Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture
The British are coming, and they want to invade your television. With … laughter.
Look, we get it. That opening sentence wasn’t too witty of a quip. Feel free to think of your own! But do you know what actually is funny? So funny, in fact, that it’s guaranteed to make your stomach clench so hard that it basically doubles as doing crunches? Comedies from across the pond, which have consistently been in a flourishing state even after the supposed “golden era” ended with Monty Pythontaking its last bow in 1974 or Fawlty Towerscursing out its final customer in 1979.
As a means of putting together a guide to the finest telly the Brits have to offer, Vulture has compiled what we consider to be 25 of the best comedies that have premiered since Basil Fawlty’s farewell — paying special attention to their influence, innovation, and critical acclaim in the evolution of modern comedy as we know it. Arrange your queues accordingly, and maybe whip up a Pimm’s Cup if you’re feeling feisty, because we have a lot of ground to cover.
Giving a whole lot of heart to an otherwise gloomy council-flat lifestyle, Only Fools and Horses revolves around the Trotter family, all of whom are kind enough to indulge its patriarch, cheekily named Del Boy, with his various “get rich quick” schemes as a Cockney shop trader — even if his schemes mostly turn out to be a whole load of bollocks. Still, Del Boy’s unwavering dedication to one day becoming a member of the millionaire club to support his family keeps his younger brother, grandfather, and later uncle from turning their backs, the occasional black-market scuffle be damned. Now, if only he can find some legal goods to make those dreams a reality.
A mustachioed café owner’s gotta do what a mustachioed café owner’s gotta do to stay in business during World War II, even if that means getting intertwined with every demographic in his uniquely occupied French town — whether it’s serving up brewskis to the Nazis at the bar and hiding stolen paintings on their behalf, or allowing British soldiers to shack up in his family’s apartment with some radio equipment to spy on those Nazis. Anything to make an honest dollar, so the saying goes! However, if his wife finds out he’s cheating on her with the café’s waitresses, his main problem might not even be war-related at all. How ironic.
Rowan Atkinson’s reign as a British comedy scion officially began with Blackadder,a four-season sitcom woven together as a bizarro “historical” anthology. Atkinson portrays a clever grouch named Edmund Blackadder, who, while maintaining the same cynical and opportunistic personality, changes era and social status every season by means of being a familial descendant — a prince in the Middle Ages, an Elizabethan lord, a royal attendant in the Regency, and an army captain during World War I. (A thick-skinned servant named Baldrick is the other constant throughout the series, and a nice foil.) Funny enough, the further these Blackadders progress in the millennium, the weaker their prominence becomes in society. Not that the man himself would ever admit to that.
Let the power of Atkinson continue to compel you with Mr. Bean,a character who’s pretty much the complete antithesis of that Blackadder fellow. Almost always mute, a lover of buffoonery, and incapable of walking down a street without difficulty, Bean is more reminiscent of a 3-year-old experiencing the joys of the outside world for the first time as opposed to a fully developed 30-something man with shit to do — but the folks around him sure don’t seem to mind his antics. You’d think creating chaos out of simple situations would exercise its appeal after a few episodes, but clearly you’ve never seen Atkinson use an escalator.
Airing concurrently with their equally terrific sketch series A Bit of Fry & Laurie,dignified Cambridge gents Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry breathed new comedic life — with a healthy side of drama — into P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves canon with Jeeves and Wooster.Wooster, a well-mannered dandy who always finds a way to get into trouble, and Jeeves, his penguin-suited valet who always knows how to get him out of said trouble, serve as our optics into the silly world of Britain’s 1930s idle class, which mostly consists of bachelors standing around with Martinis, complaining about the weather, and dodging engagements (both the social and romantic ones). If only life could be this laissez-faire for everyone.
Half sitcom, half comedy of errors, you can probably decipher what Keeping Up Appearances deals with by its name alone — a snobbish, comfortably middle-class housewife named Hyacinth has aspirations to reach that sweet, sweet elite class of people despite her perfectly fine life, and will stop at nothing until she cons her way into the one percent. (Her last name is Bucket, but it’s pronounced Bouquet to you. Double flora for the win!) Hyacinth’s husband, bless his heart, somehow deals with all of this nonsense, even if that means conceding to this new surname pronunciation or indulging her frequent dinner parties to impress the neighbors. Go ahead and diagnose her, viewers!
What do you mean you haven’t watched this yet, sweetie darling? The terrible, no good, very bad decisions of Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley) might make you feel better about your sporadically ill-advised life choices, especially since the duo makes all of those amphetamine cocktails and cigarettes, look, well, simply fabulous.The crux of Ab Fab is that Edina, a PR rep, and Patsy, a floating fashion director of some sort, just want to evade responsibilities and have a bloody good time with their elite circle of London enablers, much to the chagrin of Edina’s increasingly bitter daughter. (Frankly? We can’t blame her at times.) These dames might be in their 40s, but they could drink a pack of bushy-tailed frat boys to their deaths. With pleasure! And a side of Marlboros!
When the Church of England finally entered the modern age in 1992 by allowing female ministers to be ordained, the BBC smartly found a way to capitalize on humor that could emerge from such a situation: by creating The Vicar of Dibley,a sitcom that finds a rambunctious lady vicar with a penchant for chocolate (Dawn French, a true comedy icon) taking up shop in a rural village that appears, at first, to be the worst possible village for her personality and holy talents. She just had to be a woman, the traditional folk cry out! Of course, everybody starts to warm to the arrangement in due time, and before they know it, Dibley without her is simply unfathomable.
Prior to the concept of “satirical news program” picking up steam in America, The Day Today served as a six-episode master class on how a show could create an effective template for parodying, well, just about everything going on in the news. Unlike other late-night programs that went on to critique legitimate current affairs, though, Day Today’s whole shtick was that it would weave absurd, fictional stories around actual news footage for the surrealist narrative they wanted to create, on top of segments that just flat-out mocked the country. (Example: “Bomb dogs” being released in London by the IRA, causing mass chaos in the city.) The fake-news snowflakes might go nuts if this type of thing aired in 2018, but who are we to judge.
Perhaps we’d see a vast uptick in Roman Catholic devotees if all priests were as delightful as the ones in Father Ted,who roam the fictional Craggy Island with iron-silly fists and even sillier backstories. Banished to this extremely Irish locale for various unpriestly reasons — don’t go to Vegas on parish funds, you seminary students! — Fathers Ted, Dougal, and Jack try to make the best of their new surroundings, although that mostly includes dodging their overbearing parochial housekeeper and trying to assert their dominance over an annoying Father from another island. Oh, and they’re pretty good at their jobs, if you care about that sort of thing. Half of the time, anyway.
Few would argue that Steve Coogan’s delightfully unhinged TV presenter turned radio DJ character is his most important comedic contribution; he’s kind of like if Elvis Duran suddenly got a terrible haircut and tactlessly insulted every Top 40 musician who swung by Z100 for a softball interview. But mind you, I’m Alan Partridge’s protagonist doesn’t even have that much fame — as we find out in the premiere, he’s banished by the BBC due to a medley of offences and is forced to set up shop in the dull city of Norwich, barely hanging on to his sanity with his (1) graveyard time slot and (2) lack of listeners. He also tries to get into the TV biz once again, but we have a feeling you can figure out how well that goes.
The dream team of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright — pre-Cornetto Trilogy ascension — combined their creative forces for good with Spaced,a deliciously surreal sitcom built on the foundation of two 20-somethings who have a chance meeting and decide to con their way into an apartment by pretending to be married — because, yes, even the housing market in new-millennium Britain was that terrible. (It’s important to note that Jessica Hynes was also a co-creator and had equal involvement with the men.) The requisite high jinks ensue when the two try to hide their non-romantic status from their landlady, but the most fun comes from those surreal, acid-trip diversions, one of which will make you look at The A-Team in a completely different light.
Despite rarely making a sale in his envy-inducing London bookshop — à la Hugh Grant in Notting Hill,but with 50 percent more grime — Black Books’ misanthropic lead Bernard Black comfortably manages to keep to his daily routine of smoking, drinking, and berating customers with limited interruption, eschewing unnecessary contact with anyone who isn’t his two friends. (It would be three friends, but we don’t consider “books” as people. Sorry.) Just don’t be deceived, dear literati. The series may maintain a melancholic aura, but Bernard is mostly a goofy dude who invites Jehovah’s Witnesses into his home to avoid doing taxes. We love a spontaneous man!
If Friendsis the innocent girl next door who pops in every now and then for lemonade and crush-talk, Coupling is her older, experienced sister who comes over to dish about all the blow jobs she’s given while buzzed on Smirnoff. From the mind of Steven Moffat — who later went on to spearhead Doctor Whoand Sherlock— the sitcom depicts the lurid sexual shenanigans and dating lives of a group of six friends, who are all at the point in their lives when they maybe want to start dialing it down with the trysts and “couple” with a partner for life. Or maybe not. You know how fickle 20-somethings can be.
The Office walked so all the other TV mockumentaries could run. Some might be surprised to learn that the original, Ricky Gervais–fronted Officeonly spanned 12 episodes, but even more surprising is the sheer amount of putting-the-fun-in-dysfunction antics always plaguing the gang’s paper company. Let us repeat: paper company! This is mostly due to Gervais’s infamous David Brent, a general manager so oblivious, a general manager so daft, that you can’t help but feel bad for him. (As much as you can before his next racist or sexist gaffe, that is.) Come for what eventually became Gervais’s most iconic character, and stay for a young Martin Freeman giving googly-eyes to the receptionist.
Even if you have only the faintest understanding of British comedy, you’d know that David Mitchell and Robert Webb have reigned — completely reigned— over the small screen with their never-ending supply of witticisms and cheek since the early aughts. While we could argue that their That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch series could also be included on this list, Peep Show won out because of how the duo managed to elevate the simple “opposites attract” sitcom trope into something far more innovative, whether with their internal narration or literal “peeping” point-of-view filming style. (The show’s building block is that two best friends of opposite Myers-Briggs personalities share an apartment.) Also, there’s a character named Super Hans, whom we’re presenting without comment in the hopes that you’ll Google him.
If you like Mitchell and Webb but wish they would, hmm, put more energy into acerbically critiquing and dissecting the societal norms of British culture, allow us to recommend two other chaps in their place: Matt Lucas and David Walliams. With Little Britain,the duo rides a carousel of off-kilter characters who “best” represent the country’s faces in this postmodern time, ranging from a quintessentially chavvy teenage girl to a lazy guy in a wheelchair who doesn’t actually need a wheelchair. Britain doesn’t come off looking so hot, but that’s not really the point, innit? A little self-deprecating humor never hurt anyone.
Drop some acid and allow the bizarre, Technicolor world of The Mighty Boosh to melt the retinas off your eyeballs. There really isn’t an easy way to explain the surrealist vision of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, whose show stemmed from their comedy troupe of the same name. All you need to know is that they play two aspiring musicians living on another universe with an alien and gorilla as pals, with sonic-defying musical vignettes woven in for good measure. (Remember the “I’m old Gregg” sound bite from a few years ago? It came from here.) Just as Terry Gilliam’s animation was integral for Monty Python,so is Barratt’s “crimp” music for Boosh.
Your Rolodex of colorful insults will increase threefold, at the minimum, after watching Peter Capaldi swagger around with his Blackberry in The Thick of It. (Our favorite? “Fuckity bye!”) Brutally satirizing the entire British government as we know it, everyone from senior ministers to opposition leaders are in for some equal-opportunity bashing, and it might be the highbrow antidote you need to our current, uh, less-than-great political climate. (It should come as no surprise that the show’s creator, The Day Today’s Armando Iannucci, later went on to create Veep.) But mostly, you’ll emerge sexually confused about spin doctors.
Like The Office,the workplace shenanigans of The IT Crowd didn’t have to rely on dramatic or surrealist detours to make its mark when all it needed was a good heart. Revolving around two socially inept technology support workers and their ill-equipped “relationship manager” — calling her understanding of tech “rudimentary” would be polite — the trio form a camaraderie thanks to their equal passion for avoiding various aspects of work, which often lead to some memorable outings beyond the confines of their depressing basement office. (Their velvety-voiced boss sometimes finds his way in there, too.) By the time you finish the series, you won’t even realize you have zero idea what their hoity-toity company actually does.
Before James Corden moved Stateside to shepherd The Late Late Show into its newest iteration, he co-wrote and starred in what’s arguably the most popular rom-com to ever emerge from the U.K’s television screens: Gavin & Stacey.(There aren’t that many, but still.) It’s a charming and unpretentious story about the evolution of two people following their hearts with a long-distance courtship — one in Britain, the other in Wales — but not without pitfalls, as anyone involved in long-distance courtships with eccentric families could probably tell you. You’ll be openly aww-ing by minute five, we guarantee it.
While lads-behaving-badly humor doesn’t suit everyone, The Inbetweeners perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of being a millennial teen — or rather, being an average millennialteen — trying to come of age within the confines of a snoozy London suburb with minimum levels of embarrassment. It’s easier said than done, but at the end of the day our quartet of protagonists — boys of varying degrees of silliness — just want to shout “Bus wankers!”at random people and maybe even seduce a “bird” or two if they’re lucky. They’re harmless, but their terrible decision-making skills might give you flashbacks of your own youth.
In a way, Fresh Meat serves as a natural comedic continuation to The Inbetweeners.(It doesn’t hurt that the shows share the same leading straight guy, either.) A diverse group of “freshers” meet at a university and have the (dis)pleasure of sharing a house with each other as they navigate their way through the dreaded first year. The first year, though, soon turns into the second and third year, and all of their hedonistic hangs and general eschewal of work somehow — unsurprisingly — ends in a ton of debt and a daunting lack of job prospects. There’s poignant commentary about higher education in there somewhere.
Rob Delaney jumped from Twitter jokester to bona fide acting jokester with Catastrophe,which intimately follows the aftermath of a weeklong bang fest between an American man and Irish woman (Sharon Horgan) due to a pregnancy from their many, many trysts. Surprising: how the man packs up his things and promptly moves across the Atlantic to support his new lady in the concrete jungle of London. Even more surprising: how they’re actually a match made in rom-com heaven, a palatable mix of warmth and bite that makes it easy to imagine them as your personal friends. Hey, that’s realism for you.
On a surface level, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is about a self-professed “greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt” woman trying to shag and drink her way through London as she lives out her remaining youngish years with maximum enjoyment, however destructive it might be. (She also, somehow, manages a café.) But through all her fourth-wall-breaking narrations and nods is someone using the noirest of black humor to cope with a profound loss, the loss of which, however voyeuristically, we get to reap the comedic rewards of in its aftermath.