Female comic actresses have forever mined dizzy humor: There’s a pretty clear line from Gracie Allen to Megan Mullally. But Britain’s Catherine Tate, a Royal Shakespeare Company member with standup chops, is more likely to take recognizable stereotypes and send them into loonyland the way Dan Aykroyd or Will Ferrell can. She’s got Tracey Ullman’s chameleon chops, Carol Burnett’s keen eye for personalities and Gilda Radner’s healthy love of the absurd. She could populate a village if she had to, but one firmly on the moon.
In The Catherine Tate Show, her BBC sketch comedy series, which makes its U.S. debut next Wednesday on BBC America, Tate plays a variety of strange women with placid, comfortably attired suburban exteriors who range wildly in social status and age — from barely legal to barely ambulatory — and who inevitably confound those around them. There’s the calm, curly-haired housewife who screams like a banshee at the tiniest sound of domestic life — slurped coffee, toast popping — only to return just as quickly to peaceful stillness as if nothing had happened, while her husband looks on bewildered. There’s the woman who explains with articulate, Dear John sympathy to her kind-faced date that she’s just not drunk enough — even after swallowing her body weight in German beer — to find him attractive enough to have sex with.
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And there’s the achingly polite mall information-desk employee who only seems capable of misinterpreting everything customers ask:
Despondent woman who’s gotten separated from her old-age mother: “She’ll be 83 at the weekend, I don’t know what to do.”
Tate: “I wouldn’t have a surprise party.”
Too many American women in comedy still routinely sit on the sidelines of the sketch world. Right now, the women are the most talented players of Saturday Night Live’s current cast, but that isn’t saying much considering the tired celebrity parodies they’re mostly asked to do. The American whom Tate most reminds me of is Nicole Sullivan, late of Mad TV, who seemed to be most representative of the show’s adjectival title: She had a deranged quality to her eyes. Danger lurked in her characters, which always gave her an edge over more laugh-hungry performers. Tate has that same psychotic heart, which can turn a seemingly one-note gag — an obscene-tongued cockney grandmother with wild mood swings — into something scary enough to be in a psychological horror film. It’s fun watching the men on the show deal with a Tate character as if she were oblivious and insane enough to hurt either herself or others.
Tate’s not crazy, though, just a wig-wearing virtuoso with crack timing, and if this showcase for her isn’t always laugh-out-loud, it’s a riveting display of oddball character comedy. She has the appearance of one of Mike Leigh’s dowdy Londoners — pasty skin, large bosom, plump frame and small eyes — but there’s an extraordinary agility with her matronly features. It lets her play not just wives and mothers but also a lingo-challenged, wigga-talking schoolgirl, and Bernie, a childlike, Raggedy Ann–looking Irish nurse who gabs about the sexual proclivities of her elderly male patients as if she were a good-time girl flirting in a bar. It’s to Tate’s credit that she can turn Bernie into something weirdly human and humanely weird. When Bernie’s superior starts writing her up for her inappropriate behavior, Bernie starts singing “My Favorite Things” softly, then rocks back and forth until it reaches a fierce, almost frightening crescendo.
“What are you doing?” the head nurse barks.
“Just trying to lighten the situation,” Bernie replies, sheepishly.
For connoisseurs of British comedy there’s an especially exciting program up at the Museum of Television & Radio: daily screenings (through March 31) of the complete 1964 farewell performance of the legendary satirical sketch show Beyond the Fringe. Originally airing on the BBC as a one-hour program, the full-length two-hour show — never before released commercially — can be seen, and it’s a dazzling rush of words, ideas, gags and parodies that defined great satire in Britain for a generation. In John Cleese’s words, it was “the beginning of the end of deference.”
That meant that over the course of an evening, a great many institutions in a dwindled British Empire — the royal family, the military, the Church, the class system — went from hallowed to hollowed out, albeit by four clean-cut young Oxbridge men in suits: Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore. For some audience members it was surely a shock when the show debuted in 1961 — Cook’s impersonation of the prime minister alone was the type of mimicry one just didn’t do. But for most ticket buyers it was just hilarious stuff. Bennett, who wrote one of the best new plays of last year, The History Boys, first showed his gift for monologuery with wickedly funny swipes at the myth of T.E. Lawrence and fatuous Sunday sermons. Moore, a gifted pianist, turned the song portion of a typical revue program into a chance to send up Benjamin Britten and Kurt Weill. And Cook, who was recently named the greatest comic performer of all time in a poll of other comedians, unleashed a generous display of his nasal, surreal and coolly cruel wit. Some of the most famous British comedy bits of all time started in this show, from the Cook-Moore exchange between a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan, to Cook’s monologue as a coal miner taking the judge’s exam.
What will probably have the most immediate relevance to today’s wartime audiences, though, is the montagelike stream of scenes called “Aftermyth of War,” skewering cherished clichés — mostly from films — of British pluck during World War II. There’s the stalwart citizen insisting on his tea while bombs fall around him, for example, and this memorable exchange between Cook’s emotionless officer and Miller’s soldier:
Cook: We’re two down, and the ball’s in the enemy court. War is a psychological thing, Perkins, rather like a game of football. You know how in a game of football 10 men often play better than 11?
Miller: Yes, sir.
Cook: Perkins, we are asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen, take a shufti, don’t come back. Goodbye, Perkins. God, I wish I was going too.
Miller once described the basis of the foursome’s comedy not as “wouldn’t it be funny if” but instead “isn’t it funny that . . .” “Let’s observe what actually goes on, imitate it and remind people by the shock of recognition how absurd things are.”
To which the only response 40 years later after seeing this wonderful artifact is . . . it’s still absurd, and it’s still funny.
The Catherine Tate Show airs Wednesdays at 8:40 p.m. on BBC America. Beyond the Fringe’s finale show is screening through March 31 at the Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Dr. in Beverly Hills, (310) 786-1000.