Benny Hill © Wikimedia Commons archive photo.

A well-known British comedian whose golden age was in the 1990s, he made generations of our parents and grandparents laugh and entertain with his sharp-tongued skits or comedy shows. How would a man fare in today’s world, where a joke or a prank can quickly turn into an accusation of sexism or something like that?

Benny Hill began his career during the difficult years of the Second World War. It was while he was serving in the army that he made his first stage appearance, in the play Stars in Battledress. After his service, Benny returned to London and there he invented his stage name, Benny Hill, while his real name was Alfred Hawthorne. What’s interesting is that the actor chose this nickname in honor of another famous comedian, Jack Benny.

Benny has been into comedy since he was a young boy, having performed in a comedy troupe when he was still at school.

Benny Hill © Fremantle Media Ltd / Rex Feature

Returning to London after the war, Benny was increasingly appearing in successful projects: shows, radio plays. Eventually his talent was noticed, and he was invited to appear on the TV show “Hi There!”. Exactly six years later, in 1955, as his popularity was gaining momentum, the first program he created, “Benny Hill Show”, was presented, which is the pinnacle of his acting career. It was such a success that it was the most popular show in the world for 30 years, and even today some stations buy the rights to broadcast Benny’s show.

The attention he received was not unwarranted. Benny was not only an actor, but also a songwriter, singer, director, and musician. In a way, he was a man of many talents.

Unfortunately, the world does not always understand creative souls like Benny Hill. His show was hit by a crisis when several programs satirized and ridiculed the royal throne and the English government. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of England at the time, demanded that all of Benny’s shows be scrutinized. In other words, Hill was heavily censored. Moreover, the comedian himself came to be ridiculed by some of the public. He became depressed and started drowning himself in alcohol.

Despite the murkiness behind the scenes, the show only closed down in 1991.

An example of why a comedian has been criticized was a 1981 skit called “The Loser”. The main character tries to get a job as a clerk. The recruiter, obviously a civil servant, is portrayed as a complete weirdo: he does not drink his tea from a cup, but pours it into a plate, breaks a biscuit, throws it into the plate and sprinkles salt and pepper on the fragile English treat. Such a portrayal of government representatives could clearly have caused some trouble.

The jokes were not only about innocent things, which in those days could have been disapproved of. For instance, he used to slap a bald old man, his constant companion, on the head all the time. In the aforementioned “The Loser” skit, Hill’s character takes a job as a sign erector. After several failures, the character writes “rapist” on the therapist’s sign. This is just a play on words because the space that is inserted completely changes the meaning. “Therapist” means the previously mentioned therapist, and if a space is added, the word changes to “The rapist”. It would be really curious to know how society today would react to such jokes on television.

Benny Hill in “The Loser”

Even suicide was joked about. A character ties a rope around his neck and holds onto a stone to commit suicide, but when he sinks to the bottom of the lake, he finds a box of gold. However, it is not only mocking suicide, but also the actor’s encouragement to live on, because you can never know when you will accidentally stumble upon a ‘treasure box’.

Other sketches provide even more details and evidence of why this showman has been criticized. A 1976 program called “World of Sport” mocks British pronunciation. Furthermore, the assistant of the sketch’s main character, the announcer, is depicted in an obviously sexist way, wearing a short skirt, and having a large cleavage. This makes it difficult for the announcer to concentrate and his eyes can’t stop staring at the assistant’s body.

Benny Hill in “World of Sport”

Best not to forget that such humor would gain attention very quickly these days. Though, it is not clear whether it would be only positive, as it is popular in our society to attack comedians who simply joke and make fun of reality.

The same thing happened to the present-day comedian Chris Rock. He was heavily criticized after a show, told to explain himself by various Hollywood directors and other representatives, and even faced legal charges. Here is how the man joked: “They ‘cry rape’ because they want money. I would need a bunch of witnesses if I ever wanted to employ a girl, just so they could confirm that the sexual assault allegations are false.”

It was also mentioned that Chris would not dare to hire a housekeeper because he could also face false accusations of harassment.

Michael Jackson visiting Benny Hill in the hospital

Obviously, the audience and the public have changed since the era of Benny Hill, and such jokes, which mock painful social problems, can provoke a negative reaction and disapproval from the audience. One can only wonder what can be tolerated as humor, and where the boundaries have been crossed.

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