You may well have been following Vulture’s ongoing Sitcom Showdown™, if only to ask quite how in god’s name anyone ever thought Sex and the City was funnier than 30 Rock. If so, though, you may well have noted that consideration for the best-sitcom-of-the-last-30-years crown was limited to US-made shows. Quite why this decision was made is something that only Vulture know, but it seems a strange one given that there have been plenty of English-language sitcoms from outside this country that have been just as good, if not better, than anything on the Vulture list (except for The Simpsons, which thankfully won the whole Showdown). Here are some of our favorites.
The best British sitcom of the 1990s, in your correspondent’s humble opinion, and a strong contender for the title of the best overall. The show works on plenty of levels, and is hilarious on all of them: baby boomer satire, family drama, parody of the fashion world, absurdist sketch comedy. The characters are all pitch perfect, and at its best AbFab is both thought-provoking and side-splittingly funny.
The Thick of It
For many years, Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister held an unimpeachable position as your correspondent’s favorite political satires — and then along came The Thick of It (created by Armando Iannucci, who went on to helm HBO’s Veep), which is even better. The show employs a low-budget mockumentary style in depicting the inner workings of British government, and is both terrifyingly on-point and devastatingly funny. It’s like a (far) more cynical version of The West Wing, and everything House of Cards wanted to be, and hilarious to boot. And the swearing is amazing — where else could you hear a hapless backbencher be described as being “as useless as a marzipan dildo”?!
I’m Alan Partridge
The best example in recent years of the peculiarly British hide-behind-your-sofa school of cringe comedy that also gave us programs like Fawlty Towers, I’m Alan Partridge has been in the news of late due to the imminent arrival of its long-awaited big-screen adaptation. It’s hard to imagine the film surpassing the glory of the original series, though, which took the unlikely premise of a small-time radio host in sleepy Norwich and turned it into one of the most awkwardly hilarious shows you’ll ever, ever see.
And while we’re talking awkward, what about the UK version of The Office? There’s nothing wrong with the US remake per se, but the original is superior in pretty much every respect — largely because of Ricky Gervais’s David Brent, who was a creation to rival the comedic genius of Coogan’s Alan Partridge. Pretty much anyone who’s ever worked in a terrible job for a terrible boss can relate to this show.
Chris Morris is one of Britain’s great underrated comedy visionaries, and while Brass Eye remains his crowning achievement, his stab at the world of sitcoms was pretty great, too. Nathan Barley satirized VICE culture and sank the boot into hipsters long before it was fashionable to do so (and, more importantly, while it was still relevant to do so), and did a pretty fantastic job of it. The show was co-written with Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker and marked an early TV appearance for Julian Barratt, who would later go on to star in…
The Mighty Boosh
Surreal comedy par excellence. The Mighty Boosh is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of show, and which camp you fall into will depend on your tolerance for the sort of psychedelic whimsy that manifests itself in things like men made out of cheese and crabs fronting rock bands. Either way, though, the show remains one of the most idiosyncratic comedy creations of recent times — there’s really nothing else like it.
Yeah, you’ve probably seen the US remake of this, but take it from us, the original was way better. Whereas the US interpretation casts Jason Gann’s bong-smoking dog as a sort of liberating force in Elijah Wood’s life, the Australian version didn’t embrace any such positive sentiment — Wilfred was basically pure canine evil, devoted to making his mistress’s new boyfriend’s life as miserable as possible. Which, obviously, was way funnier.
The League of Gentlemen
The British also do dark comedy better than pretty much anyone else, and they don’t get much darker than the consistently sinister tales of fictional village Royston Vasey, the sort of town where you’d never, ever want your car to break down. The show is something like Deliverance rendered as grotesque sitcom, an idea that’s as bizarre in execution as it sounds in concept. All together now: “This is a local shop for local people!”
Not to be confused with the PBS series by the same name, this ’80s Australian sitcom was a razor-sharp satire on the workings of news and current affairs programs like 60 Minutes, lampooning the self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and egotism that characterized such shows’ journalistic endeavors. The show was so spot-on and influential that it basically ruined the career of popular TV host Stan Grant, on whom fictional Frontline host Mike Moore was based.
The Young Ones
It only just sneaks in under the 30-year cut-off, starting in 1982 and ending two years later, but over the course of its two-year run, The Young Ones managed to launch the careers of Adrian Edmondson, Ben Elton, and Rik Mayall; lampoon Cliff Richard; upset hippies everywhere; and provide a pretty convenient precis of the youth subcultures of post-punk England. And, y’know, it was hilarious.
Trailer Park Boys
Canada seems to specialize more in sketch comedies than sitcoms, but this was a pretty memorable exception, a thoroughly entertaining mockumentary take on the lives of trailer park residents in Nova Scotia. (Apparently the residents of the real trailer parks where its first series was shot didn’t take particularly kindly to it, but we always felt that it managed to largely avoid being exploitative, in the same way that, say, the original UK Shameless seemed to have a genuine fondness for its subjects.)
And finally, perhaps the best British sitcom of the last five years or so, and remarkably still getting better after eight seasons. The show has retreated somewhat from the “inside the characters’ heads” point-of-view that characterized its early seasons, maturing into a sitcom that’s augmented by, rather than defined by, its camera style. Meanwhile, its writing keeps getting stronger, somehow managing to make you care about what happens to characters who are both self-absorbed and odious (and, obviously, hilarious.)