When Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes last month, he showered the native talent with a smirking stream of too-close-to-home insults. The last host to risk this approach was Chris Rock when he hosted the Oscars in 2005 and he's still feeling the chill of local disapproval. The reaction from Gervais' victims, though, was the complete opposite. " I felt like a war hero," said the tubby comic about his post-show treatment, especially when he got back in New York. "Free Champagne and puddings." And then there is his new HBO series to look forward to, The Ricky Gervais Show, which starts this week.
Gervais is only the latest British comedian to be rewarded for bashing the U.S. Insulting Americans has been a favorite sport ever since the first colonial uprising, as any American tourist will know if they have been to see Al Murray Pub Landlord's standup show in London. Murray is a bullet-headed beer-swilling comic who zeroes in on any "unwelcome cousins" in the audience. "I love you Yanks," he says. "You speak your mind. Even when there's nothing in there. God bless America! God bless America! I'm not ashamed to say that, because being British I don't mean it, do I."
Just as white liberals went to see Richard Pryor in the '70s to expiate the sins of racism in a safe environment, so a certain kind of educated American goes to obnoxious British comedians to feel better about having bullied and tortured and killed the rest of the world.
However, this must be the first time that Americans have submitted to it so avidly and in person on their home turf. Thanks to Borat and Bruno, and Russell Brand—in-your-face Yank-baiting comedy is now on a par with rock music in the '60s and period dramas in the '80s. A fully fledged British invasion.
It all began with American Idol, on which Simon Cowell unleashed a fresh simile every week to mock Heartland aspirants: "Like a train going off the rails... Like watching a ship sink... Like something out of the Addams Family."
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Cut to: John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show, which recently aired on Comedy Central, and you have British comedian John Oliver devoting the whole of his opening monologue to bashing America en masse:
The thing I've learnt about you, the American people, is this— you are all heroes. And I'll tell you why. American people are fucking idiots! I mean that as the highest form of compliment I can possibly issue. The world needs idiots. Idiots get things done. They don't waste time overthinking things. Do you honestly think any other country could have put a man on the moon? Of course not. That is a fucking stupid to do thing to do!
And the young, hip audience laps it up, laughing and nodding as if to say, It's so true! We really are idiots!
Showtime's new series, La La Land, takes the joke even further, with English comedian Marc Wootton blundering his way, Borat-style, through Los Angeles. Wootton plays three characters—all deluded Brits trying to make it big—but like Borat, the joke is queasily dependent on the bewildered locals forced to take him seriously. "Don't overestimate me," screams one director, driven to his breaking point by Wootton's antics.
America has become the willing guest at its own celebrity roast, except the gentle ribbing of the Dean Martin years has been replaced by the bukkake gangbang of the Comedy Central era.
Hosting the MTV Video Music Awards before the 2008 election, Russell Brand said, "I know America to be a forward-thinking country because otherwise why would you have let that retard and cowboy fella be president for eight years?" Despite—oh all right, because of—a flurry of outrage in the press, he was asked back to host again.
As a Londoner who transplanted to Los Angeles 15 years ago, I have some understanding of both sides of this trend. For English comedians, it is the chance to tweak the nose of the upstart younger sibling who grew to overshadow us. We adore America as the Valhalla of pop culture—as Little Britain, Robbie Williams, Steve Coogan et al. know all too well, you haven't really made it until you've made it in the U.S.—but at the same time resent its dominance. We laugh at its unabashed sincerity, but secretly pine to express feelings so openly.
Growing up in Britain, I watched a flow of comic expats returning to share their tales of life in La La Land. Billy Connolly, Eric Idle, Tracey Ullman—they all did chat-show turns about the crazy things Americans got up to. Occasionally the odd star would go native and stop finding America funny, like Dudley Moore, but this only confirmed that mirthful xenophobia was the right approach.
So long as you remain in Britain, that is. Mocking America in person, to its collective face, is a whole new ball game—and one without much precedent. Even when anarchic funsters like Monty Python played the Hollywood Bowl, they still behaved like any well-bred house guest—and just stuck it to the Canadians.
Obviously, America is more than familiar with insult comedy—Jack E. Leonard and Don Rickles practically invented the modern genre. (Leonard's opening line on stage was, "Good evening, opponents.") But insults are a very different proposition when they are coming from a foreigner standing in your back yard.
The English approach is to swaddle any attacks with disarming self-deprecation. "I'm from a little place called England," announces Ricky Gervais in his standup act. "We used to run the world before you."
John Oliver carefully offers up his squatty, bedenimed ordinariness to the audience before he says, "There's no nice way of saying this, America—you are looking into your future. Empires die, America, and this is what happens to you."
Oliver is the Nijinski of the national insult that starts off as a compliment. "It was strange falling in love with a country which many people—and history—may yet judge to be at its worst. It was like falling in love with a girl who was just throwing up all over herself; softly holding her hair back and whispering that everything was going to be all right. To me, that's what the last eight years were like in America, you were just projectile vomiting all over yourself." Even Gore Vidal and Alec Baldwin can't get away with being this insulting.
So what are American audiences getting out of the trend? It doesn't need a psychiatrist to diagnosis the therapeutic needs of finally developing a sense of global shame. Just as white liberals went to see Richard Pryor in the '70s to expiate the sins of racism in a safe environment, so a certain kind of educated American goes to obnoxious British comedians to feel better about having bullied and tortured and killed the rest of the world. It is a ritualistic playacting version of punishment, like going to a dominatrix, where each person secretly feels they are getting the better end of the deal.
I did worry all this caustic Brit Wit aimed at my adopted homeland was a little presumptuous, even pointless. Yank-baiting will never crossover to the Larry the Cable Guy audience, that's for sure. But on reflection, I don't think it diminishes the special relationship, so much as enhances it. Like any good roast or rehearsal-dinner speech, the best insults are a form of intimacy.
Trust me, British comics never spent this much time and effort on the French.
Sean Macaulay was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007. He has also written for Punch, British GQ, and The Mail on Sunday. He was most recently creative consultant on the award-winning documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil.