I was asked for some British comedy recs, for those overseas who are perhaps familiar with the big stuff that hits mainstream consciousness (Shaun Of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Spaced, The Mighty Boosh, &c) and want more, less well-known things, and I ended up with so many recs and links and primer stuff I thought it’d be a good idea just to do a huge non-mainstream Britcom primer post. I hope you’ll give some of these comedians and shows a chance, and if you like them, let me know!
Before I start, though, I would just like to remind you that Spaced is coming out on Region 1 DVD. You can sign up at Amazon for an email when it becomes available. Seriously, American folks, do it. Spaced is one of the best sitcoms ever made, and the US remake is going ahead completely against the wishes of everyone who was involved with the original, so dude, boycott it, rent or buy or borrow the DVDs and watch the proper version. Don’t make Edgar Wright sad. That’d be like kicking a really cute puppy. With hob-nailed boots.
That over with, onward! To the comedy!
First and biggest rec, my favourite stand-up in the world ever: Ross Noble. There’s some clips up here on the production youtube, and searches on youtube itself should bring up a few appearances on Australian chat shows. He’s kind of what would happen if Eddie Izzard had a short attention span and was obsessed with monkeys. And had a Geordie accent and fabulous hair. He did a part-stand-up-part-travelogue radio series, Ross Noble Goes Global, which is all up on the site for listening to. If you can find, and play, Region 2 DVDs I highly recommend all of Ross’s, especially Unrealtime; but seriously, all of them. Get them ALL. He does COMMENTARIES. And then a COMMENTARY on the COMMENTARY. And EXTRA GIGS. There is no DVD experience so satisfying as a Ross Noble DVD, not even a Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright/Nick Frost film can match it. Geek heaven.
I have a huge fondness for Irish comedians, especially Dara O’Briain (who chairs Mock the Week), Dylan Moran (who played Bernard in Black Books), and Ed Byrne (who is less famous than his BFF Dara, but still has all his hair, as he likes to point out). They’re all different, and all hilarious. If you’ve seen Black Books, Dylan’s stand-up is reminiscent of Bernard, albeit a lot more coherent; and if you haven’t seen Black Books, you should.
Dylan’s co-star Bill Bailey, who plays Manny, is another favourite of mine. My brother and I between us have all his DVDs, and said brother went to see him recently at the gig he was recording for his next DVD, and got a high five from Bill, so we will be watching that closely to see if we can spot him. Bill’s stand-up is killer. He’s also a musician, and uses musical instruments a lot in his routines; in Part Troll he makes the most excellent use of a theremin I have ever seen. It is epic. The songs in Part Troll are probably my favourites; I Texted You, the love song, the updated BBC News theme, “please do not feed the terrorists”, and oh my gosh the hillbilly Zeppelin. And the demonstration of a catastrophic technical failure at a U2 concert. HAHAHAHAHA GENIUS. Part Troll is definitely my favourite of his DVDs.
Master of the dry, grumpy wit, Jack Dee, who sometimes hosts Have I Got News For You, is excellent in stand-up. I was utterly glued to his Live At The Apollo series. He’s also a good actor, escaped from and later won the first Celebrity Big Brother, and is writing his autobiography. I cannot wait. I love his style, especially in stand-up, and his Happy Hour was just. Oh man, it was hilarious.
I am a big Mock the Week fan, and one regular panelist and one sometimes-guest on that show are among my favourite stand-ups. Mark Watson is adorable and Welsh and has done massive 24-hour shows at the Edinburgh and Melbourne comedy festivals, I love him lots. And Russell Howard is likewise adorable; their humour is similar in that it’s endearing and observational and so funny. A total dream show for me would be a double-bill of Mark and Russell. They’re different, but complementary, and I always enjoy their back-and-forth on Mock the Week.
To wrap up the stand-up section (although this is by no means comprehensive; I haven’t even got into Frankie Boyle or Gina Yashere or Omid Djaili or Ardal O’Hanlon or Jenny Eclair or Jeremy Hardy or Punt and Dennis or Shappi Khorsandi or the extremely sadly-missed Linda Smith or Victoria Wood or Nina Conti or Russell Brand, to throw a ton of other favourites into the mix) I would like to mention two stars of a show I will come to in a minute. Mitch Benn is a comedy musician satirist, two of whose CDs I own (signed!), and he is oh my gosh so hilarious. He stirred controversy recently with a song about how stupid it is that gay men aren’t allowed to give blood, he wrote a song called Doctor Who Girl and sends out newsletters that end with “Are you watching Life On Mars? It’s brilliant, isn’t it?” He is a GIANT NERD and BFF with Neil Gaiman and I adore him a lot. Marcus Brigstocke, who was in Love, Actually playing the radio interviewer who Billy Mack talked to about being alone at Christmas, is the most delightfully middle-class of English comedians. His DVD, Planet Corduroy, opens with him explaining that he is not, in fact, a geography supply teacher, and yes he is wearing entirely corduroy. He delights me utterly.
Before I move on from stand-up, there is one guy who gets his own section. Because he doesn’t exactly do stand-up comedy; he does lectures, about important and significant and often overlooked figures in history, but these lectures are basically stand-up. They’re the most accessible history lessons I have ever had; he uses observational comedy in the most succinct and beautiful ways, and makes you laugh and think at the same time. A lot of his lectures are political — he’s a Socialist — and they often get the most attention, and I totally love all of those (I never knew so much about the Russian revolution), but my favourite ever was a lecture I heard on Radio 4, about the life and work of Mary Shelley. He’s fascinating, charismatic, and one of my favourite comedians around; he is Mark Steel, and he is wonderful.
This is my forte. This is what I grew up on, tapes of Round the Horne and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, clips of The Goon Show. I have piles and piles of tapes in my room, of comedy I recorded off the radio. I wore my Forty Nights In the Wildebeest tape out, until it plays an intermittant high-pitched whine, and it makes me so sad. Forty Nights was my second favourite radio comedy show ever, it was brilliant. More puns than you can shake a wordplay stick at, songs about Delia Smith and Star Wars parodies and Planet Of the Apes pisstakes, and and. Changing the words to That’s Amore and Living La Vida Loca and songs about the posh Radio 4 voices being put on, so Brian Perkins was actually a Geordie and Corrie Caufield was an Essex bint and James Naughty was a slurring Glaswegian until the pips started. OH, IT WAS BEAUTIFUL. I keep waiting for it to show up online, but alas. Alas. (“Dan and Nick, one minute to curtain.” “Hang on, we’ve just come up against a deadline.” *ROAR* “IT’S STILL ALIVE! RUN!”)
But, on to shows you can find online. Or, well, the latest, in any case. The Now Show is a satirical comedy part sketch-show part stand-up part wacky impressions and sound effects. It’s led by Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, who are one of my favourite double acts in the business, and regulars include Mitch Benn, Marcus Brigstocke, Laura Shavin (who started as Emma Kennedy left), and Jon Holmes. Now, let me explain something to you about Jon Holmes. In 2003 I met the Now Show team when I was invited to a recording by the then producer, Adam Bromley (who was so lovely to me, such a sweetheart). After the show, I chatted with Mitch (who is really tall and had long hair and a beard and basically put me in mind of a blond Chewbacca) and Steve and Hugh (who were SO AWESOME IT CANNOT BE DESCRIBED) and exchanged pleasantries with Marcus (who was sweet, and also rides a bicycle to and from the studio <3), didn’t get to speak to Laura, and. And Jon Holmes was right there in front of me and I couldn’t even move to go over and speak to him. I think I may have given him an awkward smile and a wave, and I kept glancing over, but IT WAS JON HOLMES AND I COULDN’T. That is the only time I have ever been starstruck, and and. JON HOLMES. I used to watch him on The 11 O’Clock Show with Sarah Alexander! He’s an AMAZING comedy writer, he was on the team for most of the radio comedy I have adored, and just. JON HOLMES. The only people I will get massively starstruck around are him and David Bryan, because Jon Holmes is amazing and the sun shines out of David Bryan’s hair and I am dumbstruck with awe at both of them. Sigh, ♥Jon♥
The best show to ever have graced Radio 4 was The 99p Challenge. It was a wacky, random and utterly ridiculous panel game, chaired by Sue Perkins (who is without doubt my favourite lesbian comedian; sorry Sandi, I still love you enormously) and frequented by Simon Pegg, Peter Serafinowicz, Armando Iannucci (*pause for a few-seconds silence of enormous respect and admiration*), Peter Baynham, Nick Frost, Dave Green, David Quantik, and sometimes Jon Holmes, Marcus Brigstocke and Bill Bailey. God, it was hilarious. There was the Trufax Round, where All-True 99p Facts were offered, such as “Dreadlocks are so called because they’re frightened of keys”, “Some cats can type”, and “Jennifer Lopez’s bum is hollow, like the hump of a camel; instead of using it to store water, she uses it to store Toilet Duck”. There was the Announcements Over The Tannoy at a department store (the best being Peter Serafinowicz’s “cashier number four, please”, which is just … I nearly fall off things laughing when I listen to it, oh man) and the Tell Me All Your Crazy Dreams round, the “What would be the problems if everybody in the entire world lived in the same house?” round, and SO MANY OTHERS oh my god it was HILARIOUS. So, so hilarious. Favourite ♥
BBC7 is a digital radio station for comedy, literature and kids’ programming; there’s a lot of repeats of classic and contemporary comedy shows, and it’s all up on the site under ‘listen again’ to listen to at any time. Which is good for me, seing as I don’t have a digital radio. Shows I will be looking out for repeats of, because they were sheer brilliance: Bleak Expectations (Dickens on gin, following the adventures of Pip Bin and his family and friends, who try to keep Mrs Bin and Pip’s sisters from the clutches of the evil Gently Benevolent, who was played by Anthony Stewart Head to perfection), 1966 And All That (a satirical look at the past eighty years in British history), Absolute Power, About a Dog (which starred Alan Davies as a dog; one of those warm, lovely sitcoms), Old Harry’s Game (I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH HOW BRILLIANT THIS SHOW IS. Andy Hamilton plays the Devil; Robert Duncan, who was Gordon Way in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, plays Scumspawn, a demon madly in love with Satan), and it would be a crime against radio comedy if I didn’t rec the following classics: Round the Horne (starring Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams of Carry On fame, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Douglas Smith, and featuring a strange and wonderful collecton of characters and sketches), I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (starring John Cleese, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Tailor, Jo Kendall, David Hatch and Bill Oddie, and … well, “a radio custard pie” is about right :D), which spawned I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (the antidote to panel games, hosted by the late Humphrey Lyttleton, accompanied on the piano by Colin Sell, and all-around a comedy giant of Britain), Hancock’s Half-Hour (also a TV show, starring Tony Hancock and Sid James) and The Goon Show (starring Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan, featuring regular silly characters doing lots of silly things).
My TV comedy forte is pretty much the BBC, with a little Channel 4 and ITV sitcoms thrown in, though I’m not really into the Comedy Lab stuff. To make this section simpler, I’ll break it down into sitcoms, satire and sketch shows.
There are some truly classic British sitcoms. As Time Goes By, The Good Life, To the Manor Born, Terry and June, Keeping Up Appearances, Last Of the Summer Wine, and One Foot In the Grave are all in the grand tradition of gentle, domestic, funny and homely sitcoms. They are popular and enduring, and I grew up on them and love them with a quiet, warming love. And in this classic comedy section, I must pay particular attention to one of my comedy heroes: Ronnie Barker.
Ronnie Barker had a double act with Ronnie Corbett, The Two Ronnies. They worked on The Frost Report together, and were up there with Morecambe and Wise as the very best of classic double acts. The Two Ronnies are comedy giants, adored and respected national treasures, the both of them. Ronnie Barker wrote under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley and got his agent to send sketch scripts to the producers of The Two Ronnies under this name, giving no indication whatsoever that it was him; he wanted his writing to be judged on its own merits, not given special treatment because he was one of the stars of the show. And his writing was a huge hit, because he was brilliant, and he eventually revealed the secret (that he was Gerald Wiley), to the surprise of everyone. He penned the classic Fork Handles sketch, the phone booths outside Sainsbury’s, the Mastermind answering the previous question — his writing was full of intelligent wordplay and true mastery of the English language, and it was so, so incredibly funny. He also wrote silent comedies and so many other things his Complete Works is one of those huge books on my shelves that my hands sometimes cramp just to look at. He was absolutely wonderful, and as a kid I heard about him retiring to run an antique shop in the Cotswolds, and that had such a huge impact on little me. I have always had bucketloads of respect for him, the way he said “well, this fame thing is lovely and you’re all very kind, but I feel I’ve said my piece and I’m going to have a quiet life now”; seriously, how many people do that? I love Ronnie Barker, and was completely devastated when he died. (Watching Ronnie Corbett do an obit at the BAFTAs that year made me cry so hard I couldn’t see the screen.) But, let us not dwell on that; the important thing is to celebrate his work, the wonderful work he left us with. There’s The Two Ronnies, and there’s also the sitcoms he was in, which so delighted me growing up and still do now. Open All Hours, about a miserly man who runs a corner shop and is eternally engaged to the nurse across the road; and the prison comedy Porridge, featuring one of the funniest moments in sitcom history; in his cell, Fletcher is rolling a cigarette, and as he does so he sings, “Born freeee,” pauses, then sings, “Then somebody caught me.” HILARIOUS.
Another of my comedy heroes is Rowan Atkinson, and I have to give Blackadder its own special segment of this post. Because it is the best sitcom ever created. The way Rowan says the word “Bob” makes me fall off surfaces laughing, the historical settings are beautifully used, and look at that cast and the writing. I have the scripts book, and it is among my most prized possessions. The similes! The knob gags! Hugh Laurie’s bumbling George! Stephen Fry’s demented Melchett! Baldrick! Edmund Blackadder! Series two is my favourite, with Queenie (WHO IS SO DELIGHTFUL AND CRAZY OH MY GOSH) and Nursie (BERNARD XD) and the first appearance of Bob. Series one was written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, and it was wonderful but I do love the later series, penned by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton; not necessarily because they were funnier, I’d say all the series are just as funny as each other, but the further along we go, the more cynical and self-assured Edmund is and the more stupid Baldrick is; in the first series, Edmund is pretty thoroughly yellow-bellied and cowering, and Baldrick actually has some pretty good plans. From the second to the third to the fourth series, Edmund gets progressively more self-assured, self-absorbed and self-serving and cynical, unafraid to stand up for himself and quick to take himself out of harm’s way (especially if it means putting Baldrick or George in front of harm’s way) — and Baldrick gets progressively more uneducated, ignorant and ridiculous. Which is hilarious and wonderful and makes for some excellent randomness about turnips. Throw in Rick Mayal guest starring as Lord Flashheart yelling “WOOF” and cross-dressing, and you’ve got the essence of wonderment.
My favourites of classic nineties sitcoms are Absolutely Fabulous (outrageous, hilarious, glorious), Only Fools and Horses (David Jason dominated my childhood television, voicing Count Duckula and Dangermouse, not to mention his sitcom and dramatic work, later going on to play Frost in A Touch Of Frost, and making the character far more loveable than he is in the books), Father Ted (set on a remote island off Ireland, centring on three priests and their housekeeper; everyone is weird as hell and it’s AWESOME), and my favourite of all, Yes Minister. Of the contemporary sitcoms around, my favourites have to be My Family (a disgruntled dentist, Ben Harper, has kids who are growing up but still doesn’t have a wide-screen TV nor peace and quiet), My Hero (Ardal O’Hanlon plays a superhero from Ultron, who tries to keep up his secret identity and maintain his relationship with Janet, a totally kickass nurse, hoping Janet’s nosy mother and smarmy boss don’t find out about his real identity), Hardware (Martin Freeman, Peter Serafinowicz and Ryan Cartwright play three blokes who work in a hardware shop; it was funny and fabulous and I love every member of the regular cast, including Ken Morley, who played their boss and was previously on Coronation Street), Dinnerladies (Victoria Wood’s comedy about the canteen at a factory, also starring Julie Walters and Celia Imrie, and also Andrew Dunn, who is now in Bremner, Bird and Fortune), Aaagh! It’s the Mr Hell Show (Bob Monkhouse voiced this cartoon, which included inserts of a different storyline, in a Garfield and Friends type of format, featuring SERGE THE SEAL OF DEATH), Stressed Eric (hilarious cartoon about a guy with a throbbing temple vein), Hippies (starring Simon Pegg, about a group of 90s hippies trying to get a circulation for their magazine going), and well, if you haven’t heard of Red Dwarf, you clearly need to remedy this immediately. Picture a spaceship, three million years out into deep space; the only human left alive is a slob from Liverpool, whose only companions are the ship’s computer (who is senile), his dead bunkmate resurrected as a hologram (who is annoying), and a life form that evolved from his cat. Then they take in a service android. Basically any plot summary of an episode ends with “…with hilarious consequences.”
Now, satire spans both sitcom and sketch show categories, and some things that aren’t really either, so it gets its own section. In the grand tradition of Yes Minister, The Thick Of It is an Armando Iannucci-penned (so you know it’ll be bordering on uncomfortably biting satire) comedy revolving around the life and career of one member of Parliament. It’s … well, it doesn’t pull punches. In parts, it is highly unpleasant. But it is brilliant, the kind of satire that makes you want to cry and stick your head in the sand because you can’t bear the fact that most of the things you’re shown aren’t exaggerated, that the country is run like this, and it’s either studiously ignore it or go mad. Or possibly go into politics, where you’ll wind up doing both. There is value in this sort of satire, as Bremner, Bird and Fortune shows. Rory Bremner is the country’s most gifted impressionist, and John Bird and John Fortune have been doing comedy together since my dad was a kid; together they create sketches and satire of the sort that is perfect at a one-hour dose; any more and you’d be forced into weeping. No less topical, but rather more on the shock factor, was The Day Today, a true classic of the satire genre. And, of course, there is Not the Nine O’Clock News, which was utter utter brilliance.
Sketch shows are something of a mixed bag; most of them are hit-and-miss and will have at least one regular character you don’t find funny, but it’s wonderful when you find a show that’s more hits than misses. The giants of this genre, of course, are The Goodies, The Fast Show, A Bit Of Fry and Laurie and Harry Enfield and Chums. Some have made a successful leap from being radio sketch shows to TV sketch shows; That Mitchell and Webb Look is the TV version of That Mitchell and Webb Sound, which I loved on Radio 2, and features David “can I take him home and pet him forever yet?” Mitchell; Goodness Gracious Me is a hilarious look at British Asian culture, and spawned off The Kumars At No 42, a chat show hosted by some of the characters from Goodness Gracious Me; Genius, Dave Gorman’s programme showcasing new invention ideas from the British public and asking if they are made of genius or made of fail, is coming to TV soon after a successful run on radio; and of course, Dead Ringers was a massive hit. It’s a topical impressionist sketch show starring Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Kevin Connelly, Phil Cornwell and Mark Perry, and it spawned off a cartoon sort-of version, 2DTV.
I absolutely love all of those, but my very very favourites of the sketch comedy genre have to be the following, which are my Top Five:
5. Smack the Pony, starring Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan and Sally Philiips; wacky, irreverent, totally brilliant.
4. The Sketch Show, starring Jim Tavare (who played Tom the innkeeper of the Leaky Cauldron in the third Harry Potter film), Lee Mack, Tim Vine, Karen Taylor, Ronni Ancona (who went on to have her own sketch impressionist show, which was AWESOME, and also worked with Alistair McGowan) and Kitty Flanagan.
3. Big Train, starring Simon Pegg, Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon, Amelia Bullimore, Julia Davis, Rebecca Front, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Catherine Tate. Totally. Amazing.
2. The Peter Serafinowicz Show, starring, well, Peter Serafinowicz. In case you hadn’t already guessed, I adore this guy, and his sketch show is amazing, for serious. I love it.
1. And my favourite sketch show of this and all time, The Armstrong and Miller Show. [BBC site] I watched the first run of their sketch show, back in 1997-2001, and missed them most terribly as a double act. Ben Miller became the voice of “MONKEH” in Those Ads With Johnny Vegas And The Woollen Monkey and did countless other things in the six-year gap; meanwhile, Alexander Armstrong is the best guest presenter of Have I Got News For You and also did countless other things. I am a fan of them both separately, and definitely of their double act. I was beside myself when the sketch show came back last year, and my GOD it is INCREDIBLE. The airmen! The predictive text! “Pru! It’s kicking off!” Inappropriate Dad! The guy who’s having an affair with his oblivious friend’s wife! The dance to the opening credits, oh my gosh I need to learn that and bust it out at random moments. Armstrong and Miller are the best, I love them so much, and I am so so glad the show’s coming back again this year.
And now, this has taken me hours and hours to put together, so I am going to go rest before I lose the ability to move at all. Enjoy the laughter!