I’m mixing up the format this week, as I veer from the comic-based purview I usually try to stay under–but this is important. A few weeks back, my pal and fellow Ghost Stew sent a text message asking about the top 10 sitcoms of all time.
It’s a simple enough premise. Easily google-able. But once you start thinking, it gets really tough.
Surprisingly, it got heated very quickly. The Ghosts of the Stratosphere offices almost blew up that day, as the arguments got pretty intense (and kinda dumb).
Setting up ground rules was important.
Does the Simpsons count?
No, it’s a cartoon.
Why can’t cartoons count? On Stew’s list, cartoons don’t count.
My opinion is that cartoons could count, but the Simpsons wouldn’t because it’s gone on for way too long.
The same is true with South Park and Family Guy. They’ve gone on so long, they lost their relevance. Not many other great cartoons would qualify. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast was more of a variety show, and most other cartoons are action/adventure instead of sitcoms. So cartoons qualify in my mind, but not one makes my list. They could count, but they don’t.
How about Mash? Oooh, buddy. This one caused the most controversy, as apparently Stew doesn’t know what a sitcom is and is very adamant about arguing that. Andy, instead of focusing on if it’s one of the greats, just kept trying to prove it was a sitcom.
That’s why it doesn’t make the list, either, coincidentally. Mash was great for what it was, but what it was didn’t necessarily fit into the classic sitcom box. It went on too long, became too preachy, and veered too close to dramedy in the long run. I’d still argue that Mash is a great show, just not one of the best sitcoms.
My wife loves Friends, but I don’t think it holds up. It’s not because it isn’t PC, as a lot of my sitcoms on my list got away with jokes that wouldn’t fly today. Friends just isn’t as funny today. I’m not sure it was all that back then, either.
If you checked in yesterday, you saw that Stew has published his list. Now I’mma take a crack at mine.
In my mind, the sitcom is an art— usually a dumb, silly one, but an art nonetheless and I love it.
I have this weird attention thing where I can’t really sit long enough for an hour long show, but I could watch sitcoms back to back to back for days. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t watch most superhero TV shows. They use the hour-long episode format, and I lose interest too quickly. Make those shows a half an hour and slip in some bad jokes, and I’m all in. Even sketch comedy like SNL–which I love when it works– can’t keep my interest and I’ll drift in and out all show. But sitcoms hold my attention no matter how good or bad they are, I can easily watch even the bad ones–like Friends!
So here are my ground rules.
Length and Consistent Quality– The best sitcoms are on long enough to make a lasting impact–to become must watch events, but they can’t go on so long that they become background noise (see the Simpsons) or morph into something else (see Mash).
They also can’t be too short, either. For me, the sweet spot is usually more than six seasons and less than 12. Some shows are great, but they burn out too quickly (Flight of the Concords/The Good Place) or they try too hard to keep a good thing going and ruin it in the process (Community on Yahoo/Arrested Development on Netflix/Scrubs after everyone left but the show stayed on…). It’s not that some of those shows aren’t great, but to be the best, you’ve got to prove you can beat the best on a regular basis.
Memorable Episodes–I’ve found that syndication tends to help because then I’ve seen the best episodes multiple times, but if I can’t remember anything other than the show had Tony Shaloub and Lowel the mechanic, it’s not making the list. There have to be those stand-out moments or episodes. Sorry, Wings. I know you existed. I just don’t remember why anymore.
Did my wife watch it with me? Or in some cases, my parents, or friends at school? The best shows are the ones that became events that I and the people closest to me would purposely carve out time for on a weekly basis. That shared experience goes a long, long, way. I’m certain that I still watch Saturday Night Live out of respect for the laughs my buddy Erik and I had when we were in middle school re-enacting whatever Phil Hartman or Adam Sandler were doing. As I get older and spend more family time not in front of the tv, there are fewer and fewer shows that are destination programming for me. But when they happen, they’re special.
They can’t be too good. I have a bias against premium shows like Silicon Valley, Barry or Veep where I feel like they stretch too far beyond what a sitcom really is and fall into a kind of dramatic comedy limbo. Or anything with Danny McBride. They always just make me sad about how dumb our world is. This same thing happened with Mash, too, I guess. If it’s too satirical and too good at it, it’s not a sitcom. It’s its own thang.
I have to have cared about it. This precludes shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia because…well…I don’t like that one. I’ve seen a handful of episodes, but it’s never hooked me. Plus, since I cut cable years ago, it’s a pain to watch. So I don’t. Frasier, too. I’m sure it’s a fine show. I just don’t love it.
I have a bias towards shows from the major networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX. Did I mention that I cut cable a decade ago?
So I’m hoping I don’t steal Stew’s thunder since this was his idea, but here’s my top 10 list of the greatest sitcoms ever! It’s very subjective!
There are lots of honorable mentions outside of those I’ve already mentioned. Or will mention. There’s too many, is what I’m getting at. This could have easily been a top 25 list-icle.. Mama’s Family, Saved by the Bell, Alf, Who’s the Boss, Growing Pains, Taxi, All in the Family, Roseanne, Doogie Howser, How I Met Your Mother, Both Newhart shows, Garry Shandling’s Show, Norm, The Drew Carey Show, Everybody Loves Raymond (which I didn’t realize was good until it was off the air), Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, etc. are all great shows that I could see as reasonable options for some of your lists. Some I don’t think hold up as well, some I just didn’t have room for.
Also, I have a bunch of YouTube links below for context. All content is owned and produced by somebody else. I don’t want you thinking that I think I own the Fresh Prince theme.
10. Fresh Prince of Bel Air–I’ve always really liked the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff. If you’re a parent, you might not understand. So when the Fresh Prince couldn’t pay his taxes and had to make a sitcom with one of the best openings ever, I was in!
Fresh Prince edged out Scrubs, which was close to making the list, but lost out because it became repetitive and boring. Fresh Prince certainly relied on sitcom tropes, but it never got boring. The talent on this show helped it to rise above the rest. Uncle Phil–who voiced Shredder on the Turtles cartoon is one of the best TV dads. It doesn’t hurt that Carlton took over hosting on America’s Funniest Videos–my kiddo’s current favorite show. Say what you will about Will Smith–actually, don’t because if it’s bad I will vehemently disagree–this show proved his range. We already knew he could rap and write, but here he could do physical comedy, witty back and forth, and heartbreaking drama all while making it look so natural. I couldn’t say the same for Jazzy Jeff, but I liked him, too.
9. Married with Children–The broken family dynamic of Al Bundy’s clan brought me joy every time. Their plucky ‘we-may-not-respect-each-other-but-there’s-no-way-you-get-to-disrespect-us’ attitude is the closest I’ve ever seen to a real family dynamic coming to life on tv. The main characters all brought essential elements and contrasts to each other so that any combo could be mined for comedy gold. The show went through many phases. The initial run with Steve D’arcy was a solid show that just barely started to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Remember the family vacation to the grocery store for the air conditioning? Then, they introduced Jefferson and really explored the depths and dregs of humanity. While Al and Jefferson’s schemes got zanier, the kids evolved into standout performers. Then, they reached the NO MA’AM era where they truly stopped giving any shits whatsoever. Reality was discarded for absurdist fun.
Sigh. This show was great. Al Bundy was truly the everyman for our times, and Peggy Bundy was the unsung glue that made it all work.
8. The Office–kids love the Office and it surprises me. Is it because they’re not allowed to be
mean to each other in school anymore? Maybe. Jim sure is a dick on this show. Still, the Jim/Dwight antagonism is fun to watch.
The relationships made this show matter, too. Sure, everyone remembers Jim/Pam, but that Michael/Jan dinner party has to be one of the best single episodes ever.
Even the background players brought it on the Office. I used to buy the dvds of this show just to see all of the Creed moments they taped but cut out. He was a hilarious and dangerous dude that would always get cut from the main show!
This show started slowly with basically a redo of the British Office for the first episodes. Season one was brief and not fully formed, but it had memorable moments to help last long enough to find its feet. Diversity Day from the first season is still one of my favorites. Then, they followed the Jim/Pam will they-won’t they dynamic to make one of the best sitcoms in a long time.
Then, Michael Scott left and things got weird. The quality dipped for a minute, but it picked right back up again once they leaned into the strangeness that is Robert California. James Spader’s Robert California is a sitcom treasure that doesn’t get enough respect. It’s only because of the inconsistency of some of the later seasons post-California when the show became a rudderless ship that the show is so low on the list, but the Office was always appointment viewing in my house.
7. Blackish–the only current sitcom on my list. It takes one issue I’m really afraid of screwing up because I don’t know any better–race relations–and makes fun of it in a way that doesn’t make me feel bad. Even though I should. It kinda reminds me of that every so often. It’s like Blackish is still helping me showing me how to get better while still visiting all of my favorite sitcom tropes. The best comedy bridges gaps and builds understanding, and Blackish brings it every time.
6. I Love Lucy–my ode to the classics, a spot that could have gone to the Honeymooners, Mary Tyler Moore, or I dream of Jeannie, but belongs to Lucy because of so many memorable moments. Vitameatavegamin, anyone? The chocolate assembly line? Lucy laid the groundwork for how sitcoms could be done.
5. Golden Girls–I previously mentioned on the show my love of the T-shirt, Dorothy on the streets, Blanche in the sheets. Golden Girls had the perfect character set-up amongst their 5 person crew. Betty White as Rose was (ironically based on her prior performances I would learn) pitch-perfect as the naive rube. Dorothy was the strait man, Blanche the wild one, and Sophia the curmudgeon. Their interactions all made perfect sense for friends and roommates and it added up to a show I can remember watching with my grandparents at their house back in the day. I don’t remember as much in terms of specifics on this show because I was so young, but it holds a special spot because I was able to enjoy it with special folks, either before or after 227, I can’t remember.
4. Night Court–I love Night Court. This is probably the most formulaic sitcom on my list, but I’ll be darned if I wasn’t charmed by the entire cast. Harry Anderson as Judge Stone was so weird and kind and empathetic as Dan Fielding was smarmy and skeezy and Markie Post was so straight-laced and wonderful. Don’t forget Bull! They consistently brought the great guest stars to wreak havoc throughout the courtroom. The Lone Ranger episodes and the Yakov Shmirnov guest spots and the Mel Torme episodes–as a kid, I always felt like I was secretly learning about awesome stuff when I watched this show. Plus, the theme song sometimes gets stuck in my head for days at a time.
3. 30 Rock–This show had to add up to one of the greats, just as the sum of its parts. First, it’s The Muppet Show starring humans. Next, it’s about a fictional SNL-style variety show, starring pieces from Saturday Night Live (and Ally McBeal, another show I loved that doesn’t make this list). Unlike other shows about making comedies that aren’t funny, 30 rock continually brought it all show long because the main characters all work whether they were onstage or off. The relationships, the hierarchies, the power dynamics all have their own unique twists to keep them interesting, especially the Jack-Kenneth-the Paige dynamic. Remember Dennis the bad boyfriend? That actor is that guy now forever, dummy. The John Hamm episode where he is so beautiful that people just let him do things has to be one of my favorite never-ending gags of all time. He’s a doctor, chef, tennis-instructor, and fluent in French, but not really any of those things. And. It’s. Hilarious. Every. Time.
I didn’t even mention Dr. Spaceman (“I don’t know how to tell you this, but you have Dee-ah-beh-tees?”) Hilarious. So many of the gags on this show brought me so much joy. Tracy Jordan/Morgan is so unhinged, he makes anything work for that show.
2. Parks and Rec–This show got off to a really slow start. Even the Office picked up the pace quicker than this show, but if you can endure the Mark Berndowski-era, it gets so good. This show has so many fantastic elements including but not limited to its eternal optimism thanks to Leslie Knope. I wouldn’t call Amy Poeller one of my favorite performers, but she made this work so much! No one is better at selling the ridiculous notions of Pawnee while still making you think this stuff could really happen.
Ron Swanson–probably one of the cooler characters in all of television. His Libertarian views about wanting small government while working for the government lead to such hilarious situations, and his love of breakfast foods and woodworking all somehow mixed in with his altruistic character to make the perfect blend. He’s the decent human who doesn’t want to give a damn, but he does, and when he does, he’s the best at it. Imagine if Wolverine ran a small portion of the government, bub.
That doesn’t even bring up Chris Pratt as Andy. He’s a Paul-Rudd-level delight. Did I mention Paul Rudd? He shows up as a recurring character, too–and he’s not even the best part. There’s the rest of the town of Pawnee–which are basically characters on loan from the Simpsons in terms of their sheer craziness, plus the dynamic of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe that truly helped this show to shine. You want wacky situations? This show has it. Treat Yo’ Self! You want shows that help redeem your faith in humanity?Treat Yo’ Self! It’s got that, too. You want a show where when a man orders all the bacon and eggs you have, he means ALL the bacon and eggs you have–this is your show. Treat.Yo.Self.
1. Cheers. It’s where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. Dammit. This show was all about belonging. Everybody felt like they could fit in alongside Norm, Cliff, Paul and the ragtag patrons of Cheers. There are two distinct eras–the Coach/Diane episodes and the Woody/Rebecca Howe episodes, but it didn’t matter. They’re both great. Ted Danson was just so cool as Sam Malone, and Carla was so great as the surly waitress–this was the show about found families before Friends or How I Met Your Mother. Even though they would have storylines that would run through seasons, this was the show you could pick up at any time and enjoy, with or without context.
!. Seinfeld–shit, i left Seinfeld off the list! Oh well, you don’t need me to tell you about this show, other than to say whereas Cheers made you feel like there’s a place you belonged, Seinfeld made you feel like it’s OK if you’re a little bit terrible. There’s value there, too. Pick one of the shows I liked but you didn’t and plug Seinfeld in its spot.
There’s just too much good stuff for one list. I hope you enjoyed my take. Maybe we can get Andy or a Josebeck to chime in with their takes. Let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter @chachachad1.
Until next time, I’ll be watching TV to try and find new shows to add to my list! Sitcom season is back, baby!