My my, Sunday nights will be dull for the next few weeks – not only has Downton finished for another season, but the current series of Rude Tube, complete with the lovely Alex Zane, has also come to a close. Thank goodness, then, for Toast of London, the last brief spark of Sunday night hilarity (until the inevitable post-Christmas return of the Big Fat Quiz of the Year). Broadcast so late that no one appears to be watching it – it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page!!! – Toast is nonetheless a delightful piece of nutty comedic programming, calling to mind British surreal humour at its best. How best to commemorate its barely noticed existence…? Sounds like it’s time for another definitive top ten list!
The Top Ten Most Brilliantly Bonkers Comedies That Have Existed
DISCLAIMER: This Is Jinsy doesn’t appear because I’ve only seen the bits with David Tennant, but it looks like it would qualify for this list. In contrast, Peep Show is excluded by being insufficiently bonkers, and The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen by being insufficiently brilliant. In my view, of course. (My definitely accurate view.)
10. Fortysomething (2003)
Just squeezing into the list at no. 10, Fortysomething wasn’t out-and-out absurd, its main attraction being the glorious casting of Hugh Laurie as the main character and Benedict Cumberbatch as his eldest son. Most of the humour came from gentle digs at the middle class (Cumberbatch’s opening scene involves Laurie telling him off for eating all the luxury seafood goujons), but two key elements push it over the line into wackiness: the constant chop-and-change of who’s sleeping with whom (the teenage boys’ girlfriends being swapped back and forth between the brothers as if they were Pokémon cards), and Peter Capaldi (yes, he’s in it too) as the semi-antagonist who is an angry thorn in Laurie’s side until his horrifying descent into madness in the later episodes of the series. Good times!
9. Family Guy (1999-present)
One of the most mainstream programmes on the list, and more ‘occasionally amusing’ than ‘pee your pants hilarious’, Family Guy nevertheless deserves its spot because of the sheer abundance of moments that make you say, “What just happened?” Primarily responsible for these moments are the show’s cutaway gags, cued in by Peter Griffin’s chorus of “This is worse than that time I…” (“went on a blind date with Gary Coleman to Mexico” / “forgot how to sit down” / “swallowed that midget who played Mini-Me”), with additional weirdness contributed by supporting characters like Adam West, the town’s dippy mayor; Ernie, the man-sized prize-fighting chicken; and the Kool-Aid Man, a large jug of red liquid who periodically bursts through walls and shouts, “Oh yeah!”. No, I don’t know why either.
8. A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1989-1995)
Hugh Laurie’s second appearance on the list*, and he’s back where he belongs, in cahoots with (and frequently being punched in the face by) Stephen Fry. All sketch shows have an element of bonkers to them, and Fry and Laurie are adept in the art of off-the-wall moments – see for example Fry demonstrating the fine art of quantity surveying – but A Bit of Fry and Laurie handles the madness with style and with substance; this is absurdity with intent, the primary victim of Fry and Laurie’s pointed wit being the English language (what’s in a name?). Sketch shows don’t get more erudite than this.
*You’ll notice that this kind of recurrence becomes a running theme in today’s entry.
7. Black Books (2000-2004)
Black Books is a comedy set in a bookshop that has nothing to do with books and everything to do with wine, shouting and creepy house cleaners. Dylan Moran scowls his way through every episode, alternating lazy insolence with furious rage, while Bill Bailey and Tamsin Grieg’s half-hearted attempts to get on with slightly more normal lives result in bee homicide, ruining other people’s wine cellars and inappropriate responses to the Shipping Forecast. Despite all three of the main characters being egotistical, obnoxious and barking mad, the true tour-de-force of Black Books is making you like them anyway, and there are even a couple of genuinely moving episodes in the final season. RIP bees.
6. Toast of London (2013-?)
Despite its lack of recognition from Wikipedia, and being broadcast at 10.40pm on a Sunday night, Toast is a ripping yarn, with Matt Berry (best known as Douglas Reynholm from The IT Crowd) carrying the whole show on his well-moustiachoed shoulders (you know what I mean). The premise is slight – a semi-successful actor takes on a series of semi-successful roles – but the madness abounds, with a potential girlfriend who collects beaks, some really small champagne glasses, and an acquaintance whose botched face lift has made her look like Bruce Forsyth. Each episode also has a single musical number, for no earthly reason. Finally, Matt Berry has the best hair of any actor working today.
5. Friday Night Dinner (2011-present)
Another programme that isn’t as well-known as it should be, Friday Night Dinner works on the fairly normal premise that two grown-up sons come home to their parents every Friday for a family dinner. (Un)fortunately, patriarch Paul Ritter is nutty as a fruitcake, with a penchant for topless dining, conversations in the toilet and drying his own fish, which drives wife Tamsin Grieg (cf. Black Books) and sons Adam (Simon Bird) and Johnny (Tom Rosenthal) up the wall. And yet Dad seems quite sane next to Mark Heap, the family’s next-door-neighbour; creepy and pathetic in equal measure, he’s scared of his own dog (“Down, Wilson… Argh!”) and madly in love with Mum, to everyone’s increasing discomfort. Hello, bambinos!
4. Look Around You (2002-2005)
Look Around You, which I’ve talked about in a previous post, is a simple idea brilliantly executed: a spoof of educational science programmes that is chock-full of lies and nonsense. Fronted by Olivia Colman (also appearing in Green Wing and now well on her way to national treasure status), Josie D’Arby (of CBBC fame), Peter Serafinowicz (the voice of Darth Maul) and Robert Popper (writer of Friday Night Dinner**), Look Around You teaches us about the newest inventions that are sure to improve our lives: the fast-food casserole outlet, the invigorating sport of gonnis, and a cure for that life-changing disease, cobbles. Plus, spot a vast array of celebrities in silly cameos: Simon Pegg, Matt Lucas, Adam Buxton, Harry Enfield… Thanks, Look Around You. Thook around you.
**It’s all very incestuous, isn’t it?
3. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (2005-present)
Probably the most offensive show on the list, It’s Always Sunny takes five awful people and puts them into ridiculous situations that allow their worst qualities to shine through: episode titles include “The Gang Finds a Dead Guy”, “Frank Sets Sweet Dee on Fire”, and “Mac Fights Gay Marriage”. The plotlines are barmy and not one of the characters is an acceptable human being, with the possible exception of Charlie, described by my dictionary (Wikipedia) as “the least morally bankrupt member of the Gang”. So, really, it’s all about mocking those who mock others, and not at all about laughing at people with monobrows or poor spelling. Not at all.
2. Green Wing (2004-2007)
Set in a hospital but with a cast of characters you wouldn’t trust with a sticky plaster, Green Wing treads a fine line between wacky comedy – such as this classic example of the hilarity of helium – and actual pathos, most obviously in the ongoing love triangle between Caroline (Tamsin Grieg in her third appearance in this list), Mac and Guy, none of whom deserves not to get the girl/guy at the end. The combination of actual issues like friendship, family, pregnancy and terminal illness with batty moments like people falling out of windows and the occasional appearance of a camel or motorbike traversing the wards takes a bit of getting used to; but whose life wouldn’t be improved by being able to name all the bones in the skull and having a thorough knowledge of the rules of Guyball?
And the winner is…
1. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
What can you say about Monty Python that doesn’t involve the phrases ‘lumberjack’, ‘dead parrot’ or ‘Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and Spam’? The dream team of surrealist comedy need no other description than to note that the sketches produced by their combined minds are the most abstract and random on the entire list; and that, good sir, is saying something.
All hail the masters of laughter and nonsense! And go and watch Toast.