Sunday, March 16, 2008

When Bad '80s Sitcoms Happen To Good British Comics

In the last couple of days I've re-discovered not one, but two short-lived U.S. sitcoms starring great British comedians who were hoping to pull a Dudley Moore. (That is, become a big success by doing their British thing in an American setting.) The first is "The Two of Us" (1981), a remake of the British show "Two's Company." The original starred Elaine Stritch as an American living in England who clashes with her snobby British butler; the U.S. version had the same situation except the show took place in America, the woman was played by Mimi Kennedy and the butler was played by Peter Cook. This was just after Dudley Moore had become a big star in America and it seemed logical for Cook to try his luck there, especially in a pre-tested property, but based on what I've seen of it, the show just wasn't very funny. Not terrible, just not very well written and without taking full advantage of Cook's amazing talent.

The other one is "Nearly Departed" (1989), starring Eric Idle, which I actually watched at the time on NBC. I strongly suspect that I was its only viewer, since it only lasted four episodes. (Some additional unaired episodes were shown in England.) It was like Topper but probably directly inspired by the success of Beetlejuice with Idle and all-purpose floating sitcom player Caroline McWilliams as a couple of ghosts who live in a house with an annoying sitcom family that includes the always entertainingly daffy Wendy Schaal (whose father, Richard, appears in the "Two of Us" clip above). The only person in the family who can see the ghosts is the grandpa, once again re-enforcing the message all Hollywood executives believe: old people might as well be dead anyway so why shouldn't they be able to communicate with ghosts? The director of the show was the great John Rich.

As I recall, the show was a bit funnier than "The Two of Us," mostly because Idle was sometimes allowed to break out of the format and do his thing. I remember in one episode, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, he did a monologue for a full minute in the voice of his ex-employer David Frost. (You'll remember that Idle did his Frost impression a number of times on Monty Python including the classic Frost-bashing sketch "The Timmy Williams Show.") There was no excuse given for this; he just said: "Hi, everyone, I'm David Frost," and started doing the voice. Very dopey show, but at least you got the feeling that it was just a dopey show rather than the sinking feeling I got with "The Two of Us" that this part could have been played by anybody. (Of course, unlike Peter Cook, Idle then went on to do a whole bunch of other stuff in America, including some things that were even worse than "Nearly Departed," like the final season of "Suddenly Susan.")

And one more thing, if you've gotten this far: a promo for "The Two of Us" actually uses the term "With hilarious consequences." And here I always kind of thought it was a made-up cliche that no TV announcer had actually used.


Stephen Rowley said...

There's also the series of "Head of the Class" that featured Billy Connolly.

Anonymous said...

I was 7 years old when "The Two of Us" was on, and I remember that it was one of my favorite TV shows and I was upset when it got canceled, though until I saw that Youtube clip I didn't remember much of the show beyond the fact that Cook's character was named Brentwood. It was definitely a case of a good cast done in by bad writing. "Nearly Departed" I remember very well because it debuted around the time I first got into Monty Python, so I was excited by the prospect of a sitcom starring Eric Idle, but the pilot episode was so disappointing I never watched the other episodes. Besides starring British comics, both shows also featured talented female leads who have both been in a about million things but never have really gotten the recognition they deserved. Mimi Kennedy especially is one of the great hard-luck stories in TV history: she just barely missed being part of the original cast of Saturday Night Live (Jane Curtin was chosen instead)

Michael Jones said...

The dead cast of Topper must be spinning in their graves.

Both those shows were true stinkers but I did enjoy Eric's theme song. I like all his tunes, especially "One Foot in the Grave".

Booksteve said...

I have always remembered one joke from THE TWO OF US that made me laugh out loud for some reason. Brentwood accuses her of false advertising when she had said she was an English Major. In his mind, he was expecting stately old C. Aubrey Smith. She points out that she's an English college. Okay, not all that funny now but THEN...!!!