LONDON — George S. Kaufman famously said of the American appetite for topical humor, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”
That dire pronouncement certainly doesn’t apply to today’s U.K. entertainment scene, where satire is generating big B.O. and TV ratings.
In late January, the No. 1 film in the U.K. was the determinedly non-P.C., liberal-lampooning satirical puppet pic “Team America,” which failed to catch much fire with U.S. critics or film fans.
In the U.K., however, it was a hit with the public, and a poll of U.K. critics gave it a higher ranking than Oscar contenders “Million Dollar Baby” and “Closer.”
Typical of the U.K. response was this rave from critic Peter Bradshaw, writing in the reliably liberal and avowedly anti-Bush Guardian: “Silly and infantile it may be — but ‘Team America’ is defiantly funny, tweaking the nose of the polite classes with its mad iconoclasm. Why can’t non-puppet films be as good as this?”
Another example of the U.S./Brit gulf in comic sensibilities may be amply illustrated by the recent dustup between Brit topical comic Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G) and American comedy director Todd Phillips.
Cohen’s mockumentary persona Borat was headed for the bigscreen with Phillips helming. But upon closer examination of Cohen’s Borat routines — such as one that involves getting rednecks in an American bar to sing along with an anti-Semitic ditty and another that saw him nearly incite a riot at a rodeo with inflammatory remarks about the Iraq war — Phillips ankled the project.
In the U.K., Borat/Cohen/Ali remains a major media star because of, not despite, his rude and non-P.C. antics.
Outside the confines of cable outlets and latenight gabfests, topical humor isn’t exactly whizzing off the shelves of primetime television in America.
The satire gap is vividly illustrated by the remarks of “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry at the Golden Globes. He noted it was only after he stopped pitching the show as a satire and instead sold it as a soap opera that he found a TV home for the skein — which is in fact mild satire of only the safest and tamest nature.
In the U.K., by contrast, the whole nation has embraced a scabrous satirical BBC sketch show called “Little Britain,” which mercilessly skewers everyone from racist society ladies prone to projectile vomiting when in the presence of minorities to handicapped citizens keen tormenting their caretakers.
The show took top honors at the recent Brit Comedy kudos and this week’s issue of lad magazine Nuts reports “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening is such a fan that he hopes to slip some of the show’s many outrageous characters into a future episode of his show.
The folks in the U.K can’t wait for that episode. Let’s hope the folks at the U.S. network can.