5. Snuff Box (2007)
Going from zany and absurdist all the way to properly surreal, Snuff Box is a semi-sitcom, semi-sketch comedy show staring American Rich Fulcher and Brit Matt Berry. Berry is a relatively unknown on this side of the pond, our loss, but he is truly a treasure in this and his other rules (he appears in the IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and the Might Boosh on this list as well). The two characters are coworkers and friends, but also rivals in love and money and respect. Their fights and troubles are sprinkled through the sketches which touch and cross over with the main story-line in ways that makes it hard to tell what is a sketch and what is the main story at times. It’s dizzying and confusing and fantastic.
Bizarre musical numbers, weird sexist jokes, people being horrible to each other, murder, executions, Christopher Lee as a vampire as a pornstar, feces… It’s all there. It has to be seen to be properly understood, but Snuff Box is really a landmark in British comedy, and a total one of a kind. Give it a try, if for nothing else than Berry’s wonderful theme song (above).
6. Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995)
It may be a stretch that anyone who hasn’t yet seen Keeping Up Appearances will get into this show 25 years on, but it is a kind of show that could only be made in Britain: a story about middle-class woman so devoted to social-climbing that it’s become pathological. The series is a basically a comedic chronicling of a fictional mad woman, Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “boo-kay”), whose desire to be a social elite is relentless, unabating, off-putting and hilarious. Her long-suffering husband, along with her other family members, tolerate and at times even enable her madness, and it’s some how extremely positive and caring, despite being horrible and cringe-worthy. It’s a weird show. It’s a great one, too.
This results in few dozen permutations on the same basic principle: Hyacinth does some aggressive striving, which backfires, and she is caught between a rock and a hard place trying to explain away, or simply get away, from the trouble she caused for herself. The premise may wear thin for many viewers before watching all 44 episodes (I don’t believe I’ve seen them all), but it’s worth a look for people who don’t mind some middle aged faces from the 90s on their TV or computer screens. It’s a quintessentially British sitcom.
7. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004)
Darkplace is a horror parody, something along the lines of Airplane meets Tales of the Crypt. Presented as a lost show filmed in the 1980s, the show doesn’t just parody horror shows, it parodies the “The Firefly” or “Freaks and Geeks” concept of a great show that was cancelled or never aired by misanthropic or misunderstanding studio executives. It stars Matthew Holness*, Richard Ayoade (before IT Crowd aired), Matt Berry (in Snuff Box, also IT Crowd), and Alice Lowe.
The show is presented with commentary from the “original cast” who talk about the interior show’s creation as if it were massively under appreciated, when in reality, it’s overwrought and generally terrible. A lot of the laughs come off tropes of 1980s or the general lousiness and low-budget of the interior show. The entire thing is really quite amazing and enjoyable, and Darkplace somehow manages to feel like a show that was cut two few episodes by studio execs, which is a kind of parody in side a parody.
* Holness touches Peep Show actors Mitchell & Webb, along with The Office’s Martin Freeman, in the 2000 sketch show Bruiser. Yeah, British Comedy is a small club.
8. Coupling (2000-2004)
I wouldn’t put Coupling as one of my favorite British shows – I like everything else on this list (and the off-list section) more. Still, when compared to similar American “couple” shows, eg, Friends, the Big Bang Theory (*shudders*), or How I Met Your Mother (*shudders again*), this show, I think, can highlight the difference between British and American styles of that sub-genre. In particular, the presentation of the 30-something characters’ reaction to sex is both true-to-life and honestly hilarious, two things American shows can’t manage to get to simultaneously. Stateside, the sex discussions in sitcoms feel either cloying juvenile or a kind of clinical “wink-wink” prurient. Neither icky feeling shows up here.
The characters are classic sitcom archetypes, much like the aforementioned Friends, and I think this is why the show translates so easily. There are a few extended monologues that you’ll either love or hate, and the show may have gone for one season too long (there are still only 28 episodes), but give it a look for a great contrast between American and British approaches to the romantic sitcom format.
9. Fresh Meat (2011-present)
This is the latest effort by the Peep Show creators, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, and it’s a good one. The story concerns six freshman at a fictional university in Manchester who share a house off-campus, and the plots tend to involve around student-issues like partying, sex, money troubles, etc. Of course all of these issues are given an extra twist of heightened emotion because of the late adolescence of the characters in question.
I tend to avoid content involving that age group for some reason, maybe it’s so recent passing of my own youth that makes these shows carry a bit of poignancy. Still this particular show works really well for me. Similar to Peep Show, the characters are not presented in a way that makes you always sympathize with them, and many times their actions are relatable but still detestable. Or at least cringe-worthy. It’s classic comedy of agony, something the Brits have invented and perfected, mixed in with a really knowledgeable and honest look at college life and late adolescence.
10. Wrong Mans (2013-2014)
The Wrong Mans is a sitcom adventure about two office workers, Sam (played by Matthew Baynton) and Phil (James Corden, who’s now on after Steven Colbert in late night), who are, as the title suggests, the wrong men in the wrong place at the wrong time. Baynton is funny, but James Corden steals this show entirely. He’s fantastic. There’s a reason he was given a large license on American television.
Wrong Mans is different from anything else on listed here. It’s a crazy scenario adventure story, full of weird implausible twists and ridiculous turns, and none of it really makes and sense but you can’t turn away. With two seasons and twelve episodes, I bet you’ll get hooked.
Just off the list:
This shows are worth watching, but don’t quite have the introductory power of the items above.
This Simon Pegg comedy is credited, along with the Office, with helping birth the Golden Age of British Comedy. The issue is just that 15 years on it feels so very dated. I loved it ten years ago, but I went back to watch last year and found I couldn’t get into it. YMMV, especially if you’re a Pegg fan.
The Thick of It (2005-2012)
The Thick of It is like a smarter Yes, Minister, a British sitcom from the 1980s. I love it, but I think it could be tricky for Americans to watch as many of the plot vehicles revolve around political nuances that aren’t that similar to the US system or issues here, so that translation work could bog down the whole show. Watch if you know what “coalition government”, “by election”, and “shadow cabinet” mean, maybe skip otherwise.
The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007)
The Mighty Boosh is very funny, and also very surreal and juvenile. This show just missed the top ten, mainly because better versions of its style live in the similar IT Crowd, Snuff Box and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. In fact, you may recognize many of the same actors. Try those shows first, if you like them, you’ll probably like this.
Black Books (2000-2003)
This is the show Graham Linehan made just before the IT Crowd. Worth a watch if you liked that.
Extras is Ricky Gervais’s next show after the Office. It’s filled with amazing star-studded cameos, and it has some of the cringe-inducing antics as the previous show, but falls short in the general meanness. Worth a view if you like Gervais.
The Inbetweeners (2008-2010)
This show is mainly about four teenage boys trying to get laid, and thus is pretty blue. I didn’t really like it, maybe it’s the fact I was 26 when the show came out, but it’s been pretty popular. YMMV.