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Top 50 Television Comedies

May 5th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Via Ken Levine’s neat blog, I see that AOL came up with a Top 50 TV Comedies, Ever list. Their top 10 — The Simpsons, Seinfeld, All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, M*A*S*H, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, I Love Lucy, and Friends — are all quite deserving in their own ways. But from there on, there are some seriously dodgy choices. Namely:

  • though the list’s title doesn’t specify sitcoms, there are no non-sitcoms. No Jon Stewart, no Stephen Colbert, no Kermit
  • it’s all American. I’m really tired of this oversight when lists don’t specify nationality. American TV’s good enough that its best shows could flood many a list anyways, so why do they have to play such games to fill all the spots?
  • some whacked-out choices and rankings. Married with Children? Gee, let’s just add Andrew Dice Clay’s standup specials, shall we? Malcolm in the Middle does the dysfunctional family so much better, as do Arrested Development, Family Guy, and The Simpsons.

For further grumbling about the rankings, go to Levine’s blog and read the comments.

I decided, though, to take things into my own hands, and make my own list. More after the fold

I love lists. I’m a serious graphophile (says the guy with a blog. What a surprise, eh?), and like making lists of things I need to do, things I’ve done, things to read, yadda yadda. Other people’s lists are fun, too, even when I need to disagree with them. Perhaps especially when I need to disagree with them, actually, because then I need to make my own list.

A few ground rules for my list are in order, though. First, this is a list of the moment, not of all time. I’ve got some on the list that are there because they were important at a certain point of time, granted, but they’re only there because of their residue. Second, some shows aren’t there simply because I haven’t watched them. Before readers stand back and wonder why I haven’t seen much Dick Van Dyke Show, for instance, or The Honeymooners, remember (or learn) that I grew up outside of America, so was largely at the whim of what local television channels imported. Hence, Facts of Life (which ran again and again and again on the Malaysian channel in Singapore when I was there) being on a list that doesn’t include Taxi, because I simply haven’t seen much of the latter, and it didn’t command two years of my viewing life. Taxi‘s much better, I’m sure, but Facts of Life got watched and gets nostalgia points. Anyways, from the top:

1- The Simpsons
Homer and Ralph beat all competition. And many other shows on this list owe a great debt to The Simpsons for creating the room for really smart, parodic-satiric television. Not always great, but its best moments are still absolute brilliance

2- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
To be this good is one thing, to do it four times a week is another. Changing the face of news reporting, and what a good thing that is

3- The Muppet Show
Often cheesy, but, hey, it’s Kermit. And Gonzo. And Animal. And Piggy

4- Seinfeld
One of the most rewatchable shows in the history of television

5- Brasseye
Only six episodes, but this 1997 Brit news journal parody is excellent, and Chris Morris one of television’s greater talents

6- South Park
It has its shaky episodes, but its smart satire mixes so beautifully with crude, stupid, carnivalesque that all parts of my brain are laughing

7- Arrested Development
I love everyone involved with this show, and wish them all well. To do this, the show had to be fantastic

8- The Cosby Show
I have my issues with it, but it was one of the only shows my whole family watched together and enjoyed, and it’s a lot more complex than simple criticisms of it would suggest

9- Monty Python’s Flying Circus
This made absurdity on television cool. Plain kookiness. Lovely kookiness

10- The Office (US)
Adeptly mixes the humor of laughing at people with the warmth of rooting for them

11- Da Ali G Show
I include the English work here. Much respect going out to my main man from Staines

12- Freaks and Geeks
Like #7, killed in its youth, but the best single-season show out there

13- The Office (UK)
Lower than the US counterpart, since the US characters have come to life a little more, but this was the bold original

14- M*A*S*H
The first sitcom with which I came into contact that created real and realized characters, not just a situation

15- The Day Today
Before there was Brasseye, there was Morris’s pitch-perfect news parody

16- Black Adder
Rowan Atkinson annoys me almost everywhere else, but here he’s the essence of British sarcastic savagery. Plus, Hugh Laurie as Percy is just fun

17- The Colbert Report
Stephen’s cult of Stephen seemed like it had about 20 episodes in it, yet it just gets better with time

18- Malcolm in the Middle
The live action Simpsons, finishing off the family sitcom. And how can you not like a show where the son who is a bully is also a phenomenal chef?

19- Pushing Daisies
Only half a season in, but it’s such a fresh new style for television. I couldn’t manage two episodes back to back, but it’s charming

20- Fawlty Towers
Before David Brent there was Basil Fawlty. Some of its humor seems a bit shocking in retrospect, but its sarcastic bite is still top-notch

21- The Larry Sanders Show
In case you haven’t guessed by now, I really like parody when it’s done well, and Shandling did it well

22- All in the Family
I think The Office often does what it tried to do a bit better, and it doesn’t really fit TV of the 00′s, but it was masterful in its own way

23- Curb Your Enthusiasm
Squirm humor at its best

24- Family Guy
Nowhere near as smart as The Simpsons or South Park, but for carnivalesque pleasures, for Brian, and for its skill of referencing beloved pop culture from my youth, I still rate it highly

25- Roseanne
I’ve always liked Roseanne more in concept than in practice, but it’s still funny stuff. Plus, Roseanne and Dan are probably television comedy’s most interesting and comically gifted couple

26- Scrubs
I love its off-the-wall humor, its willingness to enter the imaginary, and yet also its heart. On a good day, it shoots up the list

27- Frasier
Watching Frasier and Niles together is always a pleasure

28- Cheers
I think I’ve seen every episode of this, most of them many times over. Always reliable, the mac and cheese comfort food of television comedy

29- I Love Lucy
I know, I know, this should be higher on the list, but as I reminded you, this list requires that I’ve watched a show, and I haven’t seen much of it. I recognize why it’s many people’s Citizen Kane of television comedy, though

30- Trigger Happy TV
A brilliant, edgy British candid camera show, many of whose skits I remember well and wish I could replicate

31- My Name is Earl
The trailers for this show sucked, but I fell in love with the preview. Randy is one of comedy’s best figures. It’s dipped of late, but is still really good

32- Weeds
I didn’t like the third season much, and wouldn’t put it on the Top 50, but seasons 1 and 2 are excellent, and could rate higher

33- Friends
Reliable, if uninspiring

34- Boston Legal
I don’t care much for a lot of its quirks and self-conscious comedy, but William Shatner absolutely rules this show

35- Chappelle’s Show
As evidenced by reaction to the Reverend Wright incident, many Americans just can’t talk about race in anything other than binaristic terms, so it’s nice to see a show that regularly blasted into those binaries

36- Goodness Gracious Me
Britain’s excellent South Asian skit show produced some classic, very funny looks at hybridity, Othering, and even a skit on how to Indianize the name Jonathan

37- 30 Rock
Rarely destination television, but I’m always a fan when watching

38- Yes Minister
More political humor, and another stalwart Brit entry

39- Parental Control
MTV’s dating show is carnivalesque at its best. No answers to the universe are provided, but it’s really really funny all the same

40- Will and Grace
Caricatures more than characters, but it always keeps my attention better than I think it will

41- Golden Girls
Here largely for nostalgic reasons

42- Family Ties
Ditto, and in the 80s (or now, for that matter), how could you not like Michael J. Fox?

43- Mary Tyler Moore Show
Another show that readers would probably think should be higher (especially when it comes after Family Ties!), but I’ve seen very little of it

44- Mork and Mindy
Nanoo nanoo. There are Robin Williams haters and lovers. I sometimes gravitate towards the former, but am mostly the latter

45- This Hour Has 22 Minutes
A very smart Canadian parodic-satiric news show, which if I could’ve sees more often would undoubtedly rank much higher

46- The Flintstones
Nostalgic favorite

47- Chuck
New show that could shoot higher, this is fun viewing, not smart or intricate writing, but fun and funny

48- The Facts of Life
Pure nostalgia. See note at the top

49- Get Smart
A fun show when I was a kid

50- Jam
One of the more off-putting shows I’ve seen, this was Chris Morris’s third outing on Brit TV. Skit humor, all of which are totally surreal, very dark, or both. Some hilarious moments (e.g: the skit about parents who set out to get their son into an elite pre-school by trying to sabotage the competition, turning them into drunks, smokers, porn-fiends, etc.), and more really disturbing ones, but I like that Morris experimented with humor and its limits, so kudos and a spot on the Top 50 because of it.

Now your turn: pimp your show and tell me why I should watch it, or why I rated it incorrectly

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  1. Derek Johnson
    May 6th, 2008 at 06:08 | #1

    I can’t believe you don’t think Married…with Children belongs on that list! Maybe it’s just my own soft spot for the show, but I tend to think that the more recent dysfunctional family sitcoms you value over MWC depended on that show to break the traditional sitcom mold. If Golden Girls can be on your list for nostalgic reasons, I think MWC deserves a nod for at least historical reasons (if not things as funny as NO MAAM and Marcy D’Arcy).

  2. Derek Johnson
    May 6th, 2008 at 06:09 | #2

    PS–I will return to write again someday!

  3. May 6th, 2008 at 06:36 | #3

    One of my big problems with MWC, Derek, is the live studio audience. I might actually like the show a lot more if it wasn’t full of guys jeering at Kelly and Peg and Marcy and cheering mindless sexism. By adding that audience (or laugh track?), the producers are preferring a sexist reading, and actively putting up a barrier to other forms of audience engagement. Besides, I think that the other dysfunctional shows bear a closer debt to The Simpsons than to MWC, partly too because the familial hatred is often all the Bundys have, whereas the Simpsons, Malcolm’s family, the Bluths, and the SP families all have other things going on — ultimately, I just got bored of MWC.

    But, hey, nostalgia works in odd ways, and he who adds Facts of Life to his list can hardly criticize others. :-) That’s just my defense. Golden Girls, I watched with my parents, so I remember the whole process of watching it fondly.

  4. Derek Johnson
    May 6th, 2008 at 08:14 | #4

    Hey no need to apologize for Facts of Life–remember that Tootie was my first TV crush!

    I agree that the MWC studio audience activates certain readings, but there was something about the outright rowdiness of that studio audience compared to other sitcoms that I find significant, and despite the reactionary politics, kind of attractive. The show was also particularly popular with African American audiences, suggesting that at least some more marginal viewpoints and readings were made possible by the series. But then again, I realize I’m a child of Fox and its Sunday night schedules (Herman’s Head, anyone?), and so much of this is just nostalgia for me too.

  5. May 7th, 2008 at 19:52 | #5

    OK, clearly you need to take a remedial course in classic American TV comedy! You note some key blind spots – Dick Van Dyke, Taxi – but there’s a lot of other essential stuff missing: Soap, Phil Silvers Show, Jack Benny, Bob Newhart Show, WKRP, Barney Miller, King of the Hill, & Beavis & Butthead all come to mind as much better than a lot on your list. Plus if you want to look beyond sitcoms, Letterman is essential, as is SCTV, Kids in the Hall, and SNL. You missed a chance to throw a bone to the Canadians…

  6. May 7th, 2008 at 20:30 | #6

    Jason, I knew I was in trouble with you when I didn’t have Taxi or Soap (both due to not seeing much). As for the others:
    - yes, I need to see some Silvers, Benny, Newhart (seen some of him and never got too into it, though), SCTV, and Barney Miller
    - WKRP bored me, I must be honest
    - Beavis and Butthead always struck me as single-note. Once I’d seen one episode, I felt I’d seen them all. Funny for a brief while, or if I was in the right mood, but not Top 50
    - King of the Hill actually got bumped. It was in spot #50, then I remembered I’d forgotten Weeds and Goodness Gracious Me. I like KotH, but also feel that others on my list did what it did better. It’s #51, though, and partly wasn’t there in order to allow some range elsewhere
    - Maybe they’ll revoke my citizenship, but I must admit to never getting too into Kids in the Hall. Some skits were good, some felt more like theatre sports classes. This Hour has 22 Minutes is much better for Canadian fare
    - If I could cut up seasons, SNL would indeed belong on that list, but it’s a show that has often been really crap for a long long time. Most skits that I find funny are 5 minutes with 2 laughs. It’s produced some great people and great moments, but has nothing close to the consistency that I’d demand of my Top 50. Even Facts of Life was consistently schmultzy ;-)
    - Dave Letterman indeed belongs on there. Real Time probably should be there too. I forgot those shows; thanks for the reminder

    And Derek, fair enough. It just didn’t do it for me.

  7. May 15th, 2008 at 06:52 | #7

    Hmmm…what about The Honeymooners? Probably one of my favorites, and many would argue equally as classic, or perhaps more so, than Lucy. Also, if you’re going to include a Garry Marshall project on, I’d think The Odd Couple would be deserving. I’m a huge supporter of Taxi and Dick Van Dyke being on any list of best sitcoms…Come over, Jon…I’ve got at least the first season of many of these on DVD. :)

    Also, I notice none of the U.S. rural comedies make your list. Some people hate these shows, so that might be the reasoning, or it might just be that you’ve never seen them. I personally have a fond place in my heart for the over-the-top parody in The Beverly Hillbillies, and I think The Andy Griffith Show is quite endearing, but that may just be because it played on almost every channel in Kentucky growing up. :)

  8. May 15th, 2008 at 06:55 | #8

    BTW, to clarify, I’m not ignoring your disclaimer re: The Honeymooners, just pimping that I have a box of all 39 original episodes that is yours for the borrowing. :)

  9. Brian
    September 28th, 2008 at 05:30 | #9

    You forgot, or missed,

    Soap, the absolute best work of the Norman Lear Empire. Started Billy Crystol and Chuck and Bob.

    Police Story, only six episodes, the mother of the Naked Gun movies

    In Living Color. Jim Carrey, Homey the Clown, Are you kidding?

    The Richard Pryor Show. Canceled because it was too funny for prime time.

    Rocky and Bullwinkle. Didn’t think it was so funny as a 6 year old, but my parents did, now I know why.

    SNL. The “Harvard” institute of late Saturday night comedy

  10. stu
    January 2nd, 2009 at 09:38 | #10

    The office(US) is in no way, shape or form funnier than it’s UK counterpart. It is possible however that much of the subtle humour embedded in the original was not picked up by certain people.
    The US version is barely watchable being for the most part just plain embarrasing and uncomfortable as the actors fail to achieve what was delivered by the brits.

  11. Jonathan Gray
    January 2nd, 2009 at 17:25 | #11

    Brian, I never watched Soap, Richard Pryor, or Rocky&Bullwinkle (not all of them were exported to where I grew up). In Living Color had great moments, but I’m always found sketch comedy shows to be memorable only because people forget the 60% or so of the skits that were awful. Ditto for SNL. At their best, they belong; but a lot wasn’t great. Police Story is indeed a worthy addition: thanks for the reminder.

    Stu, I disagree. I love Ricky Gervais and the Brit version, but it only lasted for a few episodes, which limited the ability to realize the characters beyond a few hours worth of television. The American version allowed development, which added some nuance (an element missing from most if not all Gervais characters, as much as I like them). Anyways, my slight preference for the US version is largely because it gives me more hours than the Brit version did, but by and large, I love both.

  12. Cpt. peacock
    September 11th, 2009 at 12:31 | #12

    What about Are you being served?

  13. lisa
    August 19th, 2010 at 13:16 | #13

    i so agree married with children rocks……@Derek Johnson

  14. Huw
    August 6th, 2012 at 00:39 | #14

    I admire the effort, and I accept that you’re American, but there are some mental calls here. The worst being that you find Rowan Atkinson annoying, AND then trying to be nice and say you love Blackadder (which you write incorrectly as 2 words) AND then you say you love Hugh Laurie as Percy, HUGH LAURIE DOESN’T PLAY PERCY!!! Like I say, mental.

  15. Jonathan Gray
    August 6th, 2012 at 07:15 | #15

    Silly mistake of mine re: Laurie’s character name, yes. But, the first series was called The Black Adder, so you’re just splitting hairs on whether it’s one or two words. And why is it at all problematic to say that Atkinson is annoying (which he very often is. Mr. Bean is way too stupid and over-acted for my tastes), but like the show? These were filmed before he let himself go to become the annoyance he is these days. Let’s be clear — these are subjective calls, based on my own preferences. So none are “mental” nor intended “to be nice” — they’re just what I like or don’t. Finally, I’m not American.

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