Since World War II, when the British economy fell to pieces, its two major exports have been rock and comedy.
What gives the Brits an enormous edge in the world comedy market is precisely what puts them at a general disadvantage in economic matters - British men never really grow up. Their humor often is that of a brilliant schoolboy - silly, topical, witty, and naughty in the manner of children trying to shock their elders.
All this applies to Rowan Atkinson, who probably is best known to Americans from "Not the Nine O'Clock News." Physically, he rather resembles the young Dudley Moore, though he is taller and, because he always is screwing up his face in the oddest ways, he looks more sinister, like a nasty rodent.
Much of his humor is silly - one of the first things he does is shave his tongue. Some is topical - he lampoons everyone from Liberace to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Much is witty - he has a wonderful sketch in which the devil, like the suave host of some posh club, welcomes newcomers to Hell.
As for naughty, Atkinson carries on the distinguished British tradition of heavy use of bathroom language. He also has several droll anticlerical sketches, one in which a priest munches non-chalantly on The Host, another in which a minister reads the story of the Wedding at Cana rather as if Jesus were a client of the William Morris agency. ("Lord, Thy one-liners are as good as Thy tricks.")
In some ways the most impressive thing about Atkinson is his physical comedy. His body is as pliable as silly putty; only occasionally do there seem to be bones keeping it upright.
He has an able assistant in Angus Deayton, whose deadpan is a perfect foil for Atkinson's often outrageous humor. Unfortunately, there is a sameness to much of Atkinson's material.
Still, at his best he is extremely funny and, even if he makes only a slight dent in Britain's trade deficit, Atkinson is a welcome, diverting comic voice.
The man is funny. Very funny. Hilarious. Side-splitting. Not that I actually saw any sides split, but anyone fearing a certain weakness at the seams should perhaps think twice before going to see "Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson."
Atkinson, who opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater last night, is a British comedian. Or, to voice my soundest suspicions, he is actually an alien from outer space without a green card, and is posing as a British character actor pretending to be a comedian.
He is no stand-up comic - for one thing, he slouches as if his rib-cage had deflated and his pelvis capitulated, and for another he is partial to lying down or simply falling over.
His face is as mobile as an Alexander Calder sculpted in plasticine, and he makes faces with the diligent dexterity of a Marcel Marceau.
And he has a mean streak to him - not a pleasant chap at all. Nasty, nasty, nasty. As funny as hell, but also just as nasty.
His act consists chiefly of sketches, in which he is abundantly assisted by an admirable straight man, Angus Deayton, who looks less cheerful than some undertakers. Atkinson performs with gauche aplomb.
The sketches, most of them bitterly satirical and black-toned, have been provided by Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, Richard Sparks and Atkinson himself, and an implike little self it is.
He starts with a close shave. He comes on, waggling his neck like a llama with hiccoughs, and starts to shave with a portable electric razor.
He does a thorough job of it. He not only shaves his forehead and his nose - after all, who wants to look like a miniaturized King Kong? - but also shaves his tongue.
After that somewhat neurotic exercise in the wilder forms of personal hygiene (one is left wondering how he copes with his armpits, not to mention the soles of his feet), Atkinson is off and careening.
He plays a piano in a fashion that could send Marcel Marceau back to a non-existent keyboard. Mime is one key to his success, since he is extraordinary as a bored parishioner staving off sneezes and sleep during an interminable but inaudible sermon. But this success requires quite a keychain.
Like most modern British comedians - and Atkinson is a university wit with something common with the Python herpetologists - he has a lively, lovely sense of the ridiculous, and an overgrown sensibility toward the absurd.
His schoolmaster sketch, in which he has beaten a boy beyond an inch of his life and is now interviewing the stunned and recalcitrant parent, perfectly shows off his topsy-turvy method.
Of course, as is so often the way with the best comic performers, his performance is generally better than his material.
However, some subjects of his scorn, churchmen and politicians for example, bring out the best in him.
He particularly upholds England's great literary tradition of anti-clericalism. His priest, offering a sermon starting with the Miracle at Canaa and then going on to describe Christ as a showbiz phenomenon and a conjuror without peer, has an unctuous wickedness about it that is almost innocent.
His portrait of the Devil and his description of Hell (together with a roll-call of its inhabitants) is as good as his disgruntled actor accepting an Award for his more successful colleague, or the Father of the Bride telling the Bridegroom and all his family what he thought of them in terms that were sloshed but not uncertain.
Like so many of his compatriots, Atkinson obviously enjoys-loathes a love-hate relationship with the United States, and from this special relationship stems many of his best jokes.
But fundamentally, Atkinson is as much a visual as verbal comic. His antic skill at putting on a pair of swimming trunks at a beach, without first removing his pants, has to be seen to be believed, and his guide to Shakespearean acting (overlong and overdone, this) is also nothing but a series of sight gags.
Atkinson, energetically directed by Mike Ockrent ("Me and My Girl"), acts very hard throughout the evening. He never gives up; he takes the audience by the scruff of its ankles and holds it there.
But I enjoyed myself vastly and implore you to sample his wit for yourself.
This is more than a one-man comedy act. It is a fully formed and formulated revue, cleverly designed by Will Bowen, with music by Howard Goodall.
But most of all, it is an opportunity to meet and enjoy a new and genuinely zany man - Rowan Atkinson, a master of bad manners, good jokes and the wildest grimaces.
Great comedy, it's said, has a grain of truth in it. Truth-seekers who visit Rowan Atkinson, the English comic who's traveled to Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theater, may sit up and take notice when the star appears in devil's costume late in Act I. ''As the most perceptive of you have realized by now, this is hell,'' says Mr. Atkinson - then adding, ''You're here for eternity.'' The line gets a laugh because, for once, the man is speaking the truth.
''Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson'' - as the show is titled - is the interminable proof that the melding of American and English cultures is not yet complete. As long as the British public maintains its fondness for toilet humor, there will always be an England. Mr. Atkinson is very big on toilet jokes, and he is very big in England. He has starred on the BBC's ''Not the Nine O'Clock News,'' performed successfully in the West End, and earned the plaudits of highbrow critics. It's not inconceivable that this comic's biggest fans at home are products of an upbringing that encourages boys to tame their nasty bowel habits at an early age, with the consequence that their obsession with alimentary byproducts persists right through Oxford and Cambridge.
Mr. Atkinson, himself an Oxford alumnus, sometimes recalls other postgraduate English clowns, but never to his own advantage. His broadly mimed bout of farcical piano playing sets one pining for Dudley Moore, whom he very vaguely resembles. His gags about Shakespeare and Anglican clerics are nowhere near the ''Beyond the Fringe'' level of sophistication. A potentially funny sketch about a punitive headmaster who threatens even a dead student with expulsion might lift off if acted with the intensity of Monty Python's John Cleese.
As a performer, Mr. Atkinson is not without certain skills. He can screw up his face and bulge his eyes even less appetizingly than Jerry Lewis; he can ingeniously put on a bathing suit without ever removing his pants; he can pinpoint the difference between the postures of American and Soviet officialdom. Yet his shortfall as a mimic is ruthlessly exposed when he plays all the roles in an Elizabethan drama - a sketch that might have been a tour de force were it as well executed as the similar feat by Charles Ludlam and Everett Quinton in ''The Mystery of Irma Vep'' last season. Mr. Atkinson's equally ordinary portrayal of a vulgar nightclub crooner will make no one forget Bill Murray or any of the many other American comics who have been there before.
The writing, by Mr. Atkinson and various cronies, is stunningly predictable. In part that's because some of the specific jokes have been used elsewhere - in Woody Allen's ''Broadway Danny Rose'' and in ''National Lampoon's Animal House,'' among other places. Redundancy and overkill set in early. In the opening bit, Mr. Atkinson uses an electric razor to shave his forehead, and then, lest that not tickle us, his tongue. A toast by a father-of-the-bride contains gratuitous references to a compost heap, a lavatory and pigeon droppings before segueing into a routine that quickly springs still another excremental allusion. One can only hope that the evening's most painfully repetitious sequence, about a waiter in an East End Indian restaurant and the bilious habits and language of his clientele, is not intended to be as racist as it appears.
Even so, the show is never in really bad taste - which might at least give it some hostile comic energy. Mr. Atkinson's scatological humor is too genteel to be confused with Lenny Bruce's. Such is the mildness of his satirical bite that the targets most ferociously attacked, besides the English adolescent's usual nemeses of clergymen and headmasters, are George Bush and Andrew Lloyd Webber. And even those easy marks have been hit more devastatingly by, respectively, Johnny Carson and the most recent edition of ''Forbidden Broadway.''
For added diversion, ''Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson'' offers a straight man (Angus Deayton, so flat as to be nearly invisible), some incidental music (in the Lloyd Webber mode, oddly enough) and a high-tech red-and-black set that would serve quite nicely for the exhibition of fall fashions in a window at one of our better department stores. The director is Mike Ockrent, currently represented on Broadway to much happier effect by ''Me and My Girl.'' Mr. Ockrent has done his star no favors by letting the poor sketches and even the occasional decent one (the contortions of a narcoleptic church worshipper) drag on well past their breaking points. Were ''Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson'' to be edited down to its wittiest jokes, however, even its title might have to go.