Like many Anglophiles, I’ve grown up watching, loving and memorizing old English comedy. PBS acted as my guide into the vast world of dysfunctional suburban families, camp shopmen and well-educated men in dresses putting on silly voices. The antiquated worlds of Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served, Fawlty Towers and Monty Python were sometimes pierced by servings of Black Books and AbFab on Comedy Central, or Chef (a little known show about an angry, proto-Ramsey chef played by Lenny Henry.) Whilst many were drawn to Agatha Christie or historical dramas on Masterpiece Theatre, I was always more intrigued by the rampant silliness of fare such as a Bit of Fry and Laurie, Posh Nosh and Jeeves and Wooster. It wasn’t highbrow, but it was very, very funny.
I feel that as I have grown up, so has English comedy- my husband and friends cringe whenever I talk about my love of these old comedies- they find them embarrassing, such as finding old relics of racism in your grandparents’ attic. Much like other old comedies I grew up watching on late night television and on cable (I love Lucy, the Honeymooners, Bewitched, I dream of Jeannie, Good Times, The Mary Tyler Moore Show…), I find these comedies to be instructive archives of societies gone past, of generations in transition, of roles that were being renegotiated or subverted by those not in power. They act as historical record and as a collective story of who we wanted to be, what we feared and the objects we found important.
Though I no longer watch much of these old comedies, there remains a fondness for them. I can see shades of that bawdy and eccentric English comedy tradition when watching the Inbetweeners, Shooting Stars or Black Books. I also love the dark, awkward, slightly surreal and provocatively silly strain of comedy that was heralded by Brass Eye and the Office and is now found in most popular comedies from Peep Show to Phone Shop to Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. Even now as many of shows have gone off the air, I find myself constantly searching for more comedy to fill the void, bringing me to people such as Sarah Millican, Richard Herring, Josie Long, Nick Helm and full circle to American comedians deconstructing notions of nationality, identity and geography, the hysterical Rich Hall and Reginald D. Hunter. I look forward to doing more growing up with my old friend, and seeing what I can learn and recognise from it as the years go on.
With all of that said, I decided to post an instructive video on how to make tea by the very funny comedian and rapper Doc Brown (also known as Zadie Smith’s kid brother). Possibly the best example of modern English sensibility combining with a treasured English pastime. It is a bit sweary, so I’d say it’s NSFW.