Silly comedy is trickier than people imagine, and I'm rarely convinced that modern American comedy can pull it off. It's been a long time since the heyday of Mel Brooks or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movies that gave us Airplane! and The Naked Gun, and I believe British comedy has done a better job keeping surrealist comedy alive in multiple formats: sitcom (Father Ted, The IT Crowd), stand-up (Eddie Izzard, Ross Noble), sketch shows (The Smell Of Reeves & Mortimer, Big Train), spoofs (Look Around You), family entertainment (Harry Hill's TV Burp), and gameshow (Shooting Stars).
Better Off Ted is a now-defunct US comedy that ran for two seasons, before ABC pulled the plug. It concerns the workforce of Veridian Dynamics, an unethical global corporation that pioneers cutting-edge technologies based on crackpot ideas. Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) works there as the head of R&D for the deliciously amoral Veronica (Portia de Rossi), in charge of nerdy whitecoat scientists like egghead duo Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett).
It's a more corporate version of The IT Crowd with the style of Andy Richter Controls The Universe, but I struggled to find the first two episodes especially amusing or clever. In "Pilot", the team are working on weaponizing pumpkins, before Veronica decides to have Phil frozen for a year, while Ted meets an office drone called Linda (Andrea Anders) who's taken to stealing creamer in a petty show of rebellion from their corporate masters. In "Heroes", Phil and Lem were tasked with growing "cowless beef" in the lab, while Veronica was forced to create an award for Phil to prevent him suing Veridian over his enforced cryogenic test.
The show has quirky ideas and a good cast (although only de Rossi carved out a memorable persona), but it lacked a freewheeling sense of giddy hilarity that I personally demand from silly comedy. This being a US comedy, it can't avoid casting a hunk in the lead role, and Harrington demonstrated no real gift for comedy. It doesn't help that he's a straight man at the epicentre of this mad universe, so the show felt immediately less fun than had it cast someone with a more amusing personality. Ted also breaks the fourth wall (Malcolm In The Middle-style), which didn't feel at all necessary.
The thing in Better Off Ted's favour is a concept (not dissimilar to the BBC's short-lived Lab Rats) that lends itself extremely well to imaginative ideas and funny events. In fact, that key ingredient is something The IT Crowd sorely needed, as a sitcom that suffers from how its characters exist in a work environment that's a one-joke IT helpdesk and not a better springboard to madcap plots. The potential of this show's crazy laboratory and evil company idea is half the reason I'm sticking around for more; de Rossi's office bitch the other.
WRITER: Victor Fresco
DIRECTOR: Michael Fresco
CAST: Jay Harrington, Portia de Rossi, Andrea Anders, Jonathan Slavin, Malcolm Barrett, Isabella Acres, Maz Jobrani & Colin Baiocchi
TRANSMISSION: 27 July 2010 - FX/HD, 9PM