The British may be known for their stiff upper lip and lack of emotion, but when it comes to comedy they know how to deliver a laugh a minute.
It looks like the British are beginning to take over the world again, with their newfound global success in pop music, their infiltration of the Hollywood A-list, and of course their innovative TV series – even the ones that aren’t adapted into (often failed) American shows. The world has truly developed British fever, and we are all slowly becoming anglophiles as a result. But that’s not a bad thing, since the world of comedic television has found exciting rejuvenation with the success of people like Ricky Gervais and TV shows such as The Inbetweeners. And while it may not have always been in the limelight, now it’s time to admit that British comedy has always been something special.
The British may be known for their stiff upper lip and lack of emotion, but when it comes to comedy they know how to deliver a laugh a minute. And while many around the world will point to an Englishman’s good manners, they certainly aren’t afraid to let loose and to get controversial when it comes to jokes.
With a British sense of humor now becoming a certified brand that’s gaining popularity worldwide, those who want to take the plunge into British comedies may not know where to start. While many may only know a handful of British shows off the top of their head, within ten seconds of googling you can find yourself knee deep in comedy titles without an idea of what to choose as your next bringeworthy obsession. So let us be your tour guide through the great land of Britannia, and point you to all the land marks worth laughing at. And on the left you’ll see the 16 Best British Comedy TV Shows Of All Time.
16 Peep Show
Two of Britain’s leading funny men who have yet to make it big across the pond are Robert Webb and David Mitchell, who co-star in the hit comedy series Peep Show. The series follows two desperate thirty-something men who are somewhat hopeless with women. One is a bit of a hippy and a slacker, while the other is a fastidious hard worker. Whether their polar opposites bring out the worst or best in each other is arguable, but they definitely make quite a pair, and that pair definitely makes quite a television series, as Peep Show is unlike anything else on this list.
The show’s unique selling point is its use of point-of-view camera shots and the narration of the lead character’s thoughts, allowing audiences a greater— and funnier— insight into the two main characters known as Jez (played by Webb) and Mark (played by Mitchell). It is an interesting concept and a unique spin on an ordinary premise, and the series manages to pull off the gimmick perfectly. Hitting all the right laughs in all the right places, Peep Show manages to provide a funny peep into the minds of Jez and Mark, and it’s a peep that you should be interested in watching immediately.
15 Keeping Up Appearances
Keeping Up Appearances uses the classic scenario of a character’s hopeless and relentless attempts to achieve a goal – and if you notice a trend developing, it’s because the British love watching their characters repeatedly fail miserably. The main character is Hyacinth Bucket (although she insists it’s pronounced «bouquet«) who is a snobbish housewife determined to impress and climb up the social classes. She continually insists on behaving as if she were posh and she spends her time trying to achieve a higher social standing, despite her family’s working class routes.
The comedy comes from the show mocking the famous class structure of Britain and Mrs. Bucket’s constant and tedious attempts to impress those around her. The show ran throughout the early ’90s, and while it already feels in some ways slightly dated, there is something so fundamentally British about it that makes it likeable to anyone who has a taste for good British TV. Not to mention, the jokes are guaranteed to make even the most stiff upper lip crack a smile.
Extras is another comedic delight from the minds who came up with The Office. While the two series actually share a fairly similar sense of humor, what with characters talking themselves into difficult situations and then struggling to get out of them, at their core they couldn’t be more different. Despite the pressure of Extras successful predecessor, Ricky Gervais and company managed to make Extras its own standalone hit. But if that doesn’t sell you on Extras, then maybe all of the big name cameos in the show will; Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Clive Owen, David Bowie, Daniel Radcliffe, and Patrick Stewart are among those that make an appearance.
The series follows an extra who is constantly determined to up his career and become a star. Of course, since the extra is Ricky Gervais, you can guess how that works out for him. The usual episode plot consists of his clumsy attempts to score himself a line in a scene and, while the show has proved to be more of an acquired taste than other pieces of Gervais’ work, it was still undoubtedly a smash hit. Gervais’ usual wit and observation are brought to the table in a fresh, exciting context, and even if you find yourself hating Extras, chances are you’ll at least appreciate what Gervais was attempting to do.
13 13. Spaced
Spaced takes the typical idea of a sitcom about roommates and makes it something more unique and different, with a dash of sarcasm and stoner humour— not to mention the Edgar Wright flair that makes this series endlessly innovative and magical. The show features a group of twenty-somethings who form an unlikely friendship after two of them pretend to be a couple in order to get a cheap flat. And while that may sound like a fairly clichéd premise, Spaced stands out from other series by avoiding the typical elements of the set-up, such as love triangles or self-pitying nerds. It also happens to feature the comedy genius Simon Pegg, before he was the megastar that he is now.
The late ’90s/early 2000s comedy series may have only had a short run of two seasons, but it received critical success and the kind of cult following that only an Edgar Wright series could achieve. With its cartoonish style, trademarked Wright hyperkinetic direction, and incredibly sarcastic, nerdy, laugh-out loud writing, the series’ following may not be the biggest or most mainstream, but it remains an all-time favorite among its loyal fans.
12 Little Britain
Little Britain began as a humble radio series, but it eventually proved too successful not be transferred to the small screen. The TV show first aired in 2003 and, before long, its recurring characters had to share their catch phrases with the British public, who saw them as hilarious heroes. Eventually making its way to North American cable TV, the series is a sketch show by comedy duo David Walliams and Matt Lucas that explores the British Isles through a diverse mix of silly, exaggerated, and rude characters. These caricatures are then hilariously juxtaposed with an eloquent narration that intends to present the show as a showcase of Britain for those who are unfamiliar with the country. Perhaps that’s why North Americans took to it so quickly.
While it may not paint a flattering picture of Britain, it does paint a hilarious one. The show is an irreverent illustration of Britain from the minds of two comedic geniuses, but despite the unflattering caricatures, the characters all seem recognizable to anyone who’s ever heard a British accent. And for those who want a more American version, Little Britain USA gives both Britain and America an unapologetic review for the whole world to watch.
11 The Mighty Boosh
The Mighty Boosh can only be described as surreal comedy at its most surreal. With everything from talking moons, a hermaphroditic merman, and an army of evil grannies, it really does deliver the «journey through time and space» that the opening song invites you on. But because of its completely bizarre nature, it’s hard to define or even describe the show coherently. Needless to say, it was the overly strange nature of the show that led it to develop the large cult following that puts it easily on this list of the Best British Comedy Series of All Time.
The show is led by the gothy, edgy comedian Noel Fielding and his much less gothy partner in crime, Julien Barratt. While Barratt plays a Jazz enthusiast who likes to think of himself as a sophisticated ladies’ man, Fielding plays a naive glam-rock type who communicates with animals and obsesses over his hair. The pair work together as zoo-keepers and are close friends with a shaman called Naboo, and, of course, a talking gorilla, with the show documenting their odd day-to-day adventures. There are many things about the show that are strangely charming: from its artistic backdrops to its occasional musical number, right down to the bold wardrobe choices that have helped it become quietly iconic. But more than anything, its sheer indifference to any boundaries is what made The Mighty Boosh such a unique hit and earned it a loyal following. If you don’t believe us, just jump right in and give it a try!
A sitcom about everyday family life may sound like an overdone bore, but Outnumbered strips everything cheesy away with an incredibly naturalistic style that most American shows would never attempt. No laugh track, stage, makeup, or model homes, plus messy kitchens, barefaced actors, and semi-improvised jokes allow everything about Outnumbered to be better than any show that has ever attempted the family sitcom before it. In that uniquely British way, the parents of Outnumbered are stressed out and tired, the kids all present their own unique chaos, and everything feels groundbreaking purely because the series manages to look so much like your own real life.
The show lasted a lengthy seven years, running from 2007 and 2014. With such a long run, audiences could watch the child characters grow before their eyes, which makes the show even more endearing to first-time audiences. And despite the series being considered a comedy, the show does also handle some difficult subjects — the parents have marriage troubles, one of the grandparents has to enter a nursing home, and it’s all handled with care, realism, and a dose of spectacular writing (and improvisation). Outnumbered really does show life to a T, and between relating to genuine feelings and imperfect characters, we just wish our lives were this hilarious.
9 9. Absolutely Fabulous
Absolutely Fabulous is exactly what it is titled as, and that’s no hyperbole. This hilarious show follows the mischief and mishaps of two larger-than-life posh women who are desperate to stay young and cool. The dynamic duo known as Patsy (played by Joanna Lumley) and Eddy (played by Jennifer Saunders) have virtually become their own brand in the UK, and the success of the series has made the characters household names, not to mention the actresses.
The show remained a strong success, with the series running from 1992 through to 2012 – incredible considering most British series last only a few seasons – showing that the posh pair had not just success, but stamina too. The series also sensationally returned this year with the cinematic release of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie and continued the series’ legacy of hilarity, with an array of celebrity cameos. And while the film featured a sensational sixty cameos, including everyone from supermodels to comedians, the main draw still remains the two central characters – and with their posh, silly, and funny vibes, there’s unlikely to be anyone on television like them for a long time. Belly laughs all around!
8 Mr. Bean
Mr. Bean follows in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy, using lots of slapstick and comedic tools as old as comedy itself. Mr. Bean is an almost silent character, so it’s impressive that he’s made such an impact on society. Other than the occasional word or expressive incoherent warble, the show relies heavily on actor Rowan Atkinson’s physical humor, thereby avoiding many of the usual sitcom ingredients — no ongoing plot, no character development, no emotional layers – that you’d think would be required for success. And yet the show strips back comedy and ends up being all about the gags, and does it so tremendously that Mr. Bean has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Mr. Bean basically presents himself as a clumsy, silly clown without the face paint. However, he does come with his own type of clown costume and props. Without fail, he always has the same ill-fitting suit and red tie, his teddy bear companion, and of course he has his trademark mini car to drive around and commit nonsense in. The show may have only run for five years back in the ’90s, but Mr Bean has become such a successful and beloved comedy character that he’s had two movies, Bean (1997) and Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007). Being famously family-friendly, the character also got an animated children’s series in 2002, proving that audiences of all ages can’t help but love Mr. Bean.
7 Only Fools and Horses
It is a scientific fact that if you mention this show to a British person they will do a character impression, shout a memorable quote, or rowdily sing the theme song. Only Fools and Horses is one of the most iconic shows in Britain history and remains wildly popular to this day. It’s a cockney-based comedy, following two working class brothers trying to get rich quick in East London. It ran throughout the ’80s and ’90s and become such a phenomenon that its legacy was extended with two successful spin-offs. It has undoubtedly made its mark on British culture, with many quotes and character names becoming common phrases or idioms, and it’s no doubt time that Only Fools and Horses makes its way to the US.
Fans of any half-hour comedy will appreciate the show as it’s full of more laughs than any series should legally be allowed, many of which center around the foolish ideas of the brothers known as Del Boy (played by David Jason) and Rodney (played by Nicholas Lyndhurst). While Del Boy plays the role of the overly confident and happy-go-lucky «businessman,» Rodney plays the lovable fool who is pulled into Del Boy’s schemes and plans. Together, they are guaranteed to make you laugh and you’ll soon become as fond of them as the whole of Britain has been.
It’s rare that a hist0ry-based comedy is genuinely funny, and in that sense Blackadder is a true diamond in the rough. Blackadder follows a group of characters who in each season appear in various periods of history. The main focus of the show is the antihero Edmund Blackadder, and his ill-fated misadventures with his foolish but likeable sidekick Baldrick (yes, we’re aware of how exhaustingly British that entire sentence sounds, but bear with us).
The cast features an array of familiar — and hugely successful — faces that you’ll know doubt know from American television as well. In fact, we have Blackadder to thank for not only Hugh Laurie, but also Rowan Atkinson (who also appears on this list as Mr. Bean), and Steven Fry. With these three names in the cast you can be confident that the performances will be superb, which they are, and that they’ll make you laugh, which they do.
The show was a smash hit and aired four series (that’s what the British call “seasons,” do keep up) from 1983 through to 1989. The show remains popular to this day, not only through reruns but through high school history teachers who can’t be bothered to teach their classes and put on mildly relevant period comedies instead. In fact, the show is so fondly remembered that in 2012 it was voted by Brits as the best of British television in a poll — beating the likes of Doctor Who and Sherlock by a mile.
5 The Office
Picture a show about the day-to-day goings-on in the office of a paper company in Slough, England. The concept hardly sounds ground-breaking, but when it hit the small screen in the form of mockumentary series The Office back in 2001, it was more revolutionary than anyone ever could have guessed.
The Office was a hit with audiences and critics alike and was somewhat of a pioneer for mockumentary type comedy series — allowing the likes of Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, and of course, the US version of The Office to flourish. On the British side of the pond it also paved the way for great comedies of the same style such as The Thick Of It and Come Fly With Me. In addition to all of this, the show set Ricky Gervais’ career on a track to become the mega-star he now is. The series is now set to hit the big screen with a spin-off movie about manager David Brent (played by Ricky Gervais) chasing his dreams of going on tour with a band. It’s worth taking a trip to the darker, more depressing, awkward, uncomfortable, and just plain sad version of The Office that started it all: the original.
If you watched and fell in love (as so many of us did) with the American version of The Office first, it can be hard fall in love with its older sibling in quite the same way, but if you look past its differences, The Office has more merit than you’d ever believe. The UK Office was much loved by British viewers, but it didn’t have the same tear-jerking level of affection as its American counterpart. The series sticks primarily to making you laugh, with the odd moment of pity for a character in that remarkably awkward Ricky Gervais way. Perhaps this is because of the British stiff upper lip, or because the show didn’t run long enough for viewers to develop the same emotional bond with its characters as the American version did. Either way, the general consensus is that if you accept them as two different shows, you can enjoy them both equally.
4 Gavin and Stacey
Gavin and Stacey is often considered the British equivalent of Friends, and it’s no exaggeration to compare these two iconic shows. In fact, Gavin and Stacey’s three seasons became a sensation in Britain and, with its fun and easygoing humor that makes rewatching such a pleasure, it is easy to see why. The series is a love story between a Welsh girl and an Essex guy, and also follows their colorful friends and families as they navigate their relationship. The two leads each have a hilarious best friend– as is required by law in any romantic comedy– who are played by the two writers of the show. One was James Corden— does that name sound familiar by any chance?
While he may have only recently become a household name in the States, Corden has been a national treasure in Britain ever since Gavin and Stacey, thanks to his much loved character Smithy. And actually, his glory days of carpool karaoke were somewhat prophesied in one of the classic scenes of the show’s Christmas special, where his character belts out a Christmas tune from behind the wheel. However it’s not just Corden’s character who became a comedy legend, as his fellow writer Ruth Jones constantly steals the show with her oddball character. Jones’ Nessa is full of bizarre anecdotes and punchlines, all of which are delivered with her serious tone and either a deadpan or annoyed-looking face. Overall, the show is chock full of funny characters, some of whom are so relatable you’ll feel you’ve met them, despite their British accents. If there’s one comedy series from Britain in the last ten years that you need to watch, make sure it’s Gavin and Stacey.
3 Fawlty Towers
Fawlty Towers celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, but despite being old as hell, it still remains a favourite in Britain. The show ran between 1975 and 1979 and its chaos and comedy definitely struck a chord with the British audience. The cast was headed by John Cleese, who remains a national hero and comedy legend in the UK, and came after his massive success with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. While most comedians are lucky if they get one international hit, Cleese managed to use comedy genius to make Fawlty Towers every bit as successful as Monty Python.
Fawlty Towers is about a hotel run by Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), whose incompetence, clumsiness, short temper, and dislike for his guests constantly gets him into mishaps and dilemmas in the most British way possible. The series has an array of funny stock characters and its use of dry wit and slapstick humour will make you giggle while the hotel staff dig themselves further and further into trouble. The humor would be absurd and childish if it wasn’t so genuinely smart and well-constructed, and that’s why Fawlty Towers remains one of the most beloved British comedies of all time.
2 The Inbetweeners
The Inbetweeners has been a smash-hit in both the UK and the US, becoming the comedy series for the generation of teenagers and young adults that discovered the show during its three season run. The show centers around an unpopular group of friends’ attempts at partying, impressing girls, and their general antics during their last few years of school. This being a British comedy, everything goes horribly wrong all the time in the most cringeworthy and controversial way.
The main character of the show is Will, an arrogant nerd new to the public school system. His friend Simon plays the hopeless romantic, while Jay plays the compulsive liar, and Neil plays the all-around endearing idiot. None of them are particularly likeable and yet all of them make us laugh, a skill which the British seem to be more attuned to than most. Though the series is largely known for the insane phrases and terms that it coined, there’s still a genuine joy in watching the characters of The Inbetweeners scheme and lie their way into well-written trouble. The show’s crude and comical take on adolescence struck a chord with audiences, but an American reboot inevitably failed. The Inbetweeners found massive success in two feature films that ended up breaking box office records and keeping Will, Simon, Jay, and Neil around much longer than anyone would have guessed.
1 Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Everyone knows Monty Python, and everyone knows that they were incredible pioneers in the world of comedy. Their innovative humor left audiences in fits of laughter, the name Monty Python became synonymous with British comedy, and it ended up making an incalculable impact on the international stage. For anyone who is unaware of just how influential Monty Python is, their impact on comedy has been compared to The Beatles’ impact on music. So yeah, Britain may be that little country that’s always clouded with rain, but it’s also responsible for just about everything you love.
The series Monty Python’s Flying Circus was the original comedy showcase for the Monty Python group’s uncompromising and hilarious sketches. Their huge success led the group to go on to make a handful of films together and become ambassadors for British comedy throughout the 1970s. The show launched several hugely successful comedy careers. The stars all managed to diversify afterward and prove themselves to be rounded comedians. Let’s not forget Monty Python’s longevity, as the group reunited in 2014 for a hugely successful live tour, and audiences from around the world came to show appreciation for the minds that shaped a worldwide obsession with comedy. If you’ve never watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you’re truly missing out on some classic and game-changing comedy— and it may just be life-changing as well.
Which of these British comedies are your favo(u)rites? Did we miss anything that you love more than a warm spot of tea on a rainy afternoon? Do let us know in the comments!
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