'Little Britain' Slaps a Smile On the Stiff Upper Lip

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ironically enough, "Little Britain USA," a new comedy series on HBO, prescribes a weekly dose of insanity as a panacea for certifiably insane times. It's sort of like watching a horror movie to expunge fear.

"Little Britain USA" isn't precisely the same television show that's been slaying audiences and collecting awards in England and Australia for the past several years, but it's close. It's got the same cast of two, auteurs Matt Lucas and David Walliams, and obviously much recycled material. But it's all been reconfigured as a satirical revue about Americans as well as Brits, two great peoples who share (and mangle) the same language.

The sensibility on exhibit suggests collusion, or a collision, between "Monty Python" and the late, great Benny Hill -- witty and smart on occasion but also as broad as the lowest-browed burlesque. England, lest we forget, has given the world some of the greatest silly humor ever perpetrated, though things have been rather quiet lately -- until Lucas and Walliams came along.

As the series premieres (tomorrow night on HBO, right after the still-buoyant if redundant "Entourage"), the booming voice of an English-accented announcer tells us that the U.K. and U.S. are forever linked in history. England let America win its independence, he says, "and you very kindly joined us for the last few minutes of the Second World War." Of all the nerve!

The humor in "Little Britain USA" is nothing if not cheeky. An attempt is obviously made to savage Americans and Britons with equal malicious glee. The sketches, however, are not of equal hilarity. Some are too tasteless even for a celebration of bad taste. It's not made clear to viewers in the first half-hour, but several of the sketches and characters you see will be returning again and again over the coming weeks (only six, actually), even if an idea appears to have been thoroughly exploited in just one outing.

"The British pride themselves on being the rudest and most unhelpful people in the world," blares the announcer, by way of introducing a recurring character called Carol Beer, a hospital receptionist who treats everyone with maximum boorish condescension. In the first episode, a little girl whose mother has brought her in for a tonsillectomy is told she's going to have a double hip replacement instead; it's in the computer.

In the second episode -- scheduled to air Oct. 5 -- a woman in the final stages of labor is forced to stand and wait interminably while the receptionist diddles around with the computer keys. As with all other female roles, and yet in another tradition of English humor, Carol is played by a man -- Lucas or Walliams, I still don't always know which is which.

A gay British prime minister who is so hypersexual that he can't keep his hands off the American president (who is something of a Barack Obama look-alike) is a cheap comedy idea, crudely overdone, yet some people might find it uproarious. Likewise a grown man whose mother still obliges his desire to breastfeed; the concept is so crude that it seems barely up to the standards of amateur Internet clowns.

But then along comes a character, new to the series, called Phyllis, a dowdy creature who is forever being given absurd and obscene commands by her innocent-looking spaniel, Mr. Doggy, during their walks together. In a low, gruff voice, the dog orders Phyllis to humiliate herself in public by, for instance, undressing down to her undies and then standing in a trash bin. "If you loved me, you'd do it," the dog always says as a final, irresistible inducement.

The genius of the concept is that Phyllis openly does Mr. Doggy's voice herself, the torment thus self-inflicted.

Among other recurring sketches are those featuring a racy granny recalling her surprisingly libidinous youth for the delighted delectation of her grandson; two preposterously beefed-up buddies (Lucas and Walliams in huge latex suits) who imagine themselves the height of masculinity; and a nasty, intemperate shrew named Marjorie Dawes (as in "seesaw, Marjorie Dawes"?) who runs a weight-loss class for people she brazenly calls "fatties." Rosie O'Donnell plays herself in the first of the weight-loss bits.

Working with Lucas and Walliams on the Americanized version of the show are such seemingly unlikely collaborators as David Steinberg, one of the producers, and David Schwimmer (formerly of "Friends"), who directs studio segments shot in Los Angeles while Michael Patrick Jann (of the annoying "Flight of the Conchords" and the brilliant "Reno 911!") directs sketches shot in, of all places, North Carolina.

Britons come to the Colonies on vacation, the announcer says, because "we enjoy the food, the weather and the fact that the dollar is now worthless." Ha-ha. This was recorded before the economic calamities of the past week, when things were merely calamitous. You know, the good old days of last month.

Lucas and Walliams come across as naughty little schoolboys who never grew up, but then you have to remain at least somewhat infantile to find the world laughable rather than tearfully sad. Now, perhaps, more than ever.

Little Britain (30 minutes) premieres tomorrow night at 10:30 on HBO.

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