Well, we’re almost there. Hope you’ve been enjoying our list so far. The penultimate installment of our greatest sitcoms poll kicks off with one of television’s most enduring classics. But before we go there, let’s backtrack:
20. The Honeymooners (CBS, 1951-1955)
Part of what makes The Honeymooners such a classic is that it’s a show that would never air today. Ralph Kramden, big and full of bluster, with all his threats and his verbal abuse of wife Alice, would have had people protesting the show’s treatment of women … and all of those people would miss the true point of the show: Ralph is a guy who would never lay a finger on his wife. He loves her way too much to do that. And besides, Alice could always take down her husband with one retort that would have him sniveling. But The Honeymooners wasn’t about insults and fights. It was about the love of a working-class couple, and the crazy make-it-rich schemes Ralph cooked up (often with his best friend, Ed Norton) to break them free from their financial limitations. Jackie Gleason, as Ralph, is as loveable as he is large, and a true master of physical comedy. He and his costars created a winning foursome that has allowed The Honeymooners to live on in the pantheon of great television shows. Baby, it’s the greatest. (Martin)
19. The Brady Bunch (ABC, 1969-1974)
In preparation for this list, I was somewhat surprised to learn that The Brady Bunch lasted only 5 seasons. Perhaps my judgment was clouded by the fact that since ceasing production, the series has been in syndication ad infinitum. Perhaps it’s the fact that though the series ended in 1974, the franchise has been ever present through perpetual spin-offs, reunions, made-for-tv-movies, and the tongue-in-cheek movies released in the 1990s. More recently, CBS has announced a reboot of the series produced by Vince Vaughan that will follow Bobby Brady’s divorce, remarriage, and family life (sound familiar?). Sure, these extensions of the Brady franchise have been clear attempts to cash in on nostalgia for the original series. But the fact that the Brady Bunch has persisted in American popular culture for over four decades is a pretty significant feat. In that sense, The Brady Bunch is something of a televisual cockroach – it simply never goes away. (I’m still holding out hope for a reunion tour of the kids’ singing group).
Also significant is presenting a sitcom family that was the product of remarriage via divorce (Carol) and death of a spouse (Mike). Beyond that, the show was known (and at least in retrospect, derided) for it’s squeaky clean depiction of all-American family life. In that regard, The Brady Bunch didn’t break many barriers, but it was often entertaining. In a sense, I almost prefer the later episodes simply because things got kind of weird. Personal favorites include the UFO hoax (http://youtu.be/dAIeDREQu3c?
18. Family Ties (NBC, 1982-1989)
17. Three’s Company (ABC, 1977-1984)
The original wedding crasher, Jack Tripper, played by John Ritter, joined two women in need of a roommate. Chrissy (Christmas) Snow and Janet Wood were in need of a third to help pay their rent. Jack eagerly said yes, but there was one condition; he had to pretend he was gay because the landlord, Mr. Roper didn’t allow co-ed living situations.
With that set-up, how could the show not be funny? You had Ritter’s physical comedic genius, Suzanne Somers in her prime, Norman Fell and later Don Knotts as Jack’s foils, and did I say Suzanne Somers was in her prime? Even though I wasn’t even one year old when the show debuted, the young version of me who watched most of the run in syndication loved him some Chrissy Snow from the late 70s.
Joyce DeWitt’s Janet was everything Chrissy was not; smart, brunette, and not as smoking hot. But she was a good actress who helped the show transition from all the slapstick and dumb jokes to the actual storyline.
My heart was broken when Chrissy was replaced by her cousin Cindy, played by the also attractive Jenilee Harrison in season five. She didn’t last long and was replaced by Priscilla Barnes who is also known for her stint in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats as the the woman with the extra nipple. Barnes’ Terri was also attractive, but was much smarter than Chrissy and Cindy were portrayed.
The show was full of sexual innuendos and Jack and his buddy Larry were horny American males. It wasn’t the kind of show that had great dialogue, but the laughs came from Jack’s pitfalls, Chrissy’s naiveness, and Mr. Furley and Mr. Roper’s inadequacies.
And I always wanted to hang out at The Regal Beagle. (GG)
16. How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005-present)
I was a little late to start watching HIMYM, but once I started, I was hooked and it became one of the few sitcoms I watched as the episode aired. Something about watching Ted try and fail at finding “the one,” and following Lily and Marshall’s relationship grow and lead to marriage and the birth of Marvin, and witnessing Robin and Barney overcome their fears of love and marriage, makes the viewer feel as though they’re in MacLaren’s Pub sitting at the gang’s table, or in the back seat of Ranjit’s taxi. You laugh with them, you cry with them (especially when Marshall’s father died), you try to give them advice through the TV screen, and you take their advice. They’re like the best friends you wish you had in real life, and now that the mother has been revealed, you can’t wait to officially get to know her. (Cassandra)
15. The Wonder Years (ABC, 1988-1993)
A show so painfully bittersweet it left you on a weekly basis in either a contemplative trance or a crying heap, looking back on “The Wonder Years” Kevin reminiscing on his childhood, it hardly felt like a sitcom at all. Hijinks, misunderstandings, silly blunders, running characters jokes (brother Wayne the jerk, father Jack the intimidating stoic), and other shenanigans occurred on a regular basis, but by using a heavily-nostalgic period setting (the late ’60s), scarcely going for cheap sentiment with any of the protagonists (our avatar Kevin Arnold, a precursor to Frankie Muniz’s Malcolm, comes across as one of the first genuine TV kids, imperfections and all), not using a laugh track (a rare case in the late ’80s), and going heavy on the narration (which later became a staple of many fine whimsical comedy-drama series, from “Scrubs” to “Pushing Daisies”, not to mention “Arrested Development”, “How I Met Your Mother”, “My Name is Earl”…), the show quickly and permanently established a deeply emotional coming-of-age tone akin to “American Graffiti” and “Stand by Me” that has never really been attempted again in the 20 years since it left the air. Revisiting the series years later, or even watching it for the first time – if you don’t mind fractured YouTube videos, since impossible music rights have prevented it from ever making it to DVD, tragically (seriously, every episode has at least one pure ’60s classic (if not a handful thereof, and occasionally a newer but just as well-chosen cut from the wistful likes of Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, etc.) that is just as crucial to selling an unforgettable montage or tender closing scene as the writing and acting) – can be as time-warping, nostalgia-inducing, and equally splendid and devastating as digging up your own home movies (and it helps that the show was filmed with what looks like vaseline over the lens to exacerbate the foggy thicket of memory from whence the tales seem to emerge). Its influence can be seen most readily in the fantastic company of “The Sandlot” (which, in an apt coincidence for what felt like an unofficial film adaptation, came out within a month of the show’s series finale), “Freaks & Geeks”, “The Adventures of Pete and Pete”, and the underrated “Everybody Hates Chris”, but nothing before or since can evoke both the open-hearted romanticism and jarring authenticity of childhood quite like “The Wonder Years”. (Michael B.)
14. The Jeffersons (CBS, 1975-1985)
Norman Lear was a trailblazer. Among the many controversial shows he spearheaded in the ’70s was “The Jeffersons.” George and Louise Jefferson were neighbors of “All in the Family”‘s Bunkers in Queens. George opened up a dry cleaning store after winning a lawsuit (following getting hit by a bus.) That one dry cleaning store turned into a chain of dry-cleaning stores, and George & Weezy moved on up to a dee-luxe apartment in the sky-y-yyy. OK, the apartment wasn’t really in the sky. It was on the Lower East Side. If it had been in the sky, this would have been “The Jetsons,” not “The Jeffersons.”
The Jeffersons were the first affluent black family to appear on television, and the family’s movement into the upper echelon of society only elevated the politics. Joining in the fray were the Jeffersons’ neighbors, interracial couple Tom & Helen Willis (another first for television.) The Jeffersons’ son, Lionel, dated the Willis’s daughter, Jenny. They later married and had a kid, Jessica. Then there was British neighbor Mr. Bentley, the acerbic Mother Jefferson (George’s mom) and, of course, sassy housekeeper Florence Johnston. One of the greatest tragedies in television history is that Marla Gibbs didn’t take home an Emmy for her portrayal of Florence (Isabel “Weezy” Sanford was the only cast member to receive an Emmy.)
Far from a typical family sitcom, “The Jeffersons” dealt with issues beyond the scope of other sitcoms with largely black casts like “Sanford & Son” and “Good Times.” The fact that it could be a trailblazer and still make you laugh…well, that’s obviously why it’s so high up on our list. (Big Money)
13. Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993)
Television is, for many, a pure form of escapism; rather, it used to be (but that is another topic, for another time.) Life in the early ’80s was strikingly not unlike life today: unemployment was at all-time highs; the cold war wore long and hard on the American psyche; the national deficit was ticking upward to numbers inconceivable to the average American; Americans needed a place to get away. For eleven years that place was a little bar in Boston named Cheers.
Viewers bellied up to the bar and were treated to the ensemble’s unique brand of humor that reflected back the society that was just outside (and up the stairs from) its door. At the heart of the show was Sam Malone, brought to life by Ted Danson, who managed to take the lascivious former drunk and give him a comical spin as he fumbles his way through his relationship with the pompous Diane Chambers, played by comedienne Shelly Long. In what could only be described as a “love / hate relationship” the two sparred throughout the show, and even after her departure in season five, she cast a shadow through to the finale.
Through the course of eleven seasons, the cast grew to include the staff and barfly denizens of Cheers; the omnipresent Norm Peterson (George Wendt), the saucy Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman); Ernie “Coach” Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto); Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson); Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger); Dr. Fraiser Crane (Kelsey Grammer), and his wife / ex-wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth). Each member of the cast brought a different slice of the American life to the screen, often turning very real issues (from Sam’s defense of a gay friend early on, to Norm’s dealing with marital issues and unemployment) to comic relief that was ultimately relatable; something that seems lacking in today’s sitcoms. As ham-fisted as it sounds, sometimes you really do just want to escape to the place where everybody knows your name. (Michael Parr)
12. Happy Days (ABC, 1974-1984)
’50s nostalgia went into full swing in the mid ’70s, thanks to the film “American Graffiti” and the classic sitcom “Happy Days.” For 11 seasons, the Cunningham family and their friends created must-see TV. “Happy Days” remained one of the top-rated shows on television for the entirety of its run.
Set in the unlikely environs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “Happy Days” originally focused on the Cunningham family, particularly son Richie, who was played by television vet Ron Howard (hey, where is “The Andy Griffith Show” on this list?) Richie’s school chums included space cadet Potsie Weber and goofball Ralph Malph. The other member of his crew, badass Arthur Fonzarelli, became the breakout character of the show and eventually wound up usurping Howard’s popularity to become “Happy Days’” star. Known for his trademark leather jacket and jeans, his thumbs up sign, and his motorcycle, Fonzie became an icon of pop culture. The only tertiary character to completely take over a show since his reign has been Urkel.
“Happy Days” spun off a ton of spinoffs (including “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork and Mindy”…and how could we forget “Joanie Loves Chachi?”) The catchy theme song was a top ten hit, and an encounter Fonz had with an aquatic creature led to “jumping the shark” becoming a part of the American lexicon (referring to the moment an iconic pop culture touchstone starts to suck.) Nearly forty years after its debut (and sixty years after the time period in which it was set,) the Cunninghams and the Fonz still bring the laughs. (Big Money)
11. 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-2013)
When Tina Fey left her gig as head writer of Saturday Night Live to create 30 Rock, she was taking a huge gamble. It just so happened that in the fall of 2006, 30 Rock was the second show premiering on NBC that portrayed the behind-the-scenes happenings at an SNL-esque late night comedy show (the other being Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). Never a big ratings hit, 30 Rock prevailed by sheer force of hilarity; between the killer cast led by Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan and the amazingly tight joke-saturated scripts, the show was always a must-watch for comedy fans. Baldwin especially was a revelation, coming from a background as a dramatic leading man in the movies; he was always hilarious when he hosted SNL and his character Jack Donaghy quickly became one of the classic showbiz bosses of all time. Critics loved 30 Rock and the show won numerous Emmy awards. It’s only been five months since the series finale aired, but 30 Rock’s absence is felt deeply. Given the ratings and the network it was on, I suppose we should be thankful it lasted as long as it did. (Jay)