Imagine, if you will, a TV sitcom that chronicles the misadventures of a tragically hip scenester and his best friend, an aggressive uber-nerd with delusions of grandeur. Their social circle expands only marginally to include a perpetually stoned shaman and his familiar, a talking ape who DJs on the weekends. In a recurring subplot, you’ll also meet a whining, petulant, alarmingly pink penis-headed creature who, in one particular episode, makes love to the severed head of a blind man. Not to be excluded from the freak parade are a self-pleasuring human sandstorm, a half-man/half-fish hermaphrodite who drinks copious amounts of Baileys liqueur, and an incontinent Victorian hooligan with a peppermint Lifesaver where his left eye should be.
Imagine further that all this is par for the course in a foreign television landscape where sitcoms are often devoid of formulaic plots and predictable stock characters.
Of course, if you lived in the U.K., you wouldn’t have to imagine any of this because you’d be watching it on government-funded public television. The utter fearlessness of the hit comedy described above–The Mighty Boosh, to those in the know–raises an obvious question: do penises actually talk? For the more ruminative amongst us, it also raises a secondary query: why is the limey-spawned sitcom decidedly braver, and subsequently often funnier, than its Yankee counterpart?
You Say “To-MAY-to,” I Say “To-MAH-to!”…and “Apples!” and “Oranges!” and Whatever Other Produce Can Be Enlisted To Convey Discrepancy
In the interest of comparing apples to apples (instead of apples to oranges or even apples to, say, talking penis-heads), we’ll confine this discussion to the sitcom as is readily available to any carbon-based lifeform in possession of a working television and access to an electrical outlet. In America, this means that if you were to plug a television into a wall, you would likely be greeted by the free (albeit static-plagued) offerings of NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and such. Television programming of this ilk is often referred to by archeologists as “pre-basic cable,” and prior to monolithic cable companies taking over America and all the television sets contained therein, this used to be as good as it got. In England, comparable easy access television generally covers the offerings of the BBC–the British Broadcasting Corporation–and its channels, BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three and…well, you get the idea.
Now, having at least attempted to level the playing field, let’s explore what happens when a talking penis wanders onto it.
American Penises Don’t Crack Jokes; They Topple Governments
As touched upon above, the BBC is supported via government funds…which makes the appearance of a well-spoken willie in one of its sitcoms even more remarkable.
However, on this side of the pond, we Yanks have bestowed upon the penis a heady (ahem), almost God-like power–which apparently is supposed to incite fear and trembling, not comedy. (Incidentally, boobies over here wield a fair amount of clout too. Recall how a glimpse of nipple became the almost-exclusive focus of a certain Superbowl.) At any rate, the historically mute penises on our turf get into enough trouble already, having been known to ruin politicians and televangelists alike. Neither the government, nor corporate advertisers who answer to ultraconservatives, are going to support television programming that enables these errant organs to speak their mind.
And we most definitely shouldn’t laugh at penises when they do talk. It only encourages them.
Giving Moral Ambiguity the Shaft
Sexual themes are not the only kinds that make many Yanks too squeamish to laugh. A quick comparison of the continent-hopping versions of The Office–-each of which has been successful on its own side of the Atlantic–provides a perfect example of how social discomfort and moral ambiguity don’t always translate clearly either.
In the BBC version, you’d be hard-pressed to find any redeeming qualities about Ricky Gervais’s David Brent. He’s a selfish, narcissistic, nail-bitingly awkward human being who oftentimes is too painful to watch in action. Herein, perhaps, is a glaring clue as to what dark, sharp secrets lurk at the heart of the British sitcom. Discomfort–be it moral, social, sexual, or other–is truth. Truth is funny, albeit sometimes painfully so.
Now consider Steve Carell as Michael Scott. Still a hopeless buffoon–and with Carell’s astute comic touch, the character remains extremely funny, but the show’s creators are careful to peel back enough of Scott’s pompous exterior to occasionally reveal a soft spot, however small. We Americans can handle truth to some extent…so long as it’s sugarcoated. A glimpse of the soft spot, a hint of rainbow, a whiff of puppy breath–just give us something cuddly or sparkly or lilac-scented to work with, please.
Otherwise, what’s next? No Santa Claus? See, that’s just crazy talk.
In contrast, Brits enjoy engaging in an activity known as “taking the piss.” Not to be confused with what happens after partaking one too many pints in a pub, “taking the piss” out of someone actually involves making fun of that person–often in blistering fashion. It is open season on other people’s religious beliefs, politics, economic status, their kids, lack of grammatical prowess, and yes, their sex organs–even on publicly-funded television! Remarkably, this all happens without angry mobs descending upon BBC headquarters bearing torches and pitchforks.
Given the more prudish womb in which the American sitcom gestates, it’s actually impressive that it can get even half as feisty as the likes of, say, The Simpsons or 30 Rock, with a moral majority-shaped handicap clinging so diligently to its ankles. The Brits simply don’t let politics and religion dictate what sort of content is allowable in something as innocuous as a sitcom–at least not to the extent that Americans do.
Does this mean the British God is a more sophisticated and worldly one who drinks His tea with pinkie finger extended just so and, more importantly, who has better things to do than smite a television viewer whose taste runs toward the tawdry? Maybe, maybe not. (I’m opining about such a controversial matter with my chair planted firmly on American soil, so if you find me smote in the near future, perhaps you’ll have your answer.) And would a more thorough and responsible analysis of this issue require further deliberation of God, politics, the FCC, censorship, and still more talking penises? Yes. Alas, in the interest of keeping this article’s length within the confines of that which can be physiologically absorbed by the human eyeball in one sitting, one must resort to oversimplification.
Size (Or At Least Length) Matters
One must also bear in mind that British sitcom season is significantly shorter (typically six to eight episodes per season) than the infinite American one. Furthermore, successful American sitcoms have been known to hobble past the decade mark on occasion.
This is the difference between being brilliant and fascinating in an affair versus maintaining a long-term marriage. If you have a short amount of time in which to perform your best material, you’re gonna look a hell of a lot sexier than if you have to be consistently appealing to someone who has to watch your tired, shabby, and occasionally flu-ridden act over the long haul.
Less Rigidity in Late-Night Television?
Beyond the inflexible city limits of the sitcom, but still within the state lines of public television, things do grow slightly more interesting in the Limey vs. Yankee TV face-off, thanks to the existence of sketch-based comedy. American shows like Saturday Night Live and Mad TV are certainly willing and able to show a bit more chutzpah. Do they display the unabashed balls of a British counterpart like Little Britain, in which 40-something uppercrust males have not yet weaned from breastfeeding, and in which gay boys parade around in G-strings and nothing else whilst complaining about the lack of “bum fun” to be found in a small village? Not entirely, but at least in the sketch show arena, the Americans almost manage to hold their own. Just don’t show them…uh…holding it.
The Anti-Climatic Finish
Yes, a sitcom is often braver, feistier, gutsier, and snarkier when it has washed upon our shores from the British Isles. Sadly, its American counterpart is kept on a far-shorter leash, which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t like to hump your leg too, if given half a chance. Vying for the title of Best in Show is indeed an apples and oranges proposition after all, but while the Brits are perennial favorites, the occasionally audacious American underdog still deserves honorable mention.