Is American TV funnier than British TV?
August 25, 2001 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Is American TV funnier than British TV? Who watches both? I really don't know but describing American comedies as "machine-tooled one-liners" is pretty damn accurate. (via
posted by skallas (38 comments total)
I agree with the end of the article: this says a lot more about John Cleese than about tv.

I vote for British TV.
posted by rushmc at 5:38 PM on August 25, 2001

Oddly enough, both countries still turn out some amazing comedy, which is more than Cleese has in the last ten years.

Brass Eye vs The Simpsons? Don't make me choose...
posted by inpHilltr8r at 5:49 PM on August 25, 2001

I love the Red Dwarf TV show. Other than that, everything I've found seems to be crap, British or American.
posted by stoneegg21 at 5:50 PM on August 25, 2001

Thank god for PBS, Comedy Central and BBC America. It's all about AbFab and Keeping Up Appearences.
posted by brian at 6:16 PM on August 25, 2001

Brass Eye vs The Simpsons? Don't make me choose...

The Simpsons are a big exception, take a look at the majority of American sitcoms. They go something like this:

Chararter_1: $Insert_big_fat_opener_for_a_joke

Chararcter_2: $Deliver_obvious_punchline

Optional_Character_3: $Say, "You go girl!"

Repeat for 24 mins.

The Simpsons works because it sometimes parodies this kind of prime-time writing and doesn't usuallt fall into a formula.

Network TV is a wasteland and the Simpsons aren't aging well either. I still enjoy Futurama and some offerings from Comedy Central especially TV Funhouse and The Daily Show.
posted by skallas at 6:19 PM on August 25, 2001

I grew up watching a lot of British shows on CBC, and I still prefer the American classics: Mary Tyler Moore, Golden Girls, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart. Agreed, todays US sitcomland is pretty much a vast wasteland (Simpsons and King of the Hill notwithstanding), but whenever I visit the UK, I still prefer the reruns of "Roseanne" or "Designing Women" to most of the local fare.
posted by Oriole Adams at 6:49 PM on August 25, 2001

English comedy is still top notch, shows like Men Behaving Badly, Father Ted and Vicar of Dibley are very funny.

On the other hand there are a bunch of American shows that are equally good. I'd say it's pretty much a draw between them.
posted by rycee at 7:06 PM on August 25, 2001

Once you accept the fact that 99% of all sitcoms are based around obvious humor and designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience, they are much easier to watch. Sure, the jokes are cliched, the characters are two dimensional, its all shallow and trite, but if you don't take yourself too seriously and allow yourself some mindless, passive entertainment, you might just have a bit of fun.

Which isn't to say that you shouldn't have standards. Even in sitcom terms, most of them are in the awful-mediocre range. But I've been known to laugh at Frasier and the now-defunct Sports Night, both of which were intelligently written and well executed. Will & Grace does a good line in misanthropic humor (through Megan Mullaly's portrayal of rich bitch Karen). The Simpsons, of course, has always been brilliant. And much to my chagrin, I'm starting to like Ally McBeal . . . once I learned to ignore the nauseating title character. Some of the scenes are downright surreal, eerily similar to the drug addled ideas that got Jerry Stahl blackballed from Hollywood. Although I don't understand how Downey's sobriety is critical for the execution of scenes that involve choreographed dancing in a restroom. But the standout show by far, in terms of comedy, drama, and overall writing/performance: The Sopranos.

As far as Brit shows go, I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned AbFab. There is some very strange TV in Great Britain; I've recently seen a handful of shows that exemplify all that is weird and wonderful about Brit humor: "Something for the Weekend" and "Banzai" are too bizarre for words. Catch them if you ever have the opportunity.
posted by hipstertrash at 7:21 PM on August 25, 2001

My comments are also from a Canadian perspective. In Canada, we get all of the American networks and we also get a fair number of British productions broadcast over several Canadian networks.

Both countries have produced some very funny shows. But let's forget about the TV shows themselves and go to the root of the issue. The British have a much different sense of humour than Americans do. And by and large, I would say that Canadian humour is more in line with the Brits than it is with the Americans.

Personally, I find most American sitcoms are generic, formulaic, and totally predictable. However, there are rare but strong exceptions. British sitcoms such as Absolutely Fabulous, Black Adder, Red Dwarf, Faulty Towers, and Yes Minister (to name a few) would never have stood a chance in America... not because they're not funny, but rather because they're not funny to most Americans (yes I'm sure there are exceptions).

So, ultimately the shows are funny to their target audiences. I'm just glad that we're fortunate enough in Canada to get the best from both worlds, to say nothing of a few choice Canadian productions such as This Hour Has Twenty Two Minutes.
posted by lairdj at 7:23 PM on August 25, 2001

Any fans of Spaced? Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson blow my mind. And don't forget Queer as Folk UK vs. Queer as Folk US -- there's absolutely no question that the UK version comes out on top (erm, sorry). And I second the previous motions for AbFab & Father Ted. But I couldn't live across the pond; they're a SEASON BEHIND on Buffy!
posted by bcwinters at 7:29 PM on August 25, 2001

What I've found interesting is the temporal differences between the two types of sitcoms, in my experience. British sitcoms seem to take place in a slice of time say 20-30 minutes of "real time". While American sitcoms seem to cram a couple of days worth of life into 30 minutes.

I like both - depends on the show. But as I watch Seinfeld reruns every night, it makes me feel that show was even better than I realized.

"you can just sashay your pretty little self around the town square"
posted by owillis at 7:34 PM on August 25, 2001

A recent British series of psuedo-documentaries called "People Like Us" is one of the most ingeniously funny shows I've seen. It's not that it wouldn't appeal to Americans (everyone I've shown it to has loved it) but it wouldn't be approved by American TV executives. Too oblique, too verbal, no actual punchlines, etc.

Americans love Fawlty Towers. The humor is broad, people run up and down stairs, and you can understand the accents.
posted by lileks at 7:38 PM on August 25, 2001

The problem with any mainstream sitcom is that it has to be both dumbed down and inoffensive. As of late South Park has been hitting political issues and still retained bathroom humor for those who enjoy it. Family Guy is turning into a great comedy, and I'm suprised anyone has yet to mention it. Upright Citizens Birgade had its moments; though I would say it went over the heads of many people. Strangers with Candy was another one that I thought was well produced but got canned.

One really can't compare British and American mainstream sitcoms. America has to keep a very diverse amount of people happy and tuned in.
posted by geoff. at 7:43 PM on August 25, 2001

People Like Us is great!

I'd say pitting American against British comedy creates a draw with me.

A show like Married With Children just couldn't have been made in the UK, but it's hilarious all the same. Likewise, The Brittas Empire (starring Red Dwarf's 'Rimmer' as the manager of a leisure centre) couldn't have been made in the US and provides as many laughs.
posted by wackybrit at 8:15 PM on August 25, 2001

Comparing British TV shows to American is the same as comparing apples to oranges.

Take for instance, Will and Grace Vs Gimme, Gimme.
The premse is the same a single girl with a gay roommate but the execution is far different. The characters of Gimme, Gimme wallow in their "grimy" middle class lives who get drunk and go to raves looking for a shag, which is something you'd never see Will and Grace do.

British Tv IMHO has been making some great comedies in the last 5 years. Shows like Ali G, Men Behaving Badly, Fast Show, Game On and Spaced.

But perhaps these shows aren't up to Mr Cleese's standards or maybe he actually found a joke in the script of Alley Mcbeal.
posted by X-00 at 8:34 PM on August 25, 2001

Every American should go to Amazon, type in 'Father Ted' and buy every series.

I'm a great fan of Frasier, I think that once you get it to it, it is a good as any comedy ever made. I would say that America has come along wonders, but for total originality British comedy still wins.
posted by Atom Heart Mother at 9:34 PM on August 25, 2001

All I know is, the original UK Queer as Folk is just about the best thing I've seen on TV... comedy, drama, whatever. Along with a few select episodes of Red Dwarf, and Darin Morgan's brilliant episodes of The X-Files and Millenium.
posted by Zettai at 9:36 PM on August 25, 2001

I would also recommend to the US audience, 'Only Fools and Horses.' You need to get though the first 3/4 episodes to get the themes but after that you should find it hours of entertainment.

Apparently they are making some more episodes, which is cool.
posted by Atom Heart Mother at 9:57 PM on August 25, 2001

I will say that I believe Friends is one of the all-time great comedies: uniformly talented cast, sharply written characters, heavily interwoven character shadings, and a smartly-executed transition from the Ross-Rachel pairing to center instead on Chandler-Monica. I don't think it's jumped the shark, IOW. (It's only lame in the sense that you can't believe all these people are still living pathetically single lives or affording housing in Manhattan.) Frasier has been deservedly accoladed, but I stopped watching when they began treating the Niles-Daphne pairing as a romance, when despite game efforts the actors utterly fail to demonstrate on-stage chemistry. Will & Grace is almost as good, though the characters Jack and Karen far outstrip the title pair in entertainment value. Spin City has, alas, spun out without Fox: the good supporting cast and game star pairing of Sheen & Locklear can't disguise the redundant nature of its final seasons. Just Shoot Me never quite reaches Emmy heights, but it's one of the better remaining acerbic comedies, so probably could appeal to Brits. Drew Carey is nasty, though not as deep, but is hilariously inventive in terms of one-off episodes exploring anything from live broadcast to deliberate continuity & production errors. The dance routines make you want to get up off the couch, and the opening sequence from one later episode where they have each character repeating a line or action as they overlap more and more until they're all in the scene together yet not interfering ... one of the most brilliant sketches I've seen on any TV series, ever. Everybody Loves Raymond has slid a bit from its early seasons but still surprises, as with the sharply-written (and even-handed) episode about PMS and marriage. If you go to cable there are top-notch efforts like Sex and the City and Arli$$.

So given material like the above I'm not surprised that Cleese has come to admire his American coworkers.

On the other hand, almost every new comedy other than the above has been uniformly dismal. One of the most praised this year was an obvious Kiss Me, Guido knockoff that thought it was funny to have a roomful of ethnic characters making gay jokes (and other things I was embarassed to have seen committed to magnetic media). The genre of sitcoms-based-on-stage-comedians-with-no-acting-experience, or worse, on-celebrities-allegedly-known-for-"acting", has been massively disappointing. Many of the others are ethnic comedies with deliberately narrow appeal.

There's a new genre of high-quallity animated series, though. The Simpsons is venerable so doesn't count, but Futurama is very good indeed (perhaps not as brilliant or pointed). King of the Hill is one of the best family sitcoms on the tube today, and manages all its humor without a laugh track. Not long ago such "dramedy" would have been considered risky experimentation.

So, maybe there's something to what Cleese says, but you have to be comparing the cream of the crop only, not the objectively compared contents of the vast wasteland.
posted by dhartung at 9:58 PM on August 25, 2001

dhartung, I you trying out for a sitcom critic job? I would agree with most of your sentiment. Personally I can't stop watching Spin City whist Locklear is still in it, but agree that it has gone down hill. That maybe as much because they were running out of places to go, as the departure of Fox.

I would also agree with your comments on Frasier. It is a shame that they went in that direction because Niles obsession was one of the funniest parts.

I would say, as a long term fan of Friends, that it is begining to get a little lame. New blood is needed.

As a Brit I would agree with Cleese. I can't think of a British comedy that was started in the last 3 years that is any good. Prior to that there are loads, but we do appear to be going through a drought.

Has any Americans seen Father Ted?
posted by Atom Heart Mother at 10:39 PM on August 25, 2001

There's a little line in this interview with Julia Sawalha: they have shot new episodes of AbFab, and they begin next week on BBC1. Usually takes a year or so to show up on BBC America...
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:38 PM on August 25, 2001

Somebody needs to extol The Royale Family - the BBC's closely observed, all-but plotless comedy about a working-class family of couch potatoes. I've hurt my sides laughing, I've been appalled, I've cried. It differs from Friends in the same way that sugar differs from aspartame and a bunch of flowers differs from a can of air freshener. It barely translates to Scotland, I'm sure it doesn't translate at all to British Upper Middle Class - I'm astonished to learn from skallas' link that it won rave reviews when it was screened this year on the cable channel BBC America - I had guessed my transatlantic cousins would stand little chance of appreciating the richness of it all.

As Jim would probably say : "John Cleese My Arse!"
posted by RichLyon at 12:14 AM on August 26, 2001

I don't know about you guys, but Mexican TV comedy is above and beyond hilarious. Especially when the adults dress like children and speak in squeaky voices. That stuff gets me rolling every time!

BTW: TV in general hasn't been very funny since MST3K went off the air.
posted by Down10 at 12:14 AM on August 26, 2001

AtomHeartMother - not even The League Of Gentlemen (started 1999)?
posted by pascal at 12:15 AM on August 26, 2001

though i haven't watched much british television, Absolutely Fabulous was one of my favorite shows. i remember feeling somewhat sad that no one i knew could relate when i first got into it around 8th grade (i'm a young'un / 19). brilliant show.

i don't watch much tv right now, especially american (i'm more of an anime fiend), but when i do watch, the only comedies i'm into are that 70s show, macolm in the middle, and of course, the simpsons.
posted by lotsofno at 12:16 AM on August 26, 2001

I've never seen the League of Gentlemen, I'll watch out for it now though.
posted by Atom Heart Mother at 12:42 AM on August 26, 2001

"Ugh.... did you just fart, Mike?"
"Who can tell Rick.... I'm a strange guy."
posted by dong_resin at 12:57 AM on August 26, 2001

Actually I don't think Cleese is really talking about Spaced, Father Ted and their ilk... what he seems to be refering to is Mainstream comedy. In Britain, as we know that means the BBC and ITV - where it has to be said there is a comedy slump. ITV only has a sitcom once in a while (what was that one with Davina Macall called?) and they're never any good and are always dumped or shunted to the fringes of the schedules. The BBC has some good(ish) new shows ('The Savages'), however the fact their falling on old favourites Ab Fab and Only Fools says a lot - as does the shunting of Gimme x3 to BBC1. I think we in the UK forget sometimes that in the US Fraser, Friends and Will and Grace are on mainstream networks and garner the popular viewing audience - in which case Cleese is right - US comedy is better than in the UK - if you keep within the mainstream parameters.

But as has been pointed out in this thread there are countless fringe successes - which in comparisson to the US, the UK excels at. Plenty have already been mentioned ('Spaced' - yeah!) but can I put a good word in for Adam & Joe and The Dave Gorman Collection ?
posted by feelinglistless at 1:37 AM on August 26, 2001

I think feelinglistless is mostly correct about the distinction between mainstream comedy and fringe comedy. Almost by definition the likes of us who frequent MeFi are going to prefer fringe comedy.

One comedy I'd like to put in a good word for is The Armstrong & Miller Show on Channel 4. (No links worth including, unfortunately.) Others have already mentioned the other recent stuff from this isle. I particularly laughed at Banzai.

Mainstream comedy has always been rubbish, with very few notable exceptions.
posted by salmacis at 4:07 AM on August 26, 2001

There's a little line in this interview with Julia Sawalha: they have shot new episodes of AbFab, and they begin next week on BBC1. Usually takes a year or so to show up on BBC America...

Actually, I believe Comedy Central is airing them this fall? Sometime in November, I think.
posted by stefnet at 6:17 AM on August 26, 2001

I think feelinglistless is mostly correct...

Better than being mostly harmless I suppose...
posted by feelinglistless at 6:32 AM on August 26, 2001

It's a difficult comparison to make, simply because mediocre British comedy generally doesn't make it to US screens, and vice versa. But as feelinglistless said, prime-time major-network comedy in the UK has a tradition of blandness (The Royles, AbFab and Blackadder began life on BBC2, and migrated to BBC1) whereas even middle-ranking US sitcoms ("Caroline in the City", "Cybill", "Veronica's Closet") tend to have a degree of polish that comes from the team-writing environment.

(Cleese was actually frank about his own career when talking to the Today programme on Radio 4: he hasn't done anything funny in ages, mainly because comedy doesn't interest him any more.)

lileks: with any luck, you'll get "The Office" on BBC America soon enough, which picks up some of its traits from "The Royle Family" and "People Like Us" (no laugh-track, docu-soap stylings, played as dry and deadpan as it comes) and teases out the petty politics of office life in a way that had me laughing and grimacing. (Ricky Gervais's character, a classic middle-manager, is a superbly-observed mixture of the mundane and grotesque.)

dhartung: someone once wrote that the difference between Frasier and Friends is that one's a gay comedy played straight, and the other a straight comedy played gay. Certainly, Frasier and Niles represent a very British tradition of high camp better than John bloody Inman.
posted by holgate at 7:54 AM on August 26, 2001

Black Books was a little gem.
posted by ceiriog at 9:59 AM on August 26, 2001

If you go to cable there are top-notch efforts like Sex and the City and Arli$$.

You had me until you praised Arli$$.
posted by Dirjy at 10:05 AM on August 26, 2001

If you go to cable there are top-notch efforts like Sex and the City and Arli$$.

You had me until you praised Sex and the City.
posted by feelinglistless at 2:33 PM on August 26, 2001

Arliss is brilliant, and I'd like to add that Malcolm in the Middle and Grosse Pointe are wonderfully funny also.
posted by flowerdale at 12:38 AM on August 27, 2001

Simpsons has jumped the shark. While there are still some funny episodes, they're not breaking much new ground anymore. The influence of the four-fingered yellow family permeates through most of today's programs, though.

Besides Futurama, Malcolm in the Middle is probably the obvious heir of the simpsons, with its misanthropic, family-centered-ness (and fortunate lack of laugh-track.) It also borrows heavily from seinfeld, and has 4 or 5 different plotlines weaving together and relating over the course of 22 minutes. I find myself watching Malcolm more often than the new seasons of the Simpsons.
posted by andrewraff at 8:40 AM on August 27, 2001

Can't believe there are normal people who find Friends
even slightly amusing
No accounting for popular culture
posted by johnny7 at 1:23 AM on August 28, 2001

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