❉ Earlier this year, ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ was voted the Best British Sitcom of the 21st century. Here’s our own pick of the best sitcoms of the 21st century so far.
‘Radio Times’ recently revealed that a panel had voted ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ the most popular situation comedy of the twenty first century. Given that this site is devoted to all things cult, and ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ is incredibly mainstream (although there’s another article to be written about just how mainstream a sitcom can be with a dragged up star, one of whose children is gay – we’ve come a long way) we decided to produce our own top 20, this time including sitcoms from around the world. Well, sitcoms in the English language, anyway. Drama may travel, comedy doesn’t seem to have done so yet…
We polled our growing team of contributors (the door is always open if you wish to join our tribe!) for their top sitcom picks, and whittled the votes down to the shortlist that follows using a highly complicated mathematical algorithim (a calculator), complete with commentary. All curated by the fair hand of the resourceful Alun Harris (available for parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs and vasectomies).
Heads up for our countdown from 20! Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin…
20) Toast of London
One of Channel 4’s most recent sitcom successes, ‘Toast of London’ features Matt Berry as Steven Toast. In the series, we follow the trials and tribulations of Toast as he attempts to navigate his way through the world of acting.
Toast is a fabulous character. A bumbling eccentric, he often finds himself dealing more with his problems off-stage then with his career on stage. Despite his often strange diction and his endearing habit of referring to other actors by their surnames, Matt Berry manages to make Toast very likeable and sympathetic, even though he often creates his own downfall. You often feel for Toast as he becomes the butt of Danny Bear’s and Clam Fandango’s voiceover practical jokes.
With frequent musical numbers sung by Berry himself and cameos from favourites such as Paul Darrow, Peter Davison (who sends himself up rotten), Monty Python’s Carol Cleveland, and a wonderful appearance by Mad Men’s John Hamm, Toast is a wonderfully irreverent take on the acting world. Si Hart
19) Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace
Easily one of the finest sitcoms of the past twenty years, ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’ feels very authentically low-budget ’80s: Bad hair, poorly dubbed dialogue, cheesy music, wooden acting and continuity errors aplenty. It not only spoofs horror clichés, but sci-fi, cop shows and crap 1980s B-Movies in general.
In many ways I think ‘Darkplace’ was before its time. If you look at the recent internet sensation ‘Kung Fury’ it is very similar in style and tone. If you love ‘The I.T. Crowd’, ‘The Mighty Boosh’ and ‘Toast of London’ but you haven’t seen ‘Darkplace’, you need to remedy that as soon as possible. One last thing – if you don’t love Matt Berry’s ‘One Track Lover’ song, then you have a swinging brick for a heart. It’s an Eighties classic that never was. Much like ‘Darkplace’ itself. David Geldard
Ex-roadie with anger management issues, Tommy Saxondale may well be Steve Coogan’s most underrated creation, fated to live in the shadow of the Alpha Papa.
Tommy Saxondale is a spot-on send-up of a certain kind of Clarksonesque fiftysomething male in a state of denial; still deluding himself that he’s raging against the machine, when in fact he’s the face of Hertfordshire’s pest control industry. ‘They see themselves as very much a part of youth culture, but are now not a part of youth culture,’ Coogan told the Telegraph at the time. ‘How they relate to the world, I thought, was a really fruitful area that hadn’t been tapped a lot in terms of comedy. How do those rebellious people deal with the fact that the Prime Minister’s got an electric guitar?’
‘Saxondale’ didn’t quite cohere in the way ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ did, but provided more than its fair share of memorable moments, and solid support is provided by Tesco shill Ruth Jones, who had already proved her comedy chops with guest roles in ‘Little Britain’ and Baby Cow productions ‘Nighty Night’ and ‘Human Remains.’ James Gent
17) Peep Show
In ‘Peep Show’, the first-person POV sitcom detailing the squalid, desperate lives of two thirtysomething underachievers, here was the impotence and inadequacies of the Gen-X white Brit male writ large, the one (Jeremy) drifting through life opportunistically, secretly aware that he’s looking down the barrel of youth from the wrong end, the other (Mark) feigning respectability in the 9 to 5 rat race when really he’d rather be onanistically flipping through ‘Stalingrad’ for the umpteenth time while pining after his female colleagues like an aged Adrian Mole.
‘Peep Show’ doesn’t portray masculinity in a very flattering light, but it’s hilarious in its truthfulness, as Jez and Mark stagger from one pathetic misadventure to the next. It’s also given us the rubric wisdom of Super Hans, a late blooming wave of credibility for the marvellous Wanda Ventham, brought the subtle comedic skills of Olivia Colman to a wider audience, and actually had an arc and trajectory of sorts. Strip away its unique, first person perspective gimmick and you’ll find an honest sitcom in the finest British tradition. James Gent
‘Detectorists’ is the most deceptive comedy of the twenty-first century. On the surface it seems almost a modern ‘Last of the Summer Wine’; a cosy comedy set in a rural area in which nothing much actually happens. A folk music style score; long, loving tracking shots of some beautiful East Anglian countryside and characters mostly walking around talking nonsense. Normally these are things that get ridiculed – in a TV world dominated by urban settings and where exciting things happen it’s almost an anomaly; a deliberate throwback, and therein lies its charm.
Lance and Andy may never escape the routine of their lives but it’s the trying that counts; it’s this compassion that informs the series at every level; from Mackenzie Crook’s scripts to the beautifully subtle central performances from the modern David Jason Toby Jones and Crook. And just when you think it couldn’t get any better, Dame Diana Bloody Rigg turns up… Jon Arnold
15) Flight of the Conchords
Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement are two New Zealanders, struggling to make a living from their music in New York. Helped by their enthusiastic but inept manager Murray, they find themselves in a series of bizarre situations from staging a benefit concert for epileptic dogs to gang warfare with the members of the Australian Consulate; most delightfully of all, when Brett suffers a crisis of confidence, he finds himself getting advice every night from David Bowie!
Often stealing the show from The Conchords are the supporting cast. Rhys Darby is excellent as their manager Murray. Arj Barker plays Dave, their gun-obsessed, seemingly worldly-wise friend, who still lives with his parents. Kristan Schaal plays their biggest fan Mel, whose obsession with the band manages to be both creepy and very funny.
The highlight of the show though, is the finely crafted songs. From perfectly pitched pastiches of the Pet Shop Boys and David Bowie to hip-hop, garage and musicals, the songs manage to be both cleverly produced and very funny. Two top selling albums accompanied the series. Innocents abroad is not a new theme for comedy, but it’s seldom been used as perfectly as it is in ‘Flight of the Conchords’. Si Hart
Much like ‘Friends’, ‘Mongrels’ is about a group of urban socialites with complicated relationships who get into hilarious scrapes that are generally resolved in 25 minutes. Unlike Friends they’re all animals who live round the back of a pub on the Isle of Dogs. ‘Mongrels’ delivers a varied sitcom package. It’s surreal from the off because the characters are puppet animals so the regular breaks of the fourth wall, fantasy sequences and songs (one per episode) fit in perfectly.
‘Mongrels’ wasn’t for everyone. However, it’s miles ahead of most of BBC Three’s comedy output. The puppet-work is first rate, with puppets that are appealing without being cute. The writing was up-to-date, fearless and also pretty shameless, tackling topics ranging from underage sex to the addictive lure of squeaky toys. Watch ‘Mongrels’ soon while it still feels contemporary. Steve Alexander
13) The Mighty Boosh
‘The Mighty Boosh’ feels like a lost, forgotten thing these days. Often dismissed as dated, lightweight whimsy, it’s a square peg next to BBC Three’s more conventional hits like ‘Gavin and Stacey’ and ‘Him and Her’, less accessible because of the weird costumes and songs, and the fairytale world it’s set in. Made on a shoestring budget, their crepuscular world has a unique look, like Georges Melies making a Cure video on the cheap.
There’s way too much going on under the hood to discuss here, but its day-glo exterior conceals a dark underbelly. The fantastic characters are dark and dysfunctional, but really, it’s about Vince and Howard’s messed-up, co-dependent relationship. It’s essentially ‘Steptoe and Son’ as directed by Terry Gilliam.
‘The Mighty Boosh’ might be silly, and eschew the dull ‘real-life’ settings that most sitcoms inhabit, but there’s been nothing quite as bold, bonkers, and imaginative since. Martin Ruddock
12) House of Fools
‘House of Fools’ is a typical Vic & Bob production – that is to say, atypical – in this case, a non-traditional traditional sitcom. Silly, unselfconscious, subversive, and very funny, it’s based around Bob’s house, with Bob’s strange adult son living upstairs, Julie the sex pest who lives next door, and frequent visitors Vic, Vic’s son Bosh, Vic’s friend Beef played by the always hilarious Matt Berry, and the highly unlikely and surreal predicaments they get themselves into.
As is usual with Vic & Bob shows, it’s their relationship which is central and provides the laughs – the tremendous warmth, joyousness, slight homoeroticism (which is strongly played on in one episode), and the way they crack each other up is evident, and wonderful.
There’s the usual slapstick violence, anarchic chaos, random objects, unlikely scenarios, absurd characters, fabulous use of language, and jokes aplenty. The humour manages to never punch down, it doesn’t need to – V&B are far too eccentric and genuinely bonkers to need to resort to that – instead they gloriously take the piss out of themselves and each other, making good use of their own physicality too, as always. It’s OTT, hammy, they corpse frequently, and there’s the usual V&B in-jokes and knowing winks to camera. I love it, and them. Lou La Fandango
11) The Trip
When Michael Winterbottom pitched ‘The Trip’ to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both agreed it sounded “pretentious and tedious”. Inspired by some largely improvised clowning in a make-up trailer in his fourth-wall demolishing 2006 film ‘A Cock and Bull Story’, Winterbottom was convinced the idea of the two men riffing on heightened, larger-than-life versions of themselves had enough legs for a series.
True to the director’s guerrilla MO, the scripts didn’t amount to much more than a few plot beats within a loose framing device of a tour of fine dining establishments in the north of England (and, in the second series, Italy’s Amalfi Coast). Because Winterbottom knew all he really had to do was turn the camera over while Coogan and Brydon engaged in bouts of verbal sparring, niggling one-upmanship or competitive Michael Caine impressions, and comedy gold would surely follow. A strange, beautiful and funny TV original. Paul Kirkley
Universally adored by reviewers, ‘Catastrophe’ is a very modern sitcom – fast, filthy, feminist, incredibly realistic and hilariously funny. Written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the main characters being named after themselves, ‘Catastrophe’ sets out its stall in the first minute with Sharon and Rob meeting at a crowded bar in London and then cutting to them hooking up in Rob’s hotel room. By the fifth minute we’ve witnessed, in beautifully-shot short clips, a few-days relationship of fun and fucking, culminating in a shot of them fucking against a wall in a stairwell, and in the sixth minute Sharon calls Rob, ‘But I’m pregnant’. Yes, that fast. The camera moves about as the shot goes at pace from one character to the other, ‘fuck’ is used liberally, almost every line is funny.
There’s no filler, nothing irrelevant, just brilliant dialogue and gripping storyline. It’s an anti-romance anti-schmalz romantic comedy that takes its (often black) humour from everyday (if middle class) struggles of modern urban life, from awful friends to inappropriate work colleagues to an impressively mean mother-in-law (played with glee by Carrie Fisher). The thing that draws you in to Catastrophe is just how realistic it is, how likeable the characters are in their flawed authenticity, and how you just keep laughing all the way through and then it ends TOO QUICKLY. Seasons 3 & 4 have already been commissioned so if you’ve not seen it you have until 2017 to catch up on the first two immaculate seasons. Lou La Fandango
It’s not unusual for comedy writers to have a first big hit and spend the rest of their careers trying to live up to it. So it’s a joy to see the talents of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton leap ahead with every project they work on.
‘Psychoville’ may not have permeated pop culture like ‘The League of Gentlemen’, but it is sharper and more ambitious. For example, there’s a whole episode which is a spot-on parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’, filmed entirely in one shot. The figurehead of the show is the one-handed Mr Jelly, the tawdriest clown ever seen on television. The ball-pond scuffle with his respectable nemesis Mr Jolly is just one gloriously deranged moment where the viewer has to sit back and wonder what the hell they are watching.
It’s a glorious blend of drama, horror and comedy, delivering the kind of sophisticated storytelling that there should be a lot more of in the twenty-first century. Steve Alexander
8) Nathan Barley
If a comedy was ever ahead of its time, ‘Nathan Barley’ was it. Set in East London it provided one of the first mainstream looks at the modern hipster. The show centres around Dan Ashcroft, an ageing media type, writing for style magazine Sugar Ape. Ashcroft is one TV’s ultimate 21st Century misanthropes; wandering around the fictional cultural wasteland of Hosegate with an almost permanent look of utter contempt at the people and places he’s sent to observe. Nathan Barley is his disciple, a young geek about town whose main desire to be the coolest person on the scene results in situations both increasingly ridiculous and often unintentionally hilarious.
Created by arch satirists Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker from a character they first created for their website TVGoHome. The show was created from improvised ideas from both writers and cast. Mocking the sheer absurdity of a scene obsessed with finding the latest addition to their cool lives, it was one of the first shows to fully explore the powers of the internet, mobile technology, blogging, and digital media. In doing so, becoming about the first time anyone satirised a movement before it had even reached mainstream public consciousness.
A flop at the time, now Nathan Barleys are in cities everywhere. Sometimes life really does imitate art but it’s seldom as “Totally Mexico!” Peter Robinson
7) Arrested Development
Mitchell Hurwitz’s deliriously funny riches to rags tale takes that reliable sitcom staple, the dysfunctional family, and turns it up to 11 with an unforgettable gallery of grotesques, brilliantly brought to life by a to-die-for ensemble cast.
Determined to hang on to their champagne lifestyle, despite being in such reduced circumstances they’re forced to live in an unfinished showhome and drive an airport staircar, the Bluths are a compellingly awful illustration of the venality of the idle rich. Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter head up a feckless brood that includes simpering mommy’s boy Buster (Tony Hale), attention-seeking failed illusionist Gob (Will Arnett) and spoiled brat wannabe activist Lindsay (Portia de Rossi).
The real stand-out turns, though, are David Cross and Jason Bateman. Cross is sublime as Lindsay’s husband Tobias, a psychiatrist-turned-actor who’s either in denial or genuinely oblivious to the fact he’s clearly gay. As Michael, Bateman (the best straight man in the business) is the good apple in a rotten barrel tasked, to his endless despair, with holding this dysfunctional clan of dissolute reprobates together, while also trying to raise his permanently mortified teenage son, George Michael (Michael Cera).
By placing a cast of this quality in a constant crossfire of rapid-fire zingers – often the product of semi-improvised on-set spitballing – Hurwitz succeeds in crafting perhaps the most note-perfect comedy of the age. Paul Kirkley
6) Phoenix Nights
Like many people in the North, I grew up near a Working Men’s Club identical to the Phoenix Club and if you’ve ever spent any amount of time in one of these places you will know that the characters, the language and the images of the Phoenix Club were written with pinpoint accuracy. This was no sneering put-down though, it was as equally affectionate towards the Social Clubs as it was mocking.
The writers – Peter Kay, Dave Spikey and Neil Fitzmaurice – had the skill of writing such strong characters, sometimes as believable as they are ridiculous. I’m very sure every club had its own Brian Potter, and its own Jerry ‘The Saint’ Sinclair, complete with white suit. Surely, every club must have its serial liar like The Phoenix’s Kenny ‘Dagleish’ Senior? This was the man who claimed he was friends with the S.A.S., had slept with Bonnie Langford and claimed he was giving Jackie Chan a quote on some paint. Each character was an astute comic creation with an underlying pathos Alan Bennett would be proud of.
‘Phoenix Night’s classic status was assured when, like ‘Fawlty Towers’ before it, it finished after the second series. As Brian Potter himself would say, “Clubland will never die”. David Geldard
5) Nighty Night
Cancer isn’t funny. MS isn’t funny. Murder/suicides aren’t funny. Unless they’re coming from the astonishingly dark mind of Julia Davis. To describe ‘Nighty Night’ as a black comedy is understating just how shockingly, savagely dark this series is.
Centring around the character of Jill Tyrrell, a woman whose selfishness cannot be overestimated, ‘Nighty Night’ shows how an initially straightforward lie can escalate into the most appalling set of events possible. True, the escalation is nightmarish, but it makes sense, and although events are staggeringly extreme, they do seem credible while watching. It’s helped that everything is played so straight by such a strong cast: Julia Davis, Angus Deayton, Rebecca Front, Mark Gatiss and Felicity Montagu all play this as though it’s a drama, which only helps to make the comedy funnier. And this is funny, most often when it shouldn’t be.
But none of this ever seems as though it’s deliberately provocative for the sake of shocking – Davis really seems to care about Jill, and has done such a good job in making her rounded that it’s impossible to dislike her, and it’s impossible to be so offended that one fails to find humour in the situations presented. And no matter how tasteless the situations presented, they’re never less than hilarious. Alun Harris
4) Black Books
You need a mere two words to explain why ‘Black Books’ is the finest sitcom of the twenty-first century: Bernard Black. He’s one of the great lineage of British sitcom characters raging at the vicissitudes of life, following Hancock, Fawlty and Meldrew; raging darkly at the idiocy of the world. The problem with everything, he’s clearly concluded, is other people. He believes the world would be a better place if he was left to smoke and drink his life away in a festering, overcrowded second-hand bookshop. Quite frankly, it’s hard to argue with any of that. The malicious relish with which creator and co-writer of every episode Dylan Moran plays him is a joy; anyone who’s ever worked in retail will recognize the sheer joy of being dismissive of fools or those simply trying it on.
Around this untrammelled id of a central character Moran spins a deftly surreal world fueled by ineptitude, misanthropy and wine (mainly wine) in a manner similar to ‘Father Ted’ and ‘The IT Crowd’. With a Who’s Who of comedy talent extracting every laugh from fine comic writing it’s close to the perfect sitcom. Jon Arnold
3) Curb Your Enthusiasm
In no other comedy will the main character compliment a father on the size of his pre-pubescent son’s penis. No one other than Larry David would manage to print an obituary for his wife’s late aunt that includes the typo “Beloved cunt.” And only Larry David could pretend to have been sexually abused by his uncle simply to fit in at a group therapy session for survivors of abuse.
Astonishingly, in all three of these situations, Larry was trying to do the right thing. Indeed, throughout eight seasons Larry continually tries to do the right thing, usually with horrendous results– he’s a character with no internal censorship at all, something from which most of the comedy stems. It’s nearly always Larry’s fault that events spiral out of control and whilst the audience can see where events start to go wrong, they can rarely anticipate how they’ll play out.
Crucially, no matter how cringe-worthy, how shocking or how tasteless the situations in which Larry finds himself, they’re always breathtakingly funny. The phrase “comedy genius” is bandied around too readily, but Larry David genuinely is one, which is why this American import scored so highly in our poll. Alun Harris
2) The IT Crowd
Having worked at length at the end of a phone, being frequently yelled at by irate people with malfunctioning PCs or laptops, and put up with all manner of unreasonable or plain impossible demands, and bit my tongue as somebody quoted ‘The IT Crowd’ at me, I should hate ‘The IT Crowd’ with a passion. But I can’t. It’s just too bloody loveable.
But ‘The IT Crowd’ isn’t really about computers. It’s really about a bunch of loveable misfits, attempting to negotiate life, and mostly failing. The three leads: unlucky-in-love Roy (Chris O’Dowd), introverted Moss (Richard Ayoade), and their ambitious-yet-clueless boss Jen (Katherine Parkinson), and their ridiculous adventures are comedy gold. They form an ensemble with their horrible boss at Reynholm Industries and their gang show is also held together by some brilliantly bonkers scripts and situations. ‘Gay – The Musical’. The Best Bra In The World. The ‘internet’. The door that should never be opened. Street Countdown. The confidence-boosting qualities of women’s trousers. Arsenal walking it in. Pretty much everything that Matt Berry says and does. The list goes on. It’s got a commendable hit rate, and ended before it got stale, for which much thanks. Martin Ruddock
1)The Thick of It
Whilst ‘Peep Show’ dealt with the thirtysomethings of the early 2000s and their ambitions and foibles, ‘The Thick of It’ took its cue from a much grander stage; the world of 21st Century politics, where the politics of yesteryear tried to outsmart the politics of today, and failed miserably.
Gone are the days of waiting. Now we have the Internet, mobile phone with cameras; 24/7 instant EVERYTHING. One wrong step, one unfortunately worded statement and it could be fatal. Hilarious for us, though.
Enter Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). He’s the foul-mouthed spin doctor for the Labour Party: he’s the Scottish Grandmaster Funk of Cuntery and pray for those who gets in his way. And do they! The cast of obstacles includes the bumbling Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham), who was replaced by the slightly more competent Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front), the gangly, self-centred and cocky Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison), plus a bevy of supporting characters.
‘The Thick of It’ lasted for four series with a few specials and even had a film spinoff, ‘In the Loop’, that did moderately well on both sides of the Atlantic. Malcolm Tucker is now in the cultural lexicon, inasmuch as Victor Meldrew was before him.
There is no other time this show could have been made. The Thatcher years provided us with ‘Yes, Minister’ and now? Who knows? But it’s certainly not the world in which ‘The Thick of It’ lived. Creator Armando Iannucci and co embraced the moment and we all reaped the reward. Ian McCann
❉ How many of these shows have you seen? What would you include in YOUR top 20 sitcoms of the new millennium? Did we miss out your favourites? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, on our Facebook page, or Tweet us!