Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, the short-lived 2005 reality series on UPN, was similarly genre bending. Fashioned from home video taken by the pop star and her famously good-for-nothing backup-dancer husband, the series was near pornographic in its voyeuristic intimacy (emotional, not sexual) and plu-porno in its banality. What do two impossibly rich, young, and famous people do in their spare time? Answer: Have sex and talk about having sex. Chaotic was all about unexpected pleasures. As a viewer, there was the consciousness of what Britney Spears wanted to show you (simply, two kids madly in love; i.e., “Britney is all grown up”) and the metaconsciousness of the career anxiety that led to her agreeing to this project (“Oh no, Britney is all grown up”); a sense that Kevin, who in the manner of an accomplished concubine withholds his affection to maintain Britney’s, was very much just along for the ride; plus a deep existential sadness—or was I just imagining that part? (Qu’est que c’est Kevin Federline?)
The two most inventive comics of the current moment, Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, work different riffs on DIY. Gervais was the progenitor and star of the British show The Office, a pseudo-documentary like Blair Witch, this one about a paper company in Slough, England. The comedy comes almost entirely from the Brit-and-Kev-ian divide between self-image and reality: Gervais’s character frantically beseeches the camera for approval as his charges snicker behind his back. The comedy is all about dead air, the awkward moments when Gervais’s errant attempts at humor meet either stone faces or the toadying laughter of his one supplicant. Similarly brilliant is his Ricky Gervais Show, a regular radio show turned into an audio lark for Britain’s Guardian newspaper last November that has become the most successful podcast of all time and began its third season this past August. The vibe is not dissimilar to Howard Stern’s, though less coarse, but the brilliance comes from Gervais’s and longtime collaborator Stephen Merchant’s back-and-forth with a former producer and appealing dummkopf, Karl Pilkington. Gervais and Merchant deny that Pilkington is a fictional character (alleged pictures of him do exist, and he appears to have had a career as a radio producer before his appearances here), while stoking the suspicion that Pilkington is either a gifted deadpan comedian or someone else entirely. On the Web, you can make up pretty much anything.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie Borat may be the funniest comedy in a decade (its full title will give you a whiff of its comic mayhem: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan). Cohen is best known for Da Ali G Show, which ran for two seasons on HBO and featured Borat as one of three recurring characters played by Cohen. (Like The Office, Ali G is a British import.) Borat is a hybrid comedy- documentary, mostly documentary, in which Borat, a fake Kazakh newsman, travels across America on a quest to forcibly take Pamela Anderson as his wife, all while producing a television show for Kazakhstan about the real America. Real America does not escape unscathed—not the USC fratboy who bemoans the end of slavery, nor the Pentecostals fooled by Borat’s preposterous religious conversion, nor the gun-shop owner who all-too-blithely recommends a .357 Magnum when Borat comes in asking for the best gun for shooting a Jew.
Watch a trailer for Borat
What Cohen shares with Gervais (and with much of the best original video on YouTube) is an impatience with the hackneyed routines of traditional American comedy, the predictable double takes, fools needing comeuppance, and so forth. (Wikipedia helpfully distills the sitcom format down to ten basic plots, with eight other lesser-used routines thrown in for variety.) Indeed, one of the funniest moments in Borat is his visit to a hapless comedy coach, who attempts to teach him how to successfully pull off a “Not!” joke. Needless to say, he succeeds by not succeeding.
It’s telling that no truly successful television sitcom has been launched since Will and Grace, in 1998; though Two and a Half Men, now in its fourth season, has maintained its lonely perch as the only sitcom in the top twenty shows, it’s uninspired stuff, comedy moving to the rhythms of a long-ago moment. Network television, after launching and then canceling scores of sitcoms in the past two years, does seem to finally be moving toward something of a Gervais/Cohen gestalt. The best hour of comedy on network television is the U.S. version of The Office, with Steve Carell in the Gervais role, followed by My Name Is Earl, a Coen brothers–inspired romp that stays fresh by means of offbeat comic routines, out-of-left-field visual gags, and a commitment to weirdness that simply would not have made it through the network filters a decade ago. Both shows, which air on NBC, are shot “single camera” style: out of the studio and without a laugh track. Cohen, meanwhile, broke through to mainstream audiences playing a surpassingly strange gay French race-car driver in the summer’s biggest movie comedy, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.
No need to go to the movie, of course. You can watch the best bits on YouTube.