Cleese: “British Comedy Less Funny” — I Agree

Written by on May 13, 2009

Much has been made of recent comments by Monty Python funnyman John Cleese about British comedy. The international star went on record saying that comedy in the old country has generally not been funny since the 1980s. While fans of “The Office” and several other relatively newer comedies might scoff at that (one actor/comedian, Martin Clunes, went as far as saying that Clesse himself has not been funny since then), there is a plethora of substance to what the man who played the legendary character “Basil Fawlty” said.
Cleese told reporters that the comedy from the U.K. has not been funny for several reasons, not the least of which being that the suits do not want to pay writers. In the 1980s, writers like Ben Elton and Richard Curtis churned out several hit comedies that are still watched and relevant today. There was a time when the most popular American comedies, with few exceptions, could hardly compare with the new British classics.[amazonify]B000EBCEVS[/amazonify] While mainstream Americans were mesmerized by low-level comedies like “Happy Days,” “Full House.” “Blossom” and “Roseanne” the nation’s college students and others starved for quality were tuning in to “The Black Adder,” “The Comic Strip Presents,” “The Young Ones” and “Monty Python” reruns. It can be argued that British comedies introduced U.S. public television stations to a new generation of viewers with such alternative programming.[amazonify]B00005LC1H:right[/amazonify] MTV and the former Comedy Channel also responded to the demand for good laughs from across the pond.
In the 1990s, while American culture became more whiny as teen angst, political correctness and generic music drove its downward spiral, people looking for something different went back to the art of the United Kingdom’s comedy geniuses like Rowan Atkinson, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton thanks to video tapes and DVDs. American TV executives were, as always, so little-informed that they thought borrowing from England would give their programming a jolt. While that might have been true in the 80s, the years after showed a sharp drop in overall comedic quality.
In recent years, “The Office” has become an international phenomenon. Some might use the Ricky Gervais creation as a rebuttal to Cleese, not realizing that for every “Office” there were several bad decisions like “Coupling.” British comedy was at one point brash, irreverent and intelligent. Long ago are the days of hearing a cunning plan from S. Baldrick, the insane ramblings of Basil Fawlty or seeing Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson trade barbs as several different characters.

Indeed, there are exceptions aside from the Gervais projects. The most notable, however, are from graduates of the 80s British Comedy heyday: Rowan Atkinson‘s “Mr. Bean” show became a smash, catapulting the former Blackadder star to international stardom, Tracey Ullman‘s movie appearances as well as her TV work and Alexei Sayle, whose style remained similar throughout his career, spannig back to his being the first MC for “The Comedy Store.” It should also be noted that the currently most-heralded British actor in the U.S. is Hugh Laurie (House, M.D.), former 1980s comedy partner to Stephen Fry and a major character on Blackadders 3 and 4.

Cleese, for his part, still appears on U.S. and British television and is as funny as he always was. He made one of the latter years of “Will & Grace” as watchable as possible and is unforgettable in virtually any role, including his voice-overs and several splendid cameos. I look forward to any show or movie that includes Cleese, including the big screen drama “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
As for recent British comedies, there is only so much of shoes like “Coupling” or “Ali G.” that one can take. These are also the same British suits who think Hugh Grant is funny. Therefore, the score is: John Cleese 1, Martin Clunes 0.

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