Although laughter might not be literally the best medicine, scientists say it helps reduce pain, strengthen the immune system, and even burn extra calories. Until the past few decades, British humor had been perceived in American culture as too dry, self-deprecating, and plain weird: it is the choice for those who wish to laugh, but laugh quietly, with knowing winks. For the wise fan who takes humor with a cup of tea and a biscuit, here are the top 10 most famous British comedians ever.
List of Top 10 Most Famous British Comedians Ever until in 2017
10. Sacha Baron Cohen
Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedian who is somehow more recognizable in a wig, fake mustache, and a costume than in his own skin. He burst onto the comedy scene with Borat, the 2006 mockumentary about an oblivious Kazakhstan visitor to the United States who unwittingly makes “real people” — not paid actors — look like fools on camera, however deservedly. He is also lauded for his performances as Ali G, Bruno, and the urine-peddling Pirelli in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (2007). It is refreshing to see a comedian who can be funny without catering to racists, homophobes, or misogynists and can retire his most successful characters at the height of popularity rather than rehash the same routines until audience laughter fades into polite chuckles. While he continues to build his fan base with political satire like 2016’s action/comedy film The Brothers Grimsby, Cohen has to admit to Rolling Stone that “nobody really knew what I looked like.” According to Cohen, paparazzi outside his apartment “published photos of the guy who lived across the hall from me because he came out one day wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses. It was great!” It was great, indeed.
9. Russell Howard
Russell Howard is a well known English comedian, television and radio presenter and actor. He is well known for his TV show Russell Howard’s Good News.
8. Tim Curry
Tim Curry, the man with the villainous Cheshire Cat grin, is instantly recognizable as the mean concierge from the holiday comedy Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Wadsworth the sarcastic butler in the comic murder mystery Clue, and mad scientist-alien-transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the comedy/horror musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In real life, Tim Curry continues to whip out funny quips in a wheelchair as he recovers from the aftermaths of a stroke. While Curry is hilariously over-the-top (and quite attractive) as Frank-N-Furter and delightfully understated as the other characters, his career has been so long and successfully varied that it is difficult to pen him in as a “comedian.” Besides, Curry is also famous for being Pennywise the killer clown in Stephen King’s It, and everyone knows clowns are too terrifying to be funny.
7. Maggie Smith
Another Brit with a rich and illustrious career is Dame Maggie Smith, who soundly defeats other British comedians who are strictly comedians by being hilarious even when she is not in a comedy — Dowager Countess of Grantham is a crowd favorite in the period drama series Downton Abbey — and by being, hands down, one of the most famous British figures in the world. Harry Potter’s Professor McGonagall is equally delightful in comedies ranging from 1992’s Sister Act to 2011’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There is something special about uptight, curmudgeonly characters that allows them to steal the show in comedies, even when the characters themselves are humorless. Or, as Smith might put it in Downton Abbey: “I don’t even know what that means, but it sounds almost as peculiar as you look.” Besides, Lady Violet Crawley and Professor McGonagall are not really humorless — they are just British enough to know that wit is most effective when mostly hidden and used with stealth.
6. Hugh Laurie
It is strange how funny a character can be when he is sarcastic and abrasive to everyone and perpetually sullen, even depressed, himself. Hugh Laurie is perhaps best known in North America as brilliant Dr. House (House, M.D.) and, to a far lesser extent, the sarcastic but kind-at-heart Mr. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility (1995). Before he was House, Laurie had a perfect cameo on the American comedy TV show Friends as the sarcastic passenger who sat beside Rachel during her flight to stop Ross’s wedding. Within British popular culture, though, Laurie had long made a name for himself with such comedy classics as Blackadder and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. While non-British audiences might forever remember him as a brooding, attractive doctor, the man who agreed with Rachel’s friend “Pheebs” returned to the spotlight of American comedy in 2015 in the political satire series Veep. He is one amongst the Top 10 Most Famous British Comedians Ever until 2017.
5. Ricky Gervais
Notwithstanding his overuse of slurs against disabled people and the female genitalia, Ricky Gervais has been a solid hit outside Britain since The Office (both the original and the US remake). The witty, cringe-inducing show introduced Americans to Gervais, who then blasted their beloved stars at the Golden Globe Awards… four times in a row. Through this British comedian, director, actor, and producer, Americans have finally learned that being personally insulted, rather than only insulting others, can be funny as hell, too. Gervais has also seen success with other TV shows and movies: Extras, Life’s Too Short, The Invention of Lying, and 2016’s David Brent: Life on the Road, the cinematic spin-off based on his persona in The Office. Some might say he made his funniest work in collaboration with Stephen Merchant, another well-known English comedian-actor-director, or Karl Pilkington, the round-headed target of their constant abuse. Still, Gervais is definitely the one most blessed with fame among them — especially compared with his long-term girlfriend, whose solo photos Gervais constantly posts on social media with the caption “Jane with all her friends.” British humor can certainly be cruel.
4. John Cleese
Ministry of Funny Walks, anyone? Posh-mannered John Cleese is the evil (but aptly named) Dr. Liam Neesam in the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun as well as the most famous face in the Monty Python bunch, the latter of which many other famous comedians cite as inspiration and influence. Young people today are still guffawing over Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the other terribly silly, endlessly quotable shows and films that Cleese co-wrote and acted in with the most British of grace. Cleese is also the face of Basil Fawlty, star of popular sitcom Fawlty Towers, which he also co-wrote. Later adapted for the stage, Fawlty Towers continues to be produced in theaters across the world. The commonality between Sir Lancelot the Brave, who always bravely runs away, and Fawlty, the rude hotel owner, is of course their determination to look better than they are — keeping up appearances (another British gem), so to speak. That snobbery, enhanced with a stereotypical upper-class accent and paired with utter ineptitude, leads Cleese’s alter egos into hopeless, absurd situations. Viewers love failure more than anything, suggests Rolling Stone.
3. Mr. Bean
Speaking of failure, Mr. Bean is a kooky mute who has trouble navigating around the obstacles of daily life. Portrayed and co-created by Rowan Atkinson, Bean is too simple-minded to get through basic transactions or social occasions without making a mess of things. Yet, the “child-like” TV (and later, movie) character has become one of the best-known and best-loved British icons outside of England, according to The Guardian. Because he never speaks, Mr. Bean transcends language barriers with equal ease, or awkwardness, in France and the Middle East. Some Brits might not be too thrilled about being represented by a round-headed, grinning clown — Mr. Bean has become fodder for insults made by and against the British — but the rest of the world is happy to laugh at his misadventures.
2. Simon Pegg
The star and creator of Shaun of the Dead, Run Fatboy Run, Hot Fuzz, Paul, and The World’s End has made it big outside Britain with Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek Beyond. Not only has Simon Pegg made an admittedly dumb action franchise and a geeky science fiction franchise more accessible to more moviegoers, he has made the films surprisingly funny, too. Pegg himself typically plays a nearly hopeless yet lovable underdog who, unlike Mr. Bean, usually comes out close to the top. His films manage to inject the absurd into otherwise tired genres like zombie horror, cop action, or romantic comedy. Pegg describes ironic British humor cleverly to The Guardian as a kettle, “always on, whistling slyly in the corner of our daily interactions. To Americans, however, it’s more like a nice teapot, something to be used when the occasion demands it.” Thanks to Pegg and his ilk, the rest of the world is finally opening their collective minds to the marvels of tea and sly, dry humor.
1. Charlie Chaplin
The master of slapstick never spoke a word in his finest works, but he has been an iconic British comedian since the early days of (silent) film. Famous for acting the “downtrodden, dreamy” tramp, according to History, no one could fail to recognize his rectangular mustache, buttoned jacket, and signature bowler hat. It is almost ironic that his outfit, which was considered a homeless person’s getup at the time, now looks like fancy evening wear: the British are so well put together, aren’t they? Having sported a toothbrush mustache or “Hitler” mustache before Hitler was Hitler, Chaplin later used his fame for the sake of good by mocking Hitler in the political satire film The Great Dictator. As the AV Club writes, “Charlie Chaplin was famous in a way that no one had been before; arguably, no one has been as famous since.”
While Britain might no longer dominate the globe, especially after Brexit, it is doing quite well in the world of comedy. Beyond these top 10 British comedians 2017, there exists countless more who may be less funny (it’s the 21st century: who really needs more lazy jokes at the expense of minorities, women, disabled people, etc.?) or talented and funny, but simply waiting to be discovered. For a good workout to the lungs and ab muscles, look no further than the Queen’s realm for men and women who can subtly or not-so-subtly mock themselves and everything else in a very posh accent.