Three Classic British Sketch Comedy Shows

During the same period they were bringing Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster to the small screen, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were sprinkling the British airwaves with their own sketch comedy show A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

photo of Stephan Fry and Hugh Laurie
image credit: BBC

If you ever thought to yourself, as I have, “Is there any such thing as ‘highbrow absurdist humor’?” well, then this show answers that question with a resounding “Well, if you look at it with a slight squint.”

Rife with non-sequiturs and heavy with wordplay, the show satirized British society and politics and often broke the “fourth wall” during a skit. Fans of Jeeves and Wooster will recognize the general shape of the interchanges between a sharp Fry to Laurie’s blithe cluelessness, though in this series Laurie is cast as more of the straight man.

I particularly enjoy the closing bit which always has Laurie seated at a piano and Fry asking “Please, Mister Music, will you play?” as he mixes a cocktail while dancing. (Why, yes, I did learn my dance moves from Stephen Fry, why do you ask?) As I’ve noted before, Hugh Laurie is an accomplished pianist with a bend toward classic American Blues and, as we find out here, can do a really good mouth trumpet.

screen still from the Fish Slapping Dance skit
image credit: Wikipedia

Speaking of dancing, I also took my rug-cutting moves from a little show that showed up on PBS by the name of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Fish-slapping Dance was a staple of my teen-age disco-ing, though I often had to bring my own fish. Slashingly satirical, the crew took aim at everything, especially sheep. Well, and cheese. Um, and moustaches, and…yeah, let’s just go with everything, shall we?

“There’s a man at the door with a moustache”, “Tell him I’ve already got one.” (Sorry ‘bout that, I have these fits and no telling what I might write.)

DVD cover image for And Now for Something Completely DifferentJohn Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam were all highly educated and, I think, set the standard for absurdist comedy with vague (and sometimes not-so-vague) nods to classical history and literature.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” (Hrm, I can see you expected that…sigh.)

If anyone could wield an entendre better than Benny Hill, I haven’t found them. On BBC covering four decades, The Benny Hill Show was one of the most watched shows in Britain and collected quite a following here in the US in the early 80’s.

picture of Benny Hill in costume
image credit: IMDb

Unapologetically ribald and featuring “Hill’s Angels,” a song and dance troupe of beautiful women (who also played extras in many skits), the show would often include a performance from a popular musical act of the day, including Petula Clark and Kiki Dee.

This show also had a wonderfully consistent closing where Hill’s character in the last skit would do something to get himself chased by a number of people – at increased speed to the tune of “Yakety Sax” à la Keystone Cops.

If you feel the need to give a kick-in-the-fork to the stiff upper lip, or simply want to let that temporal lobe off the leash for a bit, then these are the shows for you.

~posted by Jay F.

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