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Future Sailors: A Look at Comedies "The Mighty Boosh," "Party Down," and "Better Off Ted"

It's rare when a comedy series comes along and makes me fall under its spell. I'm typically pretty averse to the weak charms of most sitcoms and it takes quite a lot for me to invest my time in brand-new comedy series, given their relatively short shelf lives these days.

So imagine my surprise when I fell head over heels in love with not just one but three comedy series over the last few weeks. All three air on very different networks, ranging from broadcast to cable to premium, but all three have managed to win me over with their loopy, goofy charms.

I reviewed ABC's Better Off Ted a few weeks back, before it premiered, and reviewed the first few episodes of Party Down, airing on Starz, but I've been far too quiet about the strengths of both of these innovative series. Likewise, I'm currently obsessed with British import The Mighty Boosh, which launched its third season over on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block.

Three very different series indeed. So what do they all have in common? For one, the very unique ability to make me laugh, no mean feat for this cynical and jaded viewer. Second, they each have a very specific comedic style, ranging from the twisted and surreal (The Mighty Boosh) to the satirical (Better Off Ted) to the jovially tongue-in-cheek (Party Down).

The Mighty Boosh is based on a radio series created by Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, who star in the series as aspiring musicians Howard Moon and Vince Noir. Over the course of the three surreal seasons of this indescribable comedy series, the duo seek to achieve their dreams of super-stardom while working at a series of unremarkable day jobs including a zoo (such as in Season One) and more recently (in Season Three) at the Nabootique, a second-hand goods store in London's Shoreditch, owned by the recreational drug-using freelance shaman Naboo (Michael Fielding).

Yes, this is that sort of series. The type of comedy where anything (and typically everything) does happen. In some series that sort of unexpectedness might mean an unpredictable plot twist or two. Here, it means the inclusion of some mightily wicked supernatural elements, such as talking animals (such as Naboo's familiar Bollo, a talking gorilla), wizards, ghosts, and the slightly demented man in the moon. When The Mighty Boosh (also the name of Barratt and Fielding's real-life comedy troupe) promises an adventure through time and space at the beginning of each episode, it really does deliver. Recent plots have involved Howard being shrunk with a blind jazz musician after Vince swallows part of a cursed jazz record and must battle a voodoo singer, an encounter with a green-faced Victorian ghoul obsessed with eels, and a face-off with a copycat band able to predict their every move before they make it. (No worries, they're quickly dispatched by an awesome crimping showdown.)

In fact, the only thing more erratic than the series' surreal sense of humor is the outrageous and unique attire worn by the series' style icon Vince Noir (Fielding), which can range from the dark and Gothic to what Howard describes as what a "futuristic prostitute" might wear.

Meanwhile, ABC's Better Off Ted, created by Victor Fresco, is a workplace comedy that's distinctly influenced by the off-kilter humor of Fresco's own Andy Richter Controls the Universe, the short-lived FOX series that played fast and loose with reality. (Puppy coat, anyone?) Better Off Ted is far more grounded but also offers a scathing indictment of today's corporate culture in the form of the terrifying (and terrifyingly funny) Veridian Dynamics, the sort of conglomerate that produces everything from cow-less beef to innovative weapon technology for the military.

It focuses on Ted (Jay Harrington), the affable head of Veridian's R&D department who must contend with his precious daughter Rose (Isabella Acres), an office crush on his researcher Linda (Andrea Anders), the quixotic nature of his best scientists Lem (Malcolm Barrett) and Phil (Jonathan Slavin, who starred in Andy Richter Controls the Universe), and his icy, no-nonsense boss Veronica (Portia de Rossi), with whom he used up his one office affair.

Along the way, everything from insipid company-wide memos to corporate racism is addressed with a keen eye and a surgeon's precision. While Veridian might be freezing its employees and weaponizing pumpkins, its actions aren't really all that alien to today's office drones, especially in our current economic climate. If today's floundering companies could cryogenically freeze their employees rather than pay them for vacation time, don't you think they would? Better Off Ted offers a gimlet eyed look at life in today's offices and labs, mining the absurd situations for humor just as NBC's The Office found comedy in the very mundanity of its character's 9-to-5 existence.

And then there's Starz's Party Down, from Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, John Enbom, Paul Rudd, and Dan Etheridge, which is virtually a Veronica Mars mini-reunion each week. The series stars Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, Ryan Hansen, Lizzy Caplan, and Martin Starr as the members of a Los Angeles catering team all of whom aspire to be something very different than uniformed servers and bartenders.

Each hilarious episode finds the gang catering a different event for a different clientele, a format that works extremely well here. While the scenery changes each week, the characters have a chance to interact with one another and their relationships change and grow over the course of the season. Much like The Office, there's much humor to be mined in the very drudgery of their jobs and their fantasies of escaping their indentured servitude. Unlike The Office, Party Down has a biting dark side and, given that this is premium cable, features enough foul language and nudity to sate all but the most depraved viewers.

While their characters might be depressed, self-medicating, delusional losers, the crew at Party Down Catering is a hoot to watch as they find themselves often at odds with each other, the guests, and the world in general. This could be a slight comedy but the often scathing wit and merciless way that the writers thrust their characters into awkward and horrifying situations make this trainwreck comedy of the highest order. While each episode might end with them packing their bottles and chafing dishes away for the next event, one can't help but get sucked into their wonky world.

And, at the end of the day, that's what each of these three vastly different comedies have in common: the ability to transport the viewer into a reality that's not our own. One achieves this via a combination of the mystical, musical, and sartorial; another through the absurd behavior of the workers in a glass-and-steel structure; and the last by showing us what happens when a bunch of dreamers gets stuck in the muck of failure.

As for me, I just can't look away. And neither should you.

The Mighty Boosh can be found on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim at 1 am ET/PT on Mondays. Better Off Ted airs Wednesday evenings at 8:30 pm ET/PT on ABC. Party Down airs Fridays at 10:30 pm ET/PT on Starz.


MeganE said…
I love The Mighty Boosh! It is so deliciously weird and bizarre and makes no sense whatsoever and yet, somehow, it's absolutely delightful. And Season Three is my favorite so far!
SweetD said…
I was a huge fan of Andy Richter Controls the Universe and wish it had been given more of a chance. I hope that Better Off Ted is more successful as it has that same goofy-yet-witty humor that made me originally fall in love with "Andy" and I'm thrilled to see Jonathan Slavin back in action as he always makes me laugh!
Unknown said…
Yay! Thanks for talking up BOT. (I loved Andy Richter CTU, too. Hey, maybe there's a tie-in with 24!)
Nick said…
Setting my DVR for Mighty Boosh now. Sounds amazing!

Tried BoT but didn't care for it. Might be b/c I didn't care for Andy Richter Controls either. But that's just me.
Ally said…
So glad you A) talked about BOT and B) like it so much!

I crack up every week at this show. I think last week's ep was the best so far. Between the "blacks only" drinking fountain and this exchange, "When you leave the room, the lights go out." "Aw, it's comments like that make it hard to stay mad at you." I am guffawing consistently. Damn, I love this show.

I am also enjoying PArty Down, but not as much I would have thought. Still - what a great collection of actors.
Unknown said…
You're so right about The Mighty Boosh. After watching it last night I told my roommates "I would have no idea how to describe this to someone." Am loving it and have been singing "Future Sailors" all morning.

I keep watching Party Down, but it hasn't quite lived up to my expectations yet. I feel like the sum isn't equal to all it's parts.
Thumbu said…
Ah, so you've finally been seduced by the Boosh? It's such a phenomenon across the pond, even U2 members have been dropping its name (Bono's been looking for the new sound, apparently). A heads up, if you haven't gotten around to it yet: Barratt and Fielding show up in Channel 4's "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace," one of the funniest shows I've ever seen. It never made it past six episodes, but those six are just golden. - Future Sailor, over and out.

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