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5 British TV Sitcoms that all Americans should know about

Updated on April 29, 2009

As a British ex-pat living in Japan, I’m very fortunate to work alongside people from all over the English-speaking world. I also work with lots of men and women from America.

Before you accuse me of implying that Americans don’t qualify as English speakers I should quickly clear that up. I didn’t mean to imply that at all. I meant to state it quite explicitly.

OK, wait! Please don’t add to my already shocking bounce rate by jumping off there. I should state that this is NOT an America-bashing article. The Americans I work with are all in fact shockingly up-to-date with the best that British comedy has to offer. That is, of course, save for a few exceptions. Everyone seems to know and love The Office, for example, and I’ve met a few Spaced fans around, but here are a few that seemed to slip the net.

Here are some shows that you should DEFINITELY take a look at.

Father Ted

Father Ted was recently voted Britain’s 11th favourite sit-com of all time. It’s also the highest ranked comedy that could really be called alternative. Set on the fictional CraggyIsland, the sit-com follows three catholic priests – all of whom have been banished to this remote location for ambiguous, but uniformly unpleasant reasons – and their middle-aged housekeeper. It features Irish actors and writers but was made with British money, so I feel OK in claiming it as kind of a UK product. (When so-called British films are made with American money then you’ll often see me abandon this logic.) The show ran for three seasons with each, in my opinion, a little better than the last. The Christmas special is also quite brilliant. I can’t promise you won’t go to Hell for watching it, but I can promise it will be worth it.

Phoenix Nights

Phoenix Nights is a fairly straight-faced mocumentay-style situation comedy set in a working men’s social club in the north of England. Compared to the work of Chris Morris, Julia Davis, and Ricky Gervais, Phoenix Nights is relatively sentimental and affectionate in tone. It’s written by, directed by and stars Peter Kay, who’s stand-up is also worth checking out. It ran for two seasons, and there was one pretty lame spin off called Max and Paddy’ Road to Nowhere. In fact it was so awful it can’t really be called a spin off. It just kind of flopped off, I guess.

The League of Gentlemen

The League of Gentlemen are the true heirs to Monty Python. The show first aired in 1999, and there has been a radio show, three TV series, two national tours, a Christmas special and even a movie. The show is really a snapshot of rural English life: shop owners who murder every customer who isn’t local; a circus master who kidnaps middle-class women (all called ‘Dave’); a network of cannibals and a German paedophilic school master. It’s all so true. So true.

The larger-and-far-more-frightening-than-life characters really stand out next to the po-faced affairs that were dominating British comedy at the time. There are some fantastic physical performances and even the catchphrases seem inspired. In my view, ‘You’re my wife now’, (uttered as a well-to-do lady is led into a cage by a gang of circus dwarfs) rips the wig off anything to feature in countless seasons of Little Britain.

I’m Alan Partridge

Much as I admire Steve Coogan (from a safe distance, with the headlights off so he doesn’t notice) I find it so hard to care about anything he does that isn’t Alan Partridge. From the moment we first heard his voice on BBC radio’s On the Hour, through The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You and then the two sublime seasons of I’m Alan Partridge, Alan’s creators – unlike the character himself – have never overstayed their TV welcome. Alan is a failed broadcaster who suffers with status anxiety. He is consumed with the need to find work communicating with a general public for whom he has nothing but contempt. From thence, as they probably never say, the humour arises. If you survived the cringingly brilliant The Office without reaching for the pillow, then you really must try I’m Alan Partridge.

The Mighty Boosh

The Mighty Boosh is so wonderfully imaginative in its situations and storylines that it’s easy to miss that revolves around a well-trodden double-act formula. Howard is pretentious, and convinced of his own hidden depths and talents, while Vince is sunny, air headed and effortlessly successful in everything he nonchalantly attempts. The first TV season was set in a zoo; the second was set in a north London flat and the third in a second-hand store run by a shaman. Much of the action takes place outside, however – in the mating grounds of yetis, in monkey hell, out on the Arctic tundra and in the watery lair of Old Gregg – a semi-human sea monster with Prince-like features and a ‘downstairs mix-up’ he insists on showing to a terrified Howard. The music is also pretty good. If you’re going to give the Boosh a try, then I would start with the first season and watch them consecutively. It won’t make any more sense that way, but I’m obsessive-compulsive so please just do what I ask.

That’ll be all for now. I’ll add some more recommendations at a later date, but to my mind, these are the cream of the crop.



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