I love British comedy, though in general it is a different thing from American comedy. The Brits tend to be more comfortable with the darker aspects of life and friendship, and the lower sort of people. It’s telling that the longest running British soap opera, Coronation Street, is about working class people’s struggles, while the most popular American soap operas are all about wealthy families’ internal dramas. You can read more about the differences by people who know more than I do (Simon Pegg might know a thing or two), but British comedy has general themes that are a bit darker, characters that are at times meaner, and a general attitude that includes a lot more irony.
The media format is also pretty different. British shows tend to have short runs, a few “series” (we’d call them “seasons” in the US), each with, usually, 6 episodes. Compare that to a full-run American TV season of 24 episodes. It’s easy to see how even long-running British shows’ episode volumes are eclipsed by short-lived American shows. For example, Terms of Engagement, a show I don’t think anyone ever watched, has 100 episodes while the original British Office only has 14. The Simpsons has run an unbelievable 586 episodes and counting, which would take nearly a century in British TV time, assuming they made a “series” a year, something few shows seem to manage.
So where to get started on British sitcoms?
These are my personal rankings as a way of introducing these shows. They skew heavily toward the time when I was in university, or just out of it, and first really got into British comedies, about 2006 or so. That also corresponds to the Golden Age of the British Sitcom, about 2000~2010, so I don’t think this list is very different from an all-time top ten. I’m not old enough to have watched anything before about 1995 unless it was on streaming, so those are mostly out. I’ve left off anything that’s not at least partly a sitcom, thus no Monty Python, no Little Britain. Let’s go.
1. Peep Show (2003-2015)
Peep Show wins top spot because of its length: 9 “series” and 54 total episodes just paints a larger picture than the next two, otherwise it’d be a tie. The entire thing is available on Hulu.
Peep Show is the story of two men, Jeremy and Mark, in their 30s (aging into their 40s) struggling to deal with life in general and their peculiar friendship in particular. It’s shot in the first-person perspective of the two main characters, and at least one of them is present in every scene. We can hear their interior thoughts, which gives the show an extra bit of dry and dark quality. Jeremy and Mark are not exactly sympathetic people, but they are relatable; we can all recognize ourselves in some of the activities on screen, and we may not really like it. In that way the show can be troubling, it can be dark, it can be uncomfortable. It’s almost always funny. Misery runs under the whole thing.
The first season is a bit uneven and very low-production value, thus it can be tricky for many of the uninitiated to get into it and actually stick till the end. That is a shame. It’s a very unsexy show, despite the title, but if you make it through the first two or three episodes, the next 50 will reward you for your patience. Jokes are setup in season two only to find the final payoff in season eight. That kind of foresight is likely accidental: I can’t imagine show creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain actually expected the show to run nine seasons, but you never know. Maybe they set it up those jokes up for the off chance, or maybe they discovered later they had a chance to get those jokes nailed. Either way, we are the beneficiaries.
If you find you do like it, also check out the sketch show main by the two main actors, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, That Mitchell and Webb Look (also available on Hulu).
2. Fawlty Towers (1975,1979)
Obviously, this show was over years before I was born, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hilarious. It stars Monty Python co-founder John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, a frustrated and failing hotel owner in a small town in the English coast. Every classic sitcom gag rears its head, from trying to hide a rat from a hygiene inspector to the husband and wife who tirade against, and spit bile, at each other. There’s a helper, Manuel (ostensibly from Spain, but actor Andy Sachs mostly made up the “Spanish” from a mix of Italian and Russian) who speaks little English and creates lots of misunderstanding gags with Fawlty.
Cleese is amazing, and this was probably his best role. His crisp speaking style makes his tirades against his wife and guests epic, and his tall frame makes the goofy antics stand out further. Each episode’s fresh batch of hotel guests really add variety, and after just twelve episodes, you’ll wish they had made a few more “series”. You’d be surprised to go back to something 40 years old and find it that funny, but there more laughs in these twelve episodes than in most American shows that run several hundred (ever seen “How I Met Your Mother?” *shudder*).
It shows up on Netflix from time to time, and I think the entire thing can be found on Youtube.
3. The Office (2001-2003)
It’d be a bit difficult to discuss British sitcoms without bringing up The Office. As I’m sure you’ve heard of this one, I won’t bore you overlong with the introduction. It was my initiation into what I call (doubt I coined this term), “the comedy of agony”. Filmed in a mockumentary style, Ricky Gervais stars as hapless, petty, and slightly mean spirited office manager David Brent, who is neither liked nor admired by his employees or superiors. Martin Freeman (now of Hobbit and Sherlock fame) and Lucy Davis join as star-crossed office would-be-lovers who tolerate their boss and their jobs mainly because it’s their only chance to spend time with each other. Many scenes in the show are hilarious but excruciating to watch – hence the “agony”.
Only two seasons and two Christmas specials (another feature of British TV) were made, but the show was brilliant enough that that it spun off seven separate international versions of the show, including a US version that ran nine seasons*. People have called the show “the Perfect TV comedy“, and in many ways, it did kick off the Golden Age of British TV of the first decade of this century.
* The US version was never as good as the British version, but it never was going to be: most of the seasons had more episodes than the British show did in total. In general, the 2nd through about 4th or 5th somewhere are actually pretty decent, and have inspired some pretty deep thinking about office politics.
4. IT Crowd (2006-2008, 2010, 2013)
We now get into the zanier side of British Sitcoms with the IT crowd. At times absurdist, IT Crowd actually works best as a satire of office dramas. Two IT drones (Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade, both excellent) and their manager Katherine Parkinson (amazing and under rated) run the IT department of a rather ridiculous company where beautiful people work upstairs and the “standard nerds” work in the basement.
The on-screen chemistry is fantastic, and each of the stars has the willingness and capability to take things to a wild extreme before letting up. Many of the jokes are woven from the beginning of an episode to the end, or even from one episode to another. This is another show where the viewer is rewarded for pushing through until at least the third episode rather than giving up early, as the IT Crowd takes an episode or two to get into its stride.
The IT Crowd is also available on Hulu.
I’ll finish this list out in Part Two.