The U.K. started exporting its signature brand of comedy to the U.S. in the 1970s, ushering in a wave of influence that narrowed the gap between “humour” and “humor.”
By John Bolster
Entering Through the Narrow Gate
Unlike its musical counterpart half a decade earlier, the British comedy invasion of the United States didn’t launch on Broadway, in front of a ravenous studio audience and a colossal 73 million television viewers.
No, British humor accessed mainland U.S.A. in a fashion much more suited to its long-standing qualities of self-deprecation, irony, and understatement—flickering to life on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1970, before gaining traction on PBS in America a few years later.
Also unlike the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and their ilk, which shot like meteors from The Ed Sullivan Show to the top of the music charts and the forefront of American culture, British comedy had a fitful start in North America.
The first salvo, such as it was, came from the surreal sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which debuted on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in October 1969. The following September, the CBC added the program to its fall lineup, only to pull the plug after airing just 20 episodes.
The show didn’t see the light of day on these shores again until August 1972, when the film And Now for Something Completely Different—a collection of Python skits from the first two BBC seasons—achieved limited box-office success stateside. A few sketches (“Bicycle Repair Man,” “The Dull Life of a City Stock-broker”) also aired that summer on The Dean Martin Comedy World, an NBC TV program brought on as a replacement for The Dean Martin Show.
Two years later, in Dallas of all places, the Pythons made their breakthrough. Ron Devillier, program director for KERA, the Dallas PBS affiliate, began broadcasting Flying Circus episodes, and ratings sky-rocketed as viewers howled at soon-to-be iconic sketches like “Cheese Shop,” “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” and “The Spanish Inquisition.” By the summer of 1975, 113 PBS stations were airing the show, and the film And Now for Something Completely Different had been re-released, doing much more business the second time around.
The troupe got additional exposure on FM radio, which regularly aired clips from the Pythons’ comedy LPs. And meanwhile, back in Canada, Flying Circus had become a hit on the CBC, which had been inundated with calls, as well as a demonstration outside its Montreal studio, after dropping the show in 1970.
The floodgates were open: ABC aired two Monty Python specials in 1975, and the troupe—which consisted of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, and American expat Terry Gilliam—went on to enormous mainstream success in the U.S., producing four feature films, including the classics Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and participating in numerous other projects, both individually and collectively.
Their success opened the U.S. market for other British comedies, such as Are You Being Served?, To the Manor Born, The Good Life, The Benny Hill Show, Fawlty Towers (a Cleese project), and The Black Adder (starring Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr. Bean), among others.
The Pythons were not by any stretch the founders of British comedy—they followed a rich tradition and had their own influences, most notably the legendary Peter Cook (left), Dudley Moore, and Peter Sellers. But they did bridge a long-standing humor gap between the U.S. and the U.K. And they almost didn’t make it on the air in America because of that gap: Time-Life Films, which owned the U.S. rights to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was initially reluctant to air the show for fear that the humor would get lost in transit across the Atlantic Ocean. They simply didn’t think British comedy would work on these shores.
The differences between British and American humor have been bandied about for so long that the very notion of the divide is pretty much a cliché at this point. And like all clichés, this one contains elements of truth, while also inviting many counterexamples. Yes, generally speaking, British humor tends to bury emotion in sarcasm; it leans more toward the dry and cerebral than its American counterpart. For decades, British people have seen their ironic quips taken literally and missed by foreign friends and acquaintances—a sensation not unlike hitting “send” on a sarcastic email only to see its meaning fly right by the recipient—or worse, get misunderstood as hostility. (Someone needs to develop a sarcasm font, stat.)
But just as there’s plenty of broad and silly comedy in the U.K.—think Benny Hill—there’s been no shortage of clever, deadpan humorists on this side of the pond, from the vintage duo Bob and Ray to Bob Newhart to Steven Wright.
But there was—and to some degree remains—a gap, although it began shrinking in earnest in the 1970s, with Limey humor influences streaming into the U.S. market after Monty Python. The groundbreaking American sitcom All in the Family was adapted from a U.K. show called Till Death Us Do Part, and topped the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years. Hard on its heels in the ratings was the Redd Foxx vehicle Sanford and Son, which was an African-American version of the British show Steptoe and Son. The late American comic actor John Ritter got his breakthrough role on Three’s Company, a U.S. remake of the British hit Man About the House. Three’s Company ran from 1977 to 1984, yielding a Golden Globe for Ritter in the final season. Saturday Night Live, which premiered in 1975, took multiple cues from Monty Python, and in 1978 SNL cast members Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and John Belushi appeared in the Beatles parody film The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash with Python members Idle and Palin. (Idle cowrote and codirected it, and it’s hilarious.)
In the 1980s, MTV aired the unruly BBC sitcom The Young Ones, and in the nineties Comedy Central broadcast another BBC hit, Absolutely Fabulous, the brainchild of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. The dark, cringe-inducing English mockumentary/sitcom The Office drew stateside raves when it debuted in 2001, and won a Golden Globe in 2004; Ricky Gervais became a bankable movie star in the U.S. because of it. English funnymen Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Russell Brand (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek)
also made their mark in the U.S. in the past decade.
Of course there are many examples of British humor falling flat—like singer Robbie Williams did—in America. The No. 3 film at the U.K. box office in 2011 was a raunchy comedy called The Inbetweeners Movie, which raked in an impressive £41.8 million in Britain that year. Released in the U.S. in 2012, The Inbetweeners Movie thudded to a $35,955 opening weekend and promptly disappeared, which is why you’ve never heard of it. NBC remade the British sitcom Coupling for American audiences in 2003—and canceled the show due to poor ratings after just four episodes.
Given those and other failures, it’s interesting that Monty Python achieved the breakthrough they did, because their brand of humor was extreme—in both its Britishness and its almost avant-garde absurdity. There are plenty of Americans—none you’d want to hang out with, certainly—who don’t get it, but the troupe’s success speaks for itself. And their influence is probably bigger than their audience.
In “Volcano,” the third episode of the American animated comedy series South Park, the character Eric Cartman tells the story of Scuzzlebutt, a legendary creature that has a piece of celery in place of a hand and Patrick Duffy for a leg—a pair of surreal comic details straight out of the Python playbook.
Veteran funnyman Martin Short has said that Monty Python’s influence “was that absurdity in character could replace the punch line, the ba-dum-dum thing.”
Stephen Colbert is even more specific: “There was one phrase they used … ‘justly underrated’—that torturing of words, where the words eat themselves, you’ll find that all through the stuff I do.”
Simpsons creator Matt Groening recalls that he saw “this streak in British humor of whimsical surrealism with just a hint of cruelty, and I found that incredibly appealing.”
The comedic influence between the two nations has always flown both ways, for sure, and that cross-pollination has accelerated “as the global village conurbates,” in the words of Pegg. The rise of the internet and the blurring of pop-cultural borders has buffed the edges off many national characteristics. If you doubt it, consider that the bright, shiny, and, let’s be honest, cheesy American sitcom Friends found a massive audience in stiff-upper-lip Britain. In the U.S., The Office drew 5.7 million viewers for its 2013 finale. Granted, much of the gloom and excruciatingly awkward comedy of the English original had been removed for the U.S. version of the series, but the essential premise remained, and the show was a ratings champ, running for nine seasons. And there’s no shortage of American fans who prefer the original, downbeat U.K. version.
As long as we’re rubbing funny bones to the extent that English fans can suppress their gag reflexes at the high jinks of Ross and Rachel (and somehow get past that unbearable theme song), then maybe there’s a chance that we Americans can digest regular doses of Malcolm Tucker, the U.K. government’s director of communications on the BBC political-satire series The Thick of It (as well as in the excellent film In the Loop). Tucker commands raging torrents of profanity with a mastery that makes erstwhile U.S. ranters Dennis Miller and Lewis Black seem like mewling kittens by comparison.
Maybe in the next decade.
From the March 2015 issue of Penthouse