Laugh it up…
There is probably no other form of popular entertainment that is as subjective as comedy. How can you tell a guffawing idiot that the source of their mirth isn’t funny? You can’t. Because they are laughing at it. It seems odd that people who share the same taste in films and music can be such polar opposites when it comes to comedy. Lots of people like Mrs. Brown’s Boys. Lots of people like Gavin & Stacey. I would literally rather watch a blank screen for thirty minutes than either of those two shows.
So, to traverse the world of the ‘best’ comedy shows seems a fool’s errand. Luckily, there is no bigger fool than me.
Let’s get to the rules. Firstly, nothing that is still running so no Catastrophe, Flowers or Fleabag. No sketch shows, ruling out Fast Show, Monty Python or anything involving Harry Enfield. And lastly, it has to be British. Let’s get on with it…
10. Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003)
Number of episodes: 80
Only Fools and Horses is arguably the UK’s most beloved sitcom. The antics of Delboy and Rodney Trotter are so ingrained in British life that Stewart Lee has devoted an entire routine to that time when Del fell through the bar…
Sure, it’s broad and it’s populist, but it’s also warm, life affirming and, most importantly, funny. Despite losing it’s way a little bit towards the end, no other sitcom has provided so many memorable moments as those gifted to us by Trotters Independent Traders.
9. The Inbetweeners (2008-2010)
Number of episodes: 18
This is where things become immediately messy (not unlike Jay’s bedsheets). For some, the Inbetweeners is a mere footnote in the history of British comedy. I was 21 however when Jay, Simon, Will and Neil first hit TV screens in the UK; fresh out of high school, still not speaking to girls and wondering where I fit in. The Inbetweeners felt like it was written for me, about me by people who were just as lost as I was.
There is a strong case for the Inbetweeners as the last great British comedy phenomen and in just 18 episodes, creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris perfectly captured what it was to be an awkward adolescent.
Basically, the Inbetweeners was the antithesis of all those American high school movies that made us feel so insignificant in the ’90s. A modern classic.
8. Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
Number of episodes: 12
Hugely influential, steeped in legend and beloved by generation after generation of comedy fans, Fawlty Towers is a behemoth of British comedy. A titan. John Cleese and his talented co-stars set the template for the ‘perfect’ British sitcom. 12 episodes. A simple premise. Memorable comedic set pieces.
Fawlty Towers is about so much more than not mentioning the war and Basil Fawlty attacking his car with a branch however. Each episode is a gold mine of comic perfection.
7. The Young Ones (1982-1984)
Number of episodes: 12
Birthed from the explosion of the punk movement and drenched in anti-establishment surrealism, The Young Ones not only defined a generation, it also launched the careers of a variety of comedy superstars, from Rik Mayall to Alexei Sayle to Ben Elton.
I was introduced to The Young Ones from an early age and was instantly obsessed. It’s surprising with such a strong comic pedigree that I turned out to be so humourless myself. A bit like Neil the hippy now I think about it…
6. Red Dwarf (1988-1999)
Number of episodes: 52
As with the Inbetweeners, this will be a controversial entry, but it is also a necessary one. The genesis of my love for British comedies may have started with The Young Ones but it was Red Dwarf that became my first love. The Young Ones was my Dad’s show but Red Dwarf was mine.
As a child I was only allowed to stay up passed Coronation Street in two scenarios. Late kick off Champions League games on ITV and Red Dwarf on BBC 2. I relished both with such ferocity that Lister, Kryten, Rimmer and Cat will always have a special place in my heart.
I have never seen the rebooted episodes so I am conveniently ignoring them here but for a while, Red Dwarf was the most watchable, and funniest, British comedy out there.
5. Father Ted (1995-1998)
Number of episodes: 25
Regular readers will know of my obsession with all things ’90s. Whilst, for me, that decade was defined by music, films and football, a lot of the TV shows from that era have been lost to the sands of time. Not Father Ted.
The premise of a group of exiled priests living together on a parochial island is an odd one but Dermot Morgan makes it work with his masterful turn as the eponymous Ted. His co-stars are just as memorable with the characters of Father Jack, Father Dougal and Mrs. Doyle all firmly entrenched in British comedy culture.
Father Ted isn’t a complex show, but it combines genuine laugh-out-loud moments with bucket loads of heart. Crucially, whilst we are laughing at Ted and his clerical brethren, we also rooting for them.
4. The Office (2001-2003)
Number of episodes: 14
Is it possible to make a TV show that is perfect? Possibly not, but the Office is surely as close as you can get. Not content with making household names of Ricky Gervais and Martin Freeman, the Office also revolutionised comedy television, both here and in America.
The thing that makes the Office so spectacular is just how ordinary it is. Anyone who has ever worked a dead end job could relate to the uneasy and unique relationships that blossom throughout Wernham Hogg.
Ricky Gervais’ career has since become a long descent into diminishing returns but with the Office he created something that will last forever, that rarest of beasts, a TV show that changed everything.
3. League of Gentlemen (1999-2017)
Number of episodes: 22
What started out as a cult word-of-mouth hit, has now transformed into a bona fide comedy classic. The twisted and desperate inhabitants of Royston Vasey are disgustingly beautiful and also about as dark as dark can be whilst still being funny.
League of Gents secret weapon is how much messers Pemberton, Shearsmith and Gatiss throw themselves into the grotesque characters they play, and also how much damn fun they are having. The whole show is infectious and the fact that you watch some sections through your fingers makes it all the more compelling.
One of the most unique, intelligent and exciting British comedies ever made.
2. I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002)
Number of episodes: 12
If this were a list of the greatest British comedy characters then there could only be one undisputed champion atop that particular throne. Alan Partridge has been delighted audiences in various guises for decades now and shows no signs of slowing down.
The most quotable British comedy ever? Perhaps. The funniest? Probably. Steve Coogan has achieved so much in his career and will go down as one of Britain’s all time comedy greats, but there is no doubting that Alan Partridge is the jewel in his crown.
1. Peep Show (2003-2015)
Number of episodes: 54
Peep Show might not have that magic-in-a-bottle alchemy of the Office or warm jumper familiarity of Only Fools and Horses but at 54 episodes it tops this list simply for maintaining an unbelievably high standard for the longest amount of time.
Peep Show manages to have universal appeal despite being packed full of complex references to literature, ancient history and Frosties. The beauty of Peep Show lies in the fact that you can pick any episode from any season and still find something to enjoy even after repeated viewings.
This is another entry that will be controversial but in Mark and Jeremy, Peep Show has offered two characters that seem to perfectly capture two conflicting sides of my own personality. Irresponsible hedonism and obsessive compulsive caution. They are the anti-hero’s that it’s OK to like.
And that, as they say, is that. Thanks for reading and here are some honourable mentions (for the record, Blackadder would have been number 11 had this list carried on).
The Thick of It
The Likely Lads
The Mighty Boosh