Further Thoughts on the British Comedy Rule of the Loser
In the writeup above
suggests that the defining aspect of British comedy
is that its characters are losers
Of course, losers exist in American comedy too - look at the hapless Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Friends' neurotic Monica and nerdy Ross. Or what about the main cast of Cheers, arguably America's finest comedy? The main cast included an ex-alcoholic failed baseball player, a confused old man, an imbecile, a violent midget with failed marriages, a middle-aged virginal bore and a pretentious psychiatrist with an overbearing wife.
And let's not forget the dysfunctional Simpsons; the family of misfits from Arrested Development; Jerry Seinfeld's self-centred and bizarre trio of in-fighting pals; celebrity screwups Larry and Hank; Peter Griffin the moronic Family Guy, or any of the other failures, jerks and bozos that have sprung from American TV over the years.
No, the big difference between American comedy and British comedy isn't found in the main characters - it's in the worlds they inhabit. In each of the above examples, the characters' flaws are offset by some other element of their lives: Larry David might be extremely unlucky but he does have millions of dollars and a beautiful wife; the Simpsons and Griffins do have loving families of sorts; the Friends are all attractive and live in enormous apartments, and the patrons and staff of Cheers all help each other out.
As for Seinfeld... er... look, we'll just forget that one, okay?
Meanwhile, British comedy characters usually have nothing to redeem their existences whatsoever, and none of their minor victories are enough to offset the banal horror of their claustrophobic and insular lives. Take a look at these classic British comedy series:
Rupert Rigsby is an unpleasant little man; a bigoted, suspicious, socially awkward landlord with delusions of mediocrity. He's also - thanks to the skill of actor Leonard Rossiter and scripts by the talented Eric Chappell - sympathetic and curiously likeable.
Rigsby runs a crumbling boarding house whose tenants he frequently harasses. The first of these is Alan Moore (no, not that one), a student with an eye for the ladies who is frequently on the receiving end of Rigsby's redundant romantic advice.
He is close friends with another resident, Philip Smith. Philip is black and rumours abound that he is an African prince, two things which baffle the prejudiced Rigsby. The fact that Philip speaks with an upper-class English accent and attended English public schools does not even occur to him. In fact, the rumours about Philip being an African prince are completely false, but he makes a point of never denying them.
The final member of the household is Miss Jones, a middle-aged spinster and the object of Rigsby's eternally unrequited affections. Unrequited because she is in love with Philip, who enjoys coy flirtation with her but would never take it any further. She is seemingly doomed to die alone.
These four characters live in the cramped squalor of Rigsby's guest house, whose rising damp gives the series its name. While students Alan and Philip are only slumming it during their university degrees, Rigsby and Miss Jones are long past their prime. For them, this is as good as it gets: to be trapped emotionally in impossible passions, and trapped physically in probably the most depressing setting for a sit-com ever devised.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin:
Comedy great Leonard Rossiter appears again, this time as Reggie Perrin, a put-upon middle management nobody who is surrounded by imbeciles and incompetents at work and feels restless and unloved at home.
Each episode of the early series shows the repetition of Reggie's routine in mind-numbing detail; the same route to work each morning, the same nonsensical catchphrases spouted out by his superior and the same impossible fantasies of sex with his secretary. At the end of each episode, Reggie gives out an exasperated scream at the mundanity of his life.
Eventually he fakes his own death and runs off to a more exciting future. However, he finds himself unable to let go of the trappings of his old ways and later returns under a pseudonym (and beard) to marry his own widow.
He eventually starts up his own company,"Grot", to make genuinely useless crap for high prices. He also hires all his old colleagues just so he can laugh as the company collapses. However, it goes on to enormous success and he ends up in exactly the same position as before. Later, he begins a meaningless religious commune which rises to even more frustrating success.
Poor Reggie is a perfect example of the British loser; one who is hidebound by meaningless rules and an unfair society, and whose every attempt to escape or subvert the system only further cements his position in it.
Steptoe and Son
Remade in the US as Sandford and Son, Steptoe began in 1962 as a self-contained play for Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's Comedy Playhouse. The set-up was simple: Harold (played by Harry H Corbett) is a middle-aged failure, an employee of his father's rag and bone business. Money is tight, but not as tight as the grip of his father, Alfred (played by Wilfrid Brambell), who tries to work Harold as hard as possible for as little money as possible.
Railing against his revolting father, Harold longs to escape the family business, find himself a beautiful wife and make something of himself. But his sly dad always manages to keep him at home.
The original play ended with Harry breaking down into tears upon realising how hopeless his life is; Galton and Simpson had imagined the crying to be broadly comic and over-the-top but Corbett, a trained stage actor, shed real tears. The public's response was overwhelmingly positive and the duo were brought back for an extended.
The set-up for the series remained largely the same: Harold and Albert would be at each other's throats, the latter believing his son to be pretentious and the former (rightly) seeing his dad as a revolting weight around his neck. Harold would try to rise out of his slum and circumstance (or Albert) would drag him right back.
Harold's impossible struggle against his father and the world they inhabit provided enough comic material for twelve years of comedy, including Christmas Specials and stage performances. And Harold never did make it out.
A more recent example, Peep Show was broadcast in 2003 and 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. It follows the lives of Jez and Mark, two equally pathetic housemates. Mark is a dull office worker with no social skills whatsoever; Jez is a wannabe DJ who rightfully doubts the quality of his crappy techno tracks. Neither of them really have any friends (except for the dubious company of Super Hans, an imbecile techno DJ).
The series' gimmick is that every camera shot is seen through the eyes of one of the characters. The viewer is also given the opportunity to hear Jez and Mark's thoughts, which are usually either an apoplexy of self-conscious terror or else lost in dirty fantasies.
Both unpleasant characters, neither Jez nor Mark are happy with their lives. Undoubtedly the most embarassing of the two, Mark is infatuated with co-worker Sophie since she is the only person he might - just might - have a chance to shag. Ever. He stalks her, hacks into her e-mail account and tries to get pally with her boyfriend just to be near her.
Meanwhile, Jez might just be able to salvage something of his life if he weren't so lazy, feckless and emotionally crippled.
Their lives are doomed by self-consciousness, hormones and obsession. Neither of them have the raw ability to achieve their aims, nor the drive or intelligence to develop what skills they do have. Both are stuck with each other by default, and probably will be for ever more.
People Like Us
A comedy of embarrassment and wordplay, People Like Us is a spoof documentary - a mockumentary, if you will - following syllable-mangling interviewer Roy Mallard.
Each week Mallard focuses on a different professional - "the headmaster", "the lawyer", "the actor" - and the people that surround them. And each week he uncovers a gallery of grotesques working to illogical rules, usually getting too close to the action and messing things up for all concerned.
Roy is a nice guy trapped in a world that doesn't make sense, where foot-in-mouth errors wait around every corner and even the most minor conversation is like tapdancing across a minefield ("Would you like some tea, Roy?" "Well, I'd love a cup of coffee" "No - tea, I said." "Er...").
Not fully understanding the concept of 'journalistic detachment', Roy usually gets involved in his subjects' lives, sometimes becoming the instigator of marital rows and explosive confrontations. In one memorable episode, Roy's attempt to film a man being fired goes horribly wrong when the boss chickens out and Roy is forced to tell the man himself.
But Roy isn't the only one who has to struggle against an unfair world; his investigations frequently reveal people who are talented but somehow fail to rise above their low station in life, and many more who are in positions of power despite being unbearably incompetent.
As with Reggie Perrin, People Like Us shows the world to be a place where the good people sink to the bottom and the scum rise to the top - and there's nothing you can do about it.
Those are just a few examples; don't forget Only Fools and Horses (even winning the lottery doesn't bring happiness), One Foot in the Grave (a pair of pensioners mark off their twilight hours), Red Dwarf (sexually frustrated students in space) Drop the Dead Donkey (a newsroom full of screw-ups), or any of the thousands of other British comedies that have found the heartiest laughter in another's tears.
So, unlike his American counterpart, the British loser has nothing whatsoever going for him. Where opportunity exists, he has no drive. Where he has passion, he has no chance. Society, the system and sometimes just plain fate doom him to stay in his hole forevermore, never to escape. And we love it.
There are exceptions, of course; SPACED is a good example of an excellent British comedy that allows its characters to win over their antagonisers and succeed in their desired careers. Or there's Coupling, which took the basic setup of Friends (three girls, three guys - all fairly attractive, all earning good money) and warped it into a combination of observational comedy and sex farce. Oddly, it was sold back to the American market, who cocked it up completely.
But for the most part, Britain loves its comedy heroes to be irredeemable losers. Why is this? I suspect that it's mostly to do with the loss of the British Empire. No, seriously. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
Once upon a time, the British ruled most of the world and spent every morning laughing heartily as we pissed in its cornflakes. We were massive. Unstoppable. The world was great and we were the best. And God loved us.
Then, through one thing and another, we lost it all. Now whilst this was undoubtedly a good thing for oppressed people everywhere, it sowed seeds of doubt in our collective mind. If God wants to save our gracious monarchs, why doesn't he want to protect their land as well?
With the concept of Britain's god-given right to rule the world revealed as the hollow and pompous claptrap it always was, and with other countries - most notably the United States of America - rapidly taking our place as the economic and cultural empire of choice, we began to recognise the transience of real success.
From this realisation came characters like Harold Steptoe and Rupert Rigsby - little men trying to be big, forever setting their sights on prizes out of reach or too insubstantial to hold onto for long.
And once you've had a concept like the divine right to rule the world pulled out from under your feet, you start to realise how silly the concept of "power" is and how little those with power actually deserve it.
As a result, the British have a deep and abiding distrust of power and authority - hence the half-witted management that frustrate Reggie Perrin or the imbeciles that Roy Mallard encounters.
We no longer control the world. We no longer hold the fates of continents in our hands. We have been to the top and back down again, and now we know for certain that all things must pass. And we make sure our comedy characters know it too.
Meanwhile, America has become the world's only true superpower. It has a cultural influence on the world that is incomparable with anything that has gone before; you can buy a McDonalds hamburger in China for fuck's sake. Give or take the odd recession, its star is still rising. And being a young country, the collective unconscious of its people is still positive - still vibrant and full of self-belief.
This is not to say that Americans are stupid. Of course not. That is why their comedy characters do have flaws. But they haven't developed the same degree of cynicism that the British people have. They don't look upon authority with the same wariness, nor do they treat showoffs with the disdain that they deserve. David Blaine stands up a pole in America and gets thousands of fascinated onlookers - he tries a similar stunt in London and gets pelted with golf balls.
We British are a bitter, sceptical and ultimately unpleasant people. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
A final note: In the write-up above, ConfusiontheWaitress suggests that someone should "produce a comedy about a guy who is endlessly successful ... it would probably get cancelled halfway through the pilot episode."
In fact the BBC did just this with Perfect World. Despite having a completely unlikeable main character who could do no wrong (played by Paul Kaye, AKA Dennis Pennis), it lasted for two series. Just goes to show you never can tell...
http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/guide/ - The BBC Comedy Guide