To list the principal talents of AD/BC: A Rock Opera, a 30-minute parody of 1970s religious rock and roll musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell (hell, throw in Hair as well), is to name a healthy portion of the people who have made British comedy so vital and bracing over the last 10 or 15 years. You’ll find the names Matt Berry, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Graham Linehan, Steve Coogan, Matt Lucas, and Rich Fulcher prominently displayed in the credits of The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Snuff Box, I’m Alan Partridge, Nighty Night, Little Britain, and Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy. Given that pedigree, the puzzle is why it’s not better known outside of Britain and hailed as a Christmas classic.
If you were for some reason obstinately holding the view that there wasn’t much overdone or mannered about the 1970s genre of religious rock musicals, let AD/BC serve as the ecstatic corrective. Berry and Ayoade’s narrative, which dates from 2004, is a played as a “straight” recreation of a 1978 rock opera focusing on on the “Innkeeper” in Bethlehem who owns the manger where Christ was born. (There’s a clever touch of an in-house network tag indicating that “AD/BC” was broadcast on December 19, 1978.) The plummy intro of composer “Tim Wynde” (Berry), who also plays the innkeeper, introduces us to “a man whom I always thought to be one of the more intriguing yet under-explored figures in this oft-recounted tale—in fact, one might immodestly call it ‘the greatest story never told.’” The innkeeper’s problem in life is that “running an inn is just mumbo and jive”—but no worries, there’s a gratuitous montage of actual 1970s B&B’s to explicate his lot.
The exquisite joke underlying it all is that the innkeeper’s story is dreadfully boring, so they have to gin up a plot about the innkeeper being threatened by “Tony Iscariot,” a rival hotel owner, played by “Roger Kingsman, from the Purple Explosion” (Barratt, sublime). Ayoade plays “Joseph Christ,” who in a campfire solo heavily influenced by CCR’s “Proud Mary” explains that his wife is pregnant, even though “Christ, I swear I never touched her / But she tells me everything’s all right.”
Indeed, just about everything in AD/BC is gorgeously, intentionally “over-” something: over-emphatic, over-done, over-ripe. It may be the most meticulously executed and lovingly observed parody since, well, Young Frankenstein. For those who suspect that it might be kind of a one-note gag, the glorious success of AD/BC lies in a thousand tiny details, a cut between scenes that is six frames too early, the sudden and unmotivated amplification of a lyric, the unabashed use of freeze frames and split screens, the anachronistic use of “Christ” as a malediction, the many puzzling cuts and transitions and wipes, the pandering and facile verses that tend to explain everything three times, the unbridled posturing by most every singer, the egregiously dated sexual attitudes (“time is a menstruous women, one cannot control her eddying currents…”), the oddly mis-sync’d vocal tracks, the occasional insertions of dialogue (unadjusted for pitch) between verses…..
TL;DR: AD/BC is a hilarious parody of Jesus Christ Superstar that has a half-dozen smashing songs and dozens of rib-tickling details. I’m tempted to just list the many, many delicious jokes buried in here, but it’s best you discover them for yourself—and best of all, it’s just in time for our weeks-long celebration of the birthday of… Our Lord.