There’s a long enduring stereotype that Americans don’t get irony. Like all sweeping generalisations this is quite obviously false and borderline insulting, but in my opinion, there is something to this that speaks for a real difference between the type of comedy that can be found on British television as opposed to American.
I’ve long been a fan of American comedies, particularly those that could be categorised as ‘quirky’ and very much immediately disproving the stereotype, ranging from Arrested Development to Community to Parks and Rec. However, compared to certain British comedies, such as the fantastic BBC show Uncle, the difference is immediately noticeable. To put it simply, British comedy is not afraid of taking the cringe to a point beyond where it is funny. For instance, take the difference between two popular and critically acclaimed political satires. We have The Thick of It; a show which is offensive, full of foul language and unlikeable characters and almost constantly provoking second-hand embarrassment in the viewer. Compare this to a show such as Veep, which is hilarious and sharp but never quite reaches the toe-curling, humiliating depths of the former.
I recently watched another BBC comedy called Fleabag, which I think epitomises the height of all that is good about British comedy- it is cruel, crude and possibly the funniest thing I have ever seen. Uncle is much easier to watch but has a similar approach in finding humour in the everyday banality and tragedy of real life and being unafraid to joke about ‘taboo’ topics like drugs and death while simultaneously treating them with the utmost seriousness. And making jokes about masturbation and not being able to get it up. And on top of all of this, Uncle is also a heart-warming drama about the importance of family, and which ultimately ends on a hopeful albeit bittersweet note.
It’s this bundle of eclectic threads and themes that gives Uncle its charm and what makes it such enjoyable television. The central relationship is between the titular uncle Andy and his nephew Errol, and it’s a joy to see it develop throughout the series and take on new forms as Errol becomes a teenager, yet without being irritatingly sentimental and cutesy (apart from the finale of the third series which is saccharine sweet, but I think we can forgive it that as the very last episode). I love how despite the focus on this relationship, other bonds are not neglected and each character is fleshed out, even Errol’s “scumbag” father. The sibling relationship between Andy and Errol’s mum is particularly entertaining, and (shock horror!) her role is complex and interesting in its own right and not simply to ruin the fun of the boys.
I recently binge-watched the entirety of the third series, and immensely enjoyed it; it was funny, inventive, tear-inducing and everything else you want a television dramedy to be. The episode 2:27 struck me as a stand-out; it was highly creative in its structure and the emotional beats were refreshingly handled despite being familiar ones surrounding dealing with the possible loss of a loved one.
If you are a fan of bold, sometimes shocking, always laugh-inducing comedy, you should watch Uncle. And maybe check out some other British comedy while you’re at it (though maybe not Mrs Brown’s Boys).