Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Hands Up, Who Likes Me?: A Completely Scattershot and Hard-to-Follow Guide to British Comedy

Vol. 1: And so it begins…

First of all, let me say that this column will surely incur a lot of wrath and will probably trigger a lot of, “get cancer, you ignorant bastard!” emails and posts in the comments. Any time you attempt to neatly sum up an entire nation’s comedic output, you’re bound to piss off a lot of people — especially nerds. And in America, the people who are most obsessed with British comedy are most definitely big ol’ nerds (myself obviously included).

British comedy has had a great influence on my sense of humor. I’d say as much as, if not more than, anything from the States. From Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, I’ve been consuming great British comedy since I was an inch long. But it’s never easy to rank it.

Where to start? Well, this column will be presented chronologically. Not in the order in which these shows came on the scene, but in the order in which I discovered them.

So, with a heavy heart, and virtual-tarp to fend off any rotten fruit thrown my way, I present to you an incomplete and completely subjective breakdown of the best and most influential British comedy television.

Like many kids who split time growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, my first exposure to British comedy came from watching Benny Hill with my father. The Benny Hill Show ran for 20 years (1969 to 1989!) and its brand of naughty, dirty old man humor stood in stark contrast to how I thought British people behaved (mostly learned from watching Star Wars movies).

Watching The Benny Hill Show was like finding a Playboy in your dad’s dresser: a total score for a budding pre-pubescent boy.

The sketches ranged from silent Buster-Keaton-Meets-Softcore-Porn romps to performed takes on the types of jokes your dad might tell in a pub. There was a running routine where Benny would recite dirty limericks in a thick cockney brogue which to this day I can still barely decipher.

Almost every bit on the show featured beautiful, scantily clad women in thigh high stockings and tight white panties that always seemed to get exposed in some ridiculous physical comedy routine. The women were affectionately called, "Hill’s Angels," and they served as an early education for me about the female form.

I was too young to understand a lot of it, but for me that was the appeal of Benny Hill. It was mysterious. It was like sneaking a beer, or catching a glimpse of a girl’s boobs in gym class. Forbidden, looked down on, naughty and most definitely fun. Plus, my dad liked it, and at ages 8-12, that carried a lot of weight.

When the British alternative comedy explosion of the 80’s hit, Benny’s days were numbered. By 1989, his old fashioned approach was woefully out of vogue and The Benny Hill Show was canceled.

Featuring the legendary theme song, "Yakety Sax," (Rarely has a TV theme more perfectly captured the mood and tone of the show it’s following. Yakety Sax is a perfect blend of perverse, bawdy and adorable.) which has been referenced on everything from Mr. Show to Family Guy, The Benny Hill Show has earned a place in comedy history as one of the most un-PC, misogynistic and (for the time) downright raunchy shows ever. In other words, it’s worth a watch.

Curtis Gwinn is a writer and comedian living in LA. He's written for The Onion, MTV's Human Giant, Comedy Central and FOX Searchlight Pictures. He also co-starred in and co-wrote Fat Guy Stuck in Internet on Adult Swim.

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  • Balk

    You guys are new, so I'll let it slide, but house style is "Knifecrime Island."

    • saythatscool

      I've got cancer, you ignorant bastard!

      • saythatscool


    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Slava-Sakhnenko/28108761 Slava Sakhnenko

      Yeah, right. The only thing you'll be letting slide is a mean double-edge into the hearts of those abusing the style guide

  • http://gizmodo.com John Herrman

    The man also lived an exceedingly odd life, particularly for someone whose entertainment is known for pure accessibility. He was a lifelong entertainer (even in the military), sure, but also an obsessive polyglot, a dedicated solo traveller, and above all, a loner. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/7547472/Benny-Hill.html

  • http://the-url-is-taken.tumblr.com propertius

    My favorite skit was the spoof of the Jacques Cousteau show. There's some footage of a fish swimming around and the fake Jacques says it has only one mating season a year … which lasts 12 months. And what other species do we know of that is like that?

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  • holgate

    Most British people are slightly weirded out by the American (and frankly global) “Oh, Benny Hill!” thing — I ended up having a random conversation about him along those lines with the lawnmower repair guy a couple of months back. That’s because it’s a brand of humour which is more or less gone from British television, while the re-runs are ubiquitous elsewhere. But it’s straight out of a music hall and variety club tradition that includes George Formby, Max Miller, Arthur Askey and others, and which survived into the “Carry On” films, which never made the same transatlantic leap.

    YouTube has a few b/w clips of him from the 1950s and 60s (like this one) dating before his shows were exported to the US, and they’re worth a look, even for Hill-haters: the comedy is innuendo-laden but also full of social observation, the songs are witty, and the situations aren’t reliant on Hill as a dirty old man surrounded by scantily-clad girls.

  • http://www.dorkismo.com barnhouse

    He’s a favorite of mine, too. I love when he is a surgeon and he feeds the extra bits of his patient to the cat.

    So, so sad when he died all alone like that. Holgate is right about the music-hall flavor of this show. It’s alive still, I think, and will be fully revived again someday. The Beatles, the Kinks, all the great performers of Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh have echoed the same style. Alan Bennett too.

  • curtisgwinn


  • dlew
  • curtisgwinn

    Love the goon show! Wish i'd discovered it earlier in life. Also, thanks for the input holgate. I think bennys music hall roots share a lot in common with vaudeville here in the states. The influence of which is often overlooked. Comedy, like everything else, doesn't exist in a vacuum. The mighty booshes and tim and erics of today share comedic dna with the henny youngmans and abbot & costellos of yesteryear. The proverbial unbroken thread!