"Everyone at this party isn't as young, fit, and single as they're making out. Yep, let's face it, we're all falling apart piece by piece. Doesn't matter if you're single or in a couple: You. Are. Going. To. Die." Like so many scenes in Peep Show, Mark Corrigan's words made me want to laugh and cry simultaneously. The early '00s British comedy sitcom is filled with cringe little gems that resonate deeply with me — a socially anxious, often cynical human who second-guesses her every decision and suffers with wacky paranoias. For a long time, I couldn't relate to comedy much at all — not on the stage, in cinemas, and especially not on TV. All that changed when I moved to the UK from the States and was presented with British comedies, though. First there was Peep Show. Then Spaced, Uncle, Flowers, and good, old Reggie Perrin.
Although I wouldn't want to generalise all of American or British comedy (I am hardly an expert), my experiences of "funny" television and film in the U.S. suggest that the genre often focuses on all things slapstick. Think Family Guy, a vast majority of Adam Sandler or Seth Rogen films, and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Then there are the caricatures. I enjoy a good episode of Modern Family just as much as the next person, of course, but Gloria feels, to me (a fellow Colombian) like a composite of a lot of Hispanic stereotypes. She is boisterous, obsessed with beauty, and (although a strong mother) over-protective and coddling of her boys. If I were to ask viewers to describe to Dunphy kids, chances are many would note that there's a party girl (Haley), a nerd (Alex), and a zany screw-up (Luke). The Big Bang Theory's cast of geniuses is, arguably, similarly over-the-top and one-dimensional. They are extreme personalities, rather than especially relatable ones.
Such characters can be, and often are, entertaining. I totally get that. Fiction is, in part, meant to serve as escapism, and for plenty of folks, that means watching characters who are nothing like anyone they might actually meet IRL (and, subsequently, nothing like themselves). For me, however, relatability is crucial to my enjoyment of a lot of TV. Unless I'm watching proper fantasy, I enjoy characters whose realities are not unlike my own. I enjoy characters who are just as flawed, questionable, awkward, and nervous as I so often feel. In other words, I enjoy characters who are to be found in just about every classic British sitcom I've delved into so far.
Take Spaced, for example. Jessica Hynes' Daisy is an aspiring writer stuck working on vapid listicles in a pre-social media era. Although she's in her late 20s and early 30s through the show, she isn't engaged or married. She has no kids. She isn't settled into a career. And she's not condemned for any of it. She's just figuring sh*t out, much like Simon Pegg's Tim. They aren't meant to serve as aspirational heroes or vilified antiheroes. They just are. They are trying. They are messing up. They are, sometimes, taking MDMA or smoking a spliff at a dodgy club, despite being "grownups" who should allegedly be behaving as such.
The same might be said of Julian Barrett's dark comedy Flowers, which premiered in 2016 on Channel 4. Although protagonist Maurice Flowers does, on paper, have some of his sh*t together (he has a stable job and a lovely family home that would tick many cultural standards for "success"), he's massively depressed. This show tackles the idea that there isn't always a simple "why" to the question of a person's mental health battles, and it does so in a way that is both poignant and giggle-inducing AF.
Maurice's daughter Amy is frequently seen to be struggling with her mental health as well. In some scenes, the artist appears manic and muddled. Yet neither character is framed as pitiable. As viewers, I don't believe we are supposed to victimise them or celebrate them. Again, they are just everyday people. Sometimes they make us cringe, and sometimes they make us LOL because the challenges they face are so similar to our own. They are beautiful, and funny, and complex, and just the kind of weird you'd very rarely come across in an American show.
In fact, mental health struggles are arguably far more prevalent in British telly than in American telly in general — another reason I can't help but love them. I have never seen anything close to my chronic anxiety represented on an American screen, even though it's never a couple of UK Netflix clicks away.
Just about everyone in BBC 3's Uncle is on the spectrum for mental health disorders, for example, from protagonist Andy who seemingly battles depression, to the young Errol with his social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, to his mother Sam who is in alcohol addiction recovery, to her love interest Bruce... who is just a bit odd, though lovely.
As for Reggie Perrin, much of the show's plot can be summarised as Reggie's descent into madness. A daily suburb-to-city commuter who wears a suit, goes to a job he hates, and comes home to a life that doesn't make him much happier, he epitomises all that can go wrong when we choose to live according to a formula, rather than our own desires.
Shows such as these are, in part, funny to watch because of the representation of imperfection within them. Imperfections that may make some of us feel alienated and alone when we ourselves are experiencing them IRL, until something or someone reminds us that we are but examples of the f*cked up human experience.
When a character is too fictional, for lack of a better term, it can sometimes be all too easy to fall further into "why am I so different?" or "why am I so alone?" mentalities. If we don't see ourselves represented — instead seeing largely black and white personas who we are either meant to want to be like, or to punch in the ear — we receive very little confirmation of identities and psyches comparable to our own. We get little proof that this world is full of people who are continually ballsing up, panicking in toilets, saying the wrong thing at work or on dates, and being general messes.
As Peep Show's Mark Corrigan so wonderfully asked himself one day: "How do I feel? Empty? Check. Scared? Check. Alone? Check. Just another ordinary day." To some, they are words that may seem bleak, dramatic, or silly. To me, however, they are hysterical precisely because they are bleak, dramatic, silly, and so cringingly real.