Why you should care
Because they’re absurd, bleak, OTT and endearing. And you love it.
So a Brexited Britain might not be quite the economic power it once was, its football team (yes, that football) consistently underperforms, and they’ve yet to convince anyone else of the merits of room-temperature beer or beans on toast. But Brits do have one thing that’s the envy of the world: comedy. At times sharply witty, at others childishly absurd, occasionally so bleak as to make you feel guilty for laughing, it’s always ruthlessly innovative, endlessly pushing the boundaries of humor — so much so that Britain sent John Oliver across the pond because he was too mainstream.
From Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Mr. Bean, from The Office to The Inbetweeners, plenty of British classics have not only become worldwide hits and timeless classics but also invented new subgenres of comedy and sparked endless nowhere-near-as-good-as-the-original remakes. So as OZY’s token Brit and walking national stereotype, here are my picks for the best in British laughs.
Sitcom: Gavin and Stacey
To all those hardcore Angolophiles out there, I know, Gav was so 2010, but this is an easy win if you haven’t yet seen it. A modern-day Romeo-and-Juliet story of two people who fall in love despite their uniquely dysfunctional families and friends, Gavin and Stacey is the perfect parody of culture and family life in two very different parts of the U.K. — small-town South Wales and suburban Essex, the New Jersey of England. But even if the cultural references are lost on you, stay for the incredible character comedy — all eight of the main characters are intimately hysterical and yet totally believable (ironically the two title characters are, intentionally, the most bland and humorless). But there’s not a joke or wisecrack in sight — it’s the characters’ personalities and interplay that become more endearing the more you get to know them. Co-written by and co-starring Ruth Jones and James Corden (this show shot the now Late Late Show host to fame), you won’t just laugh at this three-season show, you’ll fall in love with it.
Stand-up: James Acaster
It says a lot in stand-up -crazed Great Britain for a young comedian to have a style that is completely original. Part deadpan, part absurdist observation and the rest just corduroy and paisley, James Acaster is indescribably funny, to the point that explaining his comedy simply won’t do it justice. Find out for yourself:
Sitcom: This Country
For fans of the original, Ricky Gervais–starring The Office, here’s a new mockumentary that takes desperate and bleak comedy to new heights. Its famously picturesque setting of the Cotswolds, where I grew up, gives the show particular resonance for me, while its grim yet hysterical insight into the boredom and disillusionment of young people in rural areas has received rave reviews from critics. Sound boring? Well, try explaining The Office to someone who isn’t familiar with it and make it sound funny. The parallels between the shows go beyond just format — one of the siblings who writes for and stars in This Country has an outrageously striking resemblance to Mackenzie Crook, who played Gareth Keenan in Gervais’ groundbreaking sitcom.
Panel Show: 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown
While Americans love talk shows, the Brits looove panel shows. The format doesn’t vary much: Two teams of witty comedians (hosted by an even wittier chairperson) compete for points in contests that nobody really cares about — they serve more as vehicles to kick-start the banter. Unlike the multitude of comedic British panel shows — Have I Got News for You,QI,Never Mind the Buzzcocks— 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown offers something new. Born out of a one-off “mashup” special in which two programs on the Channel 4 network (8 Out of 10 Cats and Countdown) exchanged casts, the anagram-based quiz show has since been commissioned for several dedicated seasons. With an irreverent and often risqué lineup of panelists, led by lewd one-liner king and host Jimmy Carr, you can expect sexual puns aplenty plus strong language, verbal abuse, absurdist interludes and occasionally some surprisingly impressive performances with the letters against the clock.
Old School: The Two Ronnies
While many British shows from the ’70s and ’80s have reached international legend status (Blackadder,Fawlty Towers,Monty Python), somehow, somehow, The Two Ronnies never quite makes it. Sketches starring the late Ronnies, Barker and Corbett, have never been matched in wit or wordplay, though some of the social attitudes portrayed now seem a little dated. And although Brits continue to innovate in sketch comedy — from Little Britain to Mitchell and Webb— none have mastered the sheer cleverness of The Two Ronnies, which continues to leave me in tears of laughter, even more so after each rewatch.
Not satisfied yet? Feast on these:
- Looking for another rising stand-up who’s going to take over Britain, then the world? Check out Sara Pascoe.
- Tim Minchin’s hard-hitting musical comedy too tame for you? Even sillier, and more brutal, are the parody songs of Amateur Transplants front man Adam Kay.
- Just after a joke? Tim Vine will tell you plenty of corkers.
Meet the Tribe: James Watkins
Video by Nat Roe.