If you’ve ever made the tragic error of watching an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” you may have marveled at just how far the American situation comedy has fallen, from the heights of “Frasier,” “Friends,” and “Seinfeld”—to “Cougar Town” and “Back to You.” Sure, there are the exceptions, but after you’ve watched every single episode of “The Office” and “30 Rock,” you aren’t left with too much. If our domestic output isn’t getting you sufficiently giggly, it’s time to set your sights across the pond. Britain, a land famed for stiff upper lips and people who Are Not Amused, may not seem a likely pick for the humor capitol of the English-speaking world, but it’s the go-to country for an excellent sitcom. Here’s a guide to a few of my favorites:
The inimitable Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley star as Patsy and Edina, parasitic BFFs and ageing fashionistas. Edina owns an ever-failing PR firm and Patsy holds down a cushy magazine job that never seems to require her to make an appearance at the office. Unimaginably shallow, frequently stupid and often stunningly cruel, the two don’t seem likely sitcom heroines. But as they stumble through their shambolic lives—usually drunk and forever chasing the latest trend—you can’t help but help but like them, or at the very least, be wildly entertained. Rounding out the cast is the voice of reason in their chaotic existences–Saffy, Edina’s straight-laced daughter. But Patsy and Edina eclipse everyone else in the show by a mile. Sure, they’re absolutely wicked, but sometimes, it’s fun to be bad.
“Peep Show” features the novel conceit of filming each shot as though it’s from the point of view of one of the characters. But other than creating TV sex scenes unparalleled in their awkwardness, this doesn’t have a huge impact upon the show. Rather, it’s the incredible writing that sets “Peep Show” apart. Former college friends Mark and Jeremy (played by real-life former college friends David Mitchell and Robert Webb, respectively) live together in a London flat. It’s the classic odd couple scenario; Mark is an uptight office worker, while Jeremy is a perpetually stoned slacker who’s forsaken any attempt at remunerated employment in favor of pursuing his music career. Why the constantly bickering duo are even friends, much less roommates, is a mystery, but you’ll be laughing way too hard to care.
“Gavin & Stacey”
The other entries on this list are consistent in heavy-hitting comedies, and “Gavin & Stacey” is definitely a bit fluffy in comparison. But cotton candy is fluffy too, and we don’t hold that against it, so approach “Gavin & Stacey” with an open mind. Gavin is from Essex, Stacey is from Wales. Hailing from such different locales, is their love doomed? As the whole of Britain is smaller than Michigan, this premise might seem slightly suspicious to an American audience, and Gavin and Stacey themselves aren’t all that compelling. The show is saved in a big way by its supporting cast, who play the star-crossed lovers’ family and friends. Especially funny are the show’s writers James Corden and Ruth Jones, as Gavin and Stacey’s respective trashy best friends, Smithy and Nessa. Though the laughs are sometimes just titters, “Gavin & Stacy” is a sweet and seemingly realistic portrayal of two very different British families.
Three priests live on an isolated Irish island. It sounds like the setup for a good joke, and it is. “Father Ted” is hilarious, providing more laugh-out-loud moments than almost any other show on this list. Each priest has been exiled to the desolate Craggy Island for some unknown priestly impropriety. Father Ted Crilly, the only character who isn’t a high functioning lunatic, is a lackluster cleric who dreams of fame and fortune. Father Dougal McGuire has the mind of a kindergartener, and, according to the show, became a man of the cloth through a “collect five box tops and become a priest” contest. Father Jack Hackett is a violent, elderly drunk, who is apparently only capable of one-word phrases—mostly “drink” and “girls.” The show pokes fun at the Catholic Church and rural life, in a manner that’s simultaneously biting and inoffensive. It’s a can’t miss.
Until I saw “The Inbetweeners,” I thought that America had the high school angle covered. We’ve had shows about popular teenagers (“Gossip Girl”), unpopular teenagers (“Freaks and Geeks”), and even undead teenagers (“The Vampire Diaries”). Leave it to the Brits to one-up us. “The Inbetweeners” is about four friends who don’t quite fit into any categories. They’re not the cool kids, they’re not the losers, and they’ve still got pulses. Will’s the new kid, a transfer from private school whose perfectly-arranged tie and use of a briefcase as a backpack instantly excludes him from the cool crowd. He joins with the other boys who don’t belong in any high school sect. Simon’s cute and charming but bumbling. Jay’s a pervert who’s known for his completely fictional sexual triumphs. Neil is just as smart as a brick. Together, the boys face the myriad trials and tribulations of adolescence, namely attempts to get drunk and hook up with girls. It’s crass, crude, and it’s got “teenage boy” written all over it, but “The Inbetweeners” definitely delivers.