Lead Balloon is a British television series produced by Open Mike Productions for BBC Four. The series was created and is co-written by comedian Jack Dee and Pete Sinclair. Starring Dee as Rick Spleen, a cynical and misanthropic comedian whose life is plagued by petty annoyances, disappointments and embarrassments. Raquel Cassidy, Sean Power and Tony Gardner also star. The first series of six episodes was broadcast on BBC Four in 2006, with the first episode achieving the highest ratings for a comedy on the channel. Repeats of the series were run on BBC Two and BBC HD, bringing it to a larger audience. A second series of eight episodes began on BBC Two in November 2007.
Comparisons were made by critics to the successful American comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, though positive comments were made about Lead Balloon's characters, particularly Magda, the Eastern European housekeeper. The first series was released on DVD in November 2007. The show's theme tune is a cover of "One Way Road" by Oasis, performed by Paul Weller.
Dee's character Rick Spleen is a stand-up comedian living in London who struggles to get decent gigs and makes ends meet by hosting corporate events such as the Frozen Goods Awards Evening. Dee and Sinclair based the character on the "comedians who hated being comedians" who performed alongside Dee in his early years of stand-up. Rick is a habitual and incompetent liar who often attempts practical tasks himself in an attempt to avoid paying professionals. His partner Mel (Raquel Cassidy) is a talent agent whose clientele of everyday people getting their 15 minutes of fame serves to highlight Rick's failing career. Her calm, perceptive and considerate personality contrasts strongly with Rick's. Rick's American co-writer, Marty (Sean Power), writes the majority of Rick's material, often working with Rick at Rick's home or Michael's café. Though he tries to moderate Rick's desperate behaviour, he is quietly frustrated with him, as well as with Britain and his own career. Michael (Tony Gardner) owns and runs the café that Rick and Marty frequently visit to escape the chaos of Rick's home. The café mainly sells organic food and drinks. He lives with his father and he is socially awkward to the extent of seeming slightly simple although he was actually a high flying city banker who suffered from burn out.
Rick's daughter Sam (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) attends sixth form college and serves to extract money from Rick, often by expressing sympathy at his misfortunes. Her boyfriend Ben (Rasmus Hardiker) goes through numerous jobs and interests in the first series, such as taking a circus skills course, and a short-lived shelf-stacking job. Magda (Anna Crilly) is the Spleen's Eastern European housekeeper, who is often puzzled by British attitudes, language and, in her view, softness. She is a willing worker and generally suffers Rick's selfish eccentricities in sullen silence.
A. A. Gill, in The Sunday Times, wryly praised the style of humour and the reaction it provokes in viewers. Hermione Eyre of The Independent on Sunday called it "a delectable comedy of everyday embarrassment" but "unfortunately, Lead Balloon shows awkward joints where Curb Your Enthusiasm has invisible seams"; the reviewer cited Larry David as being a good man driven to obnoxious behaviour, whereas Spleen is just obnoxious. Thomas Sutcliffe of The Independent named the series the best new comedy of 2006.
When appearing on a panel of comedy judges at the 2007 Edinburgh International Television Festival, Frank Skinner, in response to The Vicar of Dibley and The Catherine Tate Show being voted the best comedies in a public poll, called it "the best sitcom that anyone from the comedy circuit has done [...] Obviously I was hoping it would be shit" (Skinner starred in his own failed sitcom, Shane in 2004).
The first episode broke BBC Four's audience record for a comedy series, with 383,000 viewers. However, it had dropped to 199,000 by the third episode, though still won its multichannel slot. "Rubbish"'s BBC Two repeat received 2.1 million viewers, with 122,000 seeing "Allergic" afterwards on BBC Four. The final episode of the first series, "Fatty", received 2.3 million for its BBC Two repeat.
The first series was nominated for a British Comedy Award in 2007 while Dee was nominated for the best comedy actor gong.
Lead Balloon was the first comedy series to be broadcast on the BBC's high-definition service, BBC HD, with another repeat run beginning on 21 December 2006. Episodes were also made available as streaming downloads on bbc.co.uk during the first series run.