Top thirty, ladies and gents! As we near the prime spots, you’ll undoubtedly see some of your favorites fall just shy of pole position. And yet, note the diversity of the Popblerd crew; classic ’70s and ’80s sitcoms rub shoulders with underrated ’90s material and a few future classics that are still ticking today. It proves this one universal truth: that, no matter who you are, the appeal of kicking back and dropping in on a few funny friends is universal, and to be cherished as such. If you’re behind on our list, check out our previous installments:
We kick off the top thirty with a look at a dry-witted classic.
30. Newhart (CBS, 1982-1990)
“Hi. I’m Larry. This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”
If you’re over the age of 30, and you watched a lot of TV in the ‘80s, chances are good that you’ve heard that famous introduction (courtesy of the aforementioned goofy mountain man) from Newhart on more than one occasion. The sitcom, Bob Newhart’s second, was as kooky and genius-ly awkward as its namesake. As “do-it-yourself” writer Dick Loudon, Newhart firsts runs a 200-year-old-in in a backwoods Vermont town, and then later hosts a local talk show in the same town. The show’s writers never really explained Loudon’s transition from innkeeper to talk show host, nor why a New York author would voluntarily choose to do either in a rural Vermont town. But the show’s premise gave creator and writers free reign to bring in an endless series of oddball characters that gave the show its pulse – from yuppie TV producer Michael Harris to pathologically lying neighbor Kirk Devane.
Newhart’s series finale is one of the most controversial and best-loved in sitcom history. After an attempted takeover by a Japanese billionaire who intends to turn the entire town into a golf course, and a bizarre flash-forward in which it’s revealed that Loudon and his wife have refused to sell their inn while everyone else in the town has become rich, the screen blacks out, then quickly rises on Newhart in bed with a woman who is clearly not Mary Frann (who plays Dick’s wife, Joanna, on the show). It soon becomes apparent the this new Newhart iteration is actually Dr. Bob Hartley, Newhart’s character from his previous sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, and that the entire Newhart series was simply a strange, alternate reality that existed only within Dr. Hartley’s dream. This “dream-sequence finale” technique has since frequently been imitated, but no one has pulled it off with the gusto and effectiveness of Newhart, a man who had previously had a series that was so beloved and long-running that he could seamlessly self-reference it in his second beloved, long-running series. Newhart was one of only a few actors in television sitcom history, along with maybe Bill Cosby and Kelsey Grammer, who had the ethos and built up capital to not only get away with this, but achieve critical acclaim as a result of it.
Newhart hasn’t frequently been syndicated in recent years, and only its first season received a proper DVD release, rendering it something of a forgotten ‘80s relic. The show’s quirky comedic style holds up very well, however, and a quick search on YouTube will give newcomers to the show’s charms a chance to discover this hidden treasure in its entirety, and longtime fans an opportunity to relive the madness. (Michael Cunningham)
29. WKRP in Cincinnati (CBS, 1978-1982)
If this early 80’s series aired today and got cancelled it would be the subject of a groundswell of buzz on the internet, and there’d be a successful campaign by fans to re-launch it, via Netflix or some other outlet.
That’s how good WKRP in Cincinnati was.
For those who don’t know, WKRP in Cincinnati was a CBS sitcom about a perennially low-rated radio station, that plays easy-listening and is staffed by a bunch of misfits. A programming shake-up by the new program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) means a switch to rock n’ roll and confusion and hilarity ensues amongst the station staff. These include a burnt out, former rock n’ roll DJ, Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), who got fired from his last gig for saying “booger” on air; an old-school, nerdy and bizarre newsman, Les Nessman (Richard Sanders); a seedy and stereotypical sales guy, Herb Tarleck (Frank Bonner); the henpecked station manager, cowering in fear of his mother, who owned the station, Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump); a young, new-to-the-radio biz Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers); and finally, the blonde bombshell receptionist, definitely NOT a bimbo, Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), who is the smartest, highest paid person at the station – and often the glue that keeps the place from falling apart.
Travis brings in a new DJ, a pal from a former station, Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), who’s -gasp!- black which makes Les and Herb a bit nervous, with great comic results. If all the above seems a bit stereotypical now, that’s understandable. Some of it was, even for the 80’s. At its core, it was a workplace comedy, with some similarities to the Mary Tyler Moore show. The show focused on the characters and their situations at the station and the radio business itself ( creator Hugh Wilson actually worked in advertising sales at a Top 40 station in Atlanta).
But unlike many sitcoms, WKRP didn’t have a focus primarily on a single character. Rather, the comedy and the drama was spread throughout the cast, with everyone having episodes whose storylines focused on them . Andy Travis was always successful at his previous stops; at WKRP he’s hailed for mediocre ratings. Venus gets a great job offer – but its from a soulless, corporate station, programmed by computer (the show was ahead of its time). Johnny deals with payola and drugs. The station is picketed by some wizened senior citizens because of the format change.
Though it only ran for four seasons – and CBS kept moving it on their schedule which made it difficult to keep and grow an audience – WKRP deserves a spot here because it was so damn funny – the Thanksgiving episode is a classic – and each character was so fun and interesting. The show never jumped the shark and for many folks WKRP is to the radio business what “Spinal Tap” is to heavy metal.
“As god is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly” (Steven Roth)
28. NewsRadio (NBC, 1995-1999)
“Newsradio” never had the runaway ratings success of “Seinfeld”, struggling to stay on the air through five seasons before being snuffed out just before its 100th episode, but it’s of a kind with the seminal show about nothing in its placing of meticulously thought-out character types in the most mundane of contexts (in this case, a radio station office) using a mix of hilariously unforgiving deadpan logic and increasingly absurd farce. Staged with a precision that shames most other sitcoms, “Newsradio” found endless variations on the terrific chemistry of its ensemble cast, from Dave Foley’s exasperated straight man to Stephen Root’s mad billionaire to Maura Tierney’s insecure type-A. Frankly, and I mean this in the most flattering way possible, every member of the cast peaked with this show, including Andy Dick (whose propensity for slapstick reaches Chaplin levels, to say nothing of his unique delivery), Vicki Lewis, Khandi Alexander, Joe Rogan, and Phil Hartman, all creating the most indelible and nuanced roles of their careers. Especially for Hartman, graduating from “SNL”‘s most reliable anchor to play the pompous Bill McNeal was easily the best showcase for his ever-underused talent and gusto, as he essays what should be used as a masters course in the art of playing a complete jerk. Though the series never recovered its rhythm in the wake of Hartman’s tragic death after season 4 (despite a noble effort and a wrenching tribute episode to their fallen friend), those prime seasons with the main ensemble intact were as acerbic, inventive, tightly composed, and purely classical a workplace comedy as anything since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. (Michael Browne)
27. Good Times (CBS, 1974-1979)
From the insanely catchy theme to the Ernie Banks painting that signaled the end of an episode, “Good Times” stands as one of the best sitcoms of the Seventies. Based in the projects of Chicago, it balanced serious portrayals of urban blight with gut-busting comedy. Springing at least partially from the mind of writer/actor Mike Evans (yes, the character Ralph Carter played on the show was named after him…and yes, he’s the same Mike Evans that originally played Lionel Jefferson on The Jeffersons,) the show became a staple of CBS’s lineup during its five seasons on the air.
The characters are instantly memorable: hard nosed patriarch James Evans (John Amos), strong-willed matriarch Florida (Esther Rolle), sassy and beautiful daughter Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), militant younger son Michael (Ralph Carter) and, of course… oldest child JJ, played by Jimmie Walker. The man who briefly made fishermans’ hats cool, the man who had a smooth game despite (or may because of) being far from a sex symbol, and the man with the catchphrase that became the series’ calling card and it’s albatross-”DY-NO-MITE!!” That catchphrase became such a pop culture touchstone that it eventually led to the departures of Amos and Rolle (who later returned.)
“Good Times” was also full of memorable secondary characters. Foxy neighbor Willona, maintenance man Booker AKA Bugger AKA Buffalo Butt, Ned the Wino, Thelma’s football-playing husband Keith, hot-watch selling swindler Lenny, and, of course, a young Janet Jackson as Penny, who got burned with an iron. If nothing else, “Good Times” deserves mention for Esther Rolle’s oft-quoted and forever memorable histrionics when informed that James had died in a car accident in Mississippi (via telegram!) “Damn!! Damn!!! Damn!!!!” indeed. (Big Money)
26. Parks & Recreation (NBC, 2009-present)
Once dismissed as “The Office”‘s less-attractive little brother — due in no small part to the documentary format they shared, and actress Rashida Jones’ involvement in both — “Parks & Recreation” hit its stride in its phenomenal second season, and went on to become the single best comedy on the air on any given night (and with “30 Rock” and “The Office” dropping last year, it’s in strong contention for the best sitcom on the air, period). This peek inside an Indiana city’s most maligned city hall department is a thing of beauty; its cast of strong, detailed, boldly hand-drawn characters is spearheaded by Amy Poehler’s strikingly heartfelt Leslie Knope, a character that could easily have been a female Michael Scott. Instead, Knope is competent, often over-emotional, and utterly devoted to a town she genuinely believes is the best city on earth. She’s one of the most lovable characters to ever trot across the silver screen, and her friendship with Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson — a gruff, uproarious walking meme of a man — is the heartbeat of the show. It may follow a mockumentary format, it may have suffered from a lackluster first season only to catch fire in the second and third, and it may center around a veteran comic actor playing a disarmingly sincere person who tries too hard, but “Parks & Recreation” eclipsed “The Office” in pathos and in pure, rip-snorting laughter long ago. (Drew)
25. Full House (ABC, 1987-1995)
Look, Full House was never the most well-written TV show on air. During its 8 season run (from 1987 to 1995), there were some pretty questionable moments (like, how did Uncle Jesse KEEP meeting the Beach Boys? And why did Uncle Joey NEVER move out the basement?!), and plenty of cheese-fest episodes (which was basically any time John Stamos dressed up as Jesse’s evil Greek cousin, Stavros), but honestly, for a family sitcom in the 90’s, it was gold. You can’t deny how adorable the Olsen twins were back then, I still think Uncle Jesse’s hot, and sure, Danny Tanner’s jokes were SUPER corny, but he honestly was a great single father. Full House taught great family values (especially during the “Very Special Episode(s)”) and was good, wholesome fun. This show is like my “comfort food” of TV shows- any time I’m feeling down, I can inevitably find a rerun of it somewhere and rewind life back to 1992, when life was simple and the best way to get laughs from an audience was by saying a simple catch phrase. You got it, dude! *thumbs up* (Brittany)
24. Growing Pains (ABC, 1995-1992)
One of the many family sitcoms to arrive in the wake of “The Cosby Show” was “Growing Pains.” Situated somewhere on Long Island, The Seaver family boasted a psychiatrist doctor (Jason Seaver,played by Alan Thicke, one of my first and strongest TV crushes,) in place of Cliff Huxtable’s OB-GYN. Joining him: foxy blonde wife Maggie (Joanna Kerns) and three adorable yet quirky kids: ladies man and rapscallion Mike Seaver (Kirk Cameron,) bookish daughter Carol (Tracey Gold) and impish Ben (Jeremy Miller.) Together, the fivesome navigated typical sitcom territory without becoming icky sweet.
Shortly into the show’s run, Kirk Cameron became the teen idol of the day, appearing on damn near every cover of Bop, Teen Beat and Tiger Beat in existence. The likable Mike Seaver character wasn’t the funniest character on the show, but Kirk was certainly the cutest character, and teenage girls (and a few dudes) began watching the show in droves. Adults stuck around for the witty repartee between Thicke and Kerns, who had an undeniable chemistry (and now that we know real-life Thicke spawned one of the most sultry R&B singers around, it’s pretty easy to imagine him trying to lay game on real-life Kerns.)
There were, of course, the supplementary characters, with the favorites being Mike’s dumb-as-a-post best friend Richard “Boner” Stabone (how did they get that past the ABC censors?) and the gruff-but-lovable gym teacher Coach Lubbock. Around the time they excised Boner (into the military) and gave Lubbock his own show (“Just the Ten of Us”,) the show did a major jump of the shark. Due to Cameron’s conversion to evangelical Christianity, Mike did a 180 and became an earnest acting student. They shoehorned a fourth Seaver child (Chrissy) into the series and even adopted a transient teenager (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who probably wishes he could remove that role from his resume.) Hell, poor Tracey Gold (probably stung by the fat jokes that kept being written about her character even though she wasn’t the slightest bit chubby) was in rehab for anorexia during the show’s last season. By the time “Growing Pains” went off the air in 1992, it was a shell of its former self. Still, those early episodes crackle with a sharpness that elevated “GP” above the sea of Cosby clones. (Big Money)
23. South Park (Comedy Central, 1997-present)
South Park debuted in 1997. At the time it was a cute little cartoon series with foul-mouthed children, written for (presumably) adults. Since then, it has established itself as a premier source of satire and social commentary. Throughout 16 seasons, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have satirized every major news story, poked fun at every major celebrity and politician, both domestic and international, and it has offended every race, color, gender, ethnicity and religion possible. Even more amazingly, the shows aren’t prewritten. They brainstorm for ideas on Thursday, sketch out the story line over the weekend, animate and produce it, and send it to Comedy Central a few hours before each episode’s Wednesday premiere. Consequently, you get a very spontaneous and current episode, many times relating to whatever is going on in the news at that moment.
And then there’s this… (May)
22. Community (NBC, 2009-present)
As snappy, sardonic, and frothy as “His Girl Friday” while as unmistakably voiced by a singular artist as the work of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet, Dan Harmon’s “Community” originally came out of nowhere in the fall of 2009 with a “haven’t we seen this before?” premise – mismatched pack of under-achievers attending community college become a de-facto family – and became a cult legend, if not from its perpetually low ratings then at least on the Internet – where TV programming may ultimately be headed anyway, so props for prescience. But unlike forefathers “Saved by the Bell: The College Years” or more aptly “Undeclared”, this unkillable sitcom has set the curve in countless ways: volume and finesse of wordplay, a dizzying pop culture savvy reflected through advanced experimentation in formatting and genre hopping (episode gimmicks range from musicals to 8-bit video game style to crazy-specific parodies of action cinema, Scorsese films, westerns, documentaries, the muppets, dungeons & dragons, “Apollo 13”, even “My Dinner with Andre”) as well as deconstruction of sitcom conventions themselves (with openly acknowledged and wildly subverted takes on bottle episodes, holiday specials, and clip shows), surprisingly complex thematic character development, making Chevy Chase funny again after the ’80s. It’s a transcendent display of what comedy television can really achieve post-“Arrested Development”. Even when it foregoes the gimmickry and just tells modest stories about hard classes and new relationships, the bright enthusiasm, ace performances, sharp dialogue, crack timing, manic pacing, oodles of in-joke and callback minutae, and relentless yet richly earned optimism make every episode a multi-layered joy to watch again and again. (Michael B.)
21. Scrubs (NBC, 2001-2008; ABC, 2009-2010)
Does “Scrubs” qualify as a sitcom? It’s hard to say.
Undoubtedly, the show is funny. It’s hard to think of “Scrubs” and not call to mind the often goofy internal dialogue of John “J.D.” Dorian, or the “guy love” between J.D. and his best friend Christopher Turk, or the nuttiness of any of the characters that inhabited Sacred Heart Hospital. Doctors, nurses, malpractice lawyers, interns, residents, medical students and guest stars ranging from Heather Graham to Ricky Schroder all brought the funny at one time or another.
It’s one thing to be funny, it’s another to be funny and poignant. “Scrubs” was not afraid to tackle “big” issues-as any show set in a hospital should. However, these issues weren’t handled in the cloying, “very special episode” way that most comedies handle them. Those issues-ranging from malpractice and marriage to drug abuse and death-were and are part and parcel of working in the medical field. For being able to combine the surreal with the sobering, “Scrubs” might have been the most realistic portrayal of hospital goings-on in television history.
I discovered the show a couple of seasons in, and was immediately drawn to the storylines, as well as the characters. Bill Lawrence and his team created an act that (if “Cougar Town” is any indication) may well be impossible to follow. One show in particular, in which Brendan Fraser guest stars as Dr. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley)’s cancer-stricken brother-in-law, made me such a fan of the show that “Scrubs: The College Years” could’ve continued for another five seasons and not been bad enough to replace my memories of the original series.
I’ve told friends before; “Scrubs” is the only show I can think of where you can laugh uncontrollably and cry uncontrollably within a five minute span, a testament to the incredible talent involved in creating this long-running show. (Big Money)
Incoming search terms:
- 80s sitcoms