Eddie Izzard paved the way and now Dylan Moran is going down a storm in New York, too. With The Office and Ab Fab wowing US TV audiences, British comedy really is the new rock ‘n’ roll, writes James Rampton.
The bus stop right outside my Manhattan hotel is emblazoned with a large poster. Underneath a picture of David Brent, it reads: “ See what all the fuss is about…. Watch The Office – it’s the best comedy on TV (the New York Times)”. Every few minutes, buses pass by plastered with pictures of Edina and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous swigging merrily from champagne bottles. It is 20-odd years since Colin Welland made his patriotic rallying cry while collecting his Academy Award for writing Chariots of Fire. Then, of course, his boast as never fulfilled – but now it may finally be coming to pass. The British are coming.
Our comedians are storming the States in a way not seen since Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Ab Fab is the trendiest show on US TV, Ricky Gervais has taken a starring role in Alias and has just picked up a brace of Golden Globe Awards for The Office. And his Office co-stars are all creating a stir in Hollywood: Martin Freeman has landed a lead in the big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: Mackenzie Crook is starring opposite Al Pacino in a cinema adaptation of The Merchant Of Venice, and Lucy Davis has signed up for six years on a new American sitcom.
But perhaps most significantly of all, Eddie Izzard is the hottest ticket in New York. There is a new wave of British comedians coming to America with the same glint in their eyes and the same eternal motto imprinted in their minds: “I’ll take Manhattan.”
To underline the point, New York has been playing host to a Brit Com festival. The British/Irish Comedy Invasion at the Village Theatre in Greenwich Village has been whipping up what may well be the most hysterical frenzy for British acts this side of Beatlemania. All the prerequisites of a massive cult are present and correct: tickets have been changing hands on the black market at several times their faces value: queues have been snaking round the block: audience members have come dressed as their favourite Brit Com artists: and performers gave been greeted by the kind of whoopin’ and hollerin’ rarely heard outside The Jerry Springer Show.
The festival line-up is headed by Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran, the Irish comedian who became the youngest-ever Perrier Award winner at the 1996 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has since starred in three brilliant British comedies (Black Books, Shaun of the Dead and How Do You Want Me?).
The night I’m watching Izzard and Moran both dazzle. The best-received material is a section where Moran takes the mick out of our American friends. He gets the loudest cheer of the night when he outlines how to recognise Americans abroad. “You don’t need any visuals, do you” he teases the US crowd that he has long since won over, “because your coice does tend to carry. As a European over here, I can tell you I don’t really need to employ the phrase ‘I’m sorry, what was that again?’” Moran also gets a lot of mileage out of the British and Irish stereotypes of New York. “We’ll always feel let down unless we see a shoot-out between two yellow cabs parked next to a fire escape and a gang of children playing in the water spraying out of a broken fire hydrant. In the same way, we’re disappointed when we see steam rising out of manholes and don’t hear be-bop jazz in the background.”
The show goes so well that David Letterman is keen to book Moran as a guest on his late-night chat show. At the festival, the dynamic duo of Izzard and Moran are ably supported by Omid Djalili, Britain’s most successful (and only) comedian of Iranian roots: Boothby Graffoe, the talented stand-up musician and star of Radio 4’s In No Particular Order, and The Hollow Men, a Cambridge sketch troupe who are low-profile in Britain but have been handed their own series on the influential US cable network Comedy Central. That’s how ultra-fashionable Brit Com is in America right now: unknown acts over are being offered major series over there.
The festival is the brainchild of the leading American producer Arnold Engelman, who is president of highly successful WestBeth Entertainment group. He has recently out on Billy Connolly, Graham Norton, Ardal O’Hanlon, Julian Clary and the Legue of Gentleman in New York. And after the sell-out British/Irish Comedy Invasion, he is planning a second assault later in the year. He has already signed up Bill Bailey, Dave Gorman and Tommy Tiernan, and is hoping to bring over Ricky Gervais, Ross Noble, and the League of Gentleman again. “I’m aiming to put on the cream of British comedy,” Engelman beams when I meet him in his minimalist-chic, open-plan office in New York’s Chelsea district. “The equivalent would be to send Seinfeld to Britain one week and Robin Williams the next.” He could never be accused of thinking small.
Engelman, a charismatic, leather-jacketed cross between Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld and a successful version of Broadway Danny Rose, goes on to explain the thinking behind his “invasion”. “The title comes from the British music invasion of the Sixties when The Beatles and the Stones took America by storm. This is the second invasion. You Brits were hip in the Sixties. Now you’re hip again.” I hate to invoke the world’s most over-used cliché, but comedy is clearly the new rock ‘n’ roll.
After their shows, Izzard, Moran and I take a 2am trip to the St Andrew’s , a heaving Scottish pub off Broadway. It is the middle of New York’s Tartan Week – no, I don’t know what it’s celebrating, either – and we’re surrounded by sturdy Glaswegians in kilts. Suddenly, to add to the bizarreness of the occasion, a bagpiper strikes up a loud rendition of Flower of Scotland. It’s all redolent of a surreal Izzard routine.
Trying to make his voice heard above the skirling pipes, Izzard agrees with Engelman’s comparison. “The analogy is The Beatles,” remarks the cross-dressing comedian, who today is in “boy” phase, with a rugged goatee, dark shirt and blue jeans. “After The Beatles had been a success, people said ‘What about the Stones and The Who?’ Why not? Everything moves in a wave. You look for patterns and see where they’re going. It’s not complicated. All I did was take British comedians who are good and say,’Now go to America and be good.’”
Izzard certainly spearheaded the invasion. Having chipped away at the American market since 1998, last summer he embarked on a huge US tour of venues which were all displaying the “sold out” sign just hours after the tickets went on sale. So why has no British live comedian made it over there before? “None of them were transvestites,” Izzard jokes.
“When I came out as a transvestite,” he adds seriously,”I told my dad I thought the British were ready to be cool about it and they were. Once you’ve come out about it and not been shot down, then you think, ’Right, now I can another risk.’ I thought it was time to come to America – I’ve always been good at feeling those moments. So I started by playing smaller clubs in New York for four months, building up my reputation. I was relentless. In the end, it’s not rocket science. You’re just getting up on stage saying stupid things and hoping people connect with them.
“Once I’d proved I could come to America and audiences didn’t say,’What? Why the hell would we want a live British comedian that no one knows?’, I started encouraging my fellow British stand-ups to try their luck out here.”
Izzard harbours an altruistic desire to help other UK comedians crack the elusive US market.Let’s face it, since Monty Python, all manner of notable British talents from Bruce Forsyth to Rowan Atkinson have tried and failed. Among the very few who have succeeded are Benny Hill and, if you can believe it, Are You being Served? (which plays in perpetuity on local US cable stations).
“It’s not me saying,’Hey, goodwill to all men’,” Izzard contends. “It’s just that it took me a long time to make it and now I like encouraging other people. I also like watching good comedy.”
So why are comedians from over here suddenly striking such a chord over there? Mick Perrin, who promotes both Izzard and Moran, is in no doubt of the answer. “ If you want to put it in one word, it’s charm,” he says. “You want to take these British comics home and have a drink with them. Comedians like Eddie have a magnetic charm that’s lacking in a lot of American stand-ups who have this very hard veneer. Eddie’s humour is at no one else’s expense, which is refreshingly different for American audiences.”
Moran believes British and Irish comedians are succeeding because they are so spontaneous. In contrast to the mostly slick but strait-jacketed Stateside stand-ups, he and Izzard can spin 10-minute routines out of one stray remark from a heckler. “American comedians seem to be aiming for an imaginary demographic. ‘Right, my audience is made up of 35 year old men going out with black paraplegics with great senses of humour, lots of dogs and gay friends,’” deadpans Moran (who may well have patented the word deadpan). “In going for this imaginary rainbow audience, they try too hard to cover every base. That means there isn’t a big improvisational aspect to American stand-up. It feels pumped-in, like elevator music. In contrast to a lot of our comedy, it has that tried-and-tested feel, like air dried goods.
“They hone their routine to within an inch of its life so they’re ready to regurgitate it when they’re invited on to Letterman. You could shake one of those American stand-ups awake at three in the morning and he’d instantly be word-perfect. It’s not a warts-and-all view – they depersonalise their routines. They’re terrified of alienating their sponsors or offending anyone, and so their act ends up very bland.”
The other thing that makes Dylan Moran stand out in the US is that he is not afraid to speak his mind. He is more than happy, for instance, to point out the American propensity for violence. “Do you have skinheads here?” he inquires during his show. “I can’t imagine they’d do very well given the range of scary people you have here. You bad guys would just think ‘Look at those men with no hair. Let’s shoot them and see the blood come out of their heads without the interference of hair.’”
Speaking over the drone of the bagpipes, Moran asserts that he is not going to dilute his straight-talking persona to appease American PC sensibilities. “I’m not going to tone down my splenetic side,” he grins. “Heaven forbid” That would be totally self-defeating. In comedy, talking about being comfortable is just not very funny.
“New York has a reputation as a place that likes a good kvetch. Do you know that Don DeLillo novel White Noise? In that, he writes: ‘The secret of survival in the city is to complain entertainingly.’ As long as you’re funny, you can get away with it.”
Moran also has a devil-may-care attitude to making it in the States and, perversely, it is exactly this indifference that has made him so successful. “American audiences admire our sense of rebelliousness,” he reflects. “Stand-ups in Britain or Ireland seem to have more integrity. We’re not going to chop and change our act just to suit a Kmart audience. Audiences in the US are attracted to our diffidence and our refusal to wear a ‘For Sale’ sign on our foreheads.”
Fiona Walsh, a New York-based comedian, agrees. After lapping up moran’s show at the Village Theatre, she marvels at its originality. “We have been force-fed bland sitcoms and reality TV shows for too long,” she sighs, “ so to watch really well-crafted comedy, comedy with attitude like Dylan Moran or The Office, is so refreshing. Sometimes it feels as though Americans have no sense of irony whatsoever – and that’s what British and Irish comedians provide.”
This is a theme that Boothby Graffoe echoes. Unwinding after his show with a large whisky at Kenny’s Castaways, a gloomy bar opposite the theatre, he recalls that “the last time I was here, it was so cold I bought a big furry hat. It looked ruddy stupid abut everyone I passed in the street said,’Nice hat.’ In Britain, if they’d said that, they’d have meant, ‘What a plonker’, but here they actually meant ‘Nice hat’. They just don’t get sarcasm at all.”
American audiences are also drawn to the intelligence of British comedy. Robin Reardon, who has been helping Engelman to produce the British/irish Comedy Invasion, says: “The word I always use to describe British comedy is ‘smart’. It operates on a much more subtle level. American TV is fill of brainless comedy, so we love stuff that makes us think a bit more. The discovered laugh can be so much more satisfying.”
After Izzard’s show, the American novelist John Morris opines that “the British love of language is key to the success of your comedy over here. Something like the Ministry of Silly Walks or the Parrot Sketch is quintessentially British. An American would never have come up with that.”
That distinctiveness is crucial. Steve Pemberton of the League of Gentleman argues that British comedians in America should trade on their difference. “When we performed in New York, what died a death was when we tried to change British references to American ones. I remember we changed ‘The Chuckle Brothers’ to ‘Green Eggs and Ham’. We learnt that audiences enjoy not getting every reference, they like the otherness of it. There’s no point in pandering to a local audience. If comedians have a strong personality, that will travel.
“It’s those comedians that create their own world, like Izzard or Moran, who will transcend national barriers. You’ve got to have a gimmick. There are so many stand-ups in America that, to make an impression out there, you have to do something that stands out. If you just tell jokes, they think, ‘So what? We’ve got 50 guys just like you down the road.’”
This is a golden age for British comedy – and it has become one of our finest exports. Unlike, say, football hooligans or highly trained mercenaries, it’s something we can be immensely proud of. It is a broad church. Moran’s Black Books co-star Bill Bailey muses, “British comedy is striking a chord in the States because it’s so different to what’s on offer there – we have story-telling, character comedy, themed shows, sketches. All human life is there.”
Izzard believes that our comedy is in such robust health because it crosses borders. It doesn’t get lost in translation. “The best comedy is human and not national. When I Love Lucy played for years in Britain, we didn’t say,’She lives in a house with a door – what’s that about?’ In the same way even though we don’t get all the references in The Simpsons, we still know it’s classic comedy.
“You could make anyone funny. If you hung out with an African tribe for six months, you’d soon find the comedy there: ‘What’s up with the witch doctor? And why does the head-hunter think he’s such a big noise?’ I bet you they’d run with it. There aren’t barriers between nations- we just assume there are.
“Look at the Seven Samurai or Life Is Beautifu. We instantly know what’s going on in those films because we’re all human. It’s interesting that the words ‘humour’ and ‘human’ are very close, isn’t it? It’s all about communicating. If we don’t come together, we’re finished.”
Eddie Izzard has spent the last few years putting his money where his mouth is. He is a comedy evangelist who has already tried to overcome national prejudices by performing in French and German (next up, he is planning a show in Arabic). He has proved he can be funny in any language.
“I feel passionately about people linking up, because it’s so bloody obvious,” he says. “Look at Europe. It’s a continent of at least 26 languages but it has managed to come together. Fifty million people died in the Second World War but since then we have got the hint that the big murder thing doesn’t work. Talking to eachother helps. If it’s not about that, what is it about? It’s certainly not about a dew people making a huge amount of money.”
So, British comedy helps to break down national barriers and bring together two nations divided by a common language. But back to the American novelist John Marks, who ends by sounding a cautionary note. He warns that we should not get too carried away about the popularity of British comedians across the pond.
“Sure, Eddie Izzard, Ricky Gervais and Ab Fab are doing very well over here,” he says wryly,”but they are put in the shade by the biggest British superstar in America right now.” And who might that be? “Simon Cowell.”