The United States of America has its fair share of great comedy shows, but Britain’s take on the genre is an altogether different experience. While U.S. comedies trend towards loud, over-the-top humor, British comedies take a more measured, nuanced approach.
If you want to indulge in the UK’s eccentricities, awkwardness, and undeniable wit, here are just a few British comedies you need to check out, all of which are available to watch on Netflix (and other streaming services) right now.
1. Keeping Up Appearances
A friend once told me he goes to McDonald’s to witness the collusion of different social brackets, and I’m reminded of that whenever I watch Keeping Up Appearances. Because here it is: the perfect microcosm of British society and British humor.
The wonderful Patricia Routledge plays Hyacinth Bucket — pronounced Bouquet — a middle class snob trying to escape her roots, but consistently being dragged down by her typically slobbish, outlandish, and provocative family. Her efforts to impress the neighborhood generally find her husband, the long-suffering Richard (Clive Swift) on the receiving end.
The cast are an extraordinary bunch, but if you’re anything like series creator, Roy Clarke (the sitcom giant also responsible for Open All Hours and Last of the Summer Wine), you’ll likely pick the bone idle Onslow, played by the late Geoffrey Hughes, as your favourite character. Onslow acts as the biggest counterpoint to Hyacinth’s ridiculous delusions of grandeur.
Check out the first season on Netflix, and you’ll soon understand why the show became one of the BBC’s most exported TV shows.
2. The Office
Live fast. Die old.
You might be familiar with the American version of The Office, which is brilliant in its own right, but you should also acquaint yourself with the original BBC show, written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
The Office broke the mold, exhibiting British awkwardness in all its glory, a mockumentary capturing the lives of employees at paper merchants, Wernham Hogg. Martin Freeman (Sherlock; The Hobbit) and Mackenzie Crook (Pirates of the Caribbean) became big stars off the back of the show, but Ricky Gervais’ career soared on the back of playing David Brent.
With killer lines, killer tunes, and a dance routine that remains one of the greatest moments in television history, Brent is the most cringe-inducing man you’ll ever meet. Its two seasons, both on Netflix, gain greater relevance with the David Brent: Life on the Road movie, catching up with the “star” 15 years later.
3. An Idiot Abroad
Prepare to meet Karl Pilkington, a bald-headed Mancunian it’s hard not to love.
An Idiot Abroad is an entirely different experience to any of Gervais and Merchant’s other work. The pair met Karl Pilkington at a radio station called XFM, immediately becoming friends despite Gervais’ casual verbal abuse (especially about Karl’s strangely spherical head).
Their hugely successful podcast spawned this three-season show in which Karl reluctantly travels the globe. During the first season, he sees the seven wonders of the world — including “The Alright Wall of China” and the Great Pyramids, which he describes as being “like a massive game of Jenga that’s got out of hand” — while the second season runs through a bucket list of activities, none of which he wants to do. For the final three episodes, he teams up with Star Wars and Harry Potter star, Warwick Davies.
Karl’s unique take on life is certainly compelling, but you’ll soon find yourself agreeing with his questionable logic. “If Dracula can’t see his reflection in a mirror,” he reasons, “how come his center parting is so perfect?”
4. Doc Martin
Cornwall is one of the most beautiful areas in the UK. Its gorgeous surroundings, spectacular tranquility, and community-minded spirit makes it the ideal place to switch off distractions and enjoy life.
Doctor Martin Ellingham, however, isn’t so appreciative of Cornwall’s beauty.
Martin Clunes plays the lead role, a grumpy GP who’s forced to move from London to the seemingly-sleepy seaside village of Portwenn. Following his tumultuous love-life, this is technically a comedy-drama; despite the lack of actual gags, the ITV series makes the list because it really is very funny.
Ellingham may have good intentions, but he very easily rubs everyone up the wrong way. You root for him because you know he’s just a misunderstood guy, trying to cope in a community of bizarre personalities (including the neurotic PC Penhale, obsessional pharmacist, Mrs Tishell, and chancer, Bert Large). Frankly, it’s a joy to watch.
The show gets massive audiences, and has turned Port Isaac, its filming location, into a tourist hotspot.
This show is, in a word, Barmy.
That just about sums up Cuckoo, and its leading man, Greg Davies. You may already know the comedian from his role as Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, and he’s the ideal choice for Ken Thompson, a man driven to the edge by his son-in-law, played in the first season by Saturday Night Live‘s Andy Samberg.
When Thompson’s daughter, Rachel (Tamla Kari, then Esther Smith) returns from her gap year, she brings along her new husband, Dale, a loud, laissez-faire American who brings out the worst in the uptight family unit he finds himself in. Cuckoo gained a lot of press for its second season after Samberg proved too busy to film more episodes, and was subsequently replaced by Twilight star, Taylor Lautner as Dale’s illegitimate son.
NBC ordered a pilot for a stateside remake of the show starring Michael Chiklis (The Shield) and Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), but to fully appreciate the clash of cultures, you can’t beat the original Cuckoo.
Likely the most subdued comedy in this list, Detectorists became a surprise hit when it debuted in 2014: not as well-known as Doc Martin or as showy as An Idiot Abroad, this series simply chronicles the lives of two treasure hunters. But these aren’t the adventures of Indiana Jones: these are the docile records of members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club.
Lance, played by Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger; Doctor Who), and Andy (Mackenzie Crook, who also writes and directs the series) patiently scour the ground with metal detectors, hoping a buried cache will propel them out of their mundane existences.
Similarly, the show requires some patience — you’ll either love it or hate it — but those who get into the series’ gentle sense of wit will find themselves hooked.
7. Peep Show
If you love binge-watching, don’t get downhearted by the short seasons and short runs of most British comedies, because Peep Show should serve you well.
Despite relatively low viewing figures, the show became Channel 4’s longest-running comedy, and catapulted its core stars, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, into the limelight. The series’ central conceit — basically the unsuccessful love lives of its main characters, Mark and Jez, who share a flat in London — is a simple one, but its unconventional filming technique gives it a distinctive and unmistakable look and feel.
Shot from the individual point of views of its leads, with their thoughts presented as voice-overs, Peep Show feels very intimate and its protagonists feel very relatable… even if your life isn’t dogged by drug abuse, affairs, or alcoholism.
Peep Show ran for nine seasons, and all but the final season is available on Netflix; keep an eye out for an American remake, understood to be being written by the original show’s creators, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain.
Many of these comedies — and indeed, classic sitcoms like Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, The Thin Blue Line, and Only Fools and Horses— were broadcast on the BBC, one of our dearest institutions (that’s nonetheless a frequent victim of politics). And one of the reasons it’s such a strong corporation is its ability to make fun of itself. W1A is a prime example of that.
The series began as Twenty-Twelve, a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary about organizing the London 2012 Olympics; the spoof proved so popular, the BBC used the same strong cast, which includes Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Jessica Hynes (Spaced), and Jason Watkins (Nativity!), to joke about its own branding, jargon, and high-profile disputes.
It was a smart move, as its British quirkiness and sheer awkwardness reminds the audience that the corporation aims to reflect the society it also entertains, while also making the BBC seem more approachable and friendly.
Narrated by Doctor Who star, David Tennant, W1A also features a number of celebrity cameos, including controversial novelist, Salman Rushdie; actor, Samuel West; and mathematics whiz, Carol Vorderman.
What British Comedies Do You Watch?
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly where new viewers should begin; naturally, it all depends on what personally tickles your funny bone. I’d say Keeping Up Appearances and Doc Martin both cater best to a universal sense of humor, and the latter certainly shows off Britain at its best.
I like to think there’s something here for everyone, and hopefully, you’ll invest in a few of these and use them as entry points for an array of other great British comedies, like Fawlty Towers, The IT Crowd, and my personal favourite, Not Going Out.
Which British comedies do you recommend? Which British comedies do you think are overrated? Which British comedies do the best job of summing up the unique humor of the United Kingdom? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below!