It is often said that British people have a more sophisticated sense of humor than Americans, and it’s not necessarily true. But that’s not to say that British comedy series aren’t funnier than American ones. It’s simply more absurdist, which is a style that was pioneered by Monty Python, the forefathers of modern comedy, and it also reflects the British mindset.
See, a combination of consistently dreary weather and the post-Thatcher downfall of the economy has caused the people of Britain to share the same misery. And so, the comedies they enjoy are the ones that accurately represent the pains in life with a nihilistic worldview and a ‘laugh in the face of adversity’ attitude.
Anyway, without further ado, here are the 15 greatest and most essential British comedies you need to check out.
15. The IT Crowd
Have you tried turning it off and on again? The Big Bang Theory is the biggest sitcom in the world right now, but there’s another show that captures nerd culture a lot more accurately and is far funnier, better written, and generally just a better show.
The IT Crowd tells the misadventures of “a dynamic go-getter, a genius, and a man from Ireland,” who work in a dingy basement and get into all kinds of wacky situations. Created and written by Father Ted’s Graham Linehan, The IT Crowd shares its delightful ridiculousness with Seinfeld, complete with “nothing” storylines like having a boyfriend who looks like a magician, while the cast of Chris O’Dowd, Richard Ayoade, and Katherine Parkinson are all phenomenal in their respective roles.
Whether it’s O’Dowd telling a court of law that a masseuse kissed him on the bottom, Ayoade playing a game of Street Countdown, or Parkinson babbling to the Dragon’s Den dragons about women in the workplace, the acting pairs terrifically with the absurdity of the writing.
And bonus points go to Matt Berry for his bold, confident portrayal of the company’s CEO, an awful, greedy, misogynistic, egomaniac like Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump. Imagine if Douglas Reynholm ran for political office.
If Forrest Gump gave us the story of a man who was coincidentally heavily involved in 20th century American history, then Blackadder gives us the story of a whole bunch of men, all in the same family dynasty line, who were coincidentally heavily involved in British history spanning centuries.
Each series gives us a different era of British history, a different Edmund Blackadder (each one smarter than the last as his family legacy crumbles around him), and a different Baldrick.
Mr. Bean will always be Rowan Atkinson’s most iconic character, but Edmund Blackadder is a very close second. In fact, Blackadder was voted the second best British sitcom of all time in a 2004 poll. Some of the names involved – Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie – have since gone on to become massive stars.
13. The Thick of It
The Thick of It is a scathing satire of the modern British government created by Armando Iannucci, who describes it as “Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders.”
It takes us behind the curtain to see the inner workings of the government, as party spin doctors butt heads with elected officials, all shown through the angry lens of the absurdly profane Malcolm Tucker, played to glorious perfection by the great Peter Capaldi.
Some of the situations in The Thick of It draw parallels with real world events and scandals, whereas in other cases, the show has actually predicted real life. The Thick of It paved the way for Iannucci’s pseudo U.S. remake about American politics, Veep. He’s also staying safely in the realm of political satire with his highly acclaimed new movie, The Death of Stalin.
12. Dad’s Army
Dad’s Army is responsible for most of the greatest slapstick moments in British comedy. It’s about the old folks who were left in charge of defending England during World War II, and for nine straight seasons, it was one of the highest rated comedies on TV, regularly bringing in 18 million viewers.
The BFI ranked Dad’s Army as the 13th greatest British TV show of all time. Although the actual history of the Home Guard portrayed in the show is disputed by experts, as a comedy series, it couldn’t be better. Iconic characters, great storytelling, hilarious moments, endlessly quotable – everything you want a sitcom to be.
The fans are very committed to Dad’s Army. There’s even a fan site called the Dad’s Army Appreciation Society!
They tried to do a remake of Porridge recently with an updated cast, but it was just awful. I mean painfully bad. And it’s not just like making a bad TV show, which would be bad enough, but it also desecrates a classic of British television.
Porridge is a comedy about prison life, and the actors in their roles in the original created small screen icons, so for a new version to recast them is like seeing some other guy playing Alan Partridge or Basil Fawlty or David Brent. It’s a crime against humanity! Who in their right mind thought this would be a good idea?
People who liked the original Porridge aren’t going to like a remake that craps all over it and people who didn’t like Porridge or aren’t aware of it won’t be interested. It was a terrible, terrible idea, which is a testament to just how great the original was back in the day.
Spaced is a weird Channel 4 comedy from Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright that we have to thank for Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. This show was the first pairing of the modern Laurel and Hardy, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
It was a breeding ground for the very specific and unique and groundbreaking filmmaking style of Pegg and Wright, paving the way for Shaun, which led to the fantastic and incomparable Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy.
Spaced was where it all started, where Pegg and Wright honed their style, and it was a strange process for the time in that the show wasn’t commissioned for a pilot or anything like that where network approval was required; it went straight to a full series, so they had full, free creative reign, and they certainly made the most of it!
9. The Inbetweeners
The Inbetweeners is a painfully relatable trip down memory lane, as you can relive all the awkwardness, heartache, and frustrations of adolescence through the stories of Will McKenzie, Simon Cooper, Jay Cartwright, and Neil Sutherland.
Everything embarrassing that happened in high school happens on the show: rejections, breakups, erectile dysfunction, failed nights out, drinking too much, getting caught bunking off, losing a fight, getting your lame first car, everything gets covered.
There’s also all the things that didn’t necessarily happen to you, but it does happen to these four, like punching a fish to death or ripping a door off a car or buying shoes from a homeless man. The series was followed by two successful movies, while an American remake proved to be a giant disappointment.
8. Brass Eye
Brass Eye is a satirical take on investigative exposé-type show like Watchdog, except the things they investigate are ridiculous, like animal cruelty in Parliament where MPs are supposedly pinning memos to animals and send them around the House of Commons.
Every episode is a wonderfully absurdist masterpiece because of the way Chris Morris presents everything with a totally straight face. He has a way of making absurd things more absurd by saying them like they’re completely normal (if that makes sense).
The crowning moment of the show is when Morris goes “undercover” to get some drugs and starts yelling out code words on the street in an attempt to attract business from drug dealers. “Luckily, the amount of heroin I use is harmless. I inject about once a month on a purely recreational basis.”
7. Father Ted
Like many great sitcoms, Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan’s Father Ted is about an asshole. This particular asshole is a priest who is cast out to an island off the coast of Ireland for embezzling church donations earmarked for an ill child and heading off on a vacation to Las Vegas with the money.
Taking cues from Seinfeld and Fawlty Towers, Mathews and Linehan crafted a deliciously surreal sitcom that was ranked the 11th best British sitcom of all time in a 2004 poll by the BBC. Father Ted also boasts a lot of famous fans: Steven Spielberg, Jim Carrey, Ricky Gervais, Sinead O’Connor, Liam Gallagher, Madonna, Cher, Bono, Moby, and Steve Martin.
Maurice Gibb from The Bee Gees was such a dedicated fan that he was buried with the DVD!
6. Only Fools and Horses
Only Fools and Horses was huge. It’s like the biggest British sitcom of all time. It still holds the record for most viewers for a British sitcom episode with over 24 million, which is like half the country. The show is about two brothers, Del Boy and Rodney, and their many failed ‘get rich quick’ schemes.
The British public voted for Only Fools and Horses as Britain’s Best Sitcom in a 2004 poll by the BBC. It’s so iconic and popular that it introduced many terms and phrases into the common British lexicon, like “plonker” and “lovely jubbly,” while legions of fans continue to get together at conventions across the country in costume as their favorite characters.
There are few shows that have such a devoted fan base, which is a testament to the quality of the show.
5. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
The influence that the Monty Python sketch troupe has had on comedy over the past fifty years knows no bounds. Pretty much everyone working in comedy today counts the Pythons as an influence, from Seth MacFarlane to Matt Groening to Trey Parker and Matt Stone to David Cross.
The Pythons’ influence on comedy is tantamount to The Beatles’ influence on music: the biggest. They went on to make some of the funniest movies of all time with the Arthurian legend-spoofing Holy Grail and the Bible-lampooning Life of Brian.
In their sketch show, they honed their groundbreaking style of stream-of-consciousness over punchlines. They grounded ridiculous situations in some semblance of realty, all bridged together with Terry Gilliam’s beautiful cutout animations.
4. I’m Alan Partridge
Alan Partridge is one of the most iconic characters in British comedy, and he’s certainly the most endearing. Over the many years he’s been around, we’ve been treated to radio broadcasts, a fictional series of Alan’s chat show, a sitcom about his post-chat show life, a mock web series of his radio show, two books, a mockumentary, and a feature film.
But his greatest achievement is easily the two series of the sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, which feature more than their fair share of the most hilarious and famous moments in all of British comedy: the farmers dumping a dead cow on Alan, the traffic cone theft, the Bond marathon, Alan piercing his foot on a spike, “Cock Piss Partridge” etc.
From the beginning to the end, it’s a truly brilliant and timeless sitcom (you can enjoy it just as much now as viewers did back in 1997), and one of Britain’s very best.
3. Peep Show
Great comedy is supposed to reflect life in a humorous way. A lot of comedies do that, but an argument could be made that no comedy captures life quite as brutally realistically as Peep Show does.
Its innovative style of presenting every shot of every scene from a character’s point of view and giving us a voiceover narration of each character’s inner workings means that we get a deeper insight into every moment and every situation. Plus the situations are more real than your average sitcom, and the stories aren’t nearly separated into acts.
They start off with a setup and then things get worse and worse and worse until they just end, which is exactly what comedy should do. The icing on the Peep Show cake is the performances of its stars, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who make Mark and Jez a pair of three-dimensional, genuine human beings.
Webb brings a sense of pathos to the perpetually lazy Jez, as he convincingly rationalizes every terrible decision he makes, and Mitchell painfully draws out the relatable awkwardness of Mark to hysterical levels.
The great thing about Peep Show is that despite the El Dude Brothers being stark opposites – Mark being straight-laced, hard-working, forward-thinking, sensible, rational, and socially awkward, and Jez being confident, unemployed, stupid, lazy, irrational, and completely aimless – every viewer can relate to both of them on some level. It’s genius.
2. The Office
It was This is Spinal Tap that invented the mockumentary genre by satirizing the rock documentaries that were popular at the time like Gimme Shelter, but it was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s brilliant The Office that transplanted that style into a workplace comedy series.
They paved the way for the U.S. remake of their own show, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and countless other derivatives. But there’s no workplace mockumentary quite as funny, realistic, and emotionally affecting as the original British version of The Office.
Gervais and Merchant perfectly captured the boredom and monotony of life as an office drone, while Tim’s pining after Dawn feels genuine, which makes it all the more heartbreaking. And don’t forget The Brentmeister, Mr. David Brent, quite possibly the most pathetic, cringe-inducing, and iconic character in British comedy.
It’s the undercurrent of tragedy in his life that makes him so consistently watchable. The great thing about The Office is that the characters are so beautifully drawn from real life. You know all these people. You know a David, you know a Gareth, you know a Tim, you know a Dawn, you know a Lee (unfortunately), you know a Neil and a Finchy and a Keith. These are all perfect portraits, like them or not, of a very real type of person in the world.
1. Fawlty Towers
Fawlty Towers is the daddy of them all. It’s the reason that most British comedy series only last for two seasons. Fawlty Towers would have had a third series if it wasn’t for the downfall of writers/stars John Cleese and Connie Booth’s marriage.
Still, it has proven so influential that almost every British comedy series that’s followed – The Office, The Young Ones, Spaced, I’m Alan Partridge, Extras etc. – lasted just two series. Fawlty Towers has become like a template or a handbook for every British sitcom ever since.
They all last for two series before calling it quits, they all have a protagonist who is flawed but hilarious and forever watchable (Brent, Partridge, and the like), and they all feature ridiculous situations that escalate and get worse and worse until finally the episode ends.
Can you believe that the BBC chiefs initially wanted Cleese to take the show out of the hotel? As Cleese himself explains so perfectly (and this is why Fawlty Towers is the benchmark against which every sitcom is judged), “It’s in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up.”