Happy Birthday, Mr. Bean Celebrating 30 Years of a Major Comedy Character
January 1, 1990, saw Mr. Bean debut on ITV to an audience totaling 13.45 million. Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis, and Richard Curtis created the pilot episode that marked the birth of a major comic character.
Bean is so well-known, and so easily incorporated into our pop culture tapestry that it’s hard to overlook how striking his creation is.
Atkinson was most well-known for his four Blackadder incarnations.
Blackadder’s second iteration was a bit slapsticky. Atkinson’s ability to deliver it and acidic dialogue were key ingredients. Even the laxest line delivery (“To Baldrick, The Renaissance was just a thing that happened to other people”) could be uttered with humor and disdain.
Bean, on the other hand, was a largely quiet character – arguably, the last great silent comic creation. He extended a genealogy that included Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harpo Marx, as well as Harpo Marx, Harpo Marx, and Jacques Tati.
Bean is loved and respected by many people, even though it may not be to everyone’s liking. It was the absence of dialogue that made Bean a worldwide hit. The show screened in nearly 250 countries.
What is it about Mr. Bean that makes him such a beloved creation?
It’s all about size
Imagine the iconic images of silent comedy: Lloyd suspended from a clock tower; Keaton commanding trains for Confederacy; Chaplin’s body surfing through a network of oversized mechanical gears.
Think of the most famous Mr. Bean scenes: Bean at a swimming pool; in the dentist’s chair; entertaining a sick child from a plane, and eating lunch in the park. These are all hilarious scenes shot in unflattering environments on videotape.
While the smaller sketches are more durable, the more complex high jinks, such as Bean playing minigolf in a whole county or Bean caring for an abandoned child at a carnival, don’t age well. They lose their charm and dilute its purity.
Bean works best on a smaller scale.
Are you a child of an alien?
Mr. Bean is a child-like person. Silent comedy stars were usually moderately functional adults. Even Harpo Marx was childlike but had a predatory edge.
Bean, however, is As Atkinson points, “a child within a grown man’s body”.
In the series’ opening credits, Bean is seen falling to the ground after a spaceship splats him. There are other possible backstories. Bean is an abductee who has returned to Earth without any crucial grey matter? Or is it an alien trying (poorly), to pass as human?
From the beginning, fully formed
The first episode introduced most of the traits that made Bean such an irreplaceable creation.
We see his idiot status as he sits down for an exam. He has read the wrong test papers and tries to cheat his way through them in the first sketch.
The next sketch shows Bean going to the beach, where he changes into his bathers in the most difficult way possible.
This sketch shows Bean’s ingeniousness — finding inordinately complicated solutions to basic predicaments — and his inability to avoid being ridiculed by society.
The third and the best sketch is a tour de force that showcases Atkinson’s rubbery skin and virtuoso, gangly physique. Bean attends a church service where he struggles with staying awake to eat some candy while under the watchful and strict eye of Richard Briers.
This sketch shows Bean trying to imitate human behavior and daily rituals, and failing, earning the ire and ridicule of others.
The Bean legacy
From 1990-1995 Bean was the host of 14 television shows. He also appeared in two feature films, an animated Trending TV Series, and various sketches.
Although the cartoon and films somewhat diminished the brand, the character has endured the wear that comes with cultural omnipresence and longevity: children becoming bored of Bean, parents getting sick of Bean watching, and adolescents believing Bean is too cool.
But, the worldwide appeal of Mr. Bean and Atkinson speaks volumes about the genius of their characters. We can revisit this episode 30 years later to relive the creation of this amazing comic.
Groucho Marx’s Duck Soup line perfectly captures the essence of Bean’s appeal. He may talk and look stupid, but he is an idiot.