The best comedy TV shows
Top honors—and this will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen even a single episode—go to the ridiculous gang of pals whose weekly exploits made each episode of Seinfeld Friday morning’s No. 1 water cooler topic (water coolers were what people had before Twitter). The chemistry between Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer produced so much comedic genius over the series’ nine seasons that almost every episode became a cultural touchstone: Just think about what the phrases “Junior Mint,” “man hands” and “the contest” mean to you to get a sense of how relevant the show remains today. This “show about nothing” is everything.
Ably proving, week after week, that cartoons aren’t just for kids, TV’s favorite all-yellow family takes the cake for funniest animated series of all time. It’s hard to know whom to love more: over-the-top Homer, cool-headed Marge, daredevil Bart or bookworm Lisa, not to mention would-be Mr. Burns assassin Maggie. Aside from the show’s zany-but-tender plotlines—think of Lisa’s near-return to omnivorism before being saved by Apu’s vegan hot dogs (of which Paul McCartney is a fan), and the family’s ill-fated move to Cypress Creek (home to the hammock district) for Homer’s new job at Globex Corporation—its beating heart is its immense (and immensely well-developed) cast of supporting characters. Barney, Moe, Smithers, Superintendent Chalmers and Hans Moleman, we love you all.
With his series centering around a shockingly narcissistic, hilariously oblivious version of himself—a middle-aged, casually employed television writer—comedy god Larry David lands himself just a couple of slots away from the show he co-created with Jerry Seinfeld in 1989. On Seinfeld, misanthropic George reportedly represented David, but Costanza is a gentle lamb compared to the gaffe-tastic character David portrays on Curb. As he bumbles between his LA home and office, Larry gets himself into all kinds of scrapes, offending everyone from his pal Marty Funkhouser (whom Larry insists is too old to call himself an orphan as Funkhouser does, at age 60, when his widowed mother dies) to Shaquille O’Neal (whom Larry accidentally trips during a Lakers game when he stretches his legs out onto the court). Season-long gambits, such as season six’s “Meet the Blacks” and season seven’s Seinfeld reunion, show David’s writing talents in all their glory.
Bouncing back from his failed sitcom Lucky Louie, which aired on HBO for just one season in 2006, revered stand-up comic Louis C.K. unleashed his singular vision on the world in 2010 with the FX debut of Louie, C.K.’s artsy, self-produced, -written, -edited and -directed series. Loosely based on the comic’s life as a divorced father with partial custody of his two daughters, Louie is notable for its playful relationship with reality—on the show, the mother of Louie’s (white) daughters is black, and his agent looks like a teenager, yet neither of these are commented on by the show. Over its five seasons (the show is currently on hiatus), Louie grows more and more experimental, featuring flashbacks, black-and-white sequences and more than a few doses of fantasy. But throughout it all, it manages to remain as laugh-out-loud as its more traditional counterparts. So log into Netflix, order a bang-bang and take in a few hours of comedic originality.
Just because we’re Americans, we’ll rank the adaptation from this side of the pond slightly higher than its British original (stay tuned for our gushing praise of that one, too). Over the course of nine seasons, Jim, Pam, Darryl and, yes, Michael worked their way into our hearts, while Dwight’s continued adventures in beet farming and revenge, Angela’s obsession with cats and Creed’s...being Creed…caused us to double over in laughter with reassuring regularity. While many viewers undoubtedly tuned in for the will-they-or-won’t-they Pam and Jim storyline, the show always rewarded serious comedy fans with bits so unbelievably hilarious that they still stick on our minds years later: Michael accidentally cooking his own foot on his bedside George Foreman grill, Darryl explaining the gang violence-diffusing magic of fluffy fingers, Michael (yes, him again) confusing a Caprese salad for weed and many, many more.
When the American version of The Office debuted in the U.S. in 2005, it became a quick hit despite the fact that few viewers had seen even a single episode of the U.K. original from which it was adapted. That quickly changed as new fans sought out its mere two seasons, which aired in England in the early 2000s. Created, written and directed by star Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the series depicts a much less likable—but equally uproarious—boss, David Brent. A narcissist who believes himself to be empathetic and politically correct, David is more or less reviled by his coworkers, who are frequently the targets of his inadvertent sexism, racism and all-around immaturity. Like its American counterpart, The Office features a longing romance between sweet Tim and engaged Dawn, but it more than compensates for any mushiness with a continuous barrage of hilarious plotlines fleshed out by a talented supporting cast.
Traditionally home to some of primetime’s most beloved sitcoms—The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Cheers—NBC struggled in the early aughts, picking up and then canceling a bevy of shows in the years after the finales of ’90s blockbusters Seinfeld and Friends. So by the time 30 Rock premiered in 2006, comedy lovers were ready for some laughs—and boy, did they get them. A loose spoof of funnywoman creator Tina Fey’s years as head writer on Saturday Night Live, the series features a fiercely talented cast in Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski, as well as a star-making turn by Jack McBrayer as ubercheerful page Kenneth. The show’s loose, zany take on laughs brought viewers down such unforgettable paths as Tracy’s quest to win an EGOT, Liz’s on-again, off-again relationship with Dennis the Beeper King, and so many more.
Leaving aside Netflix’s 2013 reboot of the series, which lacked the original’s wacky flair and impeccable comedic timing, Arrested Development is a comedic juggernaut featuring a bevy of talented actors whose chemistry made each episode crackle and pop. We’ll forever be grateful to creator Mitchell Hurwitz for introducing us to lovable man-child Buster, blisteringly sarcastic Lucille, blustery failed magician Gob (that’s pronounced “Job,” people), and, unforgettably, “never-nude” Tobias, played with go-for-broke aplomb by comedic hero David Cross. With wacky, capsule review-defying storylines (remember Charlize Theron’s season-three turn as plastic-fruit-eating Brit Rita Leeds?) and a brand of humor wholly its own, the show stands as one of the greats.
While the aughts have seen remarkable growth in female -written and -anchored comedies on the big screen and small, Broad City takes the cake not only for most daring (name another show that would conceive—and explain in detail—a fantasy sex position called the Arc de Triomphe) but also for most laughs-per-minute of the batch. Featuring lightning-in-a-bottle synergy between its two creators and stars, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the show ably conjures a frighteningly accurate portrayal of dog-eat-dog, millennial-ruled New York City (check out season three’s cheerful takedown of a certain notorious organic food co-op in Park Slope, Brooklyn). With a level of hilarity matched only by its stars’ deep affection for one another, the show is an invaluable cultural contribution to its target audience of twentysomethings.
A treasured throwback, NBC’s long-running sitcom Cheers is a worthwhile revisit for viewers of all ages. We probably all know the theme song—and may have even invoked it once or twice while frequenting our favorite watering hole—but the series merits a deeper dive into the tangled love lives and snarky wisecracks of its fantastic cast. With star-making roles such as Ted Danson’s lothario Sam, Rhea Perlman’s salty-tongued Carla, and, of course, Kelsey Grammer as sardonic regular Frasier Crane, each cozy little episode felt like home: which helps explain the series’ record ratings, 11-season run, and, of course, super-successful spin-off Frasier.
Any TV show that manages to snag three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series—as Taxi handily did in 1979, 1980 and 1981—is well worth a good binge. In the early ‘80s, the show worked its way into viewers’ hearts on the strength of its ridiculously talented cast, buoyed by whip-smart comedic writing and direction. In bringing to life the employees of the Sunshine Cab Company in New York, Taxi introduced comedy fans to breakout stars such as Danny DeVito (as surly, abusive dispatcher Louie), Judd Hirsch (as pragmatic, lovable Alex) and, unforgettably, Andy Kaufman as Latka, a nearly unintelligible immigrant from an unnamed land whom writers eventually granted multiple personality disorder to enable the kinetic Kaufman to inhabit multiple roles.
As beloved Cheers regular Frasier Crane, the dignified gentleman of refined tastes got a (lengthy) second life on NBC even after the treasured bar shut its (television) doors in 1993. The beginning of the series sees Frasier moving back to his hometown of Seattle to begin a new life. Having surrendered custody of his son to ex-wife Lilith, Frasier anticipates a life of footloose bachelorhood, a vision that’s quickly upended when he agrees to take in his father, Martin, a retired policeman who suffers mobility problems after an on-duty shooting—and, even worse, his overactive terrier, Eddie. Featuring a memorably contentious fraternal relationship with the equally snobbish Niles as well as the latter’s will-they-or-won’t-they romance with Martin’s live-in aide, Daphne—and plenty of cappuccinos at Cafe Nervosa—Frasier provides plenty of laughs that, somewhat surprisingly, appeal far beyond the middle-class, middle-aged set.
Comedic tastes have certainly changed in the six-plus decades since the iconic I Love Lucy aired on CBS, but as anyone who’s ever been home sick during the day knows, the series remains as fresh and laugh-out-loud funny as ever. Thanks in large part to the generous comedic talents of Lucille Ball, who remains one of the industry’s most influential female comics; the show, which portrayed excitable and ambitious Lucy getting herself into a number of improbable scrapes and dilemmas, was so consistently spot-on that it remained the most-watched TV program in the U.S. for four out of its six seasons. With an unmatched physical presence that’s best exemplified in the famous candy-conveyor-belt episode, we all still love Lucy.
Like all great art, South Park—which has aired on Comedy Central since 1997 and remains one of the network’s highest-rated shows—is divisive: While millions of fans can’t get enough of Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny’s crude, gross-out antics, just as many TV viewers are turned off by them. For those in the former camp, there’s plenty to love: dark, surreal humor that’s hard to find on other shows, especially animated ones, plus spare-no-punches topical satire that takes aim at closed-mindedness on both sides of the political spectrum. South Park is slated to run on its home network at least through 2019—and probably longer—and we sure haven’t gotten our fill yet.
Oh, Friends, we love you for so many reasons: for Ross’s perfectly gelled hair, for Phoebe’s swingy, layered hippie outfits, for your ridiculously, ridiculously inaccurate portrayal of the lives of a bunch of purportedly poor twentysomethings dwelling in apparent luxury in two beautiful Manhattan apartments. Few cultural phenomenons define the ‘90s better than the 10 seasons of this ensemble sitcom, and pretty much anyone watching TV at the time will remember Rachel’s hair, Monica’s OCD and, unforgettably, Chandler’s many quotable (and corny) jokes. NYC life sure ain’t as easy as Friends made it out to be, but it sure is nice to pretend.
Premiering in 1999 and unleashing the comic force that is Judd Apatow upon the world, the ultimately doomed Freaks and Geeks attracted a loyal—and vocal—following from the start. Growing up nerdy in the 1980s wasn’t easy anywhere, but in the fictional Detroit suburb of Chippewa, things seem especially tough for Lindsay, Daniel, Ken, Nick and Kim (the freaks) and Sam, Neal and Bill (the geeks), none of whom feel comfortable fitting into the high school scene. Luckily for us, their angst produced plenty of laughs for viewers, who were introduced to now-famous actors—and frequent Apatow collaborators—James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel for the first time.