The American version of “Little Britain” shares several traits with Showtime’s Tracey Ullman sketch comedy “State of the Union,” yet virtually every comparison proves unflattering to the new HBO series. Whereas Ullman’s comedy is clever, “Britain USA” is mostly just crude, reveling in mock condescension toward American stereotypes. Ullman plays multiple gender-swapping characters, but with more panache than the chameleon-like David Walliams and Matt Lucas. And Ullman’s hit-miss ratio is simply higher, making the slog through “Britain’s” gooey swamp to find laughs feel more arduous.
Oddly enough, the truncated preview HBO presented to TV critics a few months ago had me howling, which reminds us of the difference between selected clips and sitting through an entire half-hour of disjointed sketches. Moreover, the series is augmented by the strains of canned laughter that come across as forced each time one of the location bits falls flat. (Yes, “Benny Hill” did the same, but that was then, and this is now.)
Walliams and Lucas certainly owe a debt to Hill and Monty Python, but their impulses invariably drift below the (freely exposed) belt, going for the easiest possible gag. So there are plenty of drag bits, fat suits and gay jokes, such as Walliams’ fey British prime minister acting like he has a positively giddy crush on the U.S. president (Harry Lennix).
Rosie O’Donnell also drops in for a guest stint during another recurring skit, with Lucas as a “Fat Fighters” counselor who keeps directing insults (“My God some of you are big”) at her charges. Yet as with the aged astronaut who had the bad fortune to be the eighth man on the moon, or the rude hospital-reception nurse (who does have a memorable catchphrase: “Computer says no”), the wit level of these over-the-top interludes seldom rises above what’s scrawled on a middle-school bathroom wall.
Nothing could be more subjective than this brand of comedy, especially when the gags race by so rapidly. Still, after three episodes of “Little Britain,” I chuckled all of twice — once, explosively, at two muscle-bound gym buddies — and 20 minutes later had trouble remembering why.
Tom Baker, aka Dr. Who, provides the stentorian narration, and at the end of one episode asks, “What have we learned?” Not a damn thing, by design. But alas, “Little Britain’s” laughs are as puny as its ambitions.