US Comedy

You may not have noticed it, but if (like me) you tend to stay in of a Friday night, all the best telly seems to have been imported from America. Well, at least now Ground Force has finished. But is that really anything new?

Channel 4 have been the vanguard of this movement, but then I can remember tuning in to that particular channel when it started up in 1982 to watch such halcyon US Sixties sitcoms as Bewitched, The Addams Family and The Munsters. Not to mention I Dream of Jeannie, which featured a pre-J.R. Larry Hagman. All very exciting for someone who hadn’t even been born when they originally aired, and whose experience of American comedy was previously restricted to The Monkees (why is it that the wacky shenanigans of the pre-Fab four no longer seem quite as inspired as they once did?).

Where Channel 4 scored with the grown-ups, however, was with Cheers (1982). Would bar owner Sam (a toupéed Ted Danson) ever win the fair hand of waitress Diane (Shelley Winters)? What on Earth did she see in Frasier (Kelsey Grammer)? How would things change when Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) took over? Not a lot, as it happened, because the show went on winning Grammys and entertaining audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. It couldn’t last, of course, and it didn’t. In 1992, Sam made one last attempt to woo Diane and, needless to say, ended up back in the bar where everybody knew his name. A Very Best of series of videos is available.

But it wasn’t the end, not really, for at least one of the regulars went on to a new beginning. Psychiatrist Frasier left behind his chums in Boston and headed for his native Seattle, to a job as a radio phone-in host and a luzury apartment. His luxurious new lifestyle, however, is constantly spoiled by dad Martin (John Mahoney), eccentric home-help Daphne (Jane Leeves), neurotic brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and sassy radio producer Roz (Peri Gilpin). The sixth series finished its run recently, and a Very Best of collection of videos is available both separately and as a box set.

Around the same time a new breed of coffee bar comedy sprang up, with the arrival of the Friends; the lives and loves of Ross (David Schwimmer), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Monica (Courtney Cox), Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) soon became required viewing. Box sets of the first and second series are available, and the fifth is being released as we speak. The BBC hit back, belatedly, with 3rd Rock from the Sun, which features the adventures of a group of aliens sent to Earth in human form to observe our behavioural patterns. 3rd Rock from the Sun: Lonely Dick (1997) was released on video last month, while the most recent hit import to arrive on our screens, Ally McBeal, received its video debut with Ally McBeal: Pilot/Fool’s Night Out (1998).

America has also originated what arguably constitutes a new comedy genre over the last decade: the animated comedy for grown-ups. From a five-minute fill-in on Tracey Ullman’s US television show, The Simpsons had flowered into a hit programme in its own right by 1989. Its yellow-skinned protagonists have now taken on a life of their own: Homer (doh!), Bart (ay! carumba!), Marge, Maggie and Lisa are a perfectly cromulent example of the modern dysfunctional family, and everyone from Bob Hope to Jerry Skinner has guested on the show. Which is, as nuclear power plant owner Mr Burns might say, ‘Eeeeeeeeeeexcellent.’ The Simpsons: The Simpsons Go to Hollywood (1998), containing material never broadcast in the UK, was released in June.

The origins of Beavis and Butt-Head were similarly humble. The adolescent MTV pundits now have not only nearly a dozen video compilations to their name, but also starred in their own feature film, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996). The same fate awaits the denizens of South Park, who have Volumes 3 and 4 of their second series premiered on video this week. The foul-mouthed antics of Stan, Kyle, the obese Cartman and Kenny (who always ends up being mindlessly slaughtered) continue to entertain, enthral and occasionally repulse, along with the cheesy balls of their chum Chef and the wise teachings of Mr Hanky, the Christmas Pooh.

All we need now is for King of the Hill to make it onto video, I tell you what. Yup.

Richard Hewett