Not So Little Britain

9.4.2008

By Aaron Hicklin

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.

Tags: Television
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