Little Britain is the funniest TV show in the world. It's sort of a fake documentary about life in England. It is narrated in stupid little sentences. It stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams. Lucas used to play a giant baby on a fake game show. He is gay. Many people think Walliams is also gay. He isn't. But he did once swim the English Channel. Lucas plays Daffyd, the Only Gay in the Village; nymphomaniac socialite Bubbles Devere; and Vicky Pollard. Mr. Giles from Buffy was in it too. Walliams plays mostly gay or in drag. Did we already mention they are the funniest men in the world? Now they've shot a six-part version of their show for HBO. And have added American characters. These pictures were taken at Zuma Beach in Malibu. People kept coming up to them and asking who they were. A cop on a motorcycle came up and said, "Are they comedians? I'm the funniest man on this beach." Why the car? he asked. We said because they've come to invade America.
Matt Lucas and David Walliams made a sketch show and called it Little Britain. They invented a bunch of characters and gave them funny voices and silly outfits and -- most important -- a truckload of catchphrases that quickly entered the national idiom. Among their masterstrokes was to hire as narrator Tom Baker, whose native fame rested on his seven-year stint in the 1970s as Doctor Who, which in Britain is akin to getting beatified by the pope. Instead of battling aliens, viewers got to hear the Doctor's stentorian voice booming over the opening credits: 'Britain. Britain. Britain. Population 1 millions. Number of towns 11. Average height 30. Shoe size. But just who are Britain? Over the next twenteen weeks, we aim to find out -- by following the lives of ordinary British folk. What do they? Who is them? And why?'
Little Britain was inane and addictive. And very, very timely. Those 'ordinary British folk,' it turned out, had a direct line into the British psyche. The show was an instant and massive hit, the kind of must-see TV that people would talk about around the water coolers, if they had water coolers over there. Instead, they stood around the kettle and hurled catchphrases at each other. Several of the characters, in particular Vicky Pollard (a slovenly, antisocial pregnant teen played by Matt Lucas), were elevated into proxies for 'British life today,' a synonym in the press for all that was wrong with the country, for a national culture of teenage shiftlessness. Her stuttering catchphrase -- 'Yeah, but no, but yeah but' -- was ranked number 5 in a 2005 poll of the greatest comedy catchphrases of all time, a few places behind Homer Simpson's 'D'oh!' Taking first place was another Little Britain creation, Daffyd, the self-styled 'only gay in the village,' a militant homosexual convinced he is a persecuted minority of one in his Welsh mining village of Llandewi Breffi despite all evidence to the contrary (in Llandewi Breffi even kindly church ministers and sweet old shop ladies talk about cock sucking and rimming as if they were chatting about the weather).
Americans who have missed the phenomenon of Little Britain will be able to catch up when Lucas and Walliams follow the pilgrim fathers of comedy -- Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore, Tracey Ullman, Sacha Baron Cohen -- and decamp to America, kicking and dragging their characters with them. In their new HBO series, Little Britain USA, Vicky Pollard resurfaces in a Utah camp for bratty delinquents after trying to burn down Disneyland; Daffyd has enrolled at an American university, where he's the 'only gay on campus'; and Marjorie Dawes, the rude, racist, and thoroughly delightful manager of a weight loss center called FatFighters, interrogates Rosie O'Donnell on whether she's fat because she's a lesbian -- or a lesbian because she's fat.
Not all the characters will be back; a wise decision, perhaps, since the show teeters on the edge of offense even in the United Kingdom, where comedy is traditionally less accommodating to political correctness. An overweight mail-order bride from Thailand named Ting Tong Macadangdang, and a senior citizen, Mrs. Emery, forever chatting away in the supermarket while a stream of urine pools and puddles at her feet, have been accused of peddling insensitive stereotypes. And it's a fair bet that Walliams will not be doing blackface for this series, as he once did for a sketch in which he played a rival to Lucas's obese socialite Bubbles Devere.
'People do say, 'Are you wary that it's too extreme for America?' ' Walliams acknowledges. 'But in America you can watch reruns of The Wonder Years and then turn over and watch South Park, and they're probably on at the same time of day. One of the great things about TV here is that there's something for everyone.' Although he realizes they're playing by different rules here, he hopes the audience will be sophisticated enough to understand that comedy is real life exaggerated. 'It's done with a sense of fun, and because it's so over-the-top I hope people will appreciate that we're celebrating difference rather than critiquing it. All of [our characters] have their failings because they're comic creations, but you're meant to like them. It's done with warmth.'
We are sitting on a terrace at a Malibu caf', and the juxtaposition of Lucas and Walliams -- whose stock-in-trade is the minutiae of British customs and manners -- with the broad expanse of California unfurling around us feels as improbable as a black U.S. president having an affair with his British counterpart, another running gag in the new series. One thinks of the hackneyed witticism that Britain and America are two nations 'divided by a common language' and wonders whether the gags risk being lost in translation. A joke about Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, for example, initially relied on viewers understanding that 'dungarees,' a British term for denim overalls, had comic associations with lesbians. It had to be cut.
'That sort of thing is hard,' says Walliams. 'We also had a reference to a rent boy, and apparently they don't have that word here. They say 'hustlers.' ' He pauses. 'That's where I've been going wrong on my website.'
'That's why you go to bed alone every night,' says Lucas, adding, 'So Hustler magazine is not a gay magazine, is it?'
'No, it's not, and nor is the Hustler store gay.'
'So is that like having a magazine for straight men who like rent boys?'
'No, no' What's that Warhol film, the one where there's a hustler and a john, and it's black-and-white? Have you ever heard of that one?'
'I've never been able to sit through a Warhol movie.'
'Not even Empire?'
'How long is that?'
'About eight hours.'
'My dog looks like Warhol.'
At this point Lucas pulls out his cell phone and brings up a picture of his dog, Milo, who is indeed wearing a blond Warhol wig. No explanation is offered. These kinds of games, delivered deadpan, percolate the conversation. Their rapport is easy, spontaneous, unforced. They met at a youth theater in their teens, pressured by mutual friends to perform their signature impersonations on each other, and reunited at a university a few years later. Things took off from there.
That their working partnership has endured for over 12 years is all the more striking for the fact that Lucas is gay and Walliams is straight, sort of. Does Walliams regret once telling a British paper that he was only '70% heterosexual?' He reflects for a second. 'I think I got the percentage wrong,' he says. 'I've worked out that pretty much everything about me is gay, apart from the fact that I do like having sex with women, which I can wholeheartedly recommend to your readers.'
Walliams spent a lot of his childhood allowing his sister to treat him as her exclusive life-size doll, dressing him in her clothes and parading him around the house. He found he quite liked it. 'I was camp as a child,' he says. 'I played Wonder Woman in the playground and thought that was pretty fun. I have to believe that people who grow up rabidly homophobic are scared of the idea they might be gay themselves. Because otherwise, why would you be so bothered to be full of hate? It normally stems from self-loathing. It's an attractive thing for a man to embrace his femininity. Who wants to be a sort of oaf?'
Lucas, who lost all his hair when he was 6 after being hit by a car (it grew back and then fell out again -- 'the only trick God played on me,' he once said), was memorably described in one interview as a 'member of so many minorities that he is practically a walking Venn diagram.' Jewish, gay, bald, and overweight, he was a natural target for bullies at school, and it's tempting to conjecture that comedy offered a shield of some form and an escape. His father's arrest and subsequent jail time for fraud when Lucas was 14 was a much greater blow, presaging the breakup of his parents' marriage and isolating Lucas still further from his peers.
'If you're a creative person, your imagination comes out of not wanting to live in the real world so much -- you live in your thoughts a little more, and I think that gets developed as a child,' says Walliams, who seems to have occupied his childhood by listening to comedy records and pulling faces in the mirror, which makes him sound oddly old-fashioned for someone who is 37. How many 37-year-olds do you know who grew up listening to comedy records? But he and Lucas also watched TV -- lots of it -- and their humor is thick with references to the long tradition of vaudeville and slapstick that runs through British comedy from Shakespeare through Monty Python and Peter Sellers to Mr. Humphries in Are You Being Served?
Ah, yes, Mr. Humphries, often singled out as a limp-wristed insult to real gay men who were still being treated as second-class citizens while he was prancing around measuring his customers' inseam. Lucas and Walliams are a little more forgiving, but the point is that we've changed. Gay men are more confident these days, reveling in the flamboyance that once made us shudder. The success of Daffyd with gay and straight British audiences alike shows just how far we've come since Are You Being Served? sashayed to a conclusion in 1985. We're all in on the joke these days, and we understand that we're meant to take such caricatures with a grain of salt.
'If it was the 1970s and we were a couple of straight guys doing a gay character that was a horrible clich', it would be different, but I think Daffyd is an original take on a gay character,' says Walliams. 'It's not our mission to do a hard-hitting drama about the life of a gay man in a Welsh mining village -- we're making a comedy show; we're highlighting what would be funny about that.'
'I think if you are like Daffyd and the only gay in the village, it would still be very hard,' qualifies Lucas. 'I don't underestimate those challenges.
Lucas, who generally wears a baseball cap -- not, as some writers have suggested, out of crippling shyness, but to protect his sensitive scalp from the sun -- is wary of being seen as a crusader for gay rights. 'I'm just a bloke who puts on dresses and silly wigs, and I think you've got to be careful not to be too self-important,' he says, although he was flattered at a dinner recently when Superbad star Jonah Hill asked if he realized the significance of being a mainstream gay comedian. He claims he hadn't, perhaps because gay comedians are not such fresh news in the U.K. anymore. Even so, Lucas sparked headlines in June when he announced he was divorcing his partner, Kevin McGee, whom he'd wed just 18 months earlier under the country's new civil partnership laws. He won't discuss details for legal reasons (he has hired the same law firm used by Heather Mills in her divorce from Paul McCartney) but says that Walliams's friendship has been critical in getting him through the last three months. 'He's been incredibly supportive, and I wouldn't have been able to deal with it without him,' he says.
Daffyd might not be the only gay on Malibu's Zuma Beach (in fact, he most certainly is not), but Emily Howard is definitely the only transvestite, though a dreadful one at that. They make a striking pair as they stroll across the sand, watching for a whale that has been spotted just off the shore. 'See the dark spot in the water'there he is!' shouts one of the camera crew. Others are standing, necks craning to get a glimpse of it. 'There he is,' echoes Walliams. A shape shifts and moves under the surface; a spout of water gushes into the air. 'I think it might be a pilot whale,' he says. 'I didn't see a cap on it,' Lucas replies, not missing a beat. A school of porpoises weaves into view, and another round of exclamations explodes in the air. Walliams, who has swum the English Channel, looks longingly at the water. 'I might swim out,' he says. 'There's loads of them,' says Lucas as the porpoises rise and fall in the water.
Walliams is very modest about his swimming achievements ('Anyone can do it, really,' he says), but you get the feeling that the same instincts that inspired him to pull faces at himself in the bedroom mirror drives his passion for the sea. 'It's quite solitary,' he confesses. 'I love being under the water and swimming around with my own thoughts.' Swimming across the English Channel, he says, was challenging (he did it in 101⁄2 hours, an impressive time that ranks in the world's top 50) but also exhilarating -- perhaps not unlike stand-up comedy. It's all about getting to the other side. Reaching the shore. Delivering the punch line. Sink or swim.
To look at their r'sum's is to appreciate that Walliams and Lucas are studies in determination. Although they've earned a huge following back home, they realize that success can be transient -- 'You're only as funny as your last joke,' says Lucas -- and don't take much for granted. And although they resist the notion of psychoanalyzing their childhoods as a way to understand their comedy, they also concede there's truth in the old maxim 'Show me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.'
'If you were just really content and grew up playing football all day, you probably wouldn't bother pretending to be other people,' Walliams says. 'The way people think of creativity'they don't understand what it is. They go, 'Well, how do you think up your character?' as if it's something they can't have access to, but I think they just had a different upbringing.'
Little Britain USA premieres on HBO on September 28.