Never have I ever watched a sitcom and gone, “Golly, I sure do love the laugh track with the show!” Anyone who knows me knows that I cannot stand laugh tracks—I think they are the bane to all good comedies. But, believe it or not, the little British sitcom Count Arthur Strong is improved by it. I actually laugh during it. Yes, I audibly giggled with the laugh track. Not only that, the show is utterly adorable.
I’m sure a lot of it has to due with Graham Linehan’s contribution, but it’s just short, simple comedy. It’s not convoluted gags, it’s not sexist or racist—though certain wordplay on the writer’s part may make it sound like it is, when in reality, the character talking just doesn’t realize he’s used the wrong word. (“I’ve written a racist book!” when he’s written a racy book.) I feel the need to add that saying this is “simple comedy” is not an insult, not in the slightest. It’s quite hard to pull off simple comedy, as someone who tried multiple times to write comedy can tell you. It’s a bit like those pop songs from the ’90s that everyone says they despised, but whenever they come on, the whole room sings along.
As Linehan says, he’s used to just having people jump through windows when he doesn’t know what to write next, but in this little show, you can’t really do that. So he’s sort of forced to write around that, and I think it’s given the show more . . . feeling, I suppose. Yeah, seriously, this show has some feel-good and feel-bad moments in it. The fifth episode in particular has quite a dour ending. You expect a joke, but there are none to be found. Which is wonderful. Too many comedies are focused on making you laugh every second, but it’s the ones that allow for a moment of somber reprieve that we tend to remember.
A lot of the comedy is centered around Arthur Strong (Steve Delaney), an obliviously bonkers old gentleman who takes the smallest thing literally. (“Hello, can you tell me who I’m speaking with?” “Yes, I can!” “. . . Well?” “Very well, thank you!”) There’s something in him that’’ll remind you of ten different people you know. For me, it’s when he has awkward pauses in between the odd words, or hasn’t realized people stopped listening to him talk at them (Arthur never talks to someone). Because I do that. All the goddamn time.
But what I feel are the funniest moments come from the straight man, Michael Baker (Rory Kinnear), son of a famous comedian who used to be Arthur’s comedy partner. Michael is tasked with writing a book about his father, though he never had a chance to get to know the man. Enter Arthur. Michael becomes a sort of caretaker for Arthur, and while he becomes exhausted very quickly with his antics, you can tell Michael still cares for him, returning every day, even when the book is finished.
Part of that has to do with Michael’s crush on the waitress, Sinem (Zahra Ahmadi), in the café Arthur frequents. Of course, Sinem’s older brother, Bulent (Chris Ryman), sees this right away and is not happy with Michael in the slightest. Bulent is the sort of character for which it’s the case that if he’s seen smiling, something is dreadfully wrong. This man has an amazingly cold stone face of disapproval and keeps it on at all times. It’s like a human version of Angry Cat. There are also the other denizens of the café: Katya, Polish “psychic” and Arthur’s number-one fan; John the Watch, a mysterious older man with a thick East London brogue; and Eggy, a melancholy egg-based conspiracy theorist.
That’s another thing I like about this show. All the characters matter; they all have a reason for being. A lot of comedies have the issue of a character being around just for the punchline. And while there are characters here who tend to portray that (Michael chief among them), they’re still given a chance to show that they’re more than the buttmonkey. I don’t want to compare it to Black Books—as much as I like this show, it’s not at BB caliber—but that would be another good example of a well-rounded show. Manny could have easily been that buttmonkey, but he’s given moments to redeem himself, or to show himself more than a beard with a face.
You may recognize a few guest stars depending on whether you’ve watched as much BBC as I have. Ben Willbond, of Horrible Histories and the 4th series of The Thick of It, has a small part in one episode. Kevin McNally, Gibbs from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Woodhull in AMC’s brilliant Revolutionary War drama Turn, shows up in series 2. Then there’’s the main straight man himself, Rory Kinnear.
Kinnear is a huge presence on the British stage, receiving constant praise and winning an Olivier last year for his portrayal of Iago in Othello, but you may be more likely to recognize him as MI6 chief of staff Bill Tanner from the recent James Bond movies or, even better (and hilarious in hindsight for me), Frankenstein’s Creature, Caliban, in Penny Dreadful. Honestly, this guy has the Tim Curry effect: whatever he’s in, no matter how bad, is improved by his presence.
Another draw to Count Arthur Strong is that the lead, Arthur Strong, is an old creation by Steve Delaney. Delaney created Arthur as a short gag during his drama-school years, but left him behind after graduating—that is, until 1997, when he was convinced to bring Arthur back for the Edinburgh Fringe and subsequently received a commendation from the Perrier Award panel (the most prestigious award in the Fringe). He went on to do live shows in character and create a successful radio series. Around 2009, Delaney was contacted by Linehan, who wanted to make a show for Arthur. Four years and a semi-successful game-show pilot later, we have the adorable little sitcom today.
You can find the first series on Hulu, and I truly recommend checking it out. For god’s sake, it has a laugh track, and I think that adds to the show. The only time I find it awkward is when one character says or does something loving or dramatically unexpected; the audience doesn’t exactly react as I’m used to, and there aren’t many oohs or aahs. Then again, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a British entertainer exclaim how ecstatic the American audience is compared to the English.
Count Arthur Strong is a small show, one that managed to find itself placed on BBC1 just before the watershed, an achievement in and of itself. So don’t carry high expectations, but certainly set about to have a good time.