
  • As Time Goes By: Sometimes the art of making a successful sitcom looks effortless and with both its tight scripts and the starring talents of Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer, As Time Goes By is a fine example. Their two characters: Jean and Lionel, fell in love during the early 1950s, but when army officer Lionel was sent to Korea they lost touch after a letter he sent her never arrived. Both assumed the other had lost interest, but 38 years later their paths cross again, when Lionel returns to England to write his memoirs of life in the army and as a coffee-planter in Kenya (imaginatively titled 'My Life in Kenya'). Seeking an agency temp to handle the typing, he is sent a young secretary in the form of Judith Pargetter and after hitting it off they agree to meet for dinner. That evening, though, Lionel also chances upon meeting her mother and his long-lost sweetheart: Jean. But could their love be rekindled after so long? Across nine series, audiences followed their complicated relationships as other admirers vied for Jean and Lionel's affections (including double-divorcee Judith's crush on Lionel, and his smooth agent Alistair's fondness for Jean). Eventually, though, Judith and Alistair fall in love and the path is cleared for Lionel and Jean to get back together and marry, although their strong characters and colourful past ensured there was always something for them to fret about and for viewers to laugh at. Although its gentle brand of middle-class humour wasn't a cross-generational hit, "As Time Goes By" maintained a strong popularity and even occasionally contained edgier storylines that belied its twee image.
  • Yes Minister: A bedrock programme in the UK comedy structure, Yes Minister embodied the early 1980s attitude to authority and politics as a gently hypocritical world filled with doubletalk. The series follows Right Honorable James Hacker MP, Minister for Administrative Affairs, and his attempts to make officialdom and administration make sense. He does this whilst pushing his own self-serving agenda, and keeping his head above any nasty political waters. Throughout his career, he's up against Whitehall’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, unflappable symbol of a machine that has no gears, only brakes. Jim's policies, whether cutting costs or trying to streamline red tape, are sabotaged by Appleby's Machiavellian skills, often accompanied by brain-wrenching sentences designed to confuse Hacker - and often succeeding. Absolutely snobbish and elitist, yet blind to anything that does not serve the Whitehall way, Sir Humphrey is the avatar of the British State. Hacker's politics appear to be completely pragmatic and blown by the winds of chance, and are never dogmatic enough to be clearly labelled Labour or Conservative. By removing the trappings of a particular 'party' and allowing both sides to appear at their worst - venal and inconstant Hacker forever opposing the pompous and manipulative Appleby - "Yes, Minister" maintained a timeless quality that means it has endured beyond the Thatcherite politics it satirised. A true original, the show remains one of the most influential sitcoms of its time.
  • Three Men in a Boat: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), published in 1889, is a humorous account by Jerome K. Jerome of a boating holiday of three friends--the narrator (Jerome), Harris, and George--on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford. The book was intended initially to be a serious travel guide, but the humorous elements eventually took over, to the point where the serious and somewhat sentimental passages now seem like an unnecessary distraction to the essentially comic novel. It is amazing how undated it appears to modern readers, as the jokes seem fresh and witty even today. My favorite stories include Ch. 3's Uncle Podger, Ch. 4's Liverpool cheeses, Ch. 6's Hampton Court maze, and Ch. 8's Herr Slossenn Boschen. This sounds nerdy, but if you read it aloud amongst friends/family who won't make fun of you for the rest of eternity, it makes for a great kick-in-the-pants time. Yeah.

So there you are. A few to get started on; once you've seen one, you'll be hooked. Happy browsing!


killerteacup said...

Don't forget Father Ted!

PRW said...

No list of essential British comedy is complete without Spaced, the sitcom by the team that made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Very possibly the best thing ever.

(The region 1 DVD set finally comes out in July.)

Kelly said...

Octaiva! I think I might have just fallen in love with you- ought one to say things like that on a blog? haha anyway, I was brought up on the gloriousness of brittish comedy too, and I think you mentioned most of my favorites, Jeeves and Wooster topping the list. I had about 40 (no joke) J&W books on my windowsill this year. Blackadder happens to be another great show, and Three Men... is just delightful. Another lovely piece is Oscar Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. Other britcoms that would probably appeal to very different types of humor (I don't like all of them) are Mr. Bean, To the Manor Born and The Irish PM.

The closest I've found in American lit is Art Buchwald, who was a syndicated columnist for the New York Times for years.

Also- Hot Fuzz, great date movie- guys take note.