Sky Atlantic’s surreal new comedy This is Jinsy arrives on our screens tonight, so it’s a perfect time to look at some of the greatest weird and witty shows that have come before it. Whether it’s disturbing characters, talking animals, or catchy tunes about soup, we Brits have always had a knack for the nonsensical.
So, here are the five TV comedies that are the best at being bizarre…
From the creators of The League of Gentlemen, BBC Two’s Psychoville takes their trademark dark surrealism and places a mystery at the centre. Its characters like Mr. Jelly wouldn’t look out of place in Royston Vasey, but they’re involved in even more malevolent acts, whether it’s midwife Joy (Dawn French) feeding her plastic baby a bottle of stolen blood, or mother and son murderers Maureen and David Sowerbutt (Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton) planning on drowning their hostage in a Matey bubblebath.
By rights it shouldn’t be funny. But it is. Co-creator Shearsmith has just announced that Psychoville won’t be returning for a third series, which is a real shame. There just aren’t enough hearse-driving, one-handed clowns on telly these days.
The Goodies (1970-1982)
A mix of gently surreal sketch and situation comedy, The Goodies had a ‘kids TV show’ feel about it, but in the best possible way. The humour was zany and light-hearted, and the gags were visual rather than verbal, resulting in scenes like the superbly ridiculous ‘Bunfight at the O.K. Tearooms’, and The Goodies fighting an army of famous puppets (Bill Oddie engaging in fisticuffs with The Wombles is like an episode of Springwatch that’s got wildly out of hand).
Its best visual gag is also what the show is most famous for: a giant kitten attacking the BT Tower in the episode ‘Kitten Kong’. Hardly ever repeated on TV these days, its lasting legacy to the world lies chiefly in their Top 10 hit, ‘The Funky Gibbon’.
The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002)
You can’t help but stare at The League of Gentlemen. It hits the point between the hilarious and the repulsive so perfectly that it draws you in, making you watch to see just how bizarre things will get; setting up the unsettling and then making punchlines out of it. Royston Vasey is the kind of town you pray to God your car never breaks down in, and its inhabitants are people you hope never to give you a lift.
Edward and Tubbs, Hilary Briss, Herr Lipp… so many of League‘s characters are so twisted that, on paper, you’d think they couldn’t possibly work. Yet they do. All credit for this has to go to creators Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Jeremy Dyson and Reece Shearsmith, not just for their writing, but for being able to bring such sinister characters to life onscreen and make them feel like three-dimensional people. Or, in the case of Papa Lazarou, just plain terrifying.
The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007)
Beyond time, space and logic, there’s a child-like creativity at the heart of The Mighty Boosh, and it’s led to it being probably the most surreal TV comedy to date. Its sheer depth of imagination means the show can move from the Arctic tundra, to the rainforest, and even Vince Noir’s jazz-infested body, all the time keeping the show’s unique, almost cartoony, style. Populated by deranged characters like The Hitcher, Tony Harrison, and Baileys-loving Old Gregg, it’s a whimsical place with a dark edge.
But Boosh’s true knack for surreality lies in its incredible musical numbers, or ‘crimps’, like ‘The Eels Song’ and ‘Ice Flow Rap’. Covering musical genres from jazz to funk, and featuring lyrics that an opiate-addicted poet would struggle to come up with – “Eggs, milk and flour, pancake power, look at his milky yellow sunshine face!” – it’s impossible not to be bemused and a bit befuddled by The Mighty Boosh‘s beats.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
The grand-daddy of surreal comedy, not just in Britain but around the world, Monty Python gave us 45 episodes, 5 feature films, books, albums, the online meaning of the word ‘Spam’ (as well as Spam and egg, Spam and chips, Spam and Spam), and even a dictionary definition to describe surreal humour of all shades – ‘Pythonesque’. It was a show that had a surreal edge without sacrificing intelligence and witty lines.
Many of its jokes – such as The Dead Parrot, Ministry of Silly Walks, and The Spanish Inquisition – are the stuff of comedy legend, and even the lesser known sketches like The Non-illegal Robbery and Dirty Fork are funny enough that, decades later, people still quote them to each other in the pub. Terry Gilliam’s hallucinatory stop-motion animations interspersed throughout helped cement Monty Python’s surreal image and became an instantly recognisable signature of the show. The work of a supremely talented cast, it’s easy to see why it still inspires comedians 40 years on.
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Watch a clip from clip from This Is Jinsy…