10 September 2008

TV Chuckles, Yucks, Guffaws, Cackles and Laughs

I’m always on the look out for new sitcoms to watch. Thankfully the real gems are rare. Thus I waste less time staring at the tube and have more time for more important matters (like staring at the computer). I love a good sit com. They provide a few laughs, distract you from your cares and often have a cozy feeling to them. The characters become like part of your extended family. In fact, part of what makes a really good sit com is really strong, interesting and of course funny characters.

It is surprisingly difficult to produce a really good sitcom. The clear evidence is how many have been tried and how few have succeeded -- and no, I don't count high ratings as a measure of success. What follows are my ten favorite sitcoms of all time. One thing I find notable about the list is that they are spread out over the history of television. I do believe the golden age of sit coms was the 70’s but the Creme de la Creme are from throughout TV's history.

One constant in good sit coms is a central character who is especially likable and while funny, a relatively sane figure. The best of sitcoms have not lapsed into dramatic story lines. There is no “will they get married?” or “will they get divorced” questions hovering over the show getting in the way of the comedy. The basic rule in the best sit coms is to save the drama for your mama. And in most cases stories are self contained. You may have running gags but not overly involved story lines. The idea is to make with the laughs.

Anyway, here are my favorites:

1. Seinfeld (1990-1998)
. There’s nothing even to compare. It is the piece de resistance of sit coms. Every blessed episode is funny. It benefited from the greatest writing any TV show save perhaps The Sopranos has ever had. Four main characters bounced off each other with wit, wit and more wit. It was also an extremely intelligent show.

2. The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978). Bob Newhart has been great at stand up, films, specials, comedy albums but he was made for the sit com. He tried several but it was the role of psychologist Robert Hartley that he was at his best. His dead pan delivery among the incredible cast of loonies was perfect.

3. The Mary Tyler Moore (1970-1977). How lucky we were when this and the Bob Newhart Show were back-to-back on the CBS schedule. Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner and Ted Knight working on a news show was bound to be funny. The scripts were always great and the show proved there are no bit parts.

4. Taxi (1978-1983).
Judd Hirsch was the centerpiece in this taxi cab company comedy. Surrounding him were the likes of the immortal Andy Kauffman and the priceless Danny DeVito. TV is always behind the curve. That makes it all the more remarkable that this sit com was well ahead of its time.

5. The Honeymooners (1955-1956). Jackie Gleason alone is funny. Toss in the quintessential wacky neighbor in the person of Art Carney’s Ed Norton and you're good to go. Jayne Meadows had impeccable comic timing as Ralph Kramden’s long suffering wife, Alice. The Kramdens' sparse apartment was plenty with all this talent.

6. Sgt. Bilko(1955-1958). Technically called the Phil Silvers show. Silvers in a sit com was pretty much a can’t miss proposition. Episdoes usually centered around Bilko’s schemes and pulling one over the brass. There was magic in this repetition. And magic in the unforgettable character Duane Doberman.

7. The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). A proviso here, only the episodes up to the departure of Don Knotts. Once he left it became a barely run of the mill show. Barney Fife was perhaps the most inspired TV character of all time.

8. 30 Rock (2006-Present). The only current show on my list. It’s been with us for but two years but thankfully TV and film audiences have many more years of creator and star Tina Fey’s brilliance. For this show Add Tracy Morgan and national treasure Alec Baldwin and the laughs never stop.

9. The Odd Couple (1970-1975) Much funnier than the film upon which it was based. Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were the perfect comedy duo.

10. Car 54 Where Are You? (1961-1963) The best sitcom theme song of all time and the funniest cops led by Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne.

Honarable mention to The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982), I Love Lucy (1951-1957) and Barney Miller (1975-1982).

Cheers (1982-1993) might have made the list but it went on a few years too long and too often lapsed into sentiment usually in the form of romances. M*A*S*H (1972-1983) was even more guilty in this respect. The show dragged on forever, actors left and were replaced by less interesting ones. The wit gave way to tedious dramatics and arguments. Will & Grace (1998-2006) would have been a candidate but got wrapped up in dramatic story lines that detracted from the laughs. Also its series finale was a travesty. Imagine a depressing sit com.

Special category award. Best cable sit com to Weeds (2005-Present). Not exactly your warm and fuzzy family show what with the sex, drugs. profanity and violence. But God it's a great show and really funny. Plus you get Mary-Louise Parker. Yum.

Finally I leave you with this wonderful website, Sitcoms Online.

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