British comedy has long been noted for its wordplay, physical gags and dry social comedy. From the low comedians of Shakespeare to the sparkling wit of Noel Coward, the British comedic stage has always been a home to some of the world’s greatest comic entertainers. The British comedians of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are no exception, and their wit and ability has obvious influence on the modern performance world.
No discussion regarding British comedians can go long without bringing up the brilliant sketch group, Monty Python. The early 1970s television program Monty Python’s Flying Circus is considered by many to be the greatest sketch show of all time and the subsequent films and tours by the Pythons are ranked with equal fervor. Perhaps the best known Python is John Cleese, whose tall, spare frame and wrenching shrieking is cemented in the minds of many as a cultural icon. The Pythons, a diverse group that included Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam as well as Cleese, are renowned for their profound silliness and extremely dirty songs. Their constant satire of polite British humor, irreverent attitude toward socially significant ideas, and general love of nonsense often lead experts to declare them the greatest British comedians in history.
Great Britain is a country that has never fully given up on the radio, despite the success of television, and as such still carries a significant number of comedy shows over the radio waves. One of the longest running programs, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, is chock full of some of the best-loved British comedians. On the program, Barry Cryer, Tim Brook-Taylor, Graeme Gardner and Humphrey Littleton enact a nonsensical game show filled with implausible tournaments; one of the best known, Mornington Crescent, is a game about the subway system in London with no set rules and unending ways to violate them. Though the show is little known outside of Britain, it is well worth looking up as an example of classic British humor.
On the international scene, the best known British comedian is probably the stand-up wizard, Eddie Izzard. Known for his onstage cross-dressing and rambling monologues, Izzard is considered by some to be a successor to the Pythons, and has performed with them on many occasions. Also an accomplished actor, Izzard had a cameo appearance in the 2007 film Across the Universe and also stars in the HBO television program, The Riches. Izzard frequently tours as a stand-up artist, and also can occasionally be seen in major stage productions.
British humor is impossible to truly define; it can be dry and self-mocking, or filthy and hypocritical. Punning and wordplay are natural extensions of a culture seemingly obsessed with their own language, and British comedians are often tremendous verbal wits. Chances are, if you have an opportunity to see a well-known British comedian, you may not understand all of the historical or political references, but you will enjoy yourself.