comedy on television

comedy on television
   Comedy sketch shows are still one of the most popular forms of British television comedy. Earlier sketch shows, like those of Morecombe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett drew on traditions of music hall and variety. Victoria Wood, one of the few women to break into this kind of comedy, similarly includes musical numbers along with sketches and monologues in her shows. Another tradition of comedy employed satire and the revue format in programmes like That Was the Week That Was and The Frost Report. Satire has continued to appear on British comedy through the 1980s and 1990s with the political puppetry of Spitting Image, the politicosatirical impressions of Roy BremnerWho Else? and the current affairs game show Have I Got News for You. Influential ‘alternative’ television sketch shows in the late 1960s and early 1970s included Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Not OnlyBut Also, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Spike Milligan’s numbered series of Q. These last two shows experimented with the form of the sketch show, abandoning punchlines in favour of surrealistic linking devices. While play with the conventions of television could be found in the 1980s in Alexei Sayle’s Stuff, French and Saunders and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, from this period ‘alternative’ comedy tended to focus more on anti-Tory, anti-racist and anti-sexist sentiments than experiments with the sketch form. This can be seen in programmes like Saturday Live with Ben Elton, The Lenny Henry Show, The Real McCoy and The Mark Thomas Show. Nonetheless, there has been resistance from many comedians to both the label of ‘alternative’ and the expectation of ‘right-on’ politics, despite, or perhaps because of, the underrepresentation of women and non-white performers in television sketch programmes. While the appearance of comics like Bob Monkhouse and Roy Castle as comperes has given British game-shows a comic flavour, more recently the hybrid genre of the comedy game show has become popular. Examples include the improvisation show Whose Line is it Anyway? and celebrity game shows like Shooting Stars and They Think It’s All Over. Sticky Moments with Julian Clary showed the way that these shows can combine quite traditional kinds of British humour—in this case, Benny Hill-esque smutty double entendres— with a glamorous gay host, who disrupts the game show norms of heterosexuality and fair play. In the late 1990s, the sketches in sketch shows seemed to become ever shorter, to the extent that The Fast Show based itself upon a stream of thirty-second turns which, shorter than many television commercials, seemed ideally designed for an audience with a short attention span.
   Further reading
    Wilmut, R. (1982) From Fringe to Flying Circus: Celebrating a Unique Generation of Comedy 19601980, London: Methuen.
    Wilmut, R. and Rosengard, P. (1989), Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-law? The Story of Alternative Comedy in Britain from The Comedy Store to Saturday Live, London: Methuen.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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