One advantage to spending a lot of time at home with snow covering the sidewalks and streets is getting a chance to do a bit of Hulu watching. Right now, that means the Inside Amy Schumer episode with the “Milk Milk Lemonade” song and the Friday Night Lights parody in which Josh Charles alienates the town by instituting a “no raping” policy on the football team.
I’ve also been catching up on something even more British than the great SNL “British Movie” sketch — The Comic Strip Presents.
Like a lot of British television, this series doesn’t fit the American norm of doing 22 or so episodes in a school year, then doing the same thing the next year. The Comic Strip Presents, drawing from a handful of core actors/writers and a few more who appeared occasionally, did mini-films in batches of five or six. Or two. Or one. They sort of wrapped up in 1993, but they’ve done a few more since then. In fact, just a few days ago, they debuted one on Rupert Murdoch, albeit with a mostly new generation of people.
I had a backwards introduction to the Comic Strip crew. I recognized a few of the regulars — Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle — from The Young Ones, which MTV cleverly imported back in the days when non-music programming on Music Television was unusual. Jennifer Saunders also made a few appearances on The Young Ones, married Edmondson and went on to a little show called Absolutely Fabulous, which also continues to produce new episodes on occasion.
Those four also were in a Comic Strip mockumentary on a fake hard-rock band called Bad News, which MTV also aired. It pre-dates This is Spinal Tap and packs a few memorable moments in a tidy 30 minutes. The takeaway quote is from Edmondson’s ambitious and almost competent frontman, Vim Fuego: “I could play Stairway to Heaven when I was 12. Jimmy Page didn’t actually write it until he was 22. I think that says quite a lot.”
“Almost competent” is relative to the rest of the band. Watch their take on Bohemian Rhapsody if you dare:
The standout character, played by the late Rik Mayall, is Colin, a preening poser and inadequate bass player who’s in the band because he has money for gear. He tries to hide his intellectual, upper-middle-class background, sneaking off to call his mom to return a couple of library books on feudal Britain. When the camera crew catches up with him, he pretends he’s dissing other bands to a reporter.
And it’s Colin who brings the strong satire of the music business in the longer follow-up, a 51-minute take simply called More Bad News.
Colin reads the record contract. First, a clause about interplanetary rights — “the cosmic clause,” about rights on any planets, currently or not yet known. Then he reads this: “The contract lasts five years. But you [the record company] don’t have to put out any records if you don’t want to. Although if you don’t want to, we’re still under contract to you, and we’re not allowed make any records for anybody else. … There’s no advance, which means absolutely no cash whatsoever for us up front.”
A bored-looking Dawn French, Saunders’ longtime comedy partner and another Comic Strip regular: “Yeah, that’s about right, yeah.”
(Long pause) “All right, I’ll sign then.”
Fans of Poe are laughing and crying.
More Bad News has a grand finale. The band is booked at the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington, where members of Def Leppard, Motorhead and, for some reason, Marillion take a few potshots at the band before the members of Bad News go on stage and, without giving too much away, all end up in the hospital.
Many Comic Strip regulars — The Young Ones, Saunders, French and Robbie Coltrane in particular — have been frequently seen elsewhere. But the show is, to some extent, Peter Richardson’s pet project. And while Richardson shines as the drug-addled drummer Spider Webb in the Bad News films, he’s at his best as the writer and star of an episode fondly remembered in Britain, The Strike.
The premise is quintessentially British. An idealistic young writer (Sayle) produces a screenplay based on a real-life coal miners’ strike led by labor hero Arthur Scargill, only to see a bunch of arrogant and ignorant Hollywood folks turn it into a clumsy, cliche-ridden action film starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, who is inexplicably peeling an orange in nearly every scene.
The pacing seems slow by modern American standards. But once Richardson arrives on the scene as Pacino, everything perks up a bit.
It’s not the over-the-top, laugh-tracked fun that you’ll find with The Young Ones. Some of the jokes are subtle — in More Bad News, Mayall’s Colin talks about dying his hair all sorts of wacky colors, then unconsciously adjusts what’s obviously a wig. We’d all probably get a bit more out of it if we were British.
But if you like Spinal Tap, you’ll appreciate Bad News. And The Strike is well worth it, particularly for the scenes of Richardson’s Pacino taking the saga of Arthur Scargill into farcical Americanisms.
Students in this area are snowed in for two more days. Send the kids out shoveling and check out some classic British TV.