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Couch Trip

Full circle: Two winning Brit sitcoms want you to think they're like an American adaptation of a British comedy show

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Published 5/6/2009

Pulling: The Complete First Season
MPI Home Video

The IT Crowd: The Complete
First Season

Remember when there was such a thing as "British humor"? TV comedy used to be a markedly different animal across the pond. The shows were broadcast in English, but it was a different language of funny. Labeling Monty Python's Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live as sketch shows is like saying King Crimson and Nickelback are both rock bands: Technically, that's correct, but dear God, is there an ocean of difference.

If, as an American, you didn't "get" Fawlty Towers or Absolutely Fabulous, it's OK. It's British humor. It's not made for you. You're not supposed to get it, you uncultured swine.

But lately, thanks in large part to the breakthrough success of The Office, the distinctions between U.S. and UK comedy are becoming minor, if not completely blurred. After all, Extras, the brilliant follow-up program from Office creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, debuted concurrently on the BBC and HBO in this country — it didn't need a year to gain momentum before being picked up by a much smaller cable outlet like Sundance or IFC. Sacha Baron Cohen has achieved American fame at a level few British television celebrities have. Simon Pegg and Steve Coogan, comics who started on the British small screens and now appear with frequency in U.S. films, may not be household names to a vast majority of Americans yet, but they have devout cult followings.

The reason British humor has become so marketable in America these days has less to do with Americans gradually developing an understanding of British comedy and more with the changing tide (for the better) of British comedy itself. Most British shows that have achieved fame in this country can hardly be described as nationalist or esoterically British. The stifling quirkiness that handicapped the universality of so many British shows is gone. The Office, the flagship show of contemporary British export, is so universal it's been produced in six countries.

Pulling and The IT Crowd, two British sitcoms whose first seasons recently hit Region 1 DVD from MPI Home Video, are almost nothing alike, but both want you to think they're kind of like The Office (their box art is peppered with comparisons) and both represent an effort, conscious or not, to produce programming that elicits roughly the same amount of laughter — and at the same points — from U.S. viewers as they do from UK ones.

"I think there is a big difference in the shows that get made in the U.S. and the ones that get made here, but I think we seem to laugh at the same things," says Sharon Horgan, creator and star of Pulling. "And as far as we can work out, American audiences 'get' Pulling as much as the British ones do. That shouldn't have been a surprise, but I guess it was. Pulling is a little grimy. It's warts-and-all, and I suppose I associate American comedy with being bigger, brighter and more glamorous."

Pulling is shockingly hilarious in ways few shows are. The opening image of the pilot episode is of main character Donna (Horgan) dispassionately jerking off her fiance Karl (Cavan Clerkin) under the covers. Not paying attention, she doesn't realize when he's finished. When he tells her, she gets up to wash her hands. Without a towel handy, Karl grabs the closest object — a leaf off a plastic plant — to clean up.

Stateside, the show has been saddled with numerous comparisons to Sex and the City because it involves exploits of three (basically) single and (basically) promiscuous women living in a big city.

"When we started out, we described Pulling as Sex and the City but with kebabs," Horgan recalls. "The idea was that, yes, it was following the lives of three single girls in a city, but this was not an aspirational show. It was unlikely anyone would look at Donna and think, 'I wish I was her,' like they do with Carrie and the girls."

In terms of the show's squeamish merger of uncomfortable, real-life drama and schadenfreude-laced comedy, The Office is a fair comparison, with a little Curb Your Enthusiasm sprinkled in (Horgan's a big fan of both shows). But even those beacons of tragicomic discomfort don't have the cojones to tackle some of the issues brazenly explored in the first season of Pulling — alcoholism, suicide and, uh ... bukkake, to name a few.

"We tried to make [the show] as true-to-life as possible while sailing as close to the wind as that allowed us to do," Horgan says. "I love the watch-through-your-fingers thing, because what's happening next is both hideous and enjoyable, but, that said, it has to have laughs alongside that; otherwise, it's all pain and no fun to watch. We always thought that we wanted to put our characters through as much shit as they or we could bear. And I think the more people believe the scenarios they're watching, the more they relate to the characters and their lives, and the more they'll invest in the show, I hope.

The IT Crowd is less ambitious and a lot less Office-y, but since it's sort of set in one, the marketers ran with it. It stars Roy (Chris O'Dowd) and Maurice (Richard Ayoade), a shiftless, loveless, elitist IT support team slaving away in the basement of a fictitious British corporation. They're joined by their considerably cuter but equally inept supervisor Jen (Katherine Parkinson), who barely understands how to check e-mail, let alone handle the company's myriad technological needs.

If not as cerebral as it could be, The IT Crowd is full of interesting touches. Its pratfalls, for instance, are predictable, but common comedic pratfalls don't end with the character spurting blood from the point of injury, as Roy does after a bit of slapstick in the pilot. The comedy ranges from the lowbrow Porky's persuasion — Roy going on a date and not realizing he has some shit on his forehead — to clever bits of wordplay exchanged between the leads.

Anyone who has ever worked a job like theirs will love the show's most common refrain-solution: "Have you tried turning it off and on again?!" Much of the humor's self-conscious geek-chic is directed at specific niches of techies, hipsters and gamers. Before it was cleaned up, the show's Wikipedia page contained dozens of references and inside jokes documented by fanboys.

Both shows have fared well with critics. The IT Crowd has received numerous awards, including an International Emmy, and Horgan won a British Comedy Award for her portrayal of Donna in Pulling last year. The IT Crowd is still going strong, with a fourth season scheduled to begin in the UK next year, but Pulling was tragically — and inexplicably — canceled after two seasons, living on only in an hour-long special finale.

Both shows are emblematic of the new, post-Office British humor, in which everyone's invited. Not surprisingly, there have been efforts here to remake both shows. A pilot of the American IT Crowd starring Joel McHale was filmed by NBC in 2007, but the project never took off. An American version of Pulling is currently in the works, and its future looks brighter.

Just like the Japanese with their horror films, the British blaze a trail and we follow. In a couple of decades, we've gone from not understanding British humor to copying it. Here's hoping the next British sitcoms to arrive on our shores keep up the standard of quality The IT Crowd and especially Pulling have helped establish. Otherwise, what are we going to have for our own future sweeps weeks?

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