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My Influences #4 - British TV Comedies! (a continuing list)

British comedies!

Growing up in Canada, we got quite a mixture of pop culture thrown at us.  Where I lived our cable TV channels consisted of the big four US networks, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox, filtered through the local Seattle affiliates, plus PBS and two main Canadian channels, CTV and the government funded CBC.  Our Canadian cable stations, such as TSN (The Sports Network), gave us Canadian (and American) sports, Much Music gave us Canadian (and American) music videos while YTV (Youth TV, I think the "Y" stood for) gave us cartoons from all over the world.  In Canada we got CNN before we had our own 24 hour Canadian news channel.  Canadian "culture" consists of a lot of American influence, but also a TON of British influences as well.  Thanks to PBS, A&E and also late night YTV, which was a kids channel during the day and at night showed, well, seemingly whatever the hell they wanted, we got a lot of British shows too.  I remember watching great British TV shows such as The Avengers (Steed and Peel!), Fawlty Towers, Cracker, Lovejoy, The Good Life, As Time Goes By, French and Saunders, Chef, Yes, Prime Minister and others, some I'll be kicking myself later for forgetting (my dad's favourite was "Are You Being Served?" and lately I've been meaning to binge those shows).  But this list is the best of the best, ones I go back to often and re-visit (with one exception, as you'll see).  And they also influenced me and shaped my brain to what it is today.

1- Red Dwarf
*PBS, or for me it's Seattle affiliate KCTS 9, wouldn't show Red Dwarf often.  They would, once a year or so, do Red Dwarf marathons all weekend and when they did, it was a reason to celebrate.  Discovering Red Dwarf and it's brand of sci-fi humour was an awakening for me.  I was very young when I was introduced to Lister, Rimmer, Cat and Kryten and didn't know sci-fi was something that was, or even could be, funny.  I hadn't yet found Douglas Adams and the like.  In fact, Red Dwarf goes so far back in my memory it may be the first British TV show I ever watched, even before Monty Python even though chronologically of course it came much later.  Some very British references went over my head, such as a kipper or smeghead, but since I discovered this show as a kid, I was used to things going over my head and just rolled with it.  I remember being fascinated by concepts such as "future echoes", "polymorphs" and "parallel universes".

And then Series 3 changed without so much of an explanation, other than a Star Wars style crawl at the beginning of the 1st episode that you had to slow down to properly read.  Kryten was added to the cast full-time, they changed Holly to a woman and ignoring the fact Lister ended the last series as having just delivered twin babies.  They could have taken one episode to explain everything properly, but they just didn't feel like it, so why bother?  Once that five-some were united, the show really found it's stride, using Kryten in particular as a middle-man caught between Lister and Rimmer's battles for the upper hand.  I remember Series 4's "Justice" and "Meltdown" as well as Series 5's "The Inquisitor" being particular favourites.  But I also remember my mind being blown by Series 5's finale "Back to Reality", where the crew seems to die and then are awoken all at the same time, as they had apparently been playing a virtual reality game the whole time and weren't actually the crew of the Red Dwarf.  So many great memories from this show and even watching the show, in particular when KCTS 9 would do the marathons in later years they would fly over the stars to take part and chat in between episodes, something that is kinda common now on cable and the internet but at the time to me was pretty amazing.  I think the last time they did this (or one of the last that I saw anyway) Joel McHale, an unknown Seattle comedian at the time, was one of the KCTS 9 hosts and was geeking-out talking to Lister and The Cat, a far cry from his character on "Community" who would have made fun of that guy.  I remember having to search through my old VHS tapes, looking for tapes with enough space on them to record a few episodes at a time (in SLP we could record, like 6 hours on one tape, right?).  I drifted away from Red Dwarf when new episodes were few and far between, but apparently they are still making them to this day, so I need to go back and get caught up on what those "Smedheads" are up to.

2- Black Adder
I recently re-watched all these shows in a binge session (all are available on Youtube, btw) and yes, that first series still isn't good.  But series 2-4 are still amazing and get better and better, which is rare for any series.  I talked about this show's influence on me during my August 31 movies in 31 days Blog after watching a 90 minute retrospective documentary on the show.  I just love this show and seeing how it changed so much after Ben Elton came along after the first series.  Going to a studio audience format and swapping the personalities and intellects of the characters (Baldrick was actually the smart on in the 1st series…that just seems wrong doesn't it?) really shook up the series and both the cast and crew are legendary. 

Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Tim McInnerny, Robbie Coltrane, Jim Broadbent, Rik Mayall, Brian Blesses…the first episode even featured Peter Cook…plus Richard Curtis and Elton behind the scenes.  Also interesting was that McInnerny was supposed to play the Prince Regent in Series 3 but left the show and Laurie took over and was spectacular. 

Then it all came together for the final series, Series 4, set during World War I in the trenches of No Man's Land (hear that Wonder Woman movie fans?), with the final few minutes of the last episode being part of tv history.  I loved that the show changed every series, able to re-invent itself every time, almost kind of like Dr. Who in a sense, in that they weren't bogged down creatively.  That's something I've wanted to incorporate into my writing and hopefully someday I can in way that doesn't suck too much.  Rowan Atkinson is known the world over as Mr. Bean, and while I do like Mr. Bean (well, early Mr. Bean…), but Edmond Blackadder should be his comedic legacy.

3- Spaced
This show launched some shining stars into the entertainment world.  Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, for starters.  The show starred Pegg and Jessica Stevenson as two roommates and their friends and lives and other things.  It was filled with pop culture references, some of which stand up and some that don't.  I re-watched these recently and (surprisingly) almost didn't get the Sixth Sense reference.  But of course the homages to The Matrix and Phantom Menace all hold up.  I have to admit that this show was hyped big time to me, with me buying the big box set when it came out, having never watched a second of the show, but saw that there were commentaries by Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino and knowing Pegg/Frost/Wright for their movies (I prefer Hot Fuzz to Shaun of the Dead, just like I prefer buddy cop movies to zombie movies, but I still love Shaun too, so calm down...) and figured it was a can't miss. 

But then I admit that the first time I watched the show, I didn't get it.  But something made me try again and that second time the lightbulb went off and I loved it.  Also a treat, on the DVD, is a documentary about the show, not just with talking heads and retrospectives (they do have that though) but also Pegg, Stevenson and Wright actually go back to where the series was filmed and even to the house where the filming took place and have a fun encounter with some Spaced fans who just happen to show up that day.  They all come across as cool people who you would like to hang out with and be happy for their successes.

4- Monty Python
For obvious reasons…I remember knowing who John Cleese was at an early age, and I probably saw Fawlty Towers first…and I remember one Sunday afternoon flipping the channels and this movie came on called "Monty Python and The Holy Grail" and loving it.  After that I tried to know everything I could about Monty Python.  At my local video rental store, they had "Best of Python" VHS tapes I could rent, plus I found out about other Python films like "Life of Brian" and "The Meaning of Life", plus any books or documentaries I could find (and luckily, there isn't a shortage of those).  Then one day Bravo in Canada started showing Monty Python's Flying Circus from the beginning and I was blown away.  While I still think of "Holy Grail" as the best Python's ever done (they say "Life of Brian" is their masterpiece, I respectfully disagree), watching the show, episode by episode, series by series, I think this is quite simply masterful.  I know -  news flash: Monty Python is good! 

If I had to pick a favourite episode, I'd almost have to say the first one…nearly all the sketches are burned into my brain.  The first two sketched in particular, with Graham Chapman and Terry Jones discussing the possible benefits to sheep aviation and then them transitioning to John Cleese and Michael Palin, in French no less, talking about a new design for an Airplane made out of Sheep.  And that was kind of their brilliance, every episode had a loose theme and sketches carried over, not necessarily needing a big finish.  SNL sketches needed a way out, a big punch line to wrap it up before they headed to commercial.  The Flying Circus had no such limitations.  My all-time favourite sketch (today) is probably the sketch where Eric Idle comes home to his parents and is treated like a traitor by his father and you assume the father is a labourer and the son is an artist, but it's flipped and the skit ends with the father crying out in pain cause of his writer's cramp.  As a writer with family that didn't quite get what I did, I always found that skit hilarious. 

I still break out the huge DVD box-set of Circus every once in a while to re-watch those great episodes.  Even after Cleese left the show, while the quality did go down a bit, there are some still amazing bit there.  I know, again - news flash: Monty Python is funny!  Recently watching their Reunion Special, seeing Spamalot live and then even more Monty Python docs (the doc "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyer's Cut)" in particular I've watched several times) and having listened to as many audio books as possible about the subject, it truly never gets old.  And it's got me looking back further to check out their influences like The Goon Show, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore too.  Just an unending thread of comedy greatness.  NEWS FLASH!

5- Young Ones/Bottom
I have to admit, this selection is questionable…I could have put Fawlty Towers or a sketch show like French and Saunders, which I watched over and over when the Women's Network started showing it in Canada…but these two picks are sentimental, as Rik Mayall died too young and also to me they are still full of potential, as I've seen some episodes but not all of them.  Both shows have something in common, hence the grouping.  Both shows featured Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, first as youngsters and then the two of them again ten years later.

I love the Young Ones episode where they did the quiz show, and Bottom (which I have seen more of) did that great birthday episode that was a Young Ones reunion (if I am remembering correctly).  My favourite episode was the one where the two characters just sit in their apartment and talk, having had their TV stolen (I believe it's Series Two's "Culture", after reading the show's Wikipedia).  I loved it so much I considered adapting it into a stage show, but it never happened. 

But why are these shows on this list, considering I admit that I am not necessarily an expert on the shows and haven't even seen all the episodes.  First, sod off, it's my list.  Second, I like that I have more to discover with these shows and new experiences to come.  And it is #5, after all…

That's it for now…I plan on doing similar lists for Best Animated TV series, Best British sic-fi show, etc.  One day...