British comedian Benny Hill’s variety show was a TV staple in Great Britain and the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s. It featured roly-poly Hill in short comedy sketches — he often played multiple (sometimes all) characters — and performances by contemporary musicians and singers. Born in 1924, Hill inherited and extended the British music hall entertainment traditions of slapstick, burlesque and double-entendres. His show was rife with sexist humor that was good-natured (and criticized) and sight gags that included sped-up chases in the tradition of the Keystone Kops.
Four Humors Theater, a group that’s become a regular Cincy Fringe contributor, reflects all that in The Unauthorized Autobiography of Benny Hill. But also in the tradition of Four Humors, the expected is turned upside-down. As this show’s contradictory title implies, it’s as if Hill has turned his wicked if simple-minded comic eye on himself in a self-revelatory manner that’s entertaining and poignant. Four Humors’ mission, in part, is to “connect with the audience in a vulnerable and honest way.” That’s useful information if you see this show.
There’s plenty of the kind of shtick that the manic Hill would have created. Three Bobbies (Bobby #1, Bobby #2 and Bobby #3 — Brant Miller, Matt Spring and Ryan Lear) provide zany sketch and musical support. Miller (who played a beefy minx in Lolita: A Three-Man Play, Four Humor’s laugh-out-loud production for last year’s Cincy Fringe) also serves as DJ, inserting sound effects and Hill’s inevitable theme tune, “Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph. Miller and Lear, accompanying themselves on guitar and ukulele, sing a very tongue-in-cheek ballad about Hill, “the funniest man on TV” — which gets weirder and darker with each verse.
The group’s artistic leader Jason Ballweber resembles Hill’s rotund presence and plays him convincingly. But this show digs beneath the zany surface to explore Hill’s psyche — yet in a manner that uses his trademark bits. In one sketch, he’s stood up by a date in a restaurant. So he moves back and forth at the table, having a start-and-stop conversation with himself. In another, to prove he really can woo a woman, Hill chooses an attractive woman from the audience to join him onstage. But he’s forced to wear headphones that repeat what he’s saying with a one-second delay, making his delivery stuttering, ridiculous — and ineffective.
Ballweber’s Hill describes his relationships with three women, each represented by a helium-filled balloon. The monologue is amusing, but Hill’s yearning and social awkwardness blossom fully before predictably bursting or disappearing. The portrait of Hill is a remarkable blend of humor and pathos, right down to the comedian’s final moment, alone, eating a TV dinner.
There are a lot of laughs along the way, but this show is considerably more than a comedy. It’s a glimpse into a complicated, successful but sad life.
AN UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BENNY HILL by Four Humors Theater (Minneapolis) will be performed 7:30 p.m. June 2, 9:15 June 4, 7 p.m. June 5 and 8:45 p.m. June 7 at Know Theatre (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine).