On the whole, I definitely like more sitcoms than any other genre of television.
Sure, high-intensity dramas are great, and Breaking Bad might be the single greatest show ever made, but after a while, the perpetually high-stakes honestly all kind of blends together. And I run hot and cold on shows like these. For every Breaking Bad or Sopranos that I dig, there’s a Game of Thrones or The Wire that never really catches me.
The television market is flooded with shows based on the comic book properties I adore, but the quality of them is so hit-or-miss, and honestly? Even to a superfan like me, a large chunk of them seem negligible, This would be blasphemy to, like, 15 year old me. But it’s where we are.
Sitcoms, however, are the comfort food of television. They are usually quick, they make you happy, and they are always there for you. The topics and walks of life they look at are widely varied, and there’s something for everyone. Usually a BUNCH of somethings!
So with that in mind, I got to thinking… what are the best sitcoms that have ever been produced?
- As unfortunate as it is, I’m only one man, and thus, I can only judge shows of which I have seen a worthwhile sample. This, unfortunately, leaves out otherwise popular shows such as Frasier, Community–which is NEVER on a streaming service I own, for some reason!–and Cheers. Leaving off Cheers may seem like blasphemy, but I’ll be honest: I’ve seen about four or five episodes of it in my life, and they all peak 30 seconds in. I’ve never seen an episode of Cheers that is as good as the theme song to Cheers. If this was a list of theme songs, Cheers is top 3 material!
- No cartoons. This is always a point of contention within the Ghosts, but my argument here is that adult cartoons are their own genre, and hard to judge against a live action medium because what each can and does accomplish is different. Voice acting is different from physical acting; being able to draw anything you want is different from having to shoot real life with a budget. It’s DIFFERENT. So as painful as it is, this means no Simpsons, South Park, Archer, Futurama, etc. They would be on their own list.
- While not necessarily a caveat that rules anything out, I want to point out I have an IMMENSE bias in favor of shows without a laugh track or a studio audience or what-have-you. Those devices both dumb and slow down a show if the program itself needs to laugh for me, and I inherently think shows without them are superior. Not every show on my list is without built-in laughs, but some are, especially as we climb closer to the top.
- And finally, possibly the most arguable point: I have to consider the show a SITCOM. Some shows are debatable in this area, so it’s entirely subject. Deal with it. For instance:
It's a simple question today on GotS: Was the TV Show M*A*S*H* a sitcom?
— Ghosts of the Stratosphere @ NYCC (@gotstratosphere) September 4, 2019
those 74% of people are wrong. M*A*S*H is great television, but it’s NOT a sitcom. At least, not a very good one since the show isn’t funny. It’s a great drama that carries humorous elements, but it’s not a situational comedy. You might as well say Grey’s Anatomy is a sitcom. Who remembers anything funny from MASH? Nobody. You remember the heavy and tense moments. Unless you think one of the hallmarks of situational comedy is “main character has mental breakdown over the time he choked a baby to death”. HA-LARIOUS!
It also means I am leaving out arguably the funniest TV show in history, Mystery Science Theater 3000 because, even though it got situational in later episodes and had overarching stories with Mike and the bots running from Pearl, it’s certainly not a sitcom.
Clear as mud? Great. Let’s kick it off with #10…
#10: Get Smart
Mel Brooks did a television show!
I LOVED this show as a child watching old reruns on Nick at Nite or wherever it was airing. It was typical Brooksian humor: non-sequitors, turns of phrase, sight gags a-plenty. If you’ve seen Brooks movies, you can imagine how Get Smart went, even if it was more toned down for television that he was allowed in his movies. If you like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, et al., you will fall for Get Smart.
You know the jokes. “Missed it by THAT much”. “Would you believe…?” The Cone of Silence. The shoe phone. There’s so much classic material that came from this program, and it’s classic because it worked.
#9: Married… With Children
I remember watching this show as a youngster and thinking it was the edgiest thing on the planet. Like I was getting away with something by watching it; I actually had friends whose parents didn’t allow them to watch this, but my laissez-faire parents knew I could manage myself. Married… was crude and pessimistic and vulgar (well, “basic cable” vulgar), but… wait, there’s no but. That was it, but it was remarkable for the era in which it came.
Up until the eventual success of Modern Family, Ed O’Neil WAS Al Bundy. He so perfectly embodied that character that it was almost impossible to separate the two. He seemed doomed to be one of those actors that was “stuck” in a former role, and I’m genuinely happy he got a second hugely successful act. He can be Jay Pritchett for a new generation who don’t even know the Bundy Clan!
Also, without her superb performance as Peggy, we might never have gotten Katey Sagal in her turns on Futurama, Sons of Anarchy, and others. And what a terrible world that would be!
#8: I Love Lucy
My mom loved this show, so I saw a ton of it growing up.
To be fair, I Love Lucy is totally a relic. From the straight-ahead way it was shot to the ham-handed acting to the zany situations… but that’s the point! Lucy established what sitcoms would be for the next fifty years because it was so good. Lucille Ball is one of the greatest performers who ever lived, and she knew how to evoke every last bit of humor from a scene. She combined impeccable physical comedy with genius timing and delivery, and this was her opus.
#7: Golden Girls
Holy shit was this show ahead of its time. I could see this show coming out today with only a few minor aesthetic changes, and it would work just fine.
An all-female lead cast who aren’t just woman, but OLDER women is something I never would have imagined would have worked on pre-2000’s TV, but it did because these ladies were dynamite. All four of them won Emmy’s over the course of the show, including Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and then Bea Arthur for best actress in three subsequent years. It was funny and biting and emotional, and just so much better than a lot of its contemporaries in its era.
Big question: Who is your favorite Golden Girl? That’s like asking who your favorite Ninja Turtle is, right? It’s so hard, but everyone had one! Mine has to be Dorothy. Bea Arthur was so sharp, and her delivery was spot-on.
Even when Friends was still on, it was somewhat fashionable to bash it. Not to the degree of, say, The Big Bang Theory (which more deserves the detracting), but there was definitely a pushback to its popularity and fame. It was too formulaic, too safe, too white. And while none of this is untrue, there are bigger issues at play with friends:
The actors are all exceptional, and the show is FUNNY.
Friends, aside from some occasional outdated homophobic humor, holds up extraordinarily well if you watch it nowadays. Like with most sitcoms, the characters are all hyper-magnified versions of their own quirks and traits, but they all pull it off so well that it works. So few shows ever had a cast of six actors who were all THIS strong. It’s a timeless gem.
#5: The Good Place
Most sitcoms deal with folks living their everyday lives and the hits-and-misses that affect all of us while doing so.
The Good Place, instead, deals with the afterlife, robots that create whatever you want out of nothingness, the shape of time (it’s shaped like the signature for someone named “Jeremy Bearimy”), dimensional worms, and in-depth discussion on actual moral philosophy. It’s… different.
And it’s in the gymnastics that the show undertakes to turn all of that subject matter into a relatable, funny story that the genius lies. The Good Place aims high and hits the mark every single time. Episode 2.2 (season 2, second episode) is one of the finest examples of sitcom humor I have ever beheld (and I can’t discuss it here because it would spoil the entirety of season 1, which you simply MUST watch first), but it’s just the peak of an already high mountain.
The entire cast is wonderful, but a special shout-out to D’arcy Carden, who is a charming riot as Janet.
#4: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
This is the odd show out if you look JUST at my Top Five, but that just goes to show how tremendous it was.
Will Smith’s breakout performance that solidified him as substantially more than just a short-term novelty music act was incredibly witty, and it blessed TV land with such memorable secondary characters as Uncle Phil, Carlton Banks, and Geoffrey. It’s a sad thing to say that the female characters were consistently overshadowed by their male peers (can anyone think of any memorable Aunt Viv, Hillary, or Ashley moments?), but the male cast of this show was just so strong.
Obviously the show mixed intense drama with its humor when it was appropriate. EVERYONE remembers “How come he don’t want me, man?” and the episodes where Will gets shot or accidentally gives Carlton speed. It’s that ability the best comedies have to hit you in the soul when you least suspect it, and Fresh Prince had it down perfect.
If you want to accuse me of recency bias, here’s your best bet: I only just started watching Brooklyn-99 this year (after a false start a couple years ago where I watched the first three episodes and then fell off).
Brooklyn-99 isn’t a revolutionary or original show. The “will they”/”won’t they” love story between Jake and Amy has been done a hundred times before. The jokes about Charles unknowingly saying double entendres is ripped from several other shows. The ensemble cast in a workplace playing off of each other… really, this show is extremely derivative of the upcoming #2 on my list in just about every regard. Huh.
And you know what? That’s fine. Because Brooklyn-99 is a hilarious show that, while it might not make anywhere near a habit of it, isn’t afraid to look at real life problems like active shooter situations, police racism, and bigoted relatives. Every actor and actress pulls their weight, the cast is diverse, the writing is TOOOIGHT. And no line in sitcom history has ever made me laugh as hard as “MY WIFE WAS KILLED BY A MAN IN A YELLOW SWEATER!”
Also, Terry Crewes is a national treasure. He might be the most perfect person to ever live.
#2: The Office (U.S.)
The Office changed what good sitcoms would be for the next fifteen years in its wake. It took some pre-existing ideas that hadn’t entirely caught fire (especially in America)–the lack of canned laughter and the weekly mockumentary format–and turned them into proven formulas of success.
Not unlike the #1 show on the list, it wasn’t perfect in perpetuity. The Office is a show that devolved a bit as it went on and the characters–especially the background glue characters like Stanley and Phyllis and Oscar–became caricatures of themselves. When Steve Carrell left, the wheels fell off entirely, for that matter. But for the first four seasons, no sitcom in history matched its ability to evoke big laughs while also being heart-warming at every turn with a cast you genuinely cared about. If you didn’t care about Jim and Pam, you are dead inside. If Dwight and Angela’s romance didn’t force an “aww” here and there, you might be made of stone. And if Steve Carrell didn’t crack you up, you simply don’t know what humor is.
#1: Arrested Development
Ignore the poor-to-middling Netflix seasons from the at-least-five-years-too-late revival. Try to forget about what an asshole Jeffrey Tambor allegedly is as a person. Maybe don’t think about how much people started hating Michael Cera when he was doing movies that didn’t ask that he grow as an actor.
The first three seasons of Arrested Development are undeniably brilliant television.
The series as it originally existed is wall-to-wall jokes, sight gags, references, and set-ups (for future jokes, sight gags, and references). Every single performance in the ensemble cast is a treasure, and it’s nigh-impossible to find a “favorite” or “best” character. Absolutely NOTHING is wasted or accidental, and every detail feels meticulously plotted out and pieced together like a delicate puzzle; there’s not a wasted scene in the run.
It’s perhaps because of that that the Netflix seasons don’t work; they feel like such an unintended outlier that don’t match where the show was headed. But again, don’t worry about those. The first three seasons of Arrested, as brief as they were, are flawless and eminently quotable.
It’s the most rewatchable show in TV history. And the funniest.
Quick love to the Honorable Mentions–the shows that kept floating in-and-out of the list from the #8-#10 spots, but ultimately came up JUST short: Boy Meets World, Scrubs, Parks & Rec, and Modern Family.
Boy Meets World: A great family sitcom whose middle seasons far outshined its first and last.
Scrubs: Honestly, a wonderful all-around show, but for all its dramatic moments, there is zero carryover character growth ever. You can watch any episode in any order and it make sense. Which is both good and bad.
Parks & Rec: Love watching this show, but it’s not a show with a slew of moments that stick with me. It was a good “laugh and then forget I watched it” show.
Modern Family: If it had stopped after season 3 or 4, it’d be in my Top 5. But it’s become so bogged down in middling seasons by now.
So there’s the list! What about yours… what are your Top Ten sitcoms ever? Reply to let me know! And tell me how awful I am for not watching more Cheers! I will just tune you out by listening to the theme song. I can’t hear you where everybody knows my name!
Until next time… take care!