While boycotting NBC's two-hour marathon of The Office last night (sure, it's clever enough, but I just can't shake that feeling that the original show has been body-snatched), I stumbled across a successful British comedy that hasn't been ripped off yet by American television: Little Britain, the sketch series that's become a cult hit in the U.K. and just premiered on BBC-America this week (Wednesdays, 9 PM ET).
Little Britain is the brainchild of two young men who have been working as a comedy team onstage and in radio for the past 10 years, and who appear, together or alone, in nearly every one of the show's brief vignettes. There's Matt Lucas, the fat blond guy, and David Walliams, the tall brunette. Between the two of them, they embody a huge cast of recurring characters, a few of whom are showcased in this gallery of clips. Some of the funniest include Dafydd (Lucas), "the only gay in the village," who petulantly insists that he is the sole homosexual in his small Welsh hometown, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Marjorie Dawes (also played by Lucas) is a cheerily nasty diet guru who encourages her clients to eat dust, when she isn't insulting them outright: "You just waddle back to your seat, dear." (I particularly love the Lewis Carroll-esque logic of Marjorie's "Half the Calories" diet: If you cut all your food in half, she argues, it will have only half as many calories, so you can treat yourself to twice as much.) In a one-note, but still hilarious bit, David Walliams plays Sebastian, a flamingly queeny assistant to the prime minister (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anthony Stewart Head, in a recurring role). Sebastian likes to splay himself across the laps of visiting dignitaries while coyly offering them platefuls of chocolate fingers.
Little Britain's anarchic bits often run less than a minute and a half long, a particular blessing for audiences who grew up on SNL skits that start out strong, only to outstay their welcome. The sketches are loosely tied together by a travelogue conceit, in which the daffy narrator (the voice is provided by Tom Baker, the erstwhile Dr. Who) takes us on a tour of that marvelously weird country "opened by the queen in 1972." Some of the show's regional humor will be lost on American viewers, but it doesn't matter; even if you don't understand the West Country accent, Vicky Pollard, the slutty teenage delinquent played by Lucas, is supposed to be incomprehensible anyway. Other bits shamelessly go for the grossout gag—last night's episode featured one sketch in which a middle-aged man in a suit suckles at the breast of his aged mother, to the horror of his visiting girlfriend.
Bad drag, that cornerstone of British humor, figures largely in Little Britain. Over half of the show's major characters are women (or, in the case of the "rubbish transvestite" Emily Howard, men who desperately want to be women). Lucas and Walliams' drag characters at times recall the shrill harridans of Monty Python's Flying Circus, but with a more self-reflexive twist—Emily Howard, for example, never tires of insisting to everyone she meets that "I'm a lady!" To judge by their cultural predilection for transvestite jokes, British comics must live their lives in a severe state of gender panic, but watching a show as perversely funny as Little Britain, I hope Walliams and Lucas don't go into therapy anytime soon.