For the (predominantly) American reader, Anglophile televisual pursuits often extend only from binging The Office on Netflix to discussing which Doctor wears the cutest scarf. But there’s much more to British comedy than even our own tea-swilling former atrocity-committing, empire-owning citizens may be aware of.
The darkness and inner turmoil of English comedy that sometimes slips past BBC commissioning editors combines with bizarre scheduling to create low ratings, and many shows don’t make the impact they deserve. Based on my laugh-filled memories of comedy that barely made a blip, I’ve put together a list of shows that are worth delving past impenetrable accents to enjoy.
15 Storeys High
Comedian Sean Lock is known across the British isles for his child-hating panel show appearances and his standup impressions of Madonna performing handjobs. But before he broke into the mainstream, he wrote and starred in this overlooked breaker of sitcom convention. The show revolved around the cynical Vince and his endearingly childlike housemate Errol (a character who’ll be many American’s first look at an English-Asian). It’s typical odd-couple comedy, but the plot lines took atypical directions; episodes would follow Vince as he was arrested for killing a swan or trying to return farming equipment that he had drunkenly stolen.
Most surprising, given Lock’s often whimsical stand-up, is the bleak setting. The majority of your time with 15 Storeys High is spent inside the grimy 70’s government housing that Vince calls home. Visually, you’re dealing with a lot of grey contrasting darker shades of grey. The desolate setting mixed with clever and surreal jokes is what makes it stick out so clearly among the British tradition of multi-camera punchlines about men dressing as women.
This dadaist sketch comedy was built for those who want their chuckles to come with as much artsy wankery as possible. Born out of the cabaret show Cluub Zarathustra,it showcases Simon Munnery’s Woody Allen-like one-liners and a series of carnival-esque skits which rarely move beyond surrealism into something actually funny. Watching the show, it’s easy to understand why it never gained a large audience — continually repeating interstitials with no punchline, gothic-operas about murdering critics, and men fighting about who has the largest top hat. Combining the worst parts of Monty Python and an unfinished college art project is only going to appeal to a very specific audience.
And yet, Attention Scum becomes worth watching through Munnery’s character “The League Against Tedium.” Giving acerbic speeches atop a van, berating his audience of mildly perturbed passersby with evidence of his clear superiority. His mixture of avant-garde acidity and quotable statements like “In love as in fighting, the winner has an eight foot pole” and “Women, give them an inch and they’ll want the rest. They shall be disappointed” demonstrates an archness typical for the man who would go on to collaborate with Banksy.
Series director Stewart Lee would go on to be featured in Laser Time listicles…
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle
Stewart Lee writes as a proud outsider. His stubbornness in never curtailing his purposefully monotonous style has, against conventional wisdom, developed a cult following within the UK. His comedy has earned him prestigious awards and a dedicated audience, even if it centers on repeating the same thing over and over until the audience hits a breaking point. His comedy flirts with controversy, going into detail about how he wished lovable Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond had been decapitated, or a thirty-minute long routine which devolves into vomiting “into the gaping anus of Christ.” But his abrasiveness always leads to a point which even lefty Guardian readers appreciate.
At its core, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is just another outlet for Lee’s standup. Each episode of the still-running show is a collection of routines and light skits circling a single theme. Topics include the Frank Ajaye comedy album I’m a Comedian, Seriously, how much he should be applauded for doing charity performances, and Russell Brand’s autobiography.
This hit-and-miss animated sketch show looked for humor in the blackest areas. Regular scenes included a child molester’s unsuccessful attempts at meeting up over the internet, a divorced dad’s suicide after unsuccessfully bonding with his son, and a PR firm’s attempt to re-brand cancer. The twisted satire exists comfortably next to pig-banging sci-fi Black Mirror.
Monkey Dust was unfortunately cut short by the untimely death of its creator Harry Thompson — a shame, in part due to the novelty of seeing a British cartoon that didn’t involve flying snowmen. The animation is a close imitation of post-series one Home Movies (a pragmatic choice more than anything artistic), but the joy of seeing a blow-up doll having an existential crisis never loses its sheen.
Chris Morris (Daily Mail-baiting, Paedogeddon-ing creator of Brass Eye) and Charlie Brooker (Gunther-Hermann-suffering-from-alcoholic-grief lookalike) exceeded the expectations of their unmatched cynicism with this brief series. Taken from Brooker’s short film Cunt, the character Nathan Barley was an unsympathetic parody of the emerging hipster culture. New media toss-pots are given zero positive traits, portrayed as morons living behind sixteen layers of irony, yet always managing to succeed despite their lack of talent. At the center was Julian Barrett’s Dan Ashcroft, a writer who considers himself principled, having to compromise his values to get ahead.
Nathan Barley failed in due part to being ahead of the curve, trying to satirize hipster culture before the Vice-like magazines, with all their “asking crack dealers their thoughts on the Syrian civil war” antics, had properly entered the popular consciousness. A serious journalist having to debase himself by writing an article about trying to masturbate straight men in a public toilet is the kind of subject matter that would only make sense a few years later. It was a ratings dead-end, and the miraculous partnership of modern Britain’s two greatest satirists was over.
Johnny Vegas, All 18 stones of him
I’ve broken from the television format to introduce you to a man who could be considered the drunken equivalent of Andy Kaufman. The trained pottery expert bridges the space between character comedy and nervous breakdown, presenting his audiences with a shambling wreck prone to fits of crying. He teeters between unashamed hatred of his crowd and a pleading desire for acceptance. The old-school gags of his repertoire belied a show which would often morph into arm-wrestling competitions, inviting members of the audience to kick him up the arse or commit minor sexual assault. No show was ever the same; a sense of danger ran through every night.
Michael Pennington has mostly hung up the Johnny Vegas persona for the sake of his own mental health, and there’s an unfortunate lack of any real tapings of his discharges. There’s a few scant pieces knocking around YouTube, the best example being Who’s Ready for Ice Cream? The Stewart Lee-directed DVD was billed as a standup special, but was actually a mockumentary about Vegas being forced back into standup by an overbearing ice cream salesman.
He now spends his time staging experimental one-man plays or elevating any show he cameos on. The sight of a drunkard pretending to be a dog and shitting on stage is left to memories and lingering stains. You’ll have to savor every clip you can find while accepting that you’ll never have the opportunity to witness such greatness in person.
Any other unloved comedies deserve a second chance? Are you a fan, or were these shows best left to rot as low-quality YouTube clips? Has Britain become an embarrassing parody of itself, sustained by a masturbatory drive for days of glory we’ll never see again? Let us know in the comments!