Benny Hill: Comedy Genius

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Well, I hope that headline caught your eye. On both sides of the pond, Hill has long been considered famously low-brow, but only by people who never took the time to look at his work, beyond the famous “Benny Hill chase” (undercranked, and accompanied by the “Yakety Sax”) and the momentary, gratuitous toplessness of some of his “Benny Hill Angels”. Some people don’t seem to realize that the central point is the intentional gratuitousness, and that the gratuitousness is the point of a joke. Such scenes are generally accompanied by Hill’s naughty smirk at the camera, like a four year old caught with his hand in the cookie jar — then followed up by punishment: the women angrily pursue him, along with cops and clergy, undoubtedly to kick the shit out of him when they catch him. Charlie’s Angels? That’s exploitation. Benny Hill’s Angels? Burlesque, in BOTH senses of the word.

In a way, his show (or aspects of it, since it was multifaceted) is like a continuation of the burlesque that might have been. The comedy in burlesque was similar, although it was less graphic, lest the producers get arrested. By the time standards in live theatre became more permissive in the 1960s the comedy was out if it entirely — the whole thing went straight to topless pole dancing. Even so, what Hill pioneered on television was only possible in the U.K., where their TV decency standards were more permissive. Believe it or not, his show dated back to 1951 — I’m not sure when it started to get “wicked”. We began to get the show in the States in the 1970s — on PBS, one of the many hundreds of reasons I always laugh at that network’s disingenuous (and nowadays anachronistic) claims of cultural specialness. While I do agree that  The Benny Hill Show is a valuable cultural product of its kind, baby, it ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t crowd-pleasin’ and commercial.

I couldn’t figure out how to integrate those sped-up Benny Hill chases into the narrative of my new book Chain of Fools, but they are indeed another example of silent comedy’s continuing legacy, and an eye-winking manifestation of our lingering affection for it. (Chaplin, BTW was also an early Benny Hill fan, it turns out. )

But, that’s a far cry from all he did anyway, so let’s get off that. Not only was he a brilliant comic performer (mime, slapstick clown), but a prolific, clever sketchwriter — one who wrote all of his own programs for nearly 40 years. He started out in theatres and nightclubs after the 2nd World War (music hall was already on the wane) and rapidly leapfrogged to radio and tv. His imagination took him all over the place; one was almost certain to get entertaining surprises on any episode. By 1989, his episodes were costing nearly half a million pounds per episode to produce and he was cancelled. His entire life had been the show. He was so depressed about losing it, he literally neglected himself and basically willed himself to die. His body was found in his apartment in 1992.

At any rate, today is his birthday, and we celebrate his contributions to comedy. This sketch is one of his hilarious parodies of low budget movies:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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