British Comedy: A Guide (Part III: The Sketch Show)

Tier One – Buy It, Buy It, You Fool, Buy It

Big Train (1998-2o02)

This show featured Kevin Eldon, Julia DavisAmelia Bullmore,  Mark Heap and Simon Pegg. While it lasts only two series, it is full of great material. These guys like to take oddity into normal settings. The Cosmic Tyrant goes home and vacuums his living room or watches the news.  A troupe of showjumpers (left) all want to help the firemen put out a fire.  Satan, that prankster, has just gone too far, and Jesus is going to have to let him go.  It also has a running sketch of an animated staring contest that pokes glorious fun at silly broadcaster commentary and overwrought graphics (which even Americans will recognize).

The show is incredibly good fun and consistently hilarious.  What’s really nice about it is that the production is rather high quality for a Sketch Show.  Usually, you have to suspend a considerable amount of disbelief to accept the setting of the sketch, but not really here.  That probably has a lot to do with the fact that so much of it takes place in ordinary situations (which extraordinary characters).  This show belongs in the highest tier because they never wink at you which you’ll find other Sketch Shows will often do.

In writing (or rather linking) the next entries on the Panel Show, I saw that David Mitchell, who you’ll read about in a second, wrote additional sketches for this show.  A ringing endorsement.

A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1987-95)

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie constitute the greatest comic duo…I’ll say it..of ALL TIME! This show is the cornerstone of that partnership. They make some astute observations but it isn’t all satire. There’s some silliness, straight parody, and physical gags.  But what this show has more than any other on the list is verbal aerobics.  Listen to me, listen to me.  Whether it’s nonsense or good sense posing as nonsense or vice-versa, if you’re a liker of the wordy things, then you will never get tired of this show.  If you’re not a liker of wordy things, then you’ll still never tire of this show because even if you aren’t completely in on things, you’ve still got two of the best performers of British Comedy in front of you.  Laurie’s face is as elastic as Jim Carrey‘s, but charmingly so rather than weirdly so.  Laurie also contributes as equal first in the musical comedy department–equaled by Dudley Moore (check this).

I’ve been looking at these clips and they just remind me of how terrific this show is.  They’ve got the sharpest wits and best performing skills of their era (and more besides) teamed up with perfect chemistry.  I’m sure there have been some sketches that I didn’t absolutely love, but none come to mind.  These guys are my heroes, I’m not ashamed of saying it, it’s true.  And never be ashamed of telling the truth.  Unless it’s about yourself, and then you’d best keep things quiet.

Best. Show. Ever.

Also available for free streaming to Prime Members on

Tier Two – Buy It, or At Least Borrow It From the Library As Soon As Possible

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74)

The classic television sketch comedy show that sets the standard in British Comedy–after Not Only…but Also (1965-70). Featuring John CleeseTerry GilliamGraham ChapmanEric IdleTerry Jones, and Michael Palin, most of whom would go on to incredible comedy and film careers.  While it isn’t as consistently funny as some other shows on the list, it still performs well.  Among the comedy-literate, Flying Circus is the touchstone.  The veneration touches on the absurd if you come to this show for the first time and find some of the sketches to be on the weak side.  But try not to judge too harshly.  My personal favorite, the Mouse Problem sketch, shows them at their best–you’ve got some satire, some parody, and that weird thing they used to do by breaking up the action with arbitrary cut-tos.  Well, that last bit is the reason I put this in Tier 2 rather than 1 as I don’t find it funny.

It’s the classic, yes.  If you’re a collector, then you should absolutely buy it.  But, if you’re a normal person, then you’d be better off setting aside a long weekend to have a MPFC marathon.  You’ll be glad you did.  You’ll get to pick out your favorites and share them with people or explain them to the dumb, unmoved faces of your friends at parties who won’t find them the least bit funny because this isn’t stand-up, these aren’t “jokes.”

At $41.49 for the whole set, you just can’t go wrong.

That Mitchell and Webb Look/Situation/Sound (2006-10)

The show evolved from the radio program That Mitchell and Webb Sound, which is worth looking (or listening) into for those who have a commute to survive and features David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who you may recognize from Peep Show (2006-), which I recommended last time.  They are joined by regulars James BachmanOlivia Colman, and others.

Unlike the last two Sketch Shows, this show doesn’t really focus much on parodying the news.  Rather, their focus is often on crap television like those sad reality shows and on history.  Mitchell is big on history and he makes it quite funny for us.  That’s really it, right, take what you know and, if you’re funny, you can make that funny too.  I’m not really sure what Robert Webb knows, maybe it’s the absurd stuff.  That’s good too.

Two pounds ninety-seven on  That price is so low, it’s insane.  Or, the first two series are available on Hulu.  That’s a lower price, but can you hold it in your hand?  I’m really just relying on you odd anti-kindle people to buy that load of manure.

Really, I only put this in the second Tier because of Hennimore.  Man I can’t stand that sketch.  Almost as much–or as little–as I can’t stand the post-apocalypse quiz thing.  Stop.  Just stop them.

Tier Three – You Should Borrow It, At Least Once

Not the 9 O’Clock News (1979-82)

This show featured Rowan AtkinsonPamela StephensonGriff Rhys Jones, and Mel Smith. Some of their sketches are a little too brutal to enjoy.  I would describe this show primarily as angry in its parody.  A lot of it is very straight forward, neutral comedy, but there’s also a regular attack on something or other that goes a little too far.  Here’s one about the Conservatives which is absolutely hilarious, but you might see how it takes it a step too far.  Here’s a good one about Monty Python that doesn’t go too far, but its target makes it suspect.

Some of the sketches are just not very good.  Music in a sketch is difficult to pull off at the best of times and I can’t recall a single one from this show that actually stands up as particularly funny–except for Super Duper, which is pretty darn funny.  As the Tier title says, it’s worth looking into, but only if you happen to get around to it.

Tier Four – If It’s On PBS, You Might See It Without Injury

Alfresco (1983-84)

Featuring Robbie Coltrane, Emma ThompsonSiobhan RedmondBen EltonHugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, you can see that there is some ridiculously great talent on board here.  However, it never really takes off.  It’s hard to explain why.  It’s like the show just goes on and a few chuckle-inducers come out, but that’s about it.  Maybe the sketches go for too long without a punchline or a clear message.  You’d think with a cast like this it wouldn’t matter what they were given.  Well, it turns out you’re wrong.  Still, it’s pretty darn early in their careers–most just a couple years out of college.

Tier Five – Flee, For Your Lives, FLEE!

The Fast Show (1994-2001)

The inaptly named Fast Show features Paul WhitehouseSimon DayCharlie Higson, and a slew of others.  This show never gets started. The sketches are weak and do not fulfill their promise of speed.  Fry and Laurie giving their man-in-the-street cut-tos are fast. This doesn’t come near to that.  What can I say any more than that?  Didn’t bloody like it.  Too broad.  Too base.  Catchphrases and silly hair.

I guess I can just be happy it isn’t in Region 1.

Little Britain (2003-06)

Did I mention broad and base?  Did I mention catchphrases and silly hair?  Little Britain features Matt Lucas and David Walliams as a comedy duo without wit or charm.  Oh, this one’s fat.  Oh, this one’s gay.  Ooh, cheeky.  Shut up!  If I wanted this kind of derivative, stereotypical crap I’d watch an American SitCom and not waste my time.  Is there anything redeeming about this show?  You’ll probably laugh like a lobotomized degenerate.  That could be redemption.

I hear a lot of people talk about their guilty pleasures.  Usually, it’s reality TV where they sit and gape at people they simply can’t believe actually exist.  Well, stop thinking they actually exist and realize their lives have been edited to portray a particular kind of jaw-dropping tragedy and perhaps that will resolve your dilemma.  An alternative is to accept that a “guilty” pleasure is one not worth indulging in, like streaking a busy thoroughfare, doing crack, heroin, or freebasing.  While Little Britain may not drop to the level of virgin sacrifice as far as guilty pleasures go, it’s a gateway pleasure.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Of course it’s available in Region 1.  Why wouldn’t it be.  Can’t find Mitchell & Webb stuff in Region 1, but yeah, let’s make sure the dreck comes right on through.

Haven’t Seen Enough to Judge, So Will Prejudge

At Last the 1948 Show (1967) (Projected Tier 2)
The Benny Hill Show (1969-89) (Projected Tier 5)
French and Saunders (1987-) (Projected Tier 3)
Not Only…But Also (1965-70) (Projected Tier 2)

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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3 Responses to British Comedy: A Guide (Part III: The Sketch Show)

  1. Pingback: British Comedy: A Guide (Part III: The Sketch Show) | Prof. Ratigan - Classic British Sitcom Videos

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