“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” Thus begins Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe, sequel to his culture touchstone The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That’s the book that gave us the answer to life, the universe and everything, though not the question. Welcome to episode number 42, which I have decided to devote to [drumroll] the history of British comedy. That means we’re going to try to cram hundreds of years, thousands of performers, and a dozen mediums into a half-hour show. But don’t panic.
British comedy history is measured in centuries, from chase scenes and beatings into Shakespeare’s comedies to the misadventures of Mr. Bean. Even as times, tastes, and technologies changes, some themes are eternal. Innuendo, for example, has been a staple in the literature as far back as Beowulf and Chaucer, and is prevalent in many British folk songs. King Charles II was such a fan of innuendo that he encouraged it to the point that Restoration comedy became not only its own genre, but an explicit one at that. The repressive Victorian period gave us burlesque, though not in the same form as the shows you can see today – more vaudeville than striptease. Absurdism and the surreal had always been an undercurrent, which firmly took root in the 1950’s, leading Red Dwarf, The Mighty Boosh, and Count Duckula. Though the British Empire successfully conquered ¼ of the globe, but its individual people struggled and suffered. Plagues, wars, poverty, class oppression, and filthy cities gave rise to, and a need for, black humor, in which topics and events that are usually treated seriously are treated in a humorous or satirical manner. The class system, especially class tensions between characters, with pompous or dim-witted members of the upper/middle classes or embarrassingly blatant social climbers, has always provided ample material, which we can see in modern shows like Absolutely Fabulous, Keeping Up Appearances, and Blackadder. The British also value finding humor in everyday life, which we see in shows like Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and Spaced, which also incorporates a fair amount of absurdity.