Thursday, July 20, 2006

13 Favorite Sitcoms

13. Sports Night
This show was short-lived, as many intelligently written shows often are, but man, was it good. It walked the line between comedy and drama extremely well, and the producers had the audacity to air the show without a laugh track. I think that was its ultimate downfall -- people need to be told when to laugh. It also featured the talented Peter Krause before he went on to the slightly more successful Six Feet Under. Also featured Robert Guillaume, who was a star in another sitcom on my list, Soap. Guillaume actually had a stroke during shooting for what I think was the 2nd season, and they wrote it into the script. It was brilliant.

12. Barney Miller
I grew up watching Captain Barney Miller, Det. Stan Wojciehowicz (Wojo), Det. Ron Harris, Det. Sgt. Phil Fish and Det. Nick Yemana. It was one of my grandma's favorite shows, so I loved watching it with her. One of the things that sticks out most in my mind about the show is the theme song, that way-cool bass line (a variation of which reappeard as the theme song to Seinfeld. I was pleasantly surprised recently to see Ron Glass (Det. Harris) resurface on the SciFi channel series Firefly as the preacher. Didn't Fish have a short-lived spin-off? Good old Abe Vigoda. Now that was a character.

11. Friends
Yes, it got pretty cheesy and predictable and definitely overstayed its welcome, but Friends had some really great years. What was most impressive to me was that a show with six main characters succeeded without one main "star." When ensemble-cast sitcoms succeed, they typically have a main character with a handful of great supporting characters. Not so with Friends. All six of them were equally as important to the show, and their interactions and chemistry made for some great moments. Friends also had some great guest appearances by the likes of Brad Pitt, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Selleck, Elliott Gould, Elle MacPherson, Jon Favreau and Maggie Wheeler.

10. Soap
Talk about a ballsy show. Soap was a twisted and hilarious of daytime soap operas that, during its run from 1977 to 1981, pushed the boundaries of "accepted" television themes like no other show before it. Homosexuality, interracial marriage, gay parenting, infidelity... they were all tackled on the show. It starred Doris Roberts (who later went on to be recognized numerous times for her role as Ray's mother on Everybody Loves Raymond), a young Billy Crystal, Robert Guillaume, Robert Urich (though he was killed off in the first season, and a host of other talented actors. The characters and plots were outlandish: Guillaume's Benson the butler, who would just sit there when the doorbell rang and say, "You want me to get that?"; Corinne (Diana Canova) and Father Tim Flotsky (Sal Viscuso) having a child that was posessed by the devil; Mary's (Cathryn Damon) stepson Chuck (Jay Johnson) whose alter ego was his ventriloquist's dummy Bob; Burt (Richard Mulligan) being abducted by aliens and replaced with an alien lookalike... In a lot of ways I think Soap was the biggest precurser to Arrested Development, which is next on my list.

9. Arrested Development
Like Sports Night, another show that didn't get the viewership it deserved, and therefore didn't have the longevity it should have (though I hear rumors Showtime might pick it up). Arrested Development, or AD as those of us conscious few call it, was sick, twisted and wrong. I swear to God, Jeffrey Tambor makes me laugh the minute his face appears on screen. He's such a gifted comedic actor, because everything he does is subtle, never ever overstated or overt. And who would have thought that Jason Bateman would make a comeback... and be good! David Cross is perfect as the quirky Tobias F√ľnke, Jessica Walter is hilarious as Lucille Bluth, and Will Arnett as George "Gob" Bluth II, the struggling magician (he calls it an Illusionist), is fantastic. The show is narrated by Ron Howard, which adds to the surrealness of it all. Oh, and don't forget Scott Baio as Bob Loblaw (pronounced Bah Blah Blah). My favorite moment: When Tobias invents a new profession for himself, a combination analyst and therapist. He calls it an analrapist. They flash his business card for about 1/2 second. Brilliant.

8. The Honeymooners
Obviously the original was well before my time, but thanks to the magic of reruns I was able to watch Ralph, Ed, Alice and Trixie on a weekly basis growing up. The Honeymooners, like I Love Lucy, was comedy of a different era, the golden age of TV. It was Vaudevillian stage comedy, just with some cameras around taking moving pictures. While certainly Jackie Gleason went on to have arguably the most notable career, Art Carney's physical humor was unmatched. The Honeymooners was originally part of the hour-long variety show, The Jackie Gleason Show. It wasn't until 1955 when The Honeymooners became a half-hour sitcom on its own, giving us the "Classic 39." For the bulk of the run, Audrey Meadows played Alice and Joyce Randolph played Trixie. It truly is one of the greats of all time.

7. Cheers
The place where everybody knows your name. This show gave us so many memorable characters and so many memorable lines. One of the most impressive things about Cheers to me was that it was force to replace to crucial characters -- Diane and Coach -- and did so about as perfectly as they could have with Rebecca and Woody. Just like Seinfeld, when I think of Cheers I'm bombarded with vivid memories of specific moments: Norm walks in, everyone yells, "Norm!" Sam asks Norm what's up, and Norm comes back with a line like, "It's a dog-eat-dog world, Sammy, and I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear;" Cliff's "It's a little known fact that..." preceding some outlandish claim; Coach in the early episodes, and Woody in the later, saying the most outlandish and asinine things and you loving the hell out of them for it; Rebecca trying to quit chain smoking and ending up getting the smoking therapist to smoke with her; okay, I gotta stop or I'll go on forever. And Cheers also can boast that it actually had a spinoff that was wildly successful and deservedly so, Frasier.

6. Frasier
There have been so many attempts to spin sitcoms off of successful sitcoms, and the success rate is damn near nil. But Frasier is the complete exception to that rule. To this day I am truly astounded at the success of this show, because it was sophisticated, witty and intelligent -- not the typical marks of a successful sitcom. It must have been so much fun to write for this show. One of the main reasons for its success, other than great writing and great acting, was that they took the character of Frasier Crane completely out of the Cheers element and gave him his own identity. John Mahoney as his gruff, retired cop of a dad was such a fantastic contrast to Kelsey Grammer's Frasier and David Hyde Pierce's Niles, and the supporting characters of Roz, Daphne and Bulldog were so well-rounded that I never felt like anything or anyone was missing. Frasier was truly unique, and I loved it.

5. Curb Your Enthusiasm
I know a lot of people who don't like this show, but I think it's the funniest thing on TV today. The fact that all the dialogue is improvised is all the more impressive. Larry David, one of the creators and head writers of Seinfeld, is the "real life" version of Seinfeld's George. Of course, it's "real life" in a fake sort of way. Curb is shot as if you're a voyeur along for the ride, watching Larry get himself into one predicament after another, putting his foot in his mouth constantly. The supporting cast of Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Richard Lewis, Wanda Sykes and Susie Essman as Jeff's foul-mouthed wife all do their parts in making Larry's life a living hell. Some of the stuff on this show is so over the line -- which it can be because it's on HBO -- and I love ever second of it, even if I'm not a Jew.

4. M*A*S*H
While M*A*S*H was a hilarious comedy, the most vivid memory I have of this show had no humor whatsoever: When Colonel Blake's plane was shot down as he was leaving for home. It was 1975, I think. I was six years old. And I remember watching that episode and being upset. If I remember correctly, a shitload of people were upset, so much so that the producers made a public statement saying they'd never kill off another major character in such a fashion. Anyway, this is about comedy, right? Well M*A*S*H is one of those shows I still find funny when I catch it in syndication. Based on Robert Altman's movie of the same name (which starred Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt and Robert Duvall, as well as Gary Burghoff, the only cast member from the movie to be in the series), M*A*S*H managed to remain funny throughout its entire 11-year run. I'm partial, however, to the early years with Hawkeye, Burns, Hot Lips, Blake, Trapper, Klinger and Radar. Winchester, B.J. and Col. Potter were all admirable replacements, but they never quite had the magic that the original sitcom cast had.

3. All in the Family
Other than maybe Soap, I don't know if you're going to find a more un-politically correct sitcom in the history of TV. Archie Bunker's struggles as a working class father/ husband/ father-in-law/ drinking buddy, and his predjudices and fears, pulled no punches from week to week. All in the Family did such a good job of portraying what Americans were feeling at the time about each other -- be they working class like Archie or one of the many minorities he struggled to understand. It poked fun at bigotry, homophobia, classism and racism in a way that made you feel like it was normal to have these fears, yet made you want to rid yourself of them. Like so many other great sitcoms, Archie was surrounded by a superb supporting cast: Rob Reiner as Meathead, Sally Struthers as Gloria and the brilliant Jean Stapleton as Edith, aka Dingbat. All in the Family also launched one of the few successful spinoffs from the Bunker's neighbors, The Jeffersons.

2. I Love Lucy
In the male-dominated world of television comedy, Lucille Ball battled her way to the top as not just the funniest woman, but the funniest entertainer of her time. Just like so many great male comic TV actors couldn't have been as successful without great supporting female cast members, Lucy had Ricky Ricardo, the perfect straight man for her brand of physical, flighty comedy. Lucy, Ricky, George and Ethel made people laugh until they cried every episode, because you just couldn't believe someone could get herself into the predicaments Lucy could. Obviously this is another show I watched in syndication, but even today, 55 years after the first episode, it's still as funny as ever.

1. Seinfeld
The show about nothing. While all the other shows listed above are by no means in any particular order, Seinfeld is truly my favorite sitcom of all time. To create a TV show based on someone's stand-up routine is not unique; to make it actually good is incredibly unique. Jerry Seinfeld -- not an actor in the least -- surrounded himself with three of the most memorable characters in TV history: Elaine, George and Kramer. You say "Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer" to anyone over the age of 15 and they'll not only know who you're talking about, they'll talk to you about a specific episode or a specific line or a specific guest character. "No soup for you!" "Newman!" "Master of your domain." "I'm Keith Hernandez." "Puddy." "John F. Kennedy June-yah." "You can see my nipple!" "Two cups in front, two loops in back." My wife lived in Tokyo during most of the 90s, so she completely missed the Seinfeld phenomenon. I've bought the DVD sets and have been catching her up. They still kill me.


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