At home with the Osbournes

It's a family affair with a difference: dad is rock's Prince of Darkness. Andrew Gumbel gets an eyeful of America's latest reality-TV sensation
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As a pitch for a family sitcom, it couldn't be more mundane. The grouchy dad who's always a bit slow on the uptake. The out-of-control kids who run rings around him. The control-freak mum, vainly trying to keep the lid on the whole crazy gang, whom the neighbours nickname the Wicked Witch of the East.

So far, so normal. Until you realise that the dad is none other than Ozzy Osbourne, the drug-addled, satanically inspired heavy-metal star, and the sitcom – now showing to a rave reception on MTV in the US – is in fact a reality-TV version of his delightfully nutty domestic life in a crucifix-laden mansion in Beverly Hills, California.

There may not be anything particularly funny about a middle-class, suburban dad shouting at his children for staying out until all hours, doing drugs or having themselves tattooed. But when it's Ozzy Osbourne – the one-time petty thief from the backstreets of Birmingham, the school drop-out who plastered himself in tattoos in prison, the rock star who's dabbled in every conceivable form of excess and paid for it in endless rehab – it is very, very funny indeed.

Just watching Ozzy trying, and failing, to put in a new bin-liner is funny. Or watching him pick up after his incontinent pets. Or, especially, listening to his little family homilies, which might stand a chance of sounding more convincingly paternal if every second word weren't an imprecisely bleeped-out obscenities.

As it is, Ozzy is the classic comic schlemiel – not a role you'd ever have imagined him in – tramping blearily around his outsized home in an Adidas tracksuit and finding himself helpless before the antics of his teenage children, Jack and Kelly.

Jack is squat, foul-mouthed and addicted to his computer. He refuses to go to school on time, orders "pizza" at midnight – his dad is convinced he's buying dope – and invites his friends round to play pool in the middle of the night. His favourite shirt has "Psych ward" printed on the back. Kelly is slightly less pudgy, with punkish red hair and a near-permanent sneer on her face. She, too, has a mouth like an open sewer. She likes to wax indignant about anything and everything, such as the valet parker who farts in her car, or the counter girl at Tiffany's who suggests she should see a gynaecologist and have her vagina douched while she's at it. (As Kelly rails: "It's my keys, my car, my vagina, my business! Nobody is sticking a finger... !")

You have to wonder what possessed the Osbournes to allow the MTV cameras to come into their home for four months and shoot absolutely everything, short of them undressing and going to the loo. Did they have an inkling what the end product might be like, or were they just desperate for the publicity? Either way, the result is the biggest cult hit on US cable TV in years, with an audience of five million and growing and a buzz that has attracted the attention of nearly every major newspaper and magazine in the country. Ozzy has touched a whole new generation and has even earned himself an invitation to meet the President, courtesy of the Fox News Channel, which will take him as its guest to the annual White House correspondents' dinner.

It quickly becomes apparent that The Osbournes is very much a show. Ozzy's wife, Sharon, who has been his manager since the days of Black Sabbath, is one of the producers and clearly wields as much control off camera as she does on. The episodes aren't scripted, but they do occasionally give off hints of being staged; at the very least, the protagonists ham it up for the cameras. Real life has also been rearranged to suit the whims of the participants. Ozzy's and Sharon's eldest daughter, Aimee, for example, wanted nothing to do with the show and does not appear. Nor do two children whom Ozzy fathered before he met Sharon.

None of that ultimately impinges on the show's sheer enjoyability. There's more than enough of the real Osbourne household to be convincing, and most of it is way too bizarre to have been made up – whether it's the devil's head above the front door or the cat with herpes. TV Guide magazine has described it as "a cross between The Simpsons and This Is Spinal Tap", which sums it up nicely. One also imagines that the producers at MTV were inspired by Penelope Spheeris's 1988 documentary The Decline of Western Civilisation Part II: The Metal Years, in which Ozzy gives a memorable interview over the most incompetently made breakfast in film history. As he talks about the sex, the drugs, the rehab and all the money his managers stole from him when he was young, the kettle boils away angrily in the background, the scrambled eggs turn to hardened gobbets and the orange juice is poured a crucial inch and a half away from the glass Ozzy is aiming for.

The Osbournes is dressed up as an old-fashioned American sitcom in the manner of Ozzie and Harriet – an obvious punning reference point – or I Love Lucy, right down to the crooning music over the opening credits. Indeed, much of it plays out as a grotesque parody of those old shows, with an identical set-up but a few crucial differences in the details. What other family, after all, would have kids who are teased at school because their dad supposedly once bit the head off a bat? Or a father who is forced to stay home with a broken leg because he did one jumping jack too many on stage in Houston, Texas?

The funniest episode so far has the Osbournes feuding furiously with the neighbours over the never-ending racket that goes on in the middle of the night. A racket that, contrary to what you might think, the neighbours make. Ozzy and Sharon are reduced to waxing nostalgic about Pat Boone, their previous neighbour, as the couple next door alternately play loud rave music and invite their friends for 2am sing-alongs of "Kum-ba-yah" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands".

"You wankers have no respect for your neighbours!" yells Ozzy, as the rest of the family cranks some death metal up full blast in revenge and tosses French bread, bagels, cheese and a large ham over the fence. (Ozzy, his ears shot from years on the road, actually snores happily through most of the action.) Sharon puts on vampire teeth and calls the neighbours worthless trust-fund babies. One of them, in particular, makes her seethe. "I want to hold him down and piss on his head!" she says.

"That's going a bit far, mum," retorts Kelly, with uncharacteristic restraint.

It's hard to imagine The Osbournes spawning a new line of reality TV. Somehow, it wouldn't be the same with Tommy Lee's family, or Axl Rose's, even if they were willing. There's something indefinably perfect about Ozzy, just as there was about John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. Which leaves the question of how much longer the series can keep going. MTV has just 10 episodes in the can, of which seven have already been aired in the United States. There is talk of cranking out a further three from existing footage. After that, it will be down to Ozzy, Sharon and the gang to decide whether they can face having the cameras back in their home. It may not be rock'n'roll, exactly, but it's winning Ozzy more young fans than he's had in years.

'The Osbournes' will air on MTV in the UK from 25 May