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The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
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Madness & Surrealism
Still from Monty Python's Flying Circus

Monty Python's Flying Circus
(BBC, 1969-74)

The British are famous for their eccentrics, which might explain the stranger side of our sense of humour. Surrealism, the art movement born in the 1930s, may have been more associated with France or Spain, but in comedy, the British have claimed surrealism as their own and exported it to the world.

Animation, with its complete disregard for the rules of physics, is surreal almost by definition. Among the many strange exploits of Bonzo the Dog, Britain's first animated success, were a journey to the moon and a trip to Hollywood on a radio wave. The Magic Roundabout presented an enchanted garden populated by talking dogs and snails and guitar playing rabbits.

In the 1950s, radio show The Goons brought a similarly bizarre humour, full of daft voices and ridiculous situations, to mainstream audiences. In the late-1960s, ex-Goon Spike Milligan moved to television with Q5, a sketch show teetering constantly on the edge of insanity. Soon afterwards, Monty Python's Flying Circus combined surreal skits about transvestite lumberjacks and delinquent grannies with the weird imagination of animator Terry Gilliam. The team's four feature films included a characteristically daft take on King Arthur and a controversial parody of the New Testament. Gilliam developed a surreal carreer of his own with films like Brazil (1985).

Back on the small screen, Kenny Everett kept the craziness alive into the 1980s, while The Young Ones brought a different brand of anarchy to the sitcom format. By the turn of the 21st century the madness was getting darker still. The League of Gentlemen introduced the nightmare world of Royston Vasey, where the monstrous inhabitants includes villainous circus ringleader and serial kidnapper Papa Lazarou and Tubbs and Edward, proprietors of the "local shop for local people", who stop at nothing to keep the outside world at bay.

The notorious Chris Morris's Jam was perhaps the strangest and most disturbing comedy ever seen on television, with its lizard-infested television sets, seven-year-old schoolgirl assassins and professional baby-fighting.

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