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Box Fresh: Emma Johnston On The World's Worst Sitcoms
Emma Johnston , February 8th, 2010 09:35

Emma Johnston - or The Red Destroyer, as she's known in Hull - is our new TV columnist. Here she casts her eye over the fallout from The Persuasionists and lists the worst sitcom offenders

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Last Thursday, BBC2’s all-new sit-com The Persuasionists was dropped unceremoniously from its prime time 10pm slot to the graveyard shift halfway through its debut series. Starring Adam Buxton, Iain Lee, Jarred Christmas, Simon Farnaby, and Daisy Haggard and set in ripe-for-mocking the world of advertising, its stilted dialogue, childish, laboured gags and excruciatingly unlikable, stereotypical characters has caused a reaction that stretches all the way from disappointment, bemusement, to downright outrage from comedy fans. The Guardian dubbed it “the eighth circle of sitcom hell”, and the Mirror proclaimed it to be “so imbecilic you had to see it to believe it”.

The subsequent barrage of abuse saw Iain Lee threatening to flee the pitchforks and torches of Twitter. Adam Buxton’s brilliant video response, meanwhile, packs more genuine laughs into four minutes than the entire series of the show has managed so far.

And yet, gormless as The Persuasionists undoubtedly is, it’s nowhere near the nadir of knuckle-biting, toe-curling comedy pestilence lurking in the archives of British humour. Here, we don the necessary protective clothing to plunge into the murkiest end of the sitcom pool, before celebrating the utter genius the best of the genre has given us.

[God, I'd love to stab Iain Lee with rusty garden shears, Ed]



With his biggest success, Till Death Us Do Part, writer Johnny Speight always insisted that Alf Garnet’s racist ranting set out to lampoon small minded, right wing Brits. But he got it spectacularly wrong with Curry And Chips, which sees a blacked-up Spike Milligan as Pakistani factory worker Kevin O’Grady (known to his colleagues as ’Paki Paddy’) taking a barrage of racial abuse so casually and dumbly vitriolic that even 1969’s audiences found it outrageous. It was cancelled after six episodes and remains one of Milligan’s most shameful moments. Still, if Nick Griffin ever feels like putting a dictionary together (assuming he can write, what with the lack of opposable thumbs and all), there’s a steady stream of suitably offensive nouns available here to get him started.


In the mind of creator Geoff Atkinson, this must have seemed like a daring, irreverent attempt to satirise the Third Reich in the same way Mel Books did with The Producers. It failed on every level. A spoof of ‘50s American sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, it saw Hitler and Eva Braun living a suburban existence next door to Jewish couple the Goldensteins, Adolf’s dislike for his neighbours shrilly matched by Eva’s attempts at one-up-manship. Astonishingly self-satisfied in its attempts to find the humour in the world’s most evil man, it was about as funny as a bunch of drunk sixth form drama students trying to shock their tutor, only marginally less successful - it was pulled from the schedules after the first episode was roundly panned.


Two words for you. Jim. Davidson. What the word ‘bellend’ was invented for.


When Ralf Little appeared on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Simon Amstell pointed out that, while The Royle Family was known for its quality, Two Pints was very much known for its quantity. Little replied “There’s quite a lot of people that seem to like it. I’ve never actually met any though.” Such is the mystery of Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps - eight series in with the threat of a ninth in the works, reason suggests that there must be thousands of people out there lapping up this peek into the lives of four certifiable knobheads in Runcorn, to whom nothing of interest ever really happens. The characters are too thick to wisecrack, and the cast deal with this by chewing scenery, rightly crediting their audience with the intelligence of a small, damp, piece of chamois leather left to rot in a driveway.


In the 13-years that it ran, Are You Being Served? managed to deliver two jokes, neither of which were funny. One was Mrs Slocombe (Slocombe! Ha! Sounds a bit rude!) talking about her pussy (she meant her cat! But we all know it also means vagina! Hilarious!) The other was John Inman’s limp-wrested, effeminate whoopsie Mr Humphries chirruping “I’m free!”, which is only funny if you’re so terrified of homosexuality you need to distil it into its most basic stereotype. This was the show that made the art of innuendo about as much fun as a massive fire ripping through a sold-out panto.


The British Comedy Guide voted this circus-based mess the worst new sitcom of 2009. When you take into account the magic mix of the never knowingly charismatic Amanda Holden, a bunch of clowns, and gags so painfully obvious a three year old would find them insulting, even the most rational thinker might start to wonder if the Daily Mail might have a point about the BBC. As the ever wonderful Caitlin Moran pointed out in The Times, “at the end of the first half hour, a quick burst of data into the standard issue Viewer’s Calculator reveals that, were the awfulness of Big Top to be rendered into miles, we could use it as a bridge to the moon.”


Because foreigners talk funny!


Approach anything with an exclamation mark in the title with extreme caution, as chances are you’ll be gnawing your own face off five minutes into whatever follows - see also Oh! Doctor Beeching, Hi-De-Hi! and Sorry!

This one sees British housewife Mollie Sugden accidentally shot into space. Tragically, they spend the rest of the series trying to bring her back to earth rather than shooting her through the nearest airlock.


ITV has a terrible hit rate with comedy, but this took the biscuit. You know how the Boots ‘Here Come The Girls’ campaign makes women look like vacuous predators hunting in packs before savaging each other to death for the alpha male? That was Babes In The Wood, in which Denise Van Outen, Samantha Janus and another slack-jawed blonde share a St John’s Wood (geddit?!) flat next door to him from the Flash ads, swear a lot, and deal gamely with a script as wooden as Pinocchio’s pants. No wonder Ronnie Mitchell always looks so pissed off.


A whimsical, fantastical farce in which a priapic, racist buffoon in the Mr Bean mould inadvertently becomes one of the most powerful men in the capital. A work in progress.

And, on the plus side...



It’s been repeated a million times, but the excruciating desperation of this father and son, bound together in their rag and bone business in Oil Drum Lane remains both hilarious and terribly, terribly sad. Poverty doesn’t seem like the most obvious seam to mine for comedy gold, with the socially unsatisfied Harold torn between caring for his father and frustrated enough to wring his neck, but somehow Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Brambell redefined gallows humour.


If there was one thing guaranteed to get early -90s kids interested in history, it was Blackadder. Shining a light on the utter stupidity of the ruling classes through the ages, its razor sharp script, jet-black, politically charged subject matter (the Somme, the death penalty, regal privilege) was matched only by the mean, selfish but weirdly loveable performances by one of the greatest ensemble casts ever put together on television. And if you don’t get even a little bit choked up by the last episode of series 4, set in the trenches of World War 1, then you’re probably not quite wired up properly.


The situation - Tim and Daisy pretending to be a couple in order to rent a flat - was traditional sitcom fare. But the cast, and crucially director Edgar Wright, pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved by shooting the scenes as if they belonged to a blockbuster film. It captured the imagination of a generation of viewers brought up on comic books, Star Wars and George Romero’s zombie movies, and paved the way for Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. Tim and Daisy were you and me, only much cooler and much shitter at the same time, which is why we loved them.


Like The Wicker Man with laughs, The League Of Gentlemen was the most grotesque, disturbing, insanely clever of sitcoms. Like Coronation Street directed by David Lynch, it took us through the looking glass into a world that looked like any boring small town, and threw in psychotic clowns (Papa Lazarou), sociopath Jobcentre staff (Pauline), and genetically linked spouses (Edward and Tubbs). The Christmas Special remains one of the most unsettlingly brilliant pieces of television ever.


Six series in, and the writers of Peep Show are making things worse and worse for Mark and Jez, the socially inept flatmates whose eyes we see the world through. Every time there’s a glimpse of happiness - a chance of love, a dream job - Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong dump another pile of manure on their endlessly disappointing existence. The existence of the wonderful Super Hans (“this crack is really moreish”) doesn’t hurt matters either.


Again, pain is power as we follow the ever decreasing successes of the most daytime TV man alive. Having seen recent decisions made by television executives, it’s tempting to believe poor Alan’s desperate attempts to stay on the air (Monkey Tennis! Inner City Sumo! Cooking In Prison!) have gone beyond parody and made it, as he always dreamed, into the mainstream.


The adventures of the amoral priest of Craggy Island, accompanied by the idiot Father Dougal and the aged, drunken, lecherous Father Jack was a curveball that could only have come from someone born and bred in Ireland, with a love for his home as huge as his willingness to mock it. Clumsy housekeeper Mrs Doyle is still an all time hero.


The British stiff upper lip has never exploded so spectacularly as it did when John Cleese blew his top as the henpecked, bored, frustrated Basil Fawlty. Lanky and physical, his anger at petty everyday annoyances shames us all for letting the little things in life matter quite so much.


A tough situation was made surprisingly tender thanks to Ronnie Barker’s Fletcher taking doe eyed young lag Richard Beckinsale under a fatherly wing in chokey. Both are completely believable as loveable rogues with a sentimental streak – and it’s a testament to such well rounded characters that the villains are prison guards, not the criminals.


Interesting that a complete mental breakdown leading a man to fake his own death should offer up so many laughs, but thanks to the brilliant Leonard Rossiter, this tale of suburban despair and the British pursuit of failure did just that. The execrable Martin Clunes remake, on the other hand, didn’t.

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Rich M
Feb 8, 2010 4:24pm

Without wanting to imply any value judgements from it, the popularity of Two Pints is a Northern thing. I don't know if I'd say it's one of the worst sitcoms ever but then I'm not a regular viewer either. It is a mystery for the ages.

Spike's got a lot of shameful moments, there's an unbroadcast pilot from 1985 available in those places you might find such stuff called Jewel in the Crown which is basically Curry and Chips with even worse blackface and made in 1985 for fuck's sake. At least it wasn't actually broadcast.

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John Doran
Feb 8, 2010 4:43pm

In reply to Rich M:

Got to disagree with you there. I was born, maybe not in spitting distance of the Runcorn Bridge but certainly in sight of it and I'd be happier to accept the fuckwitted stereotyping if were actually funny.

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Rich M
Feb 8, 2010 7:34pm

In reply to John Doran:

That was a massively blanket statement, I'll admit, and one formed from my Lancashire-based university years where there were loads of people who really liked the show. In fact most of 'em seemed to treat the show as source of role models, which isn't something I've particularly noted since moving back down south, so that's where that came from. Imagine being trapped in the Village of the Ocean Colour Scene, that is the kind of environment that fosters the idea that watching two pints is a good plan of action.

Regardless of actual locality it's safe to say that fans of two pints are probably similar to the people who like My Family - unlikely to come online and tell the world how much they love it.

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Baby Jebus
Feb 8, 2010 10:05pm

The notoriously abysmal Babes In The Wood was 'conceived' by Geoff 'Ay-Ay-Ay-Ay-Moosey!' Deane, presumably after watching Girls On Top and thinking 'I can do worse than that', an uncanny echo of his musical career. And Heil Honey was on the unseen BSB, Sky's short lived rival, which no one could actually receive, so it wasn't so muched panned as unnoticed.
But no Rising Damp, The Office (genuinely brilliant, no matter how sick we are of Gervais now), Royle Family or Thick Of It? And what's Spaced doing in there? Have you watched it lately? Like all gimmick led comedy it has not aged well at all. That's why Porridge still stands up, though the prison guards aren't villains, they're just nuisances, straight men. The baddies are the full timers, Harry Grout and the like, who Fletch shields Godber from.

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Rich M
Feb 9, 2010 10:27am

In reply to Baby Jebus:

I honestly don't think Rising Damp deserves a place on a ten-best-sitcoms list. If it was a 20-list then maybe, but seeing as this list already lacks Dad's Army then it has no chance. I'd say Sykes has a better claim than Rising Damp, anyway. I reckon I'd have put Spaced on a 20-list. Wouldn't call it a gimmick comedy either, though I suspect it's at that awkward stage where it's too recent to engender nostalgia but not far enough for any flaws to be forgiven with "It was the past, they did things different then". Give it another ten years.

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Feb 9, 2010 10:58am

You missed off The High Life from the Worst list. Alan Cumming is permanently tainted goods for me now that the sound of him chirruping "Oh deary me!" in a mincingly camp air steward voice is lodged in my memory.

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Feb 9, 2010 11:03am

Also: Captain Butler. With Craig Charles as a pirate:

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Feb 9, 2010 12:17pm

Three words: On. The. Buses.
As ill conceived as Curry and Chips was, even the clip above shows that Speight was trying to make a point of sorts. But Reg Varney still living at home with his mum was just excruciating in all possible ways. About as funny as bowel cancer.

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Feb 9, 2010 1:23pm

I checked out the Heil Honey show on youtube a while back and after seeing it for real rather than as a concept, I found it not quite good enough (as such) to be one of the worst shows ever. Part of it is probably due to having seen so many 'history of the twentieth century' type programs that the image of Hitler itself doesn't offend me as it does some people, but it also seemed like a potentially funny sketch idea that was just couldn't sustain a whole show (I vaguely remember Python even having an Attila The Hun show sketch in that vein). I will admit I giggled at Neville Chamberlain singing 'I'm a little teapot'.

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Feb 9, 2010 6:19pm

Are UK and USA sitcoms fundamentally different?

British sitcoms often have a strong class element - the working class overreacher trying to better themselves is a common theme. Or they take aim at middle/upper class figures who are pompous / smug and show them to be ridiculous.

But when I think of American sitcoms that I like - Seinfeld, Curb, Arrested D, Friends (yeah I know), it seems like this aspect isn't present. They just feature "normal" (i.e. middle class) people who stuff just happens to. The issue of class relations doesn't seem to enter in nearly so much.

Now is this because Americans only make TV about middle class people? Or those are they only ones that get shown here? Or am I just wrong?

But I think it allows for a different type of humour.

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Feb 9, 2010 6:33pm

Whilst watching the 'Mind Your Language' clip, my Sri Lankan girlfriend came in and started pissing herself at all the abysmal jokes revolving around the word 'brown'. Apparently the show gets shown in Sri Lanka and everyone over there finds it hilarious. We live in a puzzling world.

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Feb 9, 2010 6:49pm

Agree with you mostly, but you forgot Coming of Age as one of the worst!

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Jack T
Feb 9, 2010 6:51pm

In reply to Rich M:

I'm Northern and I don't get the popularity of Two Pints, or know anyone who is. I do know of the Bristol fan club though.

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Peter S.
Feb 10, 2010 12:33am

In reply to Rich M:

The blackface in The Jewel in the Crown is deliberately dodgy - the entire thing is an essay on Milligan's ambiguous relationship to racist humour. No, seriously, it is - his character in The Jewel in the Crown is actually called Spike Milligan.

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Peter S.
Feb 10, 2010 12:34am

In reply to Baby Jebus:

No, The Office was rubbish, actually. Good if you've never seen any films or plays, but if not, then not.

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Rich M
Feb 10, 2010 11:38am

In reply to Peter S.:

I'd been thinking about my comments and you've basically hit the nail on the head. A lot of Spike's stuff from the seventies almost seems to be goading the TV execs to stop commissioning him. It's often quite difficult to believe any of the Q series were broadcast anyway, they're demented.

And yeah, the Office is crap. Ricky Gervais reached his creative peak in the 11 O'Clock Show.

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Feb 11, 2010 2:10am

isnt this more the UK's worst sitcoms than the world's worst?

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Feb 11, 2010 12:20pm

In reply to helen:

It is specifically Britain's (and Ireland's) best and worst, partly because there were only ten spaces and partly because British and American sit coms tend to be so different.

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John Doran
Feb 11, 2010 2:08pm

In reply to Emma:

The title was my fault. I wasn't concentrating properly. It was probably the thought of Ricky Gervaise breathing the same air as me that upset my normally placid countenance.

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Feb 11, 2010 9:08pm

In reply to John Doran:

You weren't a fan of The Invention Of Lying then?

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Shane O'Malone
Feb 11, 2010 10:46pm

Thought I'd weigh in on a 'list article' because this is the first one I've ever come across.

I'll keep it short- No Yes Minister is your first error in Top Ten. 2 more errors were in the exclusion of Meet the Magoons and now officially the nadir of televisual history- Coming of Age.

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Feb 15, 2010 9:42am

In reply to Luke:

I know a couple of Indian guys who love Mind your Language as well and claim it was pretty popular on Indian telly when they were growing up.

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