Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

That's Not Funny, That's Sexist: The Controversial Legacy of Benny Hill

The Benny Hill Show towered over even Monty Python in terms of worldwide appeal and popularity in its hey day, which is just astounding. However, history rewards the victors and while Monty Python looms large over sketch comedy even today, Benny Hill has been reduced to a curious footnote in comedy history. While both share an enthusiasm for absurdity, Monty Python’s sketches often featured a healthy dose of cerebral satire buried within the anarchic foolishness. Hill, however, strikes modern viewers as broad and cartoonish, avoiding subtly altogether.

Make no mistake; Benny Hill was a huge comedic presence for twenty years (1969-1989) during the run of his titular The Benny Hill Show. The show was produced by Thames Television and was distributed to a worldwide audience of 93 different countries. The show consisted of a variety of sketches in which Hill gropes a girl, and then gets slapped and then they run around to the tune of “Yakety Sax”, which if you are familiar with Benny Hill at all is a song that is already rolling around in your head. You’re Welcome!

Of course, that's not the only reason Hill has been left behind in the dustbin of history. Often, when people speak about Blazing Saddles, they'll say something along the lines of “That movie could never be today.” Which isn’t quite right. If anything, the success of Quention Tarantino’s Django Unchained proves that modern audiences are more than willing to accept a certain amount of politically incorrect material, but like Blazing Saddles it must be made pretty clear that the film is siding with the oppressed and not the oppressor. Having said that, I believe it would be very difficult for The Benny Hill Show to thrive today, as many of the gags tend to be made at the expense of women and often walk the line between sexism and outright misogyny.

Now, I want to make it clear that I am not explicitly saying that Benny Hill is either sexist or misogynist. There are a lot of earnest young people out there taking to the blogs to give their opinion about what goes over the line. Frankly, it's ridiculous when critics get angry at comedians for saying something offensive. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “He or she is like a person who puts on a full suit of armor and attacked a hot fudge Sunday.” Hell, even Jim Gaffigan was targeted last week for making a joke about nails on Twitter.

So, the real question is, “Is Benny Hill funny?”

Well, no less than Charlie Chaplin was a fan and was rumored to have a collection of Benny Hill tapes in his film library. It is easy to see why the master of the silent film era would enjoy Hill’s work. The Benny Hill Show had quick one liner jokes dispersed throughout an episode, but he is mainly remembered for his long silent scenes consisting of broad physical comedy and visual gags.

While many of the bits in the above video are anachronistic to the modern comedy viewer, one simply cannot dismiss the sheer amount of jokes that are squeezed into the three and half minutes. And while there is certainly a number of leering, groping gags involving women, they are no more lascivious than the antics of silent Marx Brother, Harpo.

While these silent bits are what Benny Hill remains known for, he was also adept at playing different characters throughout the run of the show. He was able to slip between characters seamlessly and had a face that was expressive and commanding, not unlike John Belushi (though the two comics used their talents to considerably different ends).  Here he plays a stable boy in a Lady Godiva sketch (a subject that was tackled by many comedy shows throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, due in part to the explosion of the sexual revolution during that time).

While The Benny Hill Show was extremely popular during its twenty-year run, this was by no means Benny Hill’s first foray into television comedy. He became a staple on British radio during the 1940s and 1950s and soon made his way to television. However, British public television never quite knew what to with him. Often his ideas were censored and it was not until after fleeing the BBC and joining Thames Television that he was given free reign to do what he wanted to do as a television comic.

Although Hill may felt restrained during his time at the BBC, it was there that he found his comedic voice. One of the reasons he became so popular in the UK at this time is because he was one of the first British comedians to take full advantage of the medium of television. Not unlike Ernie Kovaks in America, Hill exploited film techniques that allowed him to produce surreal comedy pieces like “The Fastest Film Director in the World”.

In many ways, this piece is not unlike the great, underrated exploitation parody movie, Black Dynamite from a few years ago, complete with intentionally bad edits and audible off camera mistakes, which is yet another reminder that there is truly “nothing new under the sun.”

I will admit, that I didn’t know much about Benny Hill before starting this article and had always dismissed his show as the UK’s answer to Hee-Haw, but the more I read about him, it seems that he was much more creative and ambitious than I had imagined. By all accounts, Hill was a dedicated craftsman and his entire life was wrapped up in his show. While a millionaire several times over, Hill lived in small apartments and spent very little of the money he had accumulated. He also never married and, though he did propose to three different women throughout his lifetime, only to be rejected. Perhaps it was his inability to connect with women that provided fodder for his frustrated and lecherous character onscreen.

Sadly, very little will be known about what drove Benny Hill. Off screen, he tended to keep to himself and, while those who worked with him never had a bad word to say, he never truly let his guard down.  Hill was crushed when his show was canceled in 1989, and though he did create a one-off special in 1991, Benny Hill in New York, he died shortly afterwards at the age of 68. While his show is little remembered by the mainstream today, YouTube videos attest to the lasting influence he has to fans all over the world. He is gone, but has not been forgotten.

If there are any comedians you would like to see featured in this column in the coming weeks, shoot me a tweet @jtown94 for suggestions or drop a note in the comments section!

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  • T

    Is that Jane Leeves up there?

    • R

      It is. She was a regular on Benny Hill.

  • John

    Exactly what I thought!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Albright/100001047690991 Michael Albright

    I have made that exact comment about Blazing Saddles and Django Unchained more than once. You, sir, are clearly a very insightful person!

  • Black and Blue Man

    As an Australian child of the 1970s, Benny Hill was a regular and welcome fixture on TV and someone I often hoped my parents would let me stay up to watch.

    As the '80s progressed, however, most people (present company included) saw Benny more and more as an embarrassment – not just for his leering 'English tit 'n' bum humour' or 'dirty-postcards humour', but also because he seemed anachronistic, childish and old-fashioned. By then my peers and I regarded Monty Python as much more clever and sophisticated, and later came the likes of 'The Young Ones'.

    During the last decade or so, however, Benny has become recalled with less harshness. Some people still immediately react to his name with dismissive comments about him being sexist and nothing more – but more and more people remember that he was also funny and inventive. I haven't seen any Benny for years, but I still have fond if fading memories of some of his scenes and sketches.

    Benny's last years and death were very sad. Although he unexpectedly became very popular on American PBS after his show was cancelled, he became very depressed and withdrawn. His death wasn't discovered for several days and his body was found seated before his TV, which was still on.

  • TS Idiot

    I've been a fan since I was a kid in the 70s watching him on PBS. I love the slyer, more intellectually based Oxbridge humor of Python/Fry&Laurie, etc, but Benny Hill is always good for a solid larf. It's plainly steeped in the slapstick traditions of silent film and the Marx Bros and proudly wears that influence on its sleeve, and Hill was no dummy by any stretch. The B&W movie parody is brilliant (although he certainly wasn't the first to do things like that on tv – like you mention, Ernie Kovacs' utterly surreal takes on tv and film in the early 50s are rather astounding considering what else was on at the time). Also, while he does fill the screen with lovely lasses, he's almost always the one getting smacked, slapped, and whacked for being a lech. Whatever, it's funny, and he was a master of a great sight gag.

  • BenHill

    Look at the popularity of YouTube user Vitalyzd.

    His, "Put Your Number In My Phone" video has over 6 million views and is 2 months old.

    His "How To Pick Up A Black Girl" video was a hit along with his "How To Pick Up Girls" series.

    His stuff is very much new-age Benny Hill type stuff in that many of the girls are taken aback and some are offended at how he thinks he can pick them up with such ease.

    Add "Yakety Sax" and accept it is the new age and a guy like Vitaly is essentially doing what Benny Hill was doing back then in that he is taking on the persona of a randy sod and objectifying girls and looking to garner a reaction much the same as the times Hill got slapped.

    Is Benny Hill dated? Sure.

    But the majority of men in America are heterosexual. I know, you would think everyone is gay now but it has not happened yet so for now most men are straight.

    Most straight men like women sexually and objectify them or act in a sexist manner be it heading to a strip club, patronizing Hooters, ogling women on the beach who merely are trying to have fun like everyone else and so on.

    Men are STILL pigs so to act as if Benny Hill is somehow on par with blackface is just not being honest.

    I think most comics today hope they could be as successful as to wind up in the "dust bin" as you put it since I think Benny Hill had quite a career.

    This article reads like a David Cross fan who chides Larry The Cable Guy/Jeff Dunham without accepting that maybe they appeal to different audiences.

    YOU enjoyed Monty Python but that does not make you better than someone who grew up enjoying Benny Hill.

    I am pleased at the end of the article you realized you had it somewhat wrong in writing Hill off as the UK's Hee Haw.

    I think too often so many of us focus on smart comedy and are afraid to ever admit that something other than that can make us laugh or please an audience because we are afraid of getting lumped into a dumb audience so we forever must tell everyone that we love Monty Python and Mr. Show and everyone else is a moron for liking lowbrow humor.

    Funny is funny.

    Benny Hill was funny. He also was not misogynistic as getting slapped served as his character getting comeuppance.

    We still praise Sam Kinison.

    HIS comedy is angry misogynistic stuff that can be looked down upon today while Hill's was goofy slapstick humor that made a wide audience laugh.

    Anyone who focuses on how dumb his humor was is usually someone who is afraid someone will think they are dumb for liking it so we end up with a pissing match where everyone goes on about the smart comedies they love while treating Hill like one of Jeff Dunham's puppets.

    Was Benny Hill simple?

    Yes but it got laughs and quite simply that is the whole point of being a comedian.

  • lemon_difficult

    good points, BUT who am i kidding, mean-on-the-internet time: something about the writing in this article kept reminding me of term papers… :-/

  • Gaga_goo_22

    I am SICK AND TIRED of the PC police who try to label Benny as a "sexist" man for showing off beautiful women and demonstrating their beauty to the public on his shows! He did nothing more to show off the beauty of women than what you see today in gossip magazines and on CNN that passes for entertainment 'news.' He also treated the women on his show with more respect and dignity off the set than many so-called "men" would ever DARE do,

    I think this crap continues because so-called Feminists want to portray Benny as a perverted old uncle who exploited women's bodies. If that were true, then why do they turn the other cheek when CNN posts revealing pictures of the Kar-Trashians and Myley Cyrus's tush?? Talk about a double standard! How pathetic!

  • Ned Day

    A couple of things that people just never got about Benny Hill:
    1. He was one of the first, and arguably one of the best, to successfully put vaudeville in the TV medium. In fact, with excellent tight writing and a firm grasp of comedy, once he had editing control over his content, as opposed to staying on stage or rafio, he excelled at it.
    2. He was the buffoon in nearly all sketches on his show and rarely got the upper hand with the women "objects". In fact, there were often good lessons in "biting off more than you can chew" and "be careful what you wish for".
    3. When Johnny Carson, Charlie Chaplin, Adam Carolla, and others admit that they think he was one of the funniest men ever, more people should be having to justify why they DON'T watch Benny Hill instead of why they DO.

    • lightningbarer

      I think the problem with Benny Hill is that everything he did was done to death, there's an unwritten rule on British TV that says we leave the Benny HIll show alone, I've not seen anything on Benny Hill other than the occasional tribute to his work.

  • 2012DUGGAN

    Benny Hill was Vaudeville and a hint of it's offshoot Burlesque on TV. In fact Vaudeville was a launching pad for many famous cinema stars as well as TV. Besides Benny Hill often played a schmuck who, no mattered how much he tried, ended up being reproached and rebuffed by the women characters he tried to subject. Only on occasion did he get the girl but only when he was the sweet character. There was nothing original about Benny Hill. But the medium he used brought Vaudevillian and Burlesque schtick to millions instead of the hundreds in small stage theaters.

  • ronjon400

    i remember when i was a kid…..staying up late and watching benny hill with my mom (RIP) and we would laugh. My favorite time was when Benny hill would run around and slap that little bald guy in the head. Great memories.

  • christopher

    skits like "wondergran" by benny or" big poppa" are as funny or funnier than any other comedians work.period.

  • ridsouto

    I was a young kid in the 80s in Argentina. In 1982 there was war with Britain… and that meant English TV was pretty much banned. However, the one thing nobody was willing to give up was The Benny Hill Show. Not even a war, or a military Junta, could stop the fans from watching Benny Hill.
    If you think we watched the show because he groped girls, think twice. Sure, the girls were absolutely gorgeous, and a hormone-high teenager like me was in Heaven watching them. But you know what? The best part was the laughs. Just looking at his face was to laugh. Benny Hill was, and still is, funny. The show was much more than just groping girls. It made fun of travel, sports, institutions… you name it. And Benny Hill was the first to laugh at himself: an ugly looking, dim-witted, fat, middle-aged guy going after some pretty girl and (generally) getting slapped.
    And you know something about those girls? They were gorgeous AND talented too! Maybe you heard about Jane Leeves. Or Louise English (my personal favourite). Very talented actresses, dancers and singers. Benny Hill didn't just pick a pretty girl from the street, turn the camera on and undressed her. He found the talented ones and gave them airtime in his show. They all remember him today as a gentleman, although very shy off camera.
    This age's PC is creating so many rules about what's right and wrong that if anybody feels offended, the "offender" gets ostracized. Sometimes you can make jokes about girls, gays, jews, yankees, britons, young men, old men… and not being aggressive or mean towards them. Benny Hill was such a guy. He's sorely missed.

  • Tony

    You are completely missing most of what happened on an episode of Benny Hill. First if you would actually listen to the lyrics of his songs, you would find them to be quite clever and funny. Second pay attention to the show and quit staring at just the girls, and you'd notice things that escaped your attention. An example would be the fight in the tavern with a desperado. The desperado grabs a fly and hears it buzzing then shoots it from the air to be stepped on. How does Benny Hill perform one better?

    There are many nuances that you miss from the show staring at only the girls. Now admittedly he does include attractive ladies in his show to increase his male audience, but they also play a crucial role in a lot of his skits. Some skits are simpler than others, but a lot of the time they are actually more complex and intelligent than they appear at first glance. I'd suggest doing more research and watching them more once to catch a lot of things you apparently are missing. A quick perusal of an episode reveals little of his brilliance as a comedian.

  • Patriarchy Pete

    The white knight complex looms large here.