Oliver Lyttelton Features, News, Television 12
Features, News, Television
In the peak TV era, much of the attention has gone to the drama shows — the dark, morally complex, violence-filled series like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Game Of Thrones,” “Fargo” and many more. But that’s only half the story. While they might not fuel thinkpieces and fan theories in the same way, we’re in a golden age of small-screen comedy, as this month has demonstrated: the excellent“Master Of None” and“I Love Dick,”and the wonderful “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”have all recently landed.
There’s as much good comedy out there as there is drama, if not more so, and it’s sort of always been that way: while you might struggle to name more than a few TV dramas from before 1990, you can probably name half a dozen comedies or more, many of which remain on the air today in syndication.
We’ve never really examined the TV comedy in much detail, and so we’ve decided to pick out the 50 greatest TV comedies of all time. By which we mean specifically scripted sitcom — variety or sketch like “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show” or “Key AndPeele” were deemed to be something slightly different in the end. And we also ruled out hour-long dramedies like “Freaks AndGeeks” or “Gilmore Girls”; to be considered, shows had to be predominately half-hour in episode length or less.
Even with those ground rules, there was an enormous amount to choose from, as you’ll see with our list of 50. Take a look below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments.
50. “Sex And The City” (1998-2004)
Our memories of it might have been tainted by its steady creep into self-parody, and in particular the two deeply lousy movies, but we shouldn’t forget that “Sex And The City” was something of a revolution at the time. For all its smugness, snobbishness and tone-deaf quality, it was a show that took women and their sexuality seriously, and with a hilarious frankness that undoubtedly helped pavedthe way for prestige comedy classics from “Girls” to “Transparent.”
49. “Undeclared” (2001-2002)
With “Freaks AndGeeks” disqualified by being an hour-long show, you could accuse our placement of Judd Apatow’s other one-season wonder, “Undeclared,” as a sort of token nod in its direction. But it’s a great show in and of itself: the last really good college-set series, in fact (before this year’s “Dear White People” anyway), capturing the campus experience in the way that most of us probably went through it, with the warmth and belly laughs of the Apatow formula that he was beginning to perfect. The cast — even Charlie Hunnam, who’s actually never been better — are great too.
48. “Archer” (2009-present)
The only genre more played out than the edgy animated comedy is the spy parody, so you’d think that Adam Reed’s “Archer” would have been easy to forget — the tale of a selfish, man-baby James Bond-like spy, his monstrous mother and his workmates isn’t a particularly unique premise. But from the off, the FX show had a singular tone and approach: dense, reference-heavy scripting closer to “Arrested Development” than “Austin Powers,” increasingly gorgeous production values, a restless facility for experimentation (which has seen it shift into a “Miami Vice” parody, a Hollywood mystery and a ’40s noir show). It’s often bark-inducingly hilarious, but has steered into a surprising amount of pathos as it’s gone on too.
47. “Living Single” (1993-1998)
Few examples sum up the virtual segregation of ’90s sitcoms better than “Living Single,” an African-American-centric look at single life in Brooklyn starring Queen Latifah, which was funnier and smarter than most of NBC’s Must See TV line-up, but was mostly ignored by mainstream pop culture (though it’s having a moment more recently, with a revival in the works, and Big Sean and Chance The Rapper paying homage). Created by Yvette Lee Bowser, the first African-American woman to develop her own prime-time show, it never reinvented the wheel, but did a beautiful job of putting the wheel in a different context.
46. “Looking” (2014-2016)
When we say that “Looking” is probably the least funny show on this list, that shouldn’t be taken as an insult: Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh’s San Francisco-set look at gay life in the 2010s leans to the drama side of half-hour comedy-drama, with a very particular tone set by Haigh, the “Weekend” and “45 Years” helmer. It was funny, absolutely, but more than that, it was beautifully made and acted, and perhaps has TV’s most complex and nuanced look at LGBT culture. If only it had got more than the two seasons and a movie it was granted.
45. “BoJack Horseman” (2014 – present)
Netflix’s first truly great comedy came in the shape of what initially looked to be a rather dated animated look at celebrity culture, the kind of thing that was ten-a-penny on TV after the success of “The Simpsons” for a while. But once you got through the first few episodes (and subsequent seasons have been increasingly phenomenal), the story of a washed-up sitcom star (Will Arnett) grappling with failure and success proved to be a rich, ambitious, oddly beautiful show that goes to places as dark as any prestige anti-hero drama, while melding them with silliness and genuinely great gags.
44. “Everybody Hates Chris” (2005-2008)
Chris Rock was hardly the first stand-up to put out a show drawing on his own experiences growing up, but the utterly charming “Everybody Hates Chris” wasn’t quite what anyone was expecting — owing more to “The Wonder Years” than to most family shows, it saw the young Chris (Tyler James Williams) growing up in Bed-Stuy, with an authentically working-class vibe that’s too hard to find on TV, then or now; a nicelynostalgic reconstruction of the 1980s; and a pleasingly functional, if often bickering, family (including a breakout turn by Terry Crews as his dad).
43. “Silicon Valley” (2014 – present)
He was an animation king thanks to “Beavis AndButt-Head” and “King Of The Hill,” but live-action success long eluded Mike Judge, with films like “Office Space” and “Idiocracy” failing to find audiences despite their obvious brilliance. But that bad run came definitively to an end with the terrific HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” about a house of programmers whose invention could upend the tech world. The cast (particularly T.J. Miller, Zach Woods and Kumail Nanjiani) are outstanding, but it’s the show’s oddly gripping, beautifully farcical plotting that, three-and-a-half seasons in, has already cemented the show as a classic.
42. “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” (2005 – present)
The slow-burning success of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” has almost no precedent in TV history. Beginning as a self-financed pilot costing just $200 that was somehow picked up by FX, it’s set, if the planned 13th and 14th seasons happen, to become the longest-running (in seasons, if not episodes) comedy in history. A true successor to “Seinfeld” in many respects, but blended with the gleeful offensiveness of “South Park,” it’s an acquired taste and often uneven, but it’s a daring, fearless and frequently uproarious show once you fall for it.
41. “Broad City” (2014 – present)
It could have been taken, at first glance, as a cheap cash-in on the thinkpiece-inspiring success of “Girls.” But quickly, Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” created by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, proved itself to be a very different beast — looking at 20-something Brooklyn life from a female perspective, sure, but a pleasingly surreal, stoner-com version with its own delightful rhythms. It’s also interesting as a glimpse of a new era — the first web-series-to-TV transition that became a phenomenon.