Young Americans, ever tuned in to your local PBS station late at night? Remember those wacky comedies in which the actors talked in strange accents, the sets were poorly lit, and the laugh track audio was out of balance with the sound on the studio set?
Yeah, me too. Those weird shows that seemed to be mostly about men in dresses and flowerpots falling on people from windows were BBC shows. The horror! Television from another country playing in America? Only because PBS (Public Broadcasting System) cared about the children of America enough to play Sesame Street (a classic American educational program) in the morning and mostly family-friendly BritComs at night.
Mostly family-friendly because the sex jokes were not as overt as the ones on The Simpsons, but were thinly veiled behind references to vegetables.
That's right, before BBC America and cable came to town, we Americans only had our donor-funded public television stations to show us the lower-budget television work coming out of the UK. Friday nights on Iowa Public Television was always BBC Sci-Fi night, with replays of Red Dwarf and old episodes of Doctor Who introduced by a white-haired hippie in a floating chair on a really bad greenscreen chroma-key background. I can't make this stuff up...
One show that did not make it to the prestigious PBS lineup was Father Ted, a 1995 sitcom about the wacky misadventures of three Irish priests on a rural island in the west of Ireland. Observe one famous moment...
When we arrived here, we heard from many of our Irish friends that this show truly captured the spirit of the Irish people. It was something theirs, even though it was produced by a British TV company. They all said we must watch this show, as so many Irish people have the dialogue of the series down by heart.
Even billboard ads for cable providers make sure to let people know that Ted can be watched on-demand with their packages... along with Mad Men, The Walking Dead, 24, Game of Thrones, Family Guy and all the other American shows. Father Ted stands tall among them on the signage. What other mid-nineties low-budget sitcom can say that? Is Mad About You advertised on urban billboards in that States? Nope.
So what is Father Ted like? Well, I must be careful in the words I use to describe the show. Anything smelling remotely critical might get me thrown out of the country. With that said, I am compelled to say that every shot, every joke, every frame of the show is outright hilarity. Can I stay in Ireland, now?
Seriously, not being Irish, I don't know what it's like to be under-represented in the media. If I want to see Americans being successful on TV and movie, I don't have to look far. From what we've heard, Father Ted was important because it was a successful (and actually funny) show written by and starring Irish people. They made jokes at the expense of the Irish, but it was okay because the writers of said jokes actually grew up in the Catholic State and were able to pinpoint the comedy in the various cultural and religious situations presented.
The three main characters are priests exiled to a rural parish on a desolate island with a village of hardscrabble people for various "wrongdoings" in the church. Father Ted has a vague reference to money embezzling in his past, Father Dougal is a simpleton who was placed there because of some serious but unexplained "Blackrock Incident," and Father Jack is an old alcoholic coot who sits in a chair and barks, growls, and swears at everyone in the room. Their housekeeper is always aggressively trying to serve everyone tea, representing a stereotypical Irish Mum being comically over-the-top with hospitality (unconfirmed).
Apparently the people of nineties Ireland could identify with the priests portrayed as flawed humans, and this was somewhat revolutionary. The writers and actors made sure to use real Irish phrases and pronunciations in their dialogue. Classics lines like haff t'ree meaning 3:30 and ahh g'wan as a pushy encouragement, usually to have some tea.
To me, it looks like a standard BBC nineties sitcom, but it wasn't made for me. I enjoy watching it not so much for the jokes, many of which I don't get, but for the curious impact and staying power it has with Irish people. Someday, I hope to attend a protest and bring my own "DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING!" and "CAREFUL NOW!" signs. They are a staple at almost every real-life protest we've seen in Ireland.
It may not have run as long as Seinfeld, but like Festivus, people here will be celebrating Father Ted for a long time.