Tuesday, 27 April 2010


Tuesday, 27 April 2010
British comedian Marc Wootton carves a recognizable furrow with La La Land, a half-improvised comedy that premiered on Showtime earlier this year. The US cable network were probably looking for something similar to HBO's Da Ali G Show (or more accurately its narrative-led spin-offs Borat and Brüno), so it's of no surprise that La La Land feels indebted to the work of Sacha Baron Cohen. The downside for Wootton is that his own characters lack the satirical bite and controversial edge of Cohen's repertoire, meaning this series feels more like an improvised Little Britain-style "mockumentary". The upside is that, while the material can be flaky (a particular problem when the unwitting public have roles in the storyline), Wootton's a fearless enough performer to elicit a sense of fun and danger in his many encounters.

The concept's easy to grasp as we're dropped into the show with little exposition: simply put, three deluded Brits have touched down in sunny Los Angeles, California, to seek fame and fortune, each blissfully unaware they lack any talent to make their dreams come true. Simply being in Tinseltown with a positive mental attitude is enough, right?

There's gobby Gary Garner, a loutish cockney cab driver who believes he's destined to become a superstar because he played a rat in a school production of "The Pied Piper Of Hamlyn" and his mates have foolishly inflated his ego. Gary's probably the funniest character, in that he's more forthcoming and therefore dangerous when interacting with people (like a celeb photographer who grows increasingly exasperated by Gary's know-all attitude when he arrives with the ashes of his dead porn star mother whose bequeathed fortune paid for his trip.)

It helps that Gary reminds us of a recent trend for ruffian Brits (Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones) who go to America and become ex-pat movie stars. The humour of an uncouth Brit infuriating Americans with his lack of social graces and arrogance is one of the funnier elements of the show, speaking as a Brit myself. The second episode's "networking" sequence, with Gary inadvisably telling everyone a painfully unfunny anecdote about a plate of spare ribs is particularly amusing, not least because Gary's lack of self-awareness and "big kid" idiocy seemed to eventually charm his beautiful mentor, Mina.

Next there's Brendan Allen; a pretentious documentarian who looks the part with his Spielbergian baseball cap and beard, but has little in the way of original ideas and filmmaking nous. In the first episode, Brendan holds a pitch meeting with an ageing movie producer on the bed of his crummy motel room, trying to convince the Hollywood bigwig that his brainwave to film sharks underwater from inside a steel cage isn't something that's been done to death.

As the most "normal" character of the three, Brendan thus attracts the most open hostility (like a pair of middle-aged mountaineering friends he infuriates my insisting they must be father and son), and while also the least interesting character, Brendan's paradoxically the one who inspires the most Cohen-esque moments. In episode 2, a film producer reveals he's open to the idea of Brendan causing a life-threatening "accident" to improve a documentary's storyline, while in episode 3 Brendan goes undercover in blackface as "Obo" (President Obama's Kenyan cousin) and is patronized by the hosts of a dinner party celebrating his arrival in the US. The Obo sequences may play like a less incisive Borat skit (with the illogic of Brendan mixing drinks and popping pills while incognito glossed over), but it's otherwise very funny to see Americans letting an "African tribesman" smear mouse guts on their forehead.

Finally, we have Wootton's earlier cult hit: effeminate spiritual medium Shirley Ghostman from the short-lived "High Spirits" series, a prissy charlatan with feathery hair who's on the run from British authorities and trying to rebuild his career in the US. An amusing riff on the likes of Derek Acorah, Shirley's an obvious fraud who can't even "cold read" people effectively, and persistently tries to use his "gifts" to hypnotize incredulous receptionists into upgrading his accommodation, or putting holidaymakers into a "trance" while using their credit card for purposes of "numerology" (i.e using it to sneak off and pay his hotel expenses.)

As a character, Shirley doesn't feel as prescient now as he did when "High Spirits" launched at the height of the public's fascination with shows like Most Haunted, but he's nonetheless good for a giggle. It's just a shame the psychic angle to him doesn't work quite so well in the context of La La Land's format, as a lot of Shirley's paranormal antics fall flat and Wootton's instead forced to just act like a simple sociopath. Or, too often, belch and retch when things get desperate.

Overall, La La Land won't change the comedy landscape because it's clearly following in the footsteps of superior trailblazers, but it actually tells a better serialized story than the Borat/Brüno movies managed and does land some unexpected punches that'll raise an eyebrow. This is certainly the best project Wootton's been involved with, and it kept me amused and entertained for three episodes, so I'll be tuning in for the second half.