As you know, Netflix is an almost bottomless reservoir of thrillers, drama, true crime and Jack Whitehall vehicles. But where to begin when it comes to comedy?
There's a lot of funny stuff on Netflix, which has picked up the cream of the BBC and Channel 4's output and made them available for streaming whenever you need a pick-me-up. Plus, Netflix's originals have really picked up in the last couple of years.
Let us talk you through the best of the streaming giant's comedy series. And reader: there are no Jack Whitehall vehicles.
The Office (USA)
Way back in 2005, comedy fans feared that an American adaptation of The Office – one of the most quintessentially British sitcoms of all time, bathed in tragicomic banality – was doomed to fail. The first season didn’t do much to change their minds. It was fine; funny enough, but a lot of it felt over-sanitised and misjudged. Creator Greg Daniels went back to the drawing board for the second season, and his decision to ditch the cringe and adopt a brighter, more absurdist tone soon paid off in spades. Steve Carell’s wide-eyed take on the branch manager, Michael Scott, quickly escaped David Brent’s body-popping shadow and became an iconic, fully realised character in his own right, and Jim (Tim) and Pam’s (Dawn) will-they-won’t-they romance was handled with aplomb. Fifteen years and nine seasons later, The Office (USA) is treated by many critics as either equal to or better than the BBC original – and while those critics are unequivocally wrong, it’s still a must-watch (even if it did overstay its welcome).
During its original run on Fox, from 2003 to 2006, Arrested Development felt revolutionary. ‘The story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together’, creator Mitchell Hurwitz’s show was as clever as it was funny, as joyfully weird as it was ambitious in its storytelling, and we’d go as far as to say that the second season is just about perfect. But the show’s cult status couldn’t protect it against subpar viewing figures, and it was predictably cancelled after its third season. The brilliant cast soon found success elsewhere – most notably Michael Cera in Juno – but Arrested Development fans refused to stop campaigning for a fourth season. It ultimately took seven years for Netflix to step in and for the actors to relent, but it was far from the reunion people were hoping for. Due to scheduling conflicts, the characters are rarely in the same room all at once – a real problem for a show that relied so heavily on the Bluth family’s chemistry. The fifth season arrived a half-decade later and reunited the cast, but it was no use: the old magic was gone. (Still, watch it!)
The Good Place
When Eleanor wakes up in the Good Place, she's convinced there must have been a mistake. She was awful: selfish, vain, rude. What did she do to earn eternal bliss and endless frogurt? Small-time criminal Jason's there too, plus philosophy nerd Chidi and society gadabout Tahani. Fortunately, they've got the rest of eternity to figure it all out. There are a lot of extremely large ideas at play here, and it managed to pretty much stick an extremely tricky landing at the conclusion of the last season.
Dan and Eugene Levy's awards-gobbling juggernaut might be about a family of four entitled and out-of-touch ex-one-percenters who fall foul of the IRS and tumble into backwoods nowheresville, but it's also one of the nicest, most full-hearted shows around. The Roses – awkward business dad Johnny, resting actor and wig fanatic mother-in-name-only Moira, dim bulb socialite Alexa and squeamish, insecure David – slowly find friendship, meaning and community in Schitt's Creek, a town they bought as a gag.
A tragicomedy about an anthropomorphised horse who used to have a sitcom but is now extremely sad about what his life means now he's washed up is not a straightforward sell for a cartoon series. But there are few shows which have managed to dig so deeply into so many subtle shades of human experience: depression and trauma, racism and sexism, addiction and violence. It's really remarkable.
Game developer Nadia keeps waking up at the same party. Groundhog Day has come to New York City, specifically Nadia's 36th birthday bash. But instead of simply finding that the clock ticks back to 6am and 'I Got You Babe' starts blasting again, she keeps being murdered. What's going on? Has she been spiked? Is she in purgatory? Natasha Lyonne's brilliant reworking of the time loop genre never repeats itself.
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson
In an era when TV sketch comedy is a bit of a low ebb, I Think You Should Leave is a blast of relentlessly odd, unexpected and intensely funny energy which revitalised the whole genre pretty much on its own. Former Saturday Night Live cast member Tim Robinson has an eye for pushing inane situations into weirdness, into insanity, via morbidity and stupidity and all the way through into hilarity. In an era when literally everything has been done, I Think You Should Leave is truly like nothing else.
Trix Worrell's landmark Channel 4 sitcom set in a Peckham barbershop is one of the big winners of the streaming revolution, earning another life and new viewers on Netflix and All4. It may be more than 30 years old, but its energy and sense of daring – what other sitcom would have its central characters getting held up at gunpoint – mean it still feels fresh.
It's still very funny, and still an important way-marker. The British sitcom has generally been an extremely white genre, but after decades in which Black characters turned up in sitcoms largely for comedy bigots to gawk furiously at, Desmond's was a sitcom written by Black writers, for a Black cast, and made by a predominantly Black crew.
"It was the first Black business you really saw on television," Worrell told the Guardian. "It doesn’t matter that the guy can’t cut hair! More than that, the underlying principle was if you’re a minority in a predominantly white society, you have to laugh. Comedy is what keeps you going."
Shaun the Sheep
If you've got some kind of hang-up about Aardman's peerless Shaun the Sheep shorts just because it originally aired on CBBC, then a) we feel for you and b) hang that hang-up back on your hang-up hanger, because the sixth series aired on Netflix earlier this year. "My niece!!" you might laugh airily when your flatmate asks why Shaun the Sheep is on your 'Continue watching' list. "She loves it!!" Your flatmate will look at you. He loves Shaun the Sheep too, he says. "Can we watch Shaun the Sheep?" you ask. Yes, he says. Let's watch Shaun the Sheep. And you'll have an absolutely great night.
Right, I'm going to go out on a limb here: Gogglebox is not just the best programme currently airing on British TV, it might the best British TV programme of the 21st century. No, really. Spinning back through the archives to experience the last five years or so of unfolding cataclysms – Brexit, climate change, two elections, coronavirus, Fern Britton and Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius – is an oddly heartening experience, reminding you that vibe of Britain's living rooms is generally healthily sceptical, endearingly daft and very funny.
The Thick of It
Armando Ianucci's masterful black comedy inspired an Oscar-nominated feature film, In The Loop, and then the multi-Emmy-winning Veep. But the original series is still the most insightful – and depressing – political satire of the last 40 years. The writing is drum-tight, but Ianucci's improvisational approach to directing creates a sense of chaos that perfectly encapsulates the modern political system. At the centre of it all lurks Malcolm Tucker, one of the most hilariously malevolent creations in television history. All together now: "He's as useless as a marzipan dildo."
Yes, Graham Linehan's descent into Twitter trolldom is deeply saddening, but at least we still have the work. His sitcom about a trio of incompetent IT professionals struck the same balance between domesticity and zaniness that had made Father Ted a success a decade earlier, and proved the most unexpected launchpad for Chris O'Dowd to conquer Hollywood.
I'm Alan Partridge
The greatest British comedy character ever created? You'll find no arguments here. Of Alan's many iterations, from sports reporter on The Day Today to his big screen appearance in Alpha Papa, the six episodes he spends in a Travel Tavern "equidistant between Norwich and London" are his zenith, closely followed by the follow-up series in which he's moved to a static caravan in his own garden. With Armando Ianucci at the helm and Coogan yet to fall either completely out of, nor completely back in, love with the character he'll never escape, I'm Alan Partridge is a note-perfect (and endlessly quotable) take on toxic Middle England masculinity.
Toast of London
Matt Berry has made a career out of playing foghorn-voiced blowhards, from The Mighty Boosh's Dixon Bainbridge to vampire Laszlo in What We Do In The Shadows. Steven Toast, however, is his zenith; a sex-obsessed, barely employed actor who drinks and shags his way around London while offending everyone he interacts with. Fittingly for a show centred on an actor whose heyday was 30 years ago, each episode feels spiritually of a kind with a Ray Cooney farce, albeit one that features Michael Ball as an assassin who contains too much blood, and a hipster voiceover engineer by the name of Clem Fandango.
It would have been all too easy for this comedy set in a dingy shared university house to have just been The Young Ones with iPhones. But as you'd expect from the creators of Peep Show, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong come at it character-first, ensuring that their disparate students – the posh one, the overachieving one, the hard-drinking, hard-shagging one – never feel like caricatures. Between the laughs, it's also surprisingly moving. Make sure you've got a box of tissues on hand for the series finale.
Inside No 9
Created by the folks behind The League of Gentlemen, this darkly comic anthology series is the spiritual successor to Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. Each episode is based around a different location linked to the number nine, which gives the team free rein to explore everything from a very tense game of sardines a hotel farce told in iambic pentameter. As funny as it is frightening.
Rewatching The Office, it's astonishing how much the world of work has changed, but how universal the comedy still feels. Ricky Gervais's best (and earliest) work came when he was closest to the worlds he depicted, which afforded him the familiarity to dissect characters we all knew and loathed. Two decades on, The Office isn't quite as skin-crawling as it once was. But that's a sign of its influence – in Gervais's wake, the comedy of discomfort went mainstream.
Ricky Gervais's other masterpiece had hints of the warm-and-fuzzy poison that would infect his later work (especially Derek) but Extras keeps things cruel enough that it's still a wonderfully uncomfortable watch. It's also a masterclass in how to use – and abuse – your guest stars. Gervais stars a professional extra, which brings him into contact with all manner of famous people, who send themselves up with gusto: highlights include Patrick Stewart and his lecherous screenplay (""Before she can even get her knickers on, I've seen everything") and an equally potty-mouthed Kate Winslet ("I'd love it if you stuck your Willy Wonka between my Oompa Loompas")
Michaela Coel turned down a third series of Chewing Gum to create I May Destroy You. Which, great, because the latter is astonishing. But also, sad, because so is Chewing Gum, albeit in a very different way. Coel plays a foul-mouthed young woman who can't stop talking to the camera (yes, she got there first) as she tries everything to lose her virginity and escape the confines of her religious upbringing.
Perhaps the most influential British sitcom of the last two decades, Spaced not only launched the careers of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, it also defined a pop culture-obsessed, nerd-boosting, self-parodic style of comedy that would inspire everything from The Big Bang to Kick-Ass. It also has the only accurate depiction of a nightclub ever depicted on screen.
Yes, it's a kid's show. But so's The Simpsons. This one's a kid's show written and performed by some of British comedy's brightest lights, including Matthew Baynton, Simon Farnaby and Sarah Hadland and, like all the best children's entertainment, it's full of jokes aimed directly at adults, from prehistoric hip hop to a satire magazine for troops in the trenches that feels like Viz crossed with 1917. Laugh along with your little ones or, if you don't have any, put it on as the perfect hangover cure.
People Just Do Nothing
A mockumentary about the team behind a struggling pirate radio station in west London, People Just Do Nothing has since spawned live tours, in-character musical performances and, next year (hopefully) a feature film. At heart, though, it's a classic sitcom about a group of dysfunctional friends who think they're much more with it than they really are.
A brutally honest depiction of parenthood, Motherland mines the humour in raising tiny people that you often hate and yet are legally obliged to love. The show admirably resists all temptations for learning or hugging, unless you count the party game 'Find The Pound' (distract a room full of children for an hour by lobbing a pound coin across a living room) as a teachable moment.
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