Please Release Me: Hidden Comedy Classics Online
It's never been easier to find your favourite niche comedy on the net, but many cult series remain obscure or crying out for further development – and in many cases lack any official release at all. We unearth some comedy treasures buried online...
Asylum (1996, Paramount Comedy)
Before Paramount Comedy became Comedy Central it produced a fair few British originals. Asylum brought together a whole host of emerging British talent: most notably Jessica Hynes, Simon Pegg, Julian Barratt, David Walliams and Edgar Wright. Asylum is a dark and surreal sitcom set in a mental asylum run by Dr. Lovett (played by Red Dwarf's Norman Lovett), as the Doctor performs long-form experiments on its once sane inmates.
First and foremost, the show was a vehicle for its cast and chunks of episodes are dedicated to monologues and stand-up routines. What sets Asylum apart from its contemporaries is Wright's direction. Even in this early project, he manages to stretch what can only have been a shoestring budget into something different and unique. Wright later perfected this with Spaced.
Where can I find it? Full episodes have been uploaded to YouTube, but these seem to have originally come from poor quality VHS recordings.
Unnatural Acts (1998, Paramount Comedy)
Best known as a kind of forerunner to Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt's Mighty Boosh characters, Unnatural Acts was a short lived sketch comedy. The single camera show often wondered into the abstract and unusual – the kind of thing Fielding and Barrett are now well known for. Others in the the cast included Hynes, Rich Fulcher and, of course, creator Seán Cullen.
The show boosts a long list of memorable sketches that consistently bend and subvert the format. It may not be as memorable or well executed as a show like Big Train, but it travelled on similar tracks.
Where can I find it? YouTube once more provides, but it is again a poor quality recording.
Attention Scum! (2001, BBC)
Spawned from alternative comedy night Cluub Zarathustra, Simon Munnery's Attention Scum! sees his most famous creation The League Against Tedium tour the country in an open top van. Performing stand-up via pop-up gigs taking place in car parks, Munnery specialises in bewildering his audience. Utilizing a proto-selfy stick, he delivers his wrapped observational material down the camera. These routines are periodically interrupted by sketches, operatic performances and hat duelling.
Though only six episodes long, there's more than enough time for Munnery to show us why he is such a revered stand-up. Unfortunately the show was shuffled around the BBC schedule, landing on a late Sunday night slot, and so it was unsuccessful finding an audience. Chances of a release look slim, with both director Stewart Lee and Munnery having said they doubt a DVD release is likely.
Where can I find it? There are old VHS recordings of episodes on YouTube. The history of Cluub Zarathustra is recounted in the book You are Nothing by Robert Wringham.
Noble and Silver: Get Off Me! (2001, E4)
The hardest show to describe on the list, Get Off Me! is something completely different. Then a new and Edinburgh award-winning double act, Kim Noble and Stuart Silver mixed comedy and performance art. They also appeared in other succesful Edinburgh Fringe acts' work on TV, notably Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and The Mighty Boosh.
Much like their live shows, Get Off Me! is a layered affair; a TV show about making a TV show, Noble and Silver often venture into experimental and bizarre territory. A particular stand-out episode sees the duo record an entire thirty minute show in one continuous shot. The rough and frantic look makes for compelling viewing and their reluctance to tread water makes each episode unique. Had E4 actually commissioned more shows like Get Off Me! the channel might warrant its self-proclaimed edginess. Instead this one-off series is an exception, but a gift that still makes for exciting viewing.
Where can I find it? The easiest place to find the show is on YouTube – but expect poor quality uploads.
Monkey Dust (2003, BBC)
Shaun Pye and Harry Thompson’s dark satirical animation Monkey Dust ran for three series but came to an early end after the untimely death of Thompson in 2005. Strange and twisted in tone, Monkey Dust takes aim at most aspects of popular culture in a way that most sketch shows wouldn’t dare.
Its bleak outlook often makes for uncomfortable viewing, but the grotesque animation and characters can be oddly charming at times. Recurring sketches about paedophilia and the war of terror strike a fine balance between the satirical and the tasteless; no show since has handled these topics quite like Monkey Dust. Perhaps because the animation was so expensive any censorship had to take a back seat.
Where can I find it? Despite a DVD release of the first series, there is yet to be a physical release for the second and third. Selected episodes were available on iTunes at one point.
We Are Klang (2009, BBC)
Well known for their anarchic live shows, We Are Klang (Greg Davies, Steve Hall and Marek Larwood) was an attempt to transfer the group’s energetic live performances into a sitcom. There's a loose narrative underpinning each show, but it’s best described as a lot of mucking about.
The show has a similar feel to The Goodies and The Young Ones but with crasser humour. Given more of a chance, We Are Klang could have matched the aforementioned shows for the naughties generation. The trio tried again with a variety-based game show pilot called The Klang Show but nothing further materialised. Break-out star Greg Davies’ pulling power has certainly increased with time – the star of The Inbetweeners, Man Down and Task Master surely has the popularity that could be exploited for a Klang re-release?
Where can I find it? Episodes are easily found on YouTube alongside live clips from the Klang crew's heyday.
Dead Boss (2012, BBC)
It's surprising that Dead Boss didn’t find more of a solid fan base when it first aired. Sharon Horgan and Holly Walsh's prison sitcom deserves more attention. The six-part series follows the incarcerated Helen Stephens (Horgan) as she begins a 12 year sentence for the murder of her former boss. She wants to clear her name but has to deal with the day to day grind of prison life and bizarre inmate population.
Meanwhile, outside there is a murder mystery subplot that sets Dead Boss apart from other character focused shows. It benefits from a host of great supporting characters – Jennifer Saunders as the prison governor is a constant scene stealer. Despite only one series there is hope that Dead Boss could return as it was never actually cancelled (though Horgan has since found new levels of fame with hit sitcom Catastrophe).
Where can I find it? This one is officially available. Currently you can watch episodes on demand via Amazon video.
Psychobitches (2012, Sky Arts)
In recent years Sky Arts has had an eye on comedy, both producing and bank rolling a good number of original British shows. Psychobitches is a character-based sketch show that plucks various famous historical female figures and puts them in a modern day psychiatrist’s room.
Rebecca Front plays the recurring therapist; indeed, the whole cast is outstanding, from Catharine Tate as Eva Braun to Michelle Gomez as Mary, Queen of Scots. Rarely does the show put a foot wrong. Sketches are rapid fire but stay long enough for all to sink their teeth into the warped versions of historical figures. As it’s a fairly new show there is plenty of time for a physical release and more series to come. Though, we’d like to see that happen sooner rather than later.
Where can I find it? You can pay to watch episodes on Amazon Video or watch single sketches on Sky Arts’ YouTube page.
It’s Kevin (2013, BBC)
Kevin Eldon is best known as the supporting actor in most of your favourite British comedies (I’m Alan Partridge, Big Train, Black Books, Spaced). He finally got his own show in 2013 – aptly named It’s Kevin. Despite good reviews, a catchy theme song and a juicy collection of silly Monty Python style skits, It's Kevin only lasted one series.
Sketches are stitched together with studio links provided by Eldon and the show has a cabaret feel, and each episode comes packed with top comedy talent (Eldon calling in famous friends from a career of TV comedy). If all that lasts from It’s Kevin is a sketch in which Matt Berry, Peter Serafinowicz, Bridget Christie and Eldon recreate (to near perfection) the infamous 1976 Bill Grundy/ Sex Pistols interview – while dressed entirely in Amish garments – then it’s not all bad.
Where can I find it? As with Dead Boss this one is avaialble to buy, we'd just like to see another series. You can purchase episodes on both iTunes and Amazon Video.
Review (2014, Comedy Central)
Andy Daly is one of the best improv comics around today, as shown in his episodes of Comedy Bang Bang and The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project. His dark creations walk the line between hilarious and tragic. In Review, Daly's first major role for television, he's found the perfect vehicle for character based comedy.
The premise (based on an Australian show) is simple – Daly’s character Forest McNeil is a critic hosting a television show for which he critiques not films, music or books but, instead, reviews life itself. Amid many ridiculous comedy set-ups and misadventures – whether he's reviewing racism, divorce or just eating pancakes – the brilliance of the show lies in the fact that every review has lasting consequences for Forest, who sincerely believes reviews are an honourable form of public service. He rarely gets to the star rating without some form of physical or mental scar.
Where can I find it? Daly has stated that there is no current plans for a DVD or full digital release. The coming third season is reported to be the show's final outing, with a reduced number of episodes. Comedy Central has released each individual Review on YouTube (superb, but loses something when clipped from the full episodes).