Sitcoms are a strange extension of stage comedy. In fact, many today are still filmed in front of live audiences and on cutaway sets. Since families began owning TVs in the 1950s, they’ve evolved in fits and starts, often reflecting or bucking the politics of a given era.
Does each decade have a best sitcom? How do you even measure that? Does it have to be influential or popular? Part of the joy of lists like this is everyone’s list is different. What matters is what makes those differences.
Not only was Lucille Ball an exacting comedian on stage, she turned herself into one of the most powerful players in Hollywood with this show. Following the complicated misunderstandings of a married couple in New York, I Love Lucy put the situation in situation comedy. Filmed live, the show relied on the energy of vaudeville and the quick pacing of stage comedy to deliver complicated set-ups. Ball was also a one-woman slapstick machine.
It ages surprisingly well. Filmed in black-and-white, it can’t escape the 1950s, but the show’s energy keeps it fresher than most comedies half its age.
During its first three seasons, the average viewership of I Love Lucy was more than half of all U.S. households with a television. For the final three seasons, the show still averaged above 40 percent. Today, that’s unthinkable, but it’s a measure of how great a show I Love Lucy really is (and of an age with far fewer channels).
Honorable Mentions: None that come close
The ’60s were a weird time in TV. From Green Acres to Gomer Pyle: USMC, there was a consistent theme of poking fun at people from rural areas. The ’50s had just seen the boom of suburban housing and the gentrification of city culture, but what’s interesting about many of these shows is the country simpletons at the heart of them were very often treated as morally pure. It was the city folk who couldn’t be trusted.
The Beverly Hillbillies follows a family that strikes it rich with oil and moves to Beverly Hills. They cook roadkill, think the Civil War is still on, and can’t figure out how tiny people got inside the TV – still a relatively new appliance at the time. It’s insulting in many ways, but at every turn their honesty would trump the devious plans of bankers and con-men out to steal their millions. It was a moral fable done as broad comedy.
The show’s success relied on two of its elder statesmen: Buddy Ebsen played kind, patient father Jed Clampett, while Irene Ryan played the fiery, shotgun-toting Granny Clampett.
Honorable mentions: Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, Batman, The Munsters, The Dick Van Dyke Show
Based on the 1970 Robert Altman movie of the same name, M*A*S*H followed the wartime adventures of “Hawkeye” Pierce. A beleaguered surgeon at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (a MASH), Hawkeye was played by Alan Alda. The actor used quick, irreverent wit in the style of Groucho Marx to disarm viewers to anti-war commentary. The Korean War stood in for the Vietnam War, or the show never would have aired.
How was something so depressing and serious so funny? It relied on outlandish characters bouncing off of extraordinarily uptight straight men, and exposed the ridiculousness of army bureaucracy. It remembered sometimes, a comedy’s responsibility is to be serious. It conveyed empathy for our enemies, and anger at our own government. Perhaps the most important TV show in the history of the medium, it even found humor in desperation, frustration, and terror. It reminds us to laugh even in the darkest moments, if only to keep our sanity.
The most important thing you can know about MASH? It can still make you cry like a baby even while you’re laughing.
Honorable Mentions: Fawlty Towers, Three’s Company, Are You Being Served?, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Simply put, The Golden Girls boasts one of the best comedy ensembles in TV history: Betty White, Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan.
The 80s were a time of very standardized comedy and The Golden Girls broke molds. Following four previously married women living in Miami, it wasn’t afraid to discuss old age or sex, and it created poignant moments about surviving the death of loved ones and losing traditions.
Because of its older cast, The Golden Girls could get away with portraying women involved in relationships and sex in ways shows with younger women couldn’t or wouldn’t. In an indirect way, it opened the door for shows like Sex and the City and Girls.
Honorable Mentions: The Black Adder, Night Court, Mama’s Family, 227, Cheers, The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show and A Different World broke down racial barriers, but it was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that dealt with what to do now that they were toppled. Displaced Philadelphia native Will Smith is sent to live with his aunt and uncle in their mansion in Bel-Air. The conflict created by Will’s poor upbringing and his extended family’s wealthy, influential status was at the heart of many episodes.
One story in particular sees cousins Will and Carlton pulled over and jailed for driving too nice a car. Police think the two young black men must have stolen it. Carlton’s father, a judge, has to exert his power to cow police into releasing them. At the end, young Republican Carlton has a crisis of identity about his faith in the system and how it treats black citizens.
In some ways, Fresh Prince used the structure of Family Ties – opposing political views under the same roof – to create narratives and political discussion. Rather than giving answers, Fresh Prince raised questions and recognized equality hadn’t yet been reached. All this, and it was incredibly funny.
Honorable Mentions: The Simpsons, Waiting for God, Frasier, Sports Night
Arguably the sitcom’s strongest decade, this could just as easily go to Arrested Development or South Park.
Malcolm in the Middle often touches on absurdism, but many could identify with how Malcolm was ostracized at school. Many identified with the middle class financial and health struggles his parents (a fantastic Jane Kaczmarek and a wacky, pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston) hid from their thankless children. Some of the fights they had were the same fights many had at that age with their parents.
Through it all, there was a direction to the struggle – the daily grind at work, the daily grind at school, the daily grind just trying to fit in – that defined how this generation was raised. Malcolm had the world before him – here was a character who in the show’s brilliant finale is told by his parents they expect him to turn down a lucrative job offer, go to college, and one day become president. There is no doubt in his mother’s voice. When he objects that these are completely unrealistic expectations, she looks him square in the eye and demands he tell her he can’t do it. She’ll let him take the job and skip college if only he tells her he believes he can’t do it.
It’s an outsized example of the faith and responsibility Baby Boomer parents taught the Millennial generation. Even if that style of parenting is criticized today, many of us still believe in what it taught us, and it’s at the heart of Malcolm in the Middle.
Honorable Mentions: Arrested Development, South Park, Boston Legal, Coupling, 30 Rock, Futurama, Scrubs, The Office
It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It may take several tries to get into the show – bouncing off its rhythm and pace until you synch to what the show is doing. Once you sink into its insanity, though, It’s Always Sunny becomes a series of riffs spun out of the darkest corners of our minds.
The jokes are sometimes awful, but it’s always acted and edited within an inch of its life. It may not be your kind of show, but it forces people to stop and look. It’s fascinating and repulsive and nonsensical all at once.
If Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23 had lasted longer with less network interference, that would be here. If Modern Family took more risks, that would be here. If Mom can keep an even keel, that might be here.
For now, It’s Always Sunny is the morally void juggernaut of the group, crafting weird comedy art from the absurdly pointless and transfixingly ugly seams in what we find humorous.
Honorable Mentions: Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23, Louie, Modern Family, Mom
What can you not believe is on this list? Which shows would you keep?