Day Four of not writing about things. You know, it. This is harder than expected, but I can’t go back on my vow.


Hey, it’s Tim Robbins, just back from sonorous pontification at the National Press Club. HEY TIM!

Uh . . . NICE TIE!

This is killing me.

If I ever stumble across a rerun of “All in the Family” I watch it with an anthropologist’s eye; it’s like a cave painting, a medieval tapestry. All long ago and far away. There’s Rob Reiner pointing and shouting; Jean Stapleton wincing and cringing. There’s lots of Carroll O’Connor bitching in De Queen’s English: Oh jees dere Edith wit de menapaas and de hoormones and de rest of dat commie plot to make yer jugs dere sag wudja stifle awready - Noted. It was groundbreaking for its time, but the ground having been broken, let’s shovel it back on the coffin lid. The day is past when you could get a studio audience to laugh for seven minutes because the star of the show has reacted with slack-jawed outrage at the sight of a mixed-race couple. Good. The show reeks of stagflation and Times Square porno row and Wadergate dere wit de hippies in de newspaper aw jees. I watched every episode when I was growing up. I’ve done my part.

Sanford and Son wasn’t required to carry so much cultural baggage, and hence refrained from Serious Issue Shows; I don’t recall a very special episode where Fred started to worry about actually having the big one, and vowed to switch to heart-healthy margarine spreads. Lamont never dealt with the clap.

Both were American versions of British sitcoms, and since then they’ve tried to import one Britcom after the other. Few have succeeded. I’d heard of an American version of AbFab, but I don’t know what became of it; possibly the entire production staff opened their intestinal walls with ceremonial blades when they saw what they’d done. “The Royale Family,” one of my favorite BBC shows, cannot be imported - the idea of four people sitting around watching television saying nothing beyond the occasional grunt of derision would make any network exec shoot steam from his ears. One of the most brilliant shows I ever saw was called “People Like Us” - a series of mock documentaries whose unseen narrator spoke entirely in the platitudes of the genre, and whose ineptitude and cluelessness was revealed in every episode by a character who regarded him with frank contempt. If they did it in America it would be on HBO, and even HBO would dump it after a year. Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is brilliant stuff, but it’s still a pie-fight compared to the tortured & attenuated humiliations of British sitcoms.

And now there’s “The Office.” As usual I’m late to this one; google it and you’ll probably find geocities fan pages that already return a 404. And as usual there are mutters about making an American version. They should resist the temptation. “The Office” is another quasi-documentary about life in a paper-supply company’s branch office; handheld cameras, interviews with staff members, brief loss of focus, the usual tricks. What sets it apart is something that seems much more common in British TV than American TV: the star is one of the writers. The fellow who plays the loathsome boss David Brent writes much of the show, and he has created a character that’s both utterly unique and completely recognizable. If this show had wider circulation in America, 20somethings in every breakroom in every company would be using his gestures and mannerisms as shorthand for managerial perfidy.

Anyway. There’s a reason this show can’t work here as a mass-market program. I wish I could remember where I read what I’m about to summarize - it was a website somewhere on the internet, if that narrows it down for you - but according to the author, British conversational habits are often constructed around the avoidance of embarrassment. The spectre of shame haunts every colloquy. It casts a dank shadow over the sunniest of interchanges, and the skilled conversant knows how to maneuver around it, ignore it, or acknowledge its inevitable victory and change the subject as soon as possible. When I read that piece (and I’m really not doing it justice here) I thought of my favorite British sitcoms, and how each seemed to have the common theme of mortification. Of being humiliated by an awkward moment. Of the dreadful implications of eye contact.

We don’t do silent, flushed social dread very well. We yell and shout and grin and face the day with zip-a-dee-doo-dah on our lips; pained oh-god-kill-me-now interminable silence that follows when someone says something everyone was thinking just isn’t comic gold for us. Which leads me to an interview I saw on the TV a few nights ago with some soldiers. The embedded reporter was asking them what they did back in the world; one fellow, who was bald and wore stylin’ shades, said he was a styling consultant. In Vegas. He did hair and makeup and clothes for the entertainers - “singers, strippers. Porn stars,” he grinned.

“We’ll be talking to you later,” said the reporter.

Back to Brit Hume, who’s nearly weeping with laughter.

You can imagine a BBC anchor getting that hot bun tossed in his lap. “Well. That was, Simon Cringley, in Ooom Kasser, EeRock, with the fourth mechanized division, a unit that has encountered some, ah, controversy over its supposed role in shelling a petting zoo for orphans -”

Almost started writing about IT, didn’t I? Getting sloppy. Time for bed. But you should go to "The Office" home page, which is a textbook example of how a network should do a site for a TV show. You want embarassment? Don't miss David's page, and do not deny yourself the video clip of David dancing. I rest my case. Uh-uhnina uh na uh na / uh-uhnina uh na uh na!

You'll know what I mean. Poor you.
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