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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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