Smile Politely

Pause the sadness: there is good comedy out there

Hey, I hope everyone is enjoying all the bad news. 

There’s so much to go around, especially if you once had a job, or savings.

Because you can get bad news just about anywhere these days, I decided to use this week’s column to talk about happy things. Specifically, I would like to talk about intelligent comedy. I use the term “intelligent” to differentiate a form of artistry from slapstick, pratfall shtick which should have ended with the Three Stooges.

Some of my favorite intelligent humorists: Tom Sharpe, whose madcap novels about apartheid got him deported from South Africa before Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. PJ O’Rourke, whose travel writing provided two decades of terse comment on bad experiments with planned political economies. Bill Maher, who seemed the first humorist brave enough to say “are you fucking kidding me?” to the Bush administration. The Pythons, whose masterpiece, The Life of Brian presaged Dawkins and Hitchens by almost two decades. Douglas Adams, who learned from The Pythons and Dawkins, and then outsold them by a few million copies. If you don’t know anything about life, read or listen to almost anything Garrison Keillor or Bill Cosby ever said. These two were wise old men in their 20s. Bill Murray‘s comedy plumbed philosophical depths for decades before he earned any recognition as a philosopher, or a master.

And if you’ve never heard of (Sir) Terry Pratchett, there are about 40 fantastic books ready and waiting to make you ROTFL, pee your pants, and think.

There’s one epoch of brilliant comedy which exceeds all of it. From somewhere inside the brain of a British English teacher named John Morton, a perfectly crafted piece was borne. LIKE US

This mocudrama chronicles the everyday jobs of everyday people, or People Like Us. The recurring character is pretend BBC journalist Roy Mallard, played by Chris Langham. Mallard is generally described as “hapless.” But the great gag is that Roy’s smarter, quicker than all the people he meets; yet he never gets ahead. Perhaps it’s a cynical commentary on life’s preference for the strong and the beautiful.

As with the best of British comedy, PLU relies on the brain, instead of the crotch (and kicks thereto), for laughs. The BBC Radio 4 comedy is the funniest thing of any kind, ever. The teevee version is merely excellent.

Here is The Air Pilot.

For David Tennant/Doctor Who fans, here’s one about actors. Bill Nighy plays a photographer. For anyone who’s ever been to church, and for anyone who’s ever heard about church, and especially for anyone who’s ever served as rector of a church, The Vicar is hilarious.

I discovered People Like Us in 2004.  I went looking for BBC streaming audio when I caught wind of the third, fourth and final (or Tertiary, Quandry, and Quintessential) series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I discovered an entire other world of first-class information and programming. The late night stuff on WILL-AM is the tip of an iceberg.

When the American free press collapses completely, we’ll all have to watch city council meetings online if we want to find out how our taxes are being spent. We’ll have to attend plan commission meetings ourselves to see how our neighborhoods are being altered. But we won’t have to worry about a news blackout. And we need not bother ourselves with the death of American film, or the devolution of television.

The British taxpayer has us covered. It’s free, it’s always on, and it’s right here. This is especially good now that no one has any money.


This week BBC7 is again playing a repeat of another 90’s masterpiece. Children’s Hour with Armstrong & Miller also mockuments BBC radio journalists, but Craig Children and Martin Bain-Jones (played by comedy duo Alexander Amstrong and Ben Miller) are effete music critics. Like Mallard, they’re smarter than the more successful characters. Their taste in music is good, too. And yet they’re played as preening, needy. It’s perfect satire.

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