A Bit of British Brilliance: The 7 Funniest U.K. Sketch Shows

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The British sense of humor may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but John Cleese and his fellow clowns in Monty Python tapped into something new and entirely welcomed in the revolutionary breeze of the late ‘60s. This allowed other writers and creators like Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie to further develop their own surreal takes on what constitutes comedy. And the new millennium brought us a whole new school of sketch comedy entertainment with the likes of Chris Norris, Jesse Armstrong, David Mitchell and Julia Davis pushing the boundaries with strange visual effects, taboo subjects and manic characters.

We figured it would be a good idea to refresh our memories and remind ourselves of the variety of British comedy: the weird, the dark and the crazy.

Big Train


Aired: 1998-2002

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Big Train brings together a potpourri of comedians from the laid back late ‘90s generation of Spaced and the dark era of Jam. The humor here is simple but kooky as ever. Kevin Eldon and Mark Heap clearly take the center stage in terms of physical comedy, allowing the sketches to be colored outside of the box. Heap’s ability to switch from awkwardly sweet to intensely creepy with just a squint of his eyes and a twitch of his nose is priceless.

Creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews have an obvious knack for their nation’s breed of sarcasm and their love for eccentricity is impossible to top. Their track record proves it: Father Ted, Black Books, The IT Crowd—each show comes alive with well-rounded characters and the mischief they actively seek. In Big Train, the united efforts of Simon Pegg, Kevin Eldon, Julia Davis, Mark Heap, Catherine Tate, Amelia Bullmore, Rebecca Front and Tracy-Ann Oberman can make even a four-minute animated staring contest feel like an hours’ worth of genius entertainment.

Whether they are slipping into the roles of slightly backward Horse Riders (sans horses) or take on the frustration of an appalled, unmotivated office group cursing their promoted “wanker” colleague, their joined strengths, ideas and performances make for an original concoction of English daftness.

Smack the Pony


Aired: 1999-2003

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If you’d like to learn a little more about the female psyche, Smack the Pony is your best bet. Tap into the minds of bored hausfraus, marvel at the wonders of a competitive streak that would put the worst bro rivalries to shame and thank your lucky stars you don’t have a stalker like Sally Phillips.

Creator Victoria Pile brought together a cast of comedians who were not afraid to make light of the situations women face on a daily basis: the pressure of being the prettiest, the sexiest, the best and the fastest; the stress of running a household or dealing with clients; the quiet Schadenfreude. In short, Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan, Sally Phillips and Sarah Alexander take the piss out of situations that are funny because they are so true. This is a pack of powerful women who remind us that it’s okay to think, be, act and feel a bit crazy every now and then—apparently it happens to the best of us.

The Fast Show


Aired: 1994-1997

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When Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson and Harry Enfield came together to write The Fast Show, they envisioned a concept geared at an audience that was finding itself drawn to quick sales and memorable catchphrases. In 1994, they finally brought their innovative show to the screen and delivered exactly what they had promised: short, snappy sketches lasting as little as 10 seconds and never exceeding three minutes.

Classic characters on this show include Unlucky Alf who never seems to catch a break and a dysfunctional, alcoholic family who are constantly trying to prove to themselves that they are not pissed. The mother often has a hard time following a coherent trail of thought and the father continues drinking all throughout his work day only to come home with a huge crash, causing the son to cry, “Dad’s home!”

Another favorite is the obsessive and highly emotional Johnny Nice Painter who has an intense problem with the color black. His softly spoken and gentle manner changes the minute the color black gets mentioned; it causes him to freak out, destroy his paintings and get lost in a paranoid episode in which black is the obvious enemy that has conspired to destroy us all.

That Mitchell & Webb Look


Aired: 2006-2010

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We’re not entirely sure how the name for the show originated or why they would use “that” instead of “the”, but we think we may have an explanation: Mitchell and Webb’s look is one that can’t easily be mimicked; rather, it is one you refer to as a category in itself. This pair is even more unlikely than Vince Noir and Howard Moon and yet they just seem to work.

We’re already used to them as Mark Corrigan and Jeremy Usborne in Peep Show, where they share an apartment and a love/hate (but mostly hate) relationship. The same neuroses and farcical behaviors can often be seen back in That Mitchell & Webb Look, but mostly they are exploring different territories, including vulgar make-up and frothy characters like Ted and Peter, the snooker commentators. Ted Wilkes has a tragic comb-over and wears grandpa-style cardigans; his colleague Peter DeCoursey has a neat appearance, but that doesn’t mean to say he’s any less of a chain-smoking alcoholic than Ted. During their “office hours”, they comment on everything but snooker.

Another smashing sketch is that of the wacky historian who desperately tries to share his passion for his field with others—an obvious brain-child of Mitchell’s. In a modestly British sort of way, Mitchell and Webb present goofy characters often telling clever stories, albeit surreptitiously so.

Jam


Aired: 2000

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Each episode of Jam opens with a sketch that goes beyond the realms of typical comedy in a manner that can only be described as trippy and obscure. Chris Norris’ vision translates on to the screen perfectly and adds another tangy flavor to the already bitter mix of humor and actors. The sketches are shot with feature film qualities and a dark, creative flow that is truly mesmerizing.

Chris Norris is a DIY kind of man who contributes to every single aspect of the show, including filming and music. By distorting voices, experimenting with haunting hues and strange film edits, Norris expresses exactly what he wants the viewer to experience in the Jam-infected eeriness of his own living room. Outré music, warped voices and crackling audio bring profoundness to the show that wouldn’t otherwise be possible given the silly nature that often lies beneath the sketches. These aspects also seem to help the viewer accept the kind of humor that could easily be cast as “wrong”.

A Bit of Fry & Laurie


Aired: 1989-1995

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When Emma Thompson introduced the Cambridge Footlights members Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the early ‘80s, she never could have imagined what effect that meeting could have on the world of British comedy.

Fry and Laurie were destined for one another. Their personalities and skills complement each other beautifully and their shared love for ridiculously funny innuendos and word-games is unbeatable, if you’ll pardon the pun. They had their first big success together when they won the Perrier Award for their annual revue “The Cellar Tapes” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This shaped the future of two brilliant comedians and a truly amazing friendship.

We watched in hysterics as Fry repeatedly beat Laurie in Black Adder and were impressed by their resources in their sketch show Alfresco, but nothing quite compares to their infamous sketches in A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Characters like the embarrassingly pretentious businessman Stuart and his worldly old friend Gordon perfectly illustrate how naturally Fry and Laurie work together.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus


Aired: 1969-1974

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There is hardly a comedian alive who hasn’t felt inspired by the work of Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman. Their splendid minds and cutting edge comedy shaped an entirely new approach to sketches when they first appeared on the BBC in 1969. They have often been described as The Beatles of comedy and rightly so; actors, musicians and other entertainers the world over have stated the Pythons to be their biggest influence; know what I mean? Know what I mean? Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more!

Since the late sixties this circus of crazy-talented comedians has granted us with many a bellyache brought on by uncontrollable laughter. With sketches like “The Spanish Inquisition” and “Silly Job Interview,” the Pythons introduced a new style of comedy that didn’t actually need a punchline. Whenever they did manage to round up their sketch with a conventionial kicker, they were often so incredibly cheesy, they simply had to be punished by The-Knight-Who-Hits-People-With-A-Chicken. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was just the beginning for the super-group who went on to film five legendary movies: And Now for Something Completely Different, Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

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