Is there a famous British sketch comedy show of the last 20 years that doesn’t have a history of blackface?
Netflix has removed the British sketch shows The Mighty Boosh, The League of Gentlemen, Little Britain, and Come Fly with Me from its service in the regions where those shows were offered. (None of them were on Netflix in the U.S.) All four shows featured different characters played by their white creators in blackface, from Little Britain’s Desiree DeVere to The Mighty Boosh’s Spirit of Jazz. Whatever the intent of these characters, or the ways they were used, they were always really uncomfortable and controversial, at least whenever these shows would get imported to the States; it’s not a surprise that a company like Netflix would want to disconnect itself from them, with the increased spotlight on racial inequality that started in America and has spread throughout the world.
Netflix’s decision came a few days after another comedian, the Australian Chris Lilley, had a number of shows removed from different networks and streaming services across a variety of regions, including Netflix. Lilley might be the king of modern blackface, performing in makeup as members of various different races, ethnicities and cultures in several of his series. Some of his shows aired on HBO in America, and although they were once available through HBO’s streaming apps, they were removed at some point in 2019.
Sketch comedy shows have a long history of cast members playing different genders or races. Traditionally it’s been an easy sight gag, and there’s also been a mentality of trying to avoid using actors from outside the group when possible. This isn’t like Monty Python or Kids in the Hall putting on dresses, though; slathering makeup all over a white man’s face isn’t just insensitive and doesn’t just evoke a deeply racist form of entertainment from our deeply racist past. It perpetuates that pain and oppression while also taking a potential job away from a non-white actor. Basically it’s a bad idea on multiple fronts, and has been for decades, whether you’re a British comedian in the ‘00s, Jimmy Fallon doing Chris Rock on SNL in the late ‘90s, Mark McKinney as Mississippi Gary on Kids in the Hall in the late ‘80s, Billy Crystal doing Sammy Davis Jr. on SNL in the mid ‘80s, on back through the history of sketch comedy and TV. These moments are a direct descendant of minstrelsy and blackface shows from the Jim Crow era and earlier.
Removing them from streaming services is a good stopgap, but long-term the answer shouldn’t be to act like these shows didn’t exist. Network executives and comedians need to learn from them how not to portray non-white characters, and to let viewers know in advance what they can expect if they try to watch these shows in the future. That might be the tack the BBC takes—none of them have been removed from the BBC’s iPlayer in the U.K., but hopefully some context or forewarning is attached to them there. As a company that merely licenses these shows for content, though, Netflix can’t be faulted for wanting to distance itself from them fully.
It’d be a shame to lose The Mighty Boosh entirely because of one offensive character who appears in a handful of episodes. But it’s more of a shame that this show thought it was okay to blacken up Noel Fielding’s face in the ‘00s. Blackface never should’ve been a thing, but there’s especially no excuse for doing it at any point in the last 70 years. It’s well past time that the entertainment industry has dealt with this subject, and hopefully we won’t see comedians doing this again, no matter what country they’re from.