There's quite a bit of debate about where the adage "dying is easy, comedy is hard" originated. I'd like to slightly amend the phrase and take sole credit for a new version, namely, "dying (figuratively) while doing comedy is easy," at least as evidenced by this spectacularly unfunny early 1980s British sketch show. I kept thinking they named it Alfresco (denoting out of doors, as in dining) because they needed plenty of fresh air to disguise the stink of it all. The fact that the show is performed by a bevy of personalities that have gone on to greater reward (in the making a living, not dying, sense), including Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton and Emma Thompson, makes the flatness of this enterprise all the more puzzling.
The wake left by Monty Python's Flying Circus was wide indeed, something that in fact is felt to this day by such lackluster current efforts like The Mad Show. Python was remarkable not only for the comedic brilliance of its individual bits, but also for the madly innovative way each episode was knitted together out of segues that at times were complete non sequiturs, but at others had the insane logic of the, well, insane. The fact is Python was that rare convergence of writing and performing talent combined with a certain entrainment between the cast that raised them all to a new level of hilarity. That this is the case is obvious when one watches Python's precursors, several of which contain a lot of the same cast, like Do Not Adjust Your Set. The foundation was there in these earlier efforts, but that last dash of genius was missing.
I digress about Python only to illuminate how hard it is to craft a manic yet entertaining sketch show. The first failing of Alfresco is in its individual elements, the sketches themselves. While there are occasionally funny bits, as is in a dreaded insurance salesman coming ever closer to an unsuspecting potential client as the Jaws theme plays, most of the stuff here is simply abysmal, as in a hideously bad segment (around which an entire episode is built, sadly) about Morris Dancing, wherein Hugh Laurie is forced to extract punchlines from repeating (and repeating and repeating) the word "penis." Laughing yet? I thought not.
Even some of the clever uses of language simply fall flat here, as in the recurring Mr. Butcher and Mr. Baker segments (all in black and white), where puns fly by at a maddening pace and yet it all seems for naught. In one of these segments as the two walk by the Thames, Elton asks Laurie, "Have you ever fallen in love?," to which Laurie replies while pointing toward the river, "Yes, once, down there, and please don't call me love." The "falling in" joke is then reused a second time with similarly tepid results. Where's Leslie Nielsen when you need him?
While I'm certainly no champion of political correctness, at least a couple of the sketches come pretty close to crossing the PC line, at least to modern sensibilties. Notable in this regard is a sort of distasteful episode where Coltrane and Thompson impersonate a theatrical agent and his secretary in order to "hire" hapless actor Laurie to commit a terrorist act, telling him his appearance won't be shown in theaters, but in bits and pieces on television--on the news. Knee-slapping, I'm sure you'll agree.
Things do pick up marginally in the second season when Alfresco jettisons the Python-esque attempted throughlines and relies on a bridging concept where all the performers gather at a "pretend pub." The skits are then introduced, more or less, in between that week's pub segments. It at least frees the show from having to weave together disparate elements, but it still can't solve the problem at the center of it all, the bland skits themselves.
There is some vestigial interest in all of this nonetheless, if only by dint of the cast members. As dour as a lot of the material is, it's still fun (at least in dribs and drabs) to see Laurie, Thompson, Fry and Coltrane early in their careers attempting a variety of different characters. If cast mates Ben Elton and Siobhan Redmond aren't quite at the marquee value (at least stateside) as their compatriots, they also do sporadically funny work here, especially Redmond, who has a lilting Scottish brogue to at least give the patently silly dialogue a little variety. (Elton, as musical theater aficionados may know, has gone on to some success writing with a little composer by the name of Andrew Lloyd Webber or something like that).
The full frame television broadcast image is obviously culled from a videotape master that has some occasional damage and even tracking problems (limited mostly to "static" in the lowest regions of the image). Colors are acceptable, nothing more, and there's that typical softness that is so endemic of British television, especially in the filmed outdoor segments.
The standard stereo soundtrack is fine, if not outstanding, with acceptable clarity throughout. There are no problems with the soundtrack similar to those with the image quality. There are English subtitles available (and in fact the first disc defaulted to subtitles on on two DVD players I tried it on; the second disc did not).
There is an informative, if hyperbolic, essay about "alternative British comedy" included in the insert booklet. There are also cast biographies and filmographies. Of most interest to most fans will be the original three part pilot There's Nothing to Worry About, which was only broadcast regionally in the UK before it was recast and remolded as Alfresco. The three part pilot contains longer versions of several skits seen in the Alfresco series.
There's another old adage which states "it's not where you start, it's where you finish" (I'll credit Dorothy Fields, but maybe she borrowed it from Edmund Kean--that's a joke). Luckily these talented performers have gone on to bigger and better projects. Fans of any of these actors may want to check out Alfresco to see early work of their favorites, so an evening's rental may be in order. Just don't expect anything even remotely approaching the quality of Monty Python.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet