In consideration of British comedy history, here are two video clips. The first clip is from “The End,” the first episode of Red Dwarf, written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor and produced in 1987:
The second clip is “The Exam,” written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, taken from the first episode of Mr. Bean and produced in 1989:
Both of these scenes are funny, but there are a number of striking similarities: the effort to blow into the paper, the cheater flipping over the paper and being surprised that there is information on both sides of the exam, and the cheater closing his eyes in disbelief only to open his eyes and see the exam in front of him.
The National Post reported that Mr. Bean was conceived as a test character in 1987. Sketches for Mr. Bean had apparently been performed on stage. But in this interview, Atkinson revealed, “And so we thought wouldn’t it be interesting to bring them to Montreal, which we did in 1989. We tried them out on basically a French-speaking audience. And then we did the English-speaking side.”
The big question here is what Mr. Bean sketch he’s talking about. Was “The Exam” one of the candidates? According to the Just for Laughs page:
The sketch, which was in the form of a lecture on dating techniques, was first tested out at one of the French galas. It was met with such an overwhelming positive response, that it was added to the HBO special, and was met with the same response. BBC brass watched the tape of his performance at Juste pour rire and the following year Atkinson’s “Mr. Bean” TV series aired for the first time and made Atkinson an international star.
This suggests that “The Exam” may have been written sometime in 1989 — shortly after the BBC commissioned the first thirty-minute installment of Mr. Bean. A version of this sketch was also included in a Rowan Atkinson one hour HBO special, which was performed and filmed on December 19th and 20th, 1991 in Boston’s Huntington Theater.
Still, I have to wonder whether Curtis and Atkinson were inspired, in part, by Red Dwarf. Obviously, hot off the success of Blackadder, they were very concerned about whether Mr. Bean was going to draw a major audience. But did they see Red Dwarf and abscond with a few of Grant Naylor’s ideas just after signing on with the BBC? And what do Grant and Naylor have to say about this?