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Inside the Lightbox: Bonkers British Comedies of the Noughties

Inside the Lightbox is a new sponsored feature where we mine the extensive Lightbox catalogue for cool shows you might like to watch. This week, Alex Casey looks at the whacky comedy exports from post-Y2K Britain. //

When the clock ticked over on NYE in 1999, everyone was expecting the worst. The computers will wipe! The planes will crash! The aliens will finally visit and destroy us all! After none of that happened and the world continued on as normal, we had to find our dose of weirdness and paranoia elsewhere. British sitcoms stepped up to the plate, serving a blend of surreal, cynical and pop culture-packed delights that perfectly reflected life in the brave, new and totally bizarro millenium.

You want: A 2000s pop culture paradise
Choose: Spaced

Although the first season made it out in 1999, this still makes the cut. Directed by soon-to-be-big-wig Edgar Wright, Spaced emerged as an unusual flatmate sitcom packed with trippy edits and camerawork, Star Wars references and not even a whiff of a cliché love triangle:

Simon Pegg plays an aspiring cartoonist Tim Bisley, who pairs up with writer Daisy in the quest to find a flat. Pretending to be a ‘professional couple’ despite both being deeply unemployed, they nab an adequate abode and begin to meet the sterling characters within their building. There’s an insane, swearing landlord upstairs and a bewildered artist who vomits paint on a canvas downstairs. It’s a serene mix. Nick Frost frequently steals the show as Mike, Tim’s best mate and an army obsessive from way back. You will never see someone slip into a fake war scenario faster than this guy.

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If we are comparing the UK to US here, it wouldn’t be crazy to hold Spaced up to Friends. Both dealing with the existential crises of late twenty-somethings, Spaced takes a far more realistic and cynical approach. It drips with British sarcasm in the face of Friends‘ umbrella twirling and endless bubble baths. The flatmates on Spaced would never have a table reserved for them at a café. They are far too busy smoking weed on the couch at home and talking about Terminator 2.

For further reading, check out Andrew Todd’s excellent piece about director Edgar Wright’s rise to power through Spaced, the little show that could.

You Want: Grave post-millenium cynicism
Choose: Black Books

You’d think a show set almost entirely in an old bookshop might come off a little dusty, but you needn’t judge Black Books by it’s cover.

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Bernard Black is a bookseller who, to put it lightly, hates everything to do with his role and the wider world. A drunk misanthrope, he loathes both retail, customers, and only mildly enjoys books. Played with a slurring swagger by Dylan Moran, Bernard Black has got to be one of the greatest British comedy characters of all time. His aggressive drinking and smoking has left him without any sense of taste (in one episode, he mistakes a coaster for a nice biscuit). How such a grumpy little man brings so much joy is the true sorcery of Black Books.

The Black Books cast is rounded out by UK comedy stalwarts Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig. Bailey plays Manny, Black’s shop assistant and the golden-haired angel to his surly desk-dwelling devil. He has a passion for sales, is generally loved by all customers, and demonstrates extreme talents with flair. Manny is the antithesis to Bernard in every single way. The final piece of the Black Book‘s puzzle is Fran, played by Tamsin Greig. Running at a loss with a tatty gift shop next door, Fran becomes unemployed and begins to spend a great deal of time around the bookstore. Basically Bernard’s female equivalent, she joins him for long bouts of smoking, drinking and whinging throughout the series. Who said books had to be boring?

You want: Post-2000s paranoia and social anxiety
Choose: Peep Show

If you want all-too-real and truly hilarious insights into the neurotic and the socially stunted, I highly recommend you get into Peep Show.

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Peep Show stars David Mitchell and Simon Webb as two best friends and flatmates, each facing the problems of adulthood without the full set of tools to deal with them. Jez (Webb) is an unemployed musician who can frequently be found wearing camouflage jeans. He does well socially, but has no concept of how things in the real world work (see: this job interview). Mark (Mitchell), on the other hand, is organised to the point of neurotic – but can’t negotiate simple social situations like hosting a small get together:

One of the groundbreaking comedic techniques of Peep Show that it adopts the main characters’ point of view. Pairing these perspective shots with their unfiltered internal monologues, it adds an uncomfortable layer of recognition as you hear the terrible and flippant thoughts that they regularly have. Peep Show is more than just a comedy, it’s collective sigh of relief to realise that we are all just as bad as each other.

You want: Surreal trip beyond the 2000s universe
Choose: The Mighty Boosh

From the jewel-encrusted brains of Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett comes The Mighty Boosh, perhaps one of the oddest and most psychedelic export from the British television universe. Or should I say Zooniverse?

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The Mighty Boosh moves in its own way. Set in a zoo for the first season, and moving on to the bizarre trappings of the Nabootique later, there’s little reality to hold onto at any point. Determined to flesh out a whole new world to host their unconventional comic book-style show, the creators went far beyond the confines of dowdy old Earth. What they came up with is a hallucinogenic trip that smashes down the fourth wall and dredges up the weirdest characters from the deepest depths of the sea:

Integrating sketches, musical numbers, wild animations and more shiny fabric than Dancing With The Stars, I would recommend The Mighty Boosh if you are a fan of cheese dreams and not so big on continuity. The show has even gone so far as to create it’s own style of acapella known as ‘crimping’, which is reason enough to get involved. Noel Fielding is coming to New Zealand this year, so what better way to give him a mighty welcome than to dive into this masterpiece creation?

Lightbox subscribers, you can watch The Mighty Boosh, Peep Show, Black Books and Spaced by clicking here

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