Just Plop Down on the Couch, Flip on the Telly, and Bob’s Your Uncle: Britcoms to the Rescue
British comedies (Britcoms) have been a part of my life now for around thirty years. Not only are most of them insanely funny, but they offered me something akin to the volumes of books I was reading in my teen years, a look into worlds populated by people who seemed similar to me but who were also interestingly different. It didn’t hurt that their humor was smart and sarcastic, two qualities I had the temerity to think I also possessed. Yes, in case you’re wondering, it got me into trouble in those days. It still does, at times.
Ever since I first caught Monty Python’s Flying Circus on television late one night and mistakenly thought it was made by the Rolling Stones (yes, really), I was hooked on Britcoms. As far as watching them, though, there was one huge problem. This was the late 1980s/early 1990s, before Netflix or Hulu, and streaming anything other than, say, water or beer, wasn’t even a thing yet.
To further complicate things, in those days in the U.S., catching anything from the BBC on television, much less anything funny, was a happy accident. There were two places a comedy geek might find something of that order: old-school A&E or a local PBS station. Let’s just say that Alabama Public Television didn’t devote much airspace to anything outside Alabama, at least in those days.
Today, lucky us, we now have the capability of finding, watching, and, yes, even binge-watching most of these shows, with no VCRs or DVDs required. There are the ones everyone knows, like Absolutely Fabulous, The Vicar of Dibley, Fawlty Towers, and anything else the Pythons ever did, but there are some others that aren’t quite as well-known. Here are a few I dearly love.
Red Dwarf (1988)
Back in 1992, I was between Douglas Adams novels and needed a comic sci-fi fix. At a B. Dalton bookstore in Mobile, Alabama, on a lark, I picked up a science fiction title called Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, which I instantly read from cover to cover. In what I had to assume was an attempt to make my world even better, my English friend Simon, who was also my flight instructor and temporary roommate at the time, expanded my horizons when he revealed there was also a Red Dward BBC television series. Wherever he lives now, all these years later, Simon is still my hero.
From a science fiction perspective, Red Dwarf has a bit of everything. It takes place in space three-million-or-so-years in the future. There’s a slacker spaceship crewmember, his dead priggish shipmate who’s been reanimated as a hologram, a cat who’s evolved into a humanoid, and a fussy robot. Oh, and the spaceship is a character, too. Above everything else, Red Dwarf is a character-based comedy, and it’s the on-screen chemistry between the actors that makes it work so well.
Jeeves and Wooster (1990)
My first introduction to P.G. Wodehouse was watching the habit-forming ITV series Jeeves and Wooster, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. At the time, I didn’t realize Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves were Wodehouse creations, which means I must have missed the huge screen credit at the beginning of each episode that read “From the stories of P.G. Wodehouse.” My only defense is that it was the early 90s, and my attention to detail in those days was thin at best.
It’s my sacred duty to tell you that if you haven’t read P.G. Wodehouse, you need to do so as soon as possible. Once you’ve become addicted to the delightful world of his stories, his dazzling use of the English language, and the silly people he causes to run around doing silly things, you can find Jeeves and Wooster on Hulu. The series’ interpretation of Wodehouse’s stories is remarkably faithful, and both Fry and Laurie are brilliant.
I first caught Blackadder on A&E around 1992, and I didn’t have a clue what to make of it. Part of this was due to the fact that I was watching episodes out of order. Over four seasons, comedian Rowan Atkinson plays four different versions of Edmund Blackadder (more than four, in fact, if you count additional installments), the first at the end of the War of the Roses, followed by the court of Elizabeth I, the Regency of Prince George, and World War I.
Many fans consider the second through fourth series of Blackadder to be the best, and I agree, but the first is still better than most any other series in its category. It’s in the second season, after all, when Atkinson and Tony Robinson seem to hit their strides playing Edmund and his dogsbody Baldrick. Throughout the series, other characters come and go, but the core is always Edmund, with his sarcastic wit, and Baldrick, whose cunning plans become increasingly less cunning. And like Monty Python, although the historical accounts in Blackadder are often somewhat skewed, they still manage to be educational.
Everything about this show makes me happy—thinking about it, watching it, writing about it, doesn’t matter. It’s made by three of my favorite funny people: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End). Bottom line, Spaced is one of the greatest television comedies I’ve ever seen, and it’s a master class of what television comedy should be. Each episode comes in at around 24 minutes, but every one packs in as much as you’d normally find in a feature length film.
The story of Spaced starts when twenty-somethings Tim and Daisy meet each other and agree to pose as a couple in order to rent a flat. Right away, they’re joined by a group of delightfully weird characters, played by some of the funniest British actors out there, all of whom make everyday life funnier than it has any right to be. It’s also fun to see Wright, Pegg, and Frost building the foundation for what they’d later perfect in their Cornetto Trilogy. On top of this, Spaced is an excellent example of how a show can become much greater than its initial premise.
Horrible Histories (2009)
Horrible Histories is built around historical sketches, ranging from the Stone Age to post World War II, many of which are set to songs inspired by music from the 80s and 90s. For instance, the story of highwayman Dick Turpin plays to a song that sounds a lot like Adam and the Ants’ “Stand and Deliver,” Charles Dickens sings about his prose in a knockoff of The Smiths’ “This Charming Man,” and King Georges I-IV are featured singing “Born 2 Rule,” boyband style.
The niftiest thing about Horrible Histories (or HH, as we industry insiders call it), is that it’s geared toward kids but it actually appeals to everyone. (Well, everyone except people who hate everything.) It’s easy to see the Monty Python and Blackadder influences here, as the amazing cast sings, dances, and acts their way through horrible history. Horrible Histories is available in the U.S. on Hulu.
The Wrong Mans (2013)
The Wrong Mans is an action-adventure, comedy, and a buddy series, and the coolest thing about it is it manages to hit every one of those genre notes perfectly. James Corden (The Late Late Show with James Corden) and Mathew Baynton (Horrible Histories and You, Me, & the Apocalypse) play ordinary Joe city employees Phil and Sam, who try to stay one step ahead of international kidnappers, hitmen, and conspirators bent on taking them out as the result of an accidentally answered phone call. The joke of the show’s title comes from a Russian hitman’s grammar-challenged reply to Sam’s claims of his and Phil’s innocence: “So you are the wrong mans?”
The two greatest strengths of The Wrong Mans are the writing and acting, both of which come right back to Corden and Baynton, who also created and wrote the series. The story is perfectly paced, keeping the viewer on a short leash. The Wrong Mans was co-produced by Hulu and the BBC, but it’s available in the U.S. on Hulu. Just try not binge-watching this one.
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Okay, friends, your job now is to find these series and watch them all. I’ll be waiting to hear back from you.
(I know what you’re thinking—what about all the shows I missed? And I agree with you. I’m a jerk. There are scads of excellent British comedies out there that I haven’t listed here: Gavin & Stacey, The Detectorists, Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, The Office, The Young Ones, I’m Alan Partridge, Black Books, The IT Crowd, and the list goes on and on. And I know what you’re thinking now—what about all the shows I left out of that list? Alas, I have limited space.)