The 10 Best Post-Monty Python British Sketch Shows
Look up “British sketch comedy” in the dictionary and you’ll no doubt find a picture of Monty Python. Okay, not in the Oxford English, Merriam-Webster or Cambridge editions, but the point remains: For more than 40 years, “Monty Python” and “British sketch comedy” have been nearly synonymous. And for the record, more dictionaries should include pictures of Eric Idle wearing silly period clothing.
Not to take anything away from the Pythons, but since the heady days of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there has been plenty of other British sketch shows that deserve our comedy love. Here, in no particular order, are 10 hilarious post-Python sketch programmes guaranteed to tickle your telly.
The League of Gentlemen (1999)
More Portlandia than Saturday Night Live, The League of Gentlemen features unsettling comedy bits set in the fictional English town of Royston Vasey. There’s a horror element underneath it all — a menacing sign at the city limits reads, “Welcome to Royston Vasey. You’ll never leave!” Give it up for the show’s three leads, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, who have played more than 100 of the town’s demented residents. They’re out-and-out lunatics, hellbent on living local in the face of hybrid monsters and fatal nosebleeds. A full episode is likely necessary to appreciate the weirdness, but get a taste of what happens when someone mistakenly utters the F word.
The Fast Show (1994)
Brief sketches hit-and-run style, separated by blackouts that zoom you to the next hilarious bit. It’s a good concept for a comedy show — get in as many jokes as quickly as possible, then get the hell out. Like SNL, The Fast Show was famous for introducing comedy catchphrases into the local lexicon. (“Anyone fancy a pint?” might not mean much to you, but it was the English equivalent of “Schwing!”) The show was such a U.K. phenomenon that Johnny Depp practically begged for a cameo — and got one.
A Bit of Fry & Laurie (1989)
Clever wordplay? Check. Sexy-winky innuendo? Check, check. Two unknown college pals who would go on to be massive stars (the eponymous Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie)? Check, check, check. Physically, the two men are a classic comedy team — big versus small, boisterous versus reserved, both more intelligent than they might appear on the surface. More than its peers, Fry & Laurie balanced absurdity and broad physical comedy with verbal wit, making sketches like this one a word-player’s delight.
Little Britain (2003)
If Kids in the Hall originated on the other side of the ocean, it might have looked a lot like Little Britain, a faux-guide to English society that skewers all classes with appalling (and appealing) bad taste. Surreal, occasionally grotesque and deliciously nasty, Little Britain is for people who like a little black comedy in their coffee. Back in the day, it gave the original version of The Office all the competition it could handle come awards time. Now take off your clothes!
French and Saunders (1987)
Known for their big-budget pop-culture parodies, Dawn French and Jennifer (Absolutely Fabulous) Saunders are experts at impersonating the characters and celebrities you love to hate. They’re also the Jimmy Fallons of England, famous for cracking up mid-sketch at their own hilarity. You want longevity? The BBC continued to run episodes of French and Saunders as recently as 2017 even though the duo called it quits in 2008.
That Mitchell and Webb Look (2006)
Straight-up goofy sketches, served British style. There’s a crimefighting duo consisting of a mysterious wizard and a guy on a sweet BMX bike. A drunken bum who thinks he’s the world’s greatest private detective. The Quiz Broadcast is a TV game show for the post-apocalypse. Probably our favorite recurring sketch is “Numberwang,” another game show where contestants guess random numbers for hours until they accidentally hit and the host declares “That’s Numberwang!” Somehow, That Mitchell and Webb Look kept coming up with variations on that comic theme.
Big Train (1998)
Hop onto IMDb to see Big Train’s fans rave about this Python-style sketch show, featuring then-unknowns Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate. “Absurdist comedy at its absolute best!” gushes one fan. “Criminally underrated,” cries another. Despite an avid cult following, however, Big Train never found the mass audience of some of the other shows on this list. Will it be your cup of Earl Grey? All depends on taste, but there’s one thing upon which we can all agree: Tom Henderson is a total wanker.
The Catherine Tate Show (2004)
After Big Train but before Nellie inexplicably took over The Office during its gas leak season, Tate wowed viewers with a mad menagerie of comic characters like Sam (who spins extraordinary yarns about her mundane work life), Nan (a nasty grandma with a nastier mouth) and Lauren Cooper (a brooding teen who coined the catchphrase “Am I bovvered?”). Tate put a permanent dent into Brit pop culture when “bovvered” was named Word of the Year for 2006 and entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. A dictionary spokesperson noted that the catchphrase was “the perfect expression of a generation of teenagers and their speaking style." We love when reference books get passive-aggressive.
Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979)
More Mr. Show than Weekend Update, Not the Nine O’Clock News used the loose structure of a news set as a launching pad for self-contained sketches that were a step forward for U.K. comedy. (Think Saturday Night Live sketches versus Carol Burnett Show bits and you’ll get an idea of the parallel sensibilities at work here.) Look closely and you’ll spot Mr. Bean’s Rowan Atkinson (at 24 years old!) and SNL’s Pamela Stephenson among the players. HBO did a knock-off in the 1980s, giving comedy starts to Jan Hooks, Rich Hall and Conan O’Brien.
Smack the Pony (1999)
A female-centric sketch show? Whoa! What was really groundbreaking about this sometimes silly, sometimes surreal show was its intention to avoid the catchphrases that made other programs so popular. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was such a fan that she offered a Veep recurring role as the Finnish prime minister to star Sally Phillips. Check out “Singing Match,” coming in at #22 on Channel 4’s list of the 50 Greatest Comedy Sketches.