An excellent way to progress in English is to watch British TV shows. British Comedy is renowned and celebrated around the world. It is unique, quirky and strange at times but indisputably hilarious. However, certain cultural concepts or grammatical forms do not translate well from English to other languages. Sometimes, jokes are lost in translation and subtitles can make everything even more confusing. As a result, with limited vocabulary and cultural context, some comedy shows can leave beginners a little cold.
The best remedy is to watch those shows anyway. You can start with “easier” sitcoms then, as your English improves, move to “more sophisticated” comedies. (Disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive list. The 10 British Comedy sitcoms listed below have been arranged from “easy” to “difficult to understand » for a non-English native audience, based on a selection of criteria. Just Focus looked at: the level of language used, the density of the dialogues, the presence of physical humour/slapstick, the cultural and historical references, accents etc…)
Black Books (2000)
We follow the lunacies of misanthropic bookshop owner Bernard Black and his friends Manny and Fran. It’s a great show to start your British Comedy journey with. The humour mainly comes from the idiosyncratic characters struggling to act appropriately in every-day situations. The result is terribly funny. Moreover, the cultural references used in the show, such as Frankenstein (in the S1E3 episode Grapes of Wrath) are transferable in most languages.
The IT Crowd (2006)
The IT Crowd also focuses on a few characters and the action is concentrated in one location. Two socially inadequate geeks team up with an outgoing and ambitious but incompetent colleague to try to survive office-life and the insane schemes of their outrageous boss. Here too, the off-beat personalities clash with the stuffy formality of the work environment which leads to humorous scenes.
A failed comic-book artist, who’s just got dumped and a lazy wannabe-author decide to share an apartment together. As their friendship strengthens, they attempt to manoeuvre eccentric friends, strange neighbours and their ominous landlady. Crazy characters, geeky references, and a dose of the fantastic make this show incredibly fun to watch. In addition, Jessica Stevenson and Simon Pegg made the protagonists endearing and relatable, which only adds quality of the series.
The Young Ones (1982)
The premise already sounds like a joke: “an anarchist, a punk, a hippy and a sketchy dude in a suit walk into a room.” Mayhem ensues. When The Young Ones came out, it was a huge success with British young people. This British Comedy was later labelled “a TV revolution”, “the voice of a generation”! The Young Ones consists of the attempts of four students at cohabiting in a rundown house. Gratuitous violence, slapstick, crazy props, explosions, improbable plot twists, on top of what, each episode is randomly interrupted by a live rock music concert performed by actual 80s bands. It’s insane and it’s so much fun.
Absolutely Fabulous (1992)
Beyond the obvious physical comedy of Edina drunkenly falling off her car and the ridiculous 90s fashion, Absolutely Fabulous is a show about women. The comedy relies on the reversed mother/daughter relationship and the over-the-top antics of best friends, Edina and Patsy. The subjects of motherhood, unwanted pregnancy, female friendship, alcoholism, drug addiction, plastic surgery, and the pressure (ranging from the fashion industry and society to the family circle) on women to be perfect, are addressed head-on. We laugh at these middle-aged women rejecting anyone’s expectations. Jennifer Saunders’s dialogues are incredibly rich and the characters, underneath their clown-like exterior, have depth and humanity. Who said women weren’t funny?
The Mighty Boosh (2004)
This British Comedy show is surreal, psychedelic and filled with insane arts-and-crafts costumes. We follow the adventures of two zookeepers. The show is quirky and strange. It goes back and forth from reality to hallucination. Everything is unexpected and whimsical. There is also a fairy tale vibe, like the Wizard of Oz, but glam rock. As you give up trying to understand, you let yourself fall into a comedic rabbit hole.
Still Game (2002)
Still Game is the not-so-quiet life of the “cheeky-wee-old” Scottish pensioners Jack and Victor. Both widowers, they live in a tower building, in a poor part of Glasgow. With their old, retired friends, they try to occupy their days with mischievous scheming and shenanigans. Their personalities and the improbable situations they find themselves are side-splitting. This show also deals with the subjects of old age, the fear of death and loneliness that comes with it. The Scottish accent might feel a little overwhelming at first but with the subtitles on, you’ll quickly get used to it and might even grow fond of it.
Bottom’s not to everyone’s taste, mostly due to the “below the belt” humour. On top of which, the heavy slapstick and violence can come across as “dumb”. However, there is a Beckett’s Waiting for Godot atmosphere throughout the show featuring two ultimate losers. Unemployed, single, tyrannical, alcoholic, perverted and violent amongst many undesirable characteristics, they float about their sordid apartment in hope of a better life that they are both incapable of attaining. Rick’s monologues are brilliant in their poetic wonkiness and delusion and complement and contrast with the ambient bleakness and violence of their existence.
The Thick of It (2005)
It’s a deep dive in the offices of the British Government’s administrations. The chronically incompetent cabinet ministers must be “whipped”. “The Whip” is played by Peter Capaldi (Dr Who). His performance as a fear-instilling problem-solver (his problem solving mainly consisting in verbally abusing his incompetent colleagues with the most creative insults) is a delight. The dialogues are the work of a virtuoso and we indulge in watching the people who are supposed to be in charge, get the scolding they deserve.
Black Adder (1983)
Finally, Black Adder might be one of the funniest British Comedy shows but also potentially the most difficult to understand for non-natives. We follow Edmund aka Black Adder (played by Rowan Atkinson) thought the ages as he returns each season reincarnated. Season 1 is set during the middle-ages, season 2 during the Elizabethan reign, season 3 during the Regency and the final season during WWI. Each season, the characters return changed and the cast (Tony Robinson, Miranda Richardson, Tim McInnerny, Steven Fry, Hugh Laurie) is spectacular. If the first season is passable, the next three are unmissable.
But be warned: puns, historic references, elaborated language, snappy irony, and general British wit are an integral part of the show. It is so funny because it is so rich. On the bright side, because it’s so good, it can be watched over and over. And, if you miss a joke on your first time, you’ll be sure to get it the next. To watch and laugh at Black Adder might be the true test of fluency in English.