The beetle-browed, pudding-faced British comedian Rowan Atkinson has something slightly less than a cult following in America. His Blackadder historical comedy series is shown here on the Arts & Entertainment cable network, and he’s had supporting roles in movies like The Witches and The Tall Guy. Now HBO is doing its best to bring Atkinson, an acclaimed superstar in England, to a larger American audience. In February, HBO began airing some of Atkinson’s ”Mr. Bean” comedy shorts after many of the channel’s feature films; this month, we are offered HBO Comedy hour: Rowan Atkinson an almost-one-man show that features some of the routines that brought him fame at home. It’s the comedy version of a greatest-hits album.
Right away, it’s easy to see why Atkinson’s humor hasn’t made him a household name in America. Much of his best material is rude, funny stuff about the Anglican church, not exactly a popular comedy target in this country. He impersonates a minister delivering a modernized Gospel lesson about one of Jesus’ miracles (”And they said unto him, ‘How the hell did you do that?’ and inquired of him whether he did parties”). In another, near-silent bit, he uses his large, sleepy eyes and wide, sappy grin to play an exhausted man who falls asleep in church, tumbling against the fellow in the pew next to him (Angus Deayton). Episcopalians are to Atkinson what Jews are to Jackie Mason — his Great Subject, the source of everything he loves and thinks ridiculous.
Atkinson is unusual in the sense that he’s equally adept at both intricate verbal humor and slapstick physical comedy. Few comedians this side of Steve Martin are as accomplished in both areas. But there’s also an obviousness to many of Atkinson’s skits that make them tiresome. His favorite persona is that of the blissful idiot; in one segment here, he plays a schoolmaster calling out the attendance roll in front of an imaginary classroom full of boys whose surnames are all bodily functions, unmentionable parts, and diseases (”Has any-one seen Myprick?…Herpes — still with us, I see…). The joke is that the blithe dope never realizes what he’s saying — but we do, and all too early on — so the routine becomes silly, even faintly embarrassing, very quickly.
I doubt that Atkinson will ever be a big star in America. For all his talent, his more mannerly sketches seem clever but too mild, while his crassest creations are comic criticisms of the kind of social and cultural inhibitions we vulgar Americans overcame a long time ago — hurrah for our vulgarity. Atkinson can be really funny, but there’s something bloodless about his comedy as well. B