Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Now what, you ask, does that have to do with television sitcoms?
But there’ only so much ground you can cover regarding Thanksgiving blog content. You’ve all likely read more than enough Thanksgiving food rankings, bar reunion anecdotes, and high school football game breakdowns by now. Baseball’s hot stove season hasn’t truly been hot in about a decade, the NFL is short on intriguing storylines, and if there’s one thing I can guarantee all of us will be doing plenty of over the next five days, it’s watching TV.
Therefore, with no seasonal relevance whatsoever, here are my top ten favorite sitcoms of all time.
Without a doubt the most unheralded show on this list, I believe Futurama suffered from a bit of animation burnout when it debuted in 1999. It’s first run was critically acclaimed and lasted a respectable four seasons. However, with The Simpsons, South Park, and eventually Family Guy making so many headlines nationwide, Matt Groening’s space-aged comedy seemed to fly under the radar despite having, in my opinion, superior writing to the others. It returned by popular demand in 2008 for six more seasons, and actually racked up six Emmy awards before all was said and done. Like all sitcoms, Futurama’s success was built on the strength of its supporting cast. A belligerent alcoholic robot, an ancient mad scientist, a Rastafarian accountant, a karate-kicking Cyclops, and a mentally deficient mutant lobster mix perfectly with the equally mentally deficient leading man to create a hilarious experience that belongs in the upper echelon of the animated comedy Hall of Fame.
9. All in the Family
Archie Bunker broke ground for generations of comedy antiheroes to come, and is one of the most culturally relevant television characters of all time. The thought of any character continually using ethnic slurs against every non-WASP in sight, including calling his own liberal Polish son-in-law a pinko commie meathead, would be heresy on network TV today. Whether or not that’s your idea of progress is up for debate, but the quality of this show is undebatable. Archie is an emptyheaded buffoon, and laughing at his foolhardy view of the world was a genius way of spotlighting the many idiocies and hypocrisies of racism and xenophobia in the America of the late-1970s. History largely forgets Jean Stapleton as the other bedrock of All in the Family, but Archie’s simpleminded exploits would never have known immortality without the unrequited love that Edith, for some reason, unwaveringly displayed for him.
8. King of the Hill
Mike Judge’s second major cartoon hit showed us that subtle humor could work in cartoons every bit as well as slapstick and sight gags. And while King of the Hill never enjoyed a worldwide craze like the one that sprouted from Beavis and Butt-Head, its quality and staying power eventually dwarfed that of the MTV powerhouse. As a newish resident of the state, I can attest that Hank Hill’s buttoned-down, conservative views would fit right into the landscape of real-life Texas. Luckily for us, Hank’s home of Arlen was populated by some of the craziest rednecks and most misguided progressives on the planet, including the ones living in his own home. Every week, Hank managed to find his right-wing sensibilities challenged to the point of shock, awe, and potential humiliation. Watching him wrestle with his loony contemporaries and his own countless inhibitions unveiled a whole new direction for animated comedies; one that combined poignant satire of red and blue American values with the kind of harebrained schemes that have always been a staple of American comedy.
7. The Office
Speaking of harebrained, has any company in television history ever employed an eclectic group of maniacs as insane as the staff of Dunder Mifflin? How did a couple of normies like Jim and Pam ever end up working with these people? Every supporting staff of screwballs needs a straight man to balance them out, and watching Jim and Pam gradually fall for each other while navigating the Scranton waters of crazy was the perfect fulcrum to hold this show together. But let’s be honest … this was essentially the Steve Carell Show. Just like Ricky Gervais with his David Brent character in the British series that started it all, Carell’s Michael Scott was the straw that stirred the drink. And just as the Yankees stumbled along after Reggie Jackson departed for Anaheim, The Office blindly floundered about for a few seasons after Carell’s departure until the fans just stopped showing up. What this cast did for those first six seasons was magical, and no comedy of its era could touch it in terms of quality or rewatch-ability.
With al due respect to The Office, here is your all-time heavyweight champion of rewatch-ability. I can’t quite explain why, other than to say it probably has the greatest four-person cast in history. While Jerry Seinfeld wouldn’t even crack the list of the top 300 comedic TV actors in history, he was essentially Mark Bellhorn hiding in the top of a lineup featuring Johnny Damon, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez. Three legends carried Jerry Seinfeld and his show to unprecedented levels of success, remaining the number one show on television nine years into its run when they finally called it quits. Larry David’s method of creating separate storylines for each character, then finding a way to blend them all together in a hilarious climax was pure artistry, a task of unimaginable craft and talent that understandably ran him ragged. Much like The Office after Carell left, Seinfeld noticeably lost its fastball after David departed from exhaustion after season seven. What he left behind was an enduring legacy that he’d somehow manage to top only a few years later, as well as a roster of the greatest recurring characters that television has ever seen, including the GOAT, David Puddy.
5. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
No show has ever been so different than what I originally expected it to be. When I first tuned in, I thought this was gonna be something like Cheers meets Friends. It took about ten minutes to realize that it was more like There’s Something About Mary crossed with Very Bad Things. While repeatedly exploring their alcoholism, narcissism, moral ambiguity, and complete lack of ethical standards, the gang continually raises the bar, soaks it in gasoline, lights it on fire, impales their friend Cricket with it, and then raises it once again. This show has taught us all that no matter how far into depravity a show may sink, there’s always a way to make it funny. It hurdles over every line in the sand that we may draw regarding good taste in entertainment, but somehow we never feel bad after cracking up about it. Maybe that’s because we understand that nothing should be sacred when it comes to making people laugh. Then again, maybe we’re just relieved that we simply get to watch the show from a safe distance without having to take personal responsibility for the subject matter. Whatever the reason, this show is remarkable in the way it manages to yield a monstrous belly laugh from me every single time I watch it. Hats off to the greatest thing to ever come out of the city of Philadelphia.
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Was this Larry David’s way of showing the world that he didn’t need Jerry Seinfeld in order to make an elite sitcom? If so, mission accomplished. Larry’s examination of his unwritten rules for living in society is as funny as it is unique, and it is undoubtedly the funniest show to ever air on a premium network. Whether or not we want to admit it, comedy is always better when it’s R-rated. As funny as Seinfeld was, it can’t hold a candle to Curb Your Enthusiasm primarily because the characters get to speak like adults. Instead of dancing around network censors in vain attempts to try and make their dialogue sound realistic, Larry, Jeff, Susie, Richard, and the rest get to drop F-bombs, investigate whether or not a nurse stashed a priceless baseball inside her abnormally large vagina, and accuse each other of performing vehicular fellatio. The term “sitcom” is short for “situational comedy,” and the situations are limitless when they take place on HBO. David has used cable TV’s lack of restrictions to elevate the formula he perfected during Seinfeld to new heights for 11 seasons that have spanned the past 22 years. I hope he keeps going for a lot longer.
3. The Simpsons
If this show was mercifully retired after 20 years or so, it would probably be number one on this list. However, as amazing and important as The Simpsons has been throughout virtually my entire life, its manner of dragging along endlessly like Brett Favre’s NFL career has soured me on it just a bit. That doesn’t change the fact that it was the most consistently funny and well-written show on television for the better part of two decades. The Simpsons was everything to everybody at one time or another. Wholesome, daring, intelligent, stupid, sweet, stiff, satiric, classic, topical … it was the show that could and would succeed at every manner of funny. Homer Simpson has probably covered more ground than any television character in history. He would wrap his hands around Bart’s throat one minute, then pull Lisa out of a dour mood the next. He became a role model to a fatherless child just to spite Bart, then started an epic street fight with the altruistic man Bart had turned to for support. He purposely gained 100 pounds to get workman’s comp, punched out his 103-year-old boss, worked for an international terrorist organization, framed his own wife for drunk driving, and caused the death of his pious neighbor’s wife. This is the hero of the show. Terms like groundbreaking, legendary, and iconic are insufficient to describe what The Simpsons has meant to the world. It’s the greatest 30-minute TV show ever made, and it will probably be at least 50 years before anything else can even come close to rivaling it.
I admit that this is a sleeper pick, but I place it at the number two slot without hesitation. It features the greatest ensemble cast ever, period. I guess Dave Foley is the “star”, but you’d be crazy to act as if he was any more valuable to it than the brilliant Stephen Root, the rock-solid Maura Tierney, the literally insane Andy Dick, or, of course, the incomparable Phil Hartman. Even Joe Rogan was fantastic, and I’m pretty sure this is the only acting role he’s ever been in. The way these characters wound through each other’s lives in just the right doses was a thing of beauty that brought the funny each and every time out. NewsRadio is the greatest example I’ve seen of how important intangibles are to entertainment. Make no mistake, the writing was great, the acting was spot on, the comedic timing was impeccable, and the plots were the perfect blend of relatable and ridiculous. But what ultimately hooks us into the show is our attraction to the characters, a condition that requires a recipe that nobody on Earth could ever truly quantify. We like TV characters simply because we like them. It’s incredibly simple and impossibly complicated all at the same time. And I flat out loved these characters. Phil Hartman’s tragic death certainly took the wind out of NewsRadio’s sails, and it only lasted one season without him. But those first four seasons delivered a combination of excellence that, to me, was only ever eclipsed by one show in my lifetime.
1. Married … with Children
I’m not gonna pretend that Married … with Children didn’t have its share of problems. It lasted four seasons too long, it brought in the dreaded new family member character late in its run, and all of the characters eventually descended into bastardized parodies of themselves. But I’d put the first seven seasons up against any other sitcom of any time period. It was never a huge ratings grabber, frankly, because it was too far ahead of its time. Most people weren’t prepared for a sitcom about a family that essentially hated each other. Al Bundy was a loser whose life peaked as a star high school football player. He was lazy, selfish, mean, and resentful of everything about his life. Whereas most shows featured their heroes getting into difficult situations that they had to struggle out of so they could return to their happy status quo, most Married … with Children episodes depicted Al trying his hardest to achieve some small level of personal joy, only for his goal to eventually blow up in his face and send his life spiraling back into misery.
Peggy Bundy was essentially the show’s main villain, wasting Al’s meager salary at every turn and seeking to dash most of his hopes and dreams simply because they ran in opposition to her own. Kelly, his daughter, was a trampy moron who was constantly at odds with his son Bud, a mischievous grifter. Al and Peg would verbally joust while Bud and Kelly would work with or against each other from week to week in a dance that was so entertaining mostly because it was so different than everything else on TV. This was the first show to be helmed by a family of bad guys. They were so bad, in fact, that they managed to turn the nice newlywed couple next door, Steve and Marcy, into a couple of disenchanted lowlives just like them. When Marcy woke up one morning married to her new husband, a sneaky conman named Jefferson, Al soon had a sidekick to accompany him on his many doomed excursions toward happiness.
In the ill-fated final few seasons, Al and Peggy became less relatable, Kelly went from a sexy chick with a hard edge to an emptyheaded bimbo, and Bud went from a conniving troublemaker to an annoying nymphomaniac. The plots became less intricate and the Bundys went from complex antiheroes to a tribe of one-trick ponies. The show was, quite frankly, too good for its time; too unique to succeed in the era of Thirtysomething.
Only it did survive. And it thrived. Not with the critics, but with its own segment of the audience. Ratings be damned, everybody who liked Married … with Children loved Married … with Children. We stuck with it throughout the dumbing down of the show, throughout the protests from angry parents, even throughout the Seven debacle because the show became a part of us. We rose and fell with it, almost like an embattled family member. No matter what happened toward the end of its run, we always had the time when wild animals besieged the cabin where Peg, Marcy, and Kelly endured simultaneous menstrual periods. We had the time when Al blew the head off the Rhoades’ family dog. We had the time when Al cooked burgers on his grill atop the ashes of Marcy’s dead mother. We had the time when Al took Bud to the nudie bar on his 18th birthday.
South Park, Wings, That 70s Show, Archer, The Boondocks