Readers of my blog might detect that I am a sitcom fanatic. During a visit to Boston, a friend told me she didn’t particularly care for sitcoms; they were too ironic about the genre itself. In fact, a lot of people with opinions I respect prefer those 1 hour dramas (which in my mind are just as formulaic as sitcoms). I’ve gotten to the point where I will deign to watch (and laugh at) any and all sitcom, no matter how lowly regarded. Therefore, I’ve decided to compile a list of my faves for all posterity. (See my related essays: Thoughts on how to write a sitcom , Why Friends does not suck and Frasier’s Departure , Why don’t Americans like sitcoms anymore?, Films of Ingmar Bergman (not what you expect!) ).
See also: My Favorite TV Dramas.
A friend of mine made the observation that characters in one well-known sitcom started out as caricatures, and then progressively became more human. Look at Will & Grace, where the characters are just over the top (see also Drew Carey show). One interesting thing is to notice that for well thought out sitcoms, the whole future of the show can be mapped out just in the pilot. Look at the pilot for Drew Carey show, where Mimi Bobek, that vain and fat woman is butting heads with Drew Carey show even from the beginning. Sitcoms are probably not going to be appreciated for very long, and lord only knows nobody can afford to make those 3 camera live audience sitcoms anymore.
Random Observation: Look at the opening credits and notice how many sitcoms are directed by James Burrows.
Random observation 2: I just love sitcoms where the characters are not teenagers or conventional families. We need sitcoms with less traditional characters (see All in the Family and Sanford and Son).
Random observation 3: The key to understanding my love for these shows derives from my own solitary life. Syndicated shows come on TV 5 times a week; when I am watching them, I am literally spending more time with these characters than family or friends. During a particularly dark period of my life in 2001-2002, I remember Cheers, Friends, Mad About You, Drew Carey Show and Frasier keeping me going. Amidst all the farce, there are lots of dramatic episodes and plot developments. (See “Ill be seeing you” on Cheers and the Ross/Rachel episodes (taking a break, etc) from Friends. For a while I had to move back with my family in 2002, and that was the same time I rediscovered All in the Family. Yes, the characters in these shows are real to me.
By the way, I fully intend to produce some kind of sitcom series, even it’s only as radio plays. That will be my creative project for 2008-9. (Updated: October 2007)
- All in the Family. Still the best, though I wish there was a way to remove the annoying laugh track. Later, I decided that the sequel Archie Bunker’s place also had a lot going for it, though I never appreciated it when it was on. Watching it in my middle age, I realize how reasonable some of Archie’s opinions actually are and how strident Mike Stivic’s attitudes really sound. Therein lay the show’s genius.
- Bernie Mac show— family-oriented show with lots of social messages. Innovative format too. Update. I’ve come to the conclusion that BM does works right on every level. Drama, comedy, social messages, satire. Great acting too.
- Larry Sanders Show–new DVD is being released next week. I can’t wait.
- 3rd Rock from the Sun–probably the funniest most outrageous farce.
- Drew Carey Show–This just kept me happy during those disconsolate days.
- How I met your Mother (the funniest show on TV today!).
- Cheers–like All in the Family, this show had a lot of beautiful dramatic moments.
- That Seventies Show–I love the political incorrectness and the pop culture parodies. I love the fact that the guys are always hitting each other and complaining incessantly about their boyfriends/girlfriends or ex’es. Kelso is an inspired character.
- Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They literally invented a new format.
- Fawlty Towers. (Perhaps I should also throw in Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, but that belongs in its own class). Interestingly, Fawlty Towers was the inspiration for Cheers; can’t you tell?
- Will and Grace
- Honeymooners. I just love shows that take place in a single room! The sparseness of the show’s set adds to the appeal.
- King of the Hill. Animated small town satire puts Texas on the TV map. Thanks, Mike Judge!
- Sanford and Son. The characters were so unlikely and hilarious that I can compare it to nothing else on TV. Aunt Esther? Grady? Rollo?
- King of Queens. The key to understanding the show is realizing its main focus: jealousy.
- Happy Days–I grew up with this, but looking back, I appreciate some of the classic shows.
- Get Smart. Don’t for a moment think this show has anything to do with politics! Buck Henry has the magic touch in this show.
- Get a Life. The first show that dropped all pretense of realism.
- What I like about you. Every time this teenage sitcom show comes on, I end up watching it from start to finish!
- Red Dwarf–existential British sci fi comedy.
- Mad About You. The show is fluff, but I like the fact that the show is all about that romantic spark and that at heart Helen Hunt is a despicable person (and proud of it). (Update: Last time I watched it, the show seemed too precious and cute).
- As Time Goes by (proper British comedy about older lovebirds who meet later in life. I just love the premise, though the show becomes repetitive).
- Dharma and Greg. Jenna Elfman has the kinetic talents of Lucille Ball. The scripts were so-so, but Greg’s parents were just inspired.
- Bakersfield P.D. More relaxed version of Police Squad (also a classic).
- Andy Barker, PI. Andy Richter, like Chris Rock is one of those comic geniuses who can’t be fit easily into a TV series. This show will probably go off the air, but the premise and the writing are first-rate. This is yet another sitcom which will be cancelled because it doesn’t acheive the mythical ratings of Friends/Cheers or Seinfeld. (oops, cancelled).
Overappreciated Sitcoms (but still good anyway)
- Sex in the City. I like some of the quirky details (Carrie’s love of shoes for example), but the relationships were handled too glibly for my taste. Also, the sentimentalization of motherhood seemed excessive. The Mr. Big romance seemed realistic enough, but at times they seemed like dream projections.
- Friends. The best written dialogue of them all.
- Taxi--I honestly don’t know if this is as good as I remember it.
- South Park--probably too vulgar and moralistic for its own good, but kudos for breaking a lot of barriers.
- I Love Lucy. If the Mertzes weren’t on, the show would be a dud.
- Bob Newhart Show (I didn’t love the show while watching it, but I have fond memories of watching it). I love the minor characters: the dentist, the pilot, the patients.
- Three’s Company–in its heyday was surprisingly funny
- Frasier— The Niles/Daphne thing got old fast (and Frasier dropped the ball on the wedding episode), but overall a reliable series.
Funniest Shows Now on TV
- My Name is Earl. In later seasons it’s apparent that it’s getting boxed in by the show’s story frame, but still it’s good having unconventional characters thrown together for prime time. Update: This show is growing old by season 3. Season 3 takes place in prison. That’s inspired!
- How I met your mother–this show is doing amazing thing with narration and form.
- Everyone Hates Chris. Finally a working family’s comedy. A good show, but just can’t compare with Bernie Mac show.
- Bernie Mac Show; I love how Everyone Hates Chris and Bernie Mac are family-oriented shows and yet never lose their satirical edge. Update: This is not just a funny family-oriented show, it has lots of social messages and interesting backstory. Almost every show has a twist or surprise. I’m upgrading this to one of the best shows ever on TV (under All in the Family of course).
- New Adventures of Old Christine–in terms of stories and characters, this is one of the best constructed sitcoms I’ve come across in a long time.
- The Office. I have nothing interesting to say about this series.
- Entourage. there’s a sort of vicarious guilty pleasure in watching these boys get showered with wealth; the characters are sort of flat, but Ari (Jeremy Piven) is a hoot.
- Rules of Engagement. Clever formula sitcom with a lot of potential.
- Big Bang Theory. 5 geeks and a pretty girl. It might grow old after a season. Fingers crossed.
Sitcoms I really Despise
- 2 1/2 Men. Ok, the setup is good, but the show relies solely on vulgarities for its humor and ludicrous plots. (Wow, looks like TV guy Mitchell Bard agrees with me ten times over about this show. Update: I’ve been watching some first season episodes, and they seem well-written. The problem, I think, lies in their willingness to be as vulgar as possible to increase audience. The thing is, the show has enough variety and characters to satisfy any demographic, plus that luxurious house is enough to turn on any woman who watches this show. I just love the crazy/psychologist/stalker who pops by every so often. great touch.
- Scrubs. We need fewer shows about doctors! (Not a big fan of Zac Braff btw)
- Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ok, I’m just being provocative here, but I felt the show just wasn’t daring enough. The show was just about Mary’s embarrassment and plight of the single working woman. I recognize its cultural significance and see how the show succeeded on its own momentum, but I never found the plot directions of the show to be that interesting.
- Bill Cosby Show–I found this show to be way too politically correct.
- Everyone Loves Raymond–mildly funny for the first season, but seems too targeted to certain demographics to be good.
Shows I’d Like to Get into if I could watch more episodes:
- Wings (by writers of Cheers)
- Dobie Gillis show (very few episodes are available of this groundbreaking series).
- Curb your Enthusiasm
- (all those BBC sitcoms I never get around to watching!)
- Rules of Engagement –new well-written comedy. (Update: I thought this was cancelled, but it turns out they are starting it in the fall. This is a promising and hilarious show.
- Family Matters. The precocious boy Earkle just made the show; I didn’t watch enough of the show to know if the show used the character fully.
- What I like about You, starring jenny garth and amanda bynes. Really formulaic show, but the formula works, and there’s lots of screwball comedy moments. Update: I just find this show hilarious! Amanda Bynes has the magic touch.
P.S. There is a certain art to buying boxed sets of these series. You need to aim at second tier shows two years after they are released. I found 3rd rock box sets for $15-20, which (for the number of episodes per boxed set) were a bargain. As big a fan I am of Seinfeld/Sex in the City/Cheers/Happy Days, I just can’t afford the box sets when considering the number of included episodes. As big a fan of 3rd rock as I am, I bought only seasons 1-4 because Season 5 still offered substantially fewer episodes. Same thing for Season 1 of All in the Family. Season 2 has almost twice the number of episodes as Season 1 for the same price.
Postscript 2: Wikipedia has been a godsend for fans of TV shows. Now, instead of posting plot episode guides on commercial ad-infested pages, you can generally find plot descriptions on wiki. See for example this starting page on Friends (most amusingly, see the list of significant others on Friends). I just learned while looking at the Drew Carey page that the ratings for the show were surprisingly mediocre given its longevity and wit. That floors me. Carey was funny, mainstream and yet broke a lot of boundaries you didn’t see in primetime TV.
You don’t like Everybody Loves Raymond? That has got to be THE funniest thing I have ever seen. I laugh louder and longer at that show than at anything else I’ve even seen. Demographics? You mean married people?
And where is Fawlty Towers? I know they only made 12 episodes ever, but they are all pure gold!
Arggh! At 3:00 AM, one can’t remember everything! FT has been added. ELR has problems in my book. First, the show revolves around the show’s creator, and therefore the character portrays him as likable (albeit whiney). It’s like what I say about Woody Allen flicks. I like the ones where he’s not in it.
I just tried to produce some other reasons why I didn’t like the show. Plots too repetitive? Characters didn’t grow? Too many cliches? I guess these are shallow reasons to criticize a show. It’s a clever show, but I find there are too many refrains in the show and not enough new humor. I’ve seen some hilarious episodes though (the one where Ray records over the wedding video, the one where the brother dates someone half his age). These are classics. Also, I like how King of Queens guy sometimes does a pop by. More of those please! Interesting fact: the actress who played the mother used to be married to one of Texas’ most famous writers, William Goyen.
Taxi is as good as you remember. get it on dvd from netflix.
WKRP should be in your list of classics.
how would you characterize “Mary Hartman” ?
Mary Hartman? I never watched it!
I’ll have to look into it.
Two you missed mentioning that should at least be brought up–no matter what category you choose to put them in–are “Sports Night” and “Newsradio.”
The nice thing about “Sports Night”–which strikes a curious balance between comedy and drama and features some of the most dense dialog you’ll ever come across–is that you can get the entire series (2 seasons) in a box set for less than $40 and never have to worry about buying anything more. It also has the advantage of being the most realistic sitcom ever: you get the feeling that if you tuned to the right channel, you could actually watch the show they create within the show.
“Newsradio” is a great example of the evolving sitcom. It started out very strait-laced, then shifted at the end of season 2 (or was it 3) into a mix of the banal and the surreal.
Others that I’m surprised you didn’t mention, for whatever reason:
“Just Shoot Me”
Oh, and let me say that I couldn’t agree more about “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Both it and “Home Improvement” played out their formulas in the first three seasons and just kept repeating themselves from that point forward.
I’ve always wanted to watch Sports Night; I haven’t watched a single episode though I’m a fan of Aaron Sorkin. Thanks for reminding me.
Ironically I don’t think I’ve watched more than 2 episodes of family ties although I once assigned my students to watch it and write a sample script for it.
I can’t believe that you didn’t include Arrested Development. It is one of the funniest shows ever, partly because it goes against every other sitcom before it, with it’s intricate plots, ongoing stories, many in-jokes, and layers and layers of humour. It the most dense and smartest show in the last… i don’t know, ever.
Arrested Development seemed too wierd for its own sake. I guess I had trouble adapting to the one camera feel of a slapstick comedy like this.
okay I stumbled upon your blog when searching for “how to write sitcoms”… very broad search, I know… anyways, your thoughts are cool to pick at… I love how you share them – we have a lot of the same likEs and just overall passion for TV COMEDY…
I really love 30 ROCK for current shows… and some of my favs of all time are…
(I agree with you on) SANFORD AND SON
ALL IN THE FAMILY
[EARLY YEARS] THE JEFFERSONS
SCRUBS [BECAUSE COME ON THEY DID RE-USHER BACK INTO MAINSTREAM THE NON-LAUGH TRACK FORMULA AND THEIR PACING IS UBBERLY UNIQUE….]
AND FRIENDS TOO
AND ARE YOU KIDDING… LUCILLE BALL ALONE IS GOLD IN “I LOVE LUCY”… BUT YES HER AND ETHEL ARE PURE GOLD……
I AM WORKING NOW ON CREATING A ONLINE SITCOM TO DEBUT 4/1/08…. BEING INSPIRED GREATLY BY THE SUCCESS OF “WE NEED GIRLFRIENDS” [AN ONLINE SHOW INITIALLY BEING PICKED RECENTLY BY CBS]…
I WOULD LOVE YOUR INSIGHTS AND HELP.
SORRY FOR ALL CAPS. I JUST REALIZED NOW…
Sure, Lucy alone would be great with the Mertz’s, but there needed to be a couple as a foil. It’s interesting which shows have Mertzes and which do not. I would think it is indispensable, but so many shows seem to be neighborless, especially the contemporary ones.
What about Black Adder, The New Statesman and Until Death to us Part (The show that was adapted in the US as All in the Family)?
All trouser-wetters maybe too non PC for a US audience.
What on earth?
I kno this is your opinion, but you have obviously not seen Steptoe & Son!
I mean come on!
It is just the best oldies sitcom ever!!
I love the love-hate relationship between the fater and son. it just makes me laugh so much as they are always at each others throats.
Also, i find it funny how the father is willing to do anything for a bit of money. He is totally one of the best characters in sitcoms history!
You ought to have a watch of a few episodes, are even all of them and then you will understand where i am coming from.
They have the right to be in some of your top lists and also they are wrote by some of Britains best writers!
Wow, I am so going to watch Steptoe and Son!
What are your thoughts on The Jeffersons?
Jenn, I definitely liked the show. They had lots of unexpected characters and great settings. I don’t know if I would put it in my pantheon, but it’s definitely up there.
Seinfeld is a true classic and I love watching the rerun when I’m bored. I disagree with some of the shows on your list, especially The Cosby Show. However, everyone is entitle to their own opinion and you clearly mention your reasons.
Great insights into the rocket science of comedy!
I am working on two series for web and tv right now so came out here looking for some clues. When you get more time for Brit-Com–Black Adder, Keeping Up Appearances and the tv Mr Bean. Brilliant stuff!