Friday, 25 January 2013

Comedy can be grim

Late last year Channel 4 screened Full English, the latest attempt to create a British answer to American series such as The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy.

I've talked about past efforts here and here. British television simply doesn't have the best track record in this field: even the good series, such as Candy Guard's Pond Life, tend to vanish from view alongside the forgotten duds and abandoned pilots.

"Full English was a Tesco version of Family Guy", began the Metro review of the series. The writer went on to nail the main problem:
[W]ith its bad language, sexual content and a dash of violence, you could tell Full English wanted desperately to give the UK its very own animated adult sitcom. So much so in fact, that each character mirrored in some way one cartoon personality that already exists.

Wendy, slightly kooky with a murky past, was Lois Griffin; lecherous Ken could pass for an aged Quagmire (‘She did not kneel down and become my Beefeater’); big green lump Squidge with his psychotic threats to hang himself/slit his wrists is very much Stewie Griffin; while awkward Dusty was a male Meg Griffin, or Cleveland Jr. from The Cleveland Show.
Full English is a transparent attempt to emulate Seth MacFarlane's sitcoms Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show. I remember commenting before that, while The Simpsons inspired a number of inventive series, South Park provided a template that was a little too easy for lesser series to follow. Family Guy, meanwhile, more or less staked out an entire manifesto for by-the-book animated sitcoms. A CollegeHumor video famously lampooned the MacFarlane formula, and Full English would fit right in there.

The series received a string of poor reviews, along with a Daily Mail article from someone pretending to be outraged at a gag involving the ghosts of Jade Goody and Lady Diana. Like Family Guy, Full English relies heavily on pop culture references only, this time, the references are to British pop culture. This seems to have been the series' main selling point: it covers an area which MacFarlane doesn't - namely, gags about Jamie Oliver and Knightmare.

As the title suggests, it's English. And... that's about it.

ITV's Headcases, which lasted for eight episodes in 2008.

Francois Truffaut famously stated that British people are inherently incapable of making films. Stuff like Full English, along with other recent misfires such as ITV's Headcases, may lead some to suspect that we are also incapable of producing adult animated comedy series - or at least, ones which are able to pick up reasonably sized audiences.

But there is no reason for this to be the case. For one, a number of popular live action British comedies have a very cartoonish ethos: think of Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen or The Mighty Boosh to start with. Also consider the world of online animated comedy, where a number of well-loved creators such as Joel Veitch, Cyriak, Weebl and David Firth hail from the UK. The country clearly has the talent for a good animated comedy series, it's just that the series isn't being made.

The attempts that reach our screens tend to be diluted. South Park shows the creative spark of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Pond Life shows the spark of Candy Guard, but any spark is muffled or completely absent in the likes of Full English and Headcases.

There is also the issue that British television series tend to be much shorter on and episode-per-season basis than their American counterparts (TV Tropes calls this "British Brevity"). A series with six episodes and no promise of later seasons will not have time to grow on an audience as a thirteen-episode US series will - leading to more problems when American formulae are followed too closely.

The Mighty Boosh: more cartoonish than a good number of cartoons.

If it is necessary for a British animated comedy to wear its nationality on its sleeve as Full English did, then there are better ways to go about it. Jokes about Jade Goody and Jordan can be left to Mock the Week; perhaps an animated comedy could delve into British history the way Blackadder did, or draw on techniques familiar from children's television such as Gerry Anderson's puppetry or the cut-outs of Mr. Benn. Perhaps it could lampoon a past genre of British cinema, similar to how Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible parodied Hammer horror.

I once saw an interview with the creators of The Mighty Boosh in which one of them described the series as "Svankmajeresque". Now, if live action comedy is turning to Jan Svankmajer for inspiration, then why not animated comedy...?

No comments:

Post a Comment