We are not laughing as often as we once did. Okay, maybe that’s not true, but we are lacking in laughs from sitcoms. Remember “Must See TV?” Not what NBC recently tried to sell us with whatever new Will Arnett show was coming out, I mean the original “Must See TV” on Thursday nights.
Classic TV gave us Taxi, I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, all landmark shows that provided the template for the modern sitcoms. An endangered format, the sitcom still exists, but only a few (Arrested Development, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family) make the cut. Some of these are on the way out, and then what? Another Will Arnett show? Ugh!
Coming up with ten shows is not easy and there are definitely a few left on the table as honorable mentions (see: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Three’s Company), not to mention the whole animated genre that deserves a separate discussion. Also, you are not going to find The Office and Friends on this list. Why? They just don’t hold up as well as the others. Funny is funny and these ten shows had it. Call it an upset, call it my humble opinion, but watching banter between Ross and Joey now makes me cringe, and Michael Scott wasn’t that funny the first time through.
10. Family Ties
Michael J. Fox alone was enough to keep us watching. As Alex P. Keaton, Fox played an outspoken Reagan Republican despite his very liberal parents (Steven and Elise). Alex actually made you think that being a young republican was a good thing. Regardless of your opinion, few today would write a character with such conviction. The show was on Thursday nights following the The Cosby Show as part of the NBC “Must See TV” Thursday night lineup. In addition to Fox, both Justine Bateman (playing Alex’s sister, Mallory) and Meredith Baxter-Birney (Elise) were two underrated sitcom hotties of the eighties (and reason enough to watch).
Key highlights: The “speed” episode where Alex takes diet pills to study more and any episode where Tom Hanks showed up as alcoholic Uncle Ned.
9. News Radio
An all-star cast that included The Kids in the Hall star Dave Foley (as Dave Nelson) and Phil Hartman (as Bill McNeal) plus supporting actors Joe Rogan, Stephen Root, Andy Dick and Maura Tierney never got the recognition it deserved. The show centered on a news type radio station where hi-jinks and office politics were not only the norm, but often the punch line. Seriously, Andy Dick was in a sitcom as a vitamin-obsessed nerd before all his “other stuff” happened. Check it out.
Key highlight: The episode where McNeal quits smoking and Nelson gives up coffee and the one where McNeal decides to build a cubicle in the otherwise open office.
8. The Golden Girls
Recently, I watched a few episodes of The Golden Girls and they are still funny. I first watched this show as a teenage boy, laughed, and now I am much older and am still laughing. I don’t believe I am the target audience, yet I still laugh my ass off. Somehow this show used a repetitive formula, but was always fresh. The snappy Sofia comebacks, sexual exploits of Blanch and Rose’s stories of St. Olaf still make me smile and I can’t explain why, that’s how well written this show was.
Key highlights: The episode where Dorothy has a gambling problem and any time Dorothy’s ex, Stan shows up.
7. 30 Rock
The sign of a well cast show is when you assume the actors are as their characters in real life. Tina Fey (as Liz Lemon), Alec Baldwin (as Jack Donaghy) and Tracy Morgan (as Tracy Jordan) all take their real-life attributes and embellish in the right spots to create a dysfunctional, yet funny variety show TGS. Even when big time stars Jon Hamm, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Matt Damon were brought into episodes they seemed to be second fiddle to the core cast. The show was very New York, struggling at times to gain viewers, but it was funny and that’s what counts.
Key highlights: Any time Jack Donaghy’s (Alec Baldwin) mother (played by Elaine Stritch) shows up or Tracy Jordan has a special request.
The show is advertised as a working class family sitcom, but really this is a white trash version of The Cosby Show. That’s a compliment, by the way. In many ways Roseanne went against the grain, but still kept a lot of the “family” values in place (not counting the final two seasons which were strange to say the least). It also took on hot issues such as abortion, gay rights and George Clooney. They set the bar high for low brow comedy and provided a format for many shows to follow. Just ignore the “divorce” and “winning the lottery” seasons; the humor drop-off is rather significant.
Key highlights: Any time Roseanne left the kids for their dad, Dan Connor (played by John Goodman) to watch them. Spoiler Alert: They usually ate hot dogs.
5. Night Court
Personally one of my all-time favorite shows, Night Court was set in a “late shift” Manhattan court room, and despite lasting for nine seasons, was underrated. There was Mac (Charles Robinson), and Christine (Markie Post) and of course Bull (Richard Moll). However, it was the quirky judge Harold T. Stone (Harry Anderson) and sex addict defense attorney Dan Fielding (John Larroquette) who provided the hi-jinks.
Key highlights: Any time they had a marathon of cases they had to get through. Also, whenever a hooker came in and had to pay a fine with time served. Spoiler Alert: This happened in every episode.
4. Married With Children
So this show was stupid, in fact you could stay it was super stupid. It was also entertaining, in a super entertaining way. The show centered on Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill), an ex-high school football star who was now married with two awful kids and a talking dog. Married With Children relied on a simple format and even simpler (but killer) jokes and funny neighbors always knocking at the door. As a shoe salesman Bundy’s best days are behind him, but he still has hope. Hope for that perfect day of peace of quiet.
Key highlights: Two words: Nudie Bar; also, any time Al discusses the high school game in which he scored four touchdowns. Spoiler Alert: This story is told often.
3. Cosby Show
The Cosby Show changed the game in many ways. Sitcoms had been in a drought (sound familiar?) until Bill Cosby came in and made us laugh again. The show kicked off “Must See TV” in the 8pmEST time slot and introduced us to actors Lisa Bonet and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. Cosby taught lessons, but always kept it light. Among some of the early classic episodes include Cliff (Bill Cosby) asking his wife Claire (Phylicia Rashad) how ugly his daughter’s date was, money lessons with Theo (Warner) and the time Theo got an earring. The first two seasons were the definition of comedy gold and the show would last for eight years. Bonus – without The Cosby Show there would be no Angel Heart (Bonet) and the hunt to find the “X-rated” copy as a teenage boy would not have happened.
Key highlights: Cliff sneaking food, Theo beating Cliff in basketball, and anytime Cliff had to meet one of Denise’s (Bonet) boyfriends. Oh, and Cosby sweaters.
So it’s hard to argue whether or not this should be number one given the pop culture impact and references that will probably live on forever. Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are four of the funniest and best-written characters ever in television. What people often forget is that this show was not an immediate success and that it took time to build an audience. Seinfeld has joined the Pantheon of all-time great shows, sitting alongside I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners as watchable reruns for future generations to enjoy.
Key highlights: The contest, the NBC pilot episodes, anytime George lies (Spoiler Alert: every episode) and the simple “show about nothing” coffee shop banter.
Cheers beat Seinfeld at its peak, this is fact. Besides, what better setting is there for a sitcom than a bar? We can all relate to hanging out and goofing off with our friends and “regulars” we all have in our daily lives. The writing was impeccable and the cast was even better. Not only did the show keep the story lines fresh, but they upgraded each time they needed to add someone new to the cast (Kirstie Alley as Rebecca How and Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd). Cheers owned Thursday nights for over a decade and bridged The Cosby Show and Seinfeld, keeping NBC dominant in the Thursday night sitcom industry. Reruns were equally as popular, already airing with several seasons left to go. Cheers also did well in the awards area, winning 28 Emmys.
Key highlights: The pranks played with Gary’s Old Towne Tavern, Sam Malone’s (Ted Danson) ongoing feud with the restaurant upstairs (Melville’s) and anytime Norm (George Wendt) entered the bar. Spoiler Alert: This happened in every episode.