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Little Britain USA isn't the same show as Little Britain (from which it's spun-off) that has been slaying audiences for the past several years. But it is close, with the same cast of two, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, and much recycled material. It's all been reconfigured as a satirical revue about Americans and Brits, two great peoples who share (and mangle) the same language.
The sensibility on exhibit suggests collusion, or a collision, between Monty Python and the late, great Benny Hill - witty and smart on occasion but also as broad as the lowest-browed burlesque. England, lest we forget, has given the world some of the greatest silly humor ever perpetrated.
As the series premieres, the booming voice of an English-accented announcer tells us that the U.K. and U.S. are forever linked in history. England let America win its independence, he says, "and you very kindly joined us for the last few minutes of the Second World War."
The humor in Little Britain USA is nothing if not cheeky.
"The British pride themselves on being the rudest and most unhelpful people in the world," blares the announcer, introducing a recurring character called Carol Beer, a hospital receptionist who treats everyone with maximum boorish condescension. In the first episode, a little girl, brought in by her mother for a tonsillectomy, is told she's going to have a double hip replacement instead; it's in the computer.
In the second episode, a woman in the final stages of labor is forced to stand and wait interminably while the receptionist diddles around with the computer keys. As with all other female roles, and yet in another tradition of English humor, Carol is played by a man.
A gay British prime minister who is so hypersexual that he can't keep his hands off the American president (something of a Barack Obama look-alike) is a cheap comedy idea, crudely overdone, yet some people might find it uproarious.
Then along comes a character, new to the series, called Phyllis, a dowdy creature who is forever being given absurd and obscene commands by her innocent-looking spaniel, Mr. Doggy, during their walks together. In a low, gruff voice, the dog orders Phyllis to humiliate herself in public by, for instance, undressing down to her undies and then standing in a trash bin. "If you loved me, you'd do it," the dog always says as a final, irresistible inducement.
The genius of the concept is that Phyllis openly does Mr. Doggy's voice herself, the torment thus self-inflicted.
Among other recurring sketches are those featuring a racy granny recalling her surprisingly libidinous youth for the delighted delectation of her grandson; two preposterously beefed-up buddies (Lucas and Walliams in huge latex suits) who imagine themselves the height of masculinity; and a nasty, intemperate shrew named Marjorie Dawes who runs a weight-loss class for people she brazenly calls "fatties." Rosie O'Donnell plays herself in the first of the weight-loss bits.
Working with Lucas and Walliams on the Americanized version of the show are such seemingly unlikely collaborators as David Steinberg, one of the producers, and David Schwimmer (formerly of Friends), who directs studio segments shot in Los Angeles while Michael Patrick Jann (Flight of the Conchords and Reno 911!) directs sketches shot in, of all places, North Carolina.
Britons come to the Colonies on vacation, the announcer says, because "we enjoy the food, the weather and the fact that the dollar is now worthless." Ha-ha. This was recorded before the economic calamities of the past week, when things were merely calamitous. Lucas and Walliams come across as naughty little schoolboys who never grew up, but then you have to remain at least somewhat infantile to find the world laughable rather than tearfully sad.
Little Britain USA airs on Yes Stars Comedy on Tuesday at 5:10 p.m. and again at 2:30 a.m. for a six-episode marathon.