My Top 30 Fave Sitcoms

30. CHELMSFORD 123 (1988-90)

Running for only 13 episodes over 2 series, this Channel 4/Hat Trick Productions Roman Empire Chelmsford-set historical sitcom is largely forgotten these days which is a huge shame. 123 AD is the year, and it was created by, and starred in, and written by Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath, a sort of piss-take on damp, miserable Britain populated by conniving and stupid Brits and Lording-it-over resentful Romans posted overseas to keep the peasants in check. Character-based, but with a delightful sense of knowing anachronism (especially Howard Lew Lewis as Blag, a simple hulk with a penchant to making references to 20th century stuff when he comes over all giddy), and a cast of many familiar writers, actors and comics of the 80’s and 90’s (and beyond) such as Andy Hamilton (Drop The Dead Donkey), Neil Pearson (ditto), Philip Pope (Blackadder), and others. The two creators played a Roman Governor Aulus Polinus (Mulville) and a sarcastic tribe-leader Badvoc (McGrath).

In some ways it was the precursor to current good sitcom Plebs (also set in Roman times), also very contemporary in approach, despite the setting. Mostly though, like all short-run sitcoms it was the scripts (daft and snappy in this case) that carried it, only unlike some lower-down the list I haven’t become tired-through-repetition of them. Never likely to be, either, as it’s never repeated anywhere. Boo hiss!

29. FRIENDS (1994-2004)

OK here’s a shock – one of the most-successful sitcoms ever is only at 29! This smart, sassy, wise-cracking group of mates was a twist on the concept of what constitutes “family” – at the root of almost all sitcoms in traditional settings based on character and plot. The cast became internationally famous, and gave Jennifer Aniston a decent comedy movie actor career, Matt Le Blanc a Top Gear stint and various sitcoms, and the others popped up in movies and TV shows, or the stage: Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer. Relationships tended to be external to the group in the early days, other than the “burning” Ross/Rachel future romance, and the guest cast (many of whom were very good and went on to big things – see Antman Paul Rudd) could be either one-off or recurring for a while, before the storyline wore out.

The characters were very well-defined, though I never found them that endearing myself, whiny professor Ross grated, and his sis Monica was a bit loud, Rachel a bit annoyingly scatty, and Chandler – despite his long-running sarcastic quips – also left me a tad on the sighing side. Joey’s loveable lech was fun at the start of the series, but got tiresome as the series dragged on for two series too many. That left the main attraction, kookie Phoebe, in a world of her own, and the main reason to watch the show, other than the sharp scripts. That, and the theme tune.

It all got very incestuous (with all but the actual brother/sister, and Phoebe) in the internal relationships in the later silly seasons, but those early ones had some gems, such as The One With The Prom Video. Genuinely amusing running gags helped, as did wacky parents (Teri Garr, for one, after I’d already seen her in real life in the audience on a US movie quiz TV show pilot), but I wish they’d ended it after series 7, or 8 at a pinch. I still struggle to sit through those final series. Still enormously popular though, the show remains rated as one of the greats, and it’s influence can be seen in the biggest current sitcom in America – of which more later.

 

28. NEWHART (1982-1990)

Bob Newhart is one of my all-time comics, either as stand-up (his records sold well in the 60’s, such as his classic The Driving Instructor sketch) or comic actor on TV or movies. His finest moments, for me, though are in this second hit TV series set in in New England, as an Inn owner, and peopled by a great eccentric supporting cast of characters, and with a gorgeous Henry Mancini theme tune. Initially it started off more or less in the same decent classy mode as his 70’s hit series The Bob Newhart Show (which co-starred I Dream Of Jeannie’s Bill Daley and Marcia Wallace aka Mrs Krabappel in The Simpsons – I saw them both in the audience of the USA version of Blankety Blank and even got Bill’s autograph – and one of my fave actresses as a teen, Suzanne Pleshette, star of many a Disney movie) but as the series progressed it got increasingly bizarre and fantastical.

The more off-the-wall it got the more I liked it, Bob was just perfect as the sane, exasperated anchor at the centre of madness (much like the 60’s classic Green Acres sitcom), and went on to feature in similar kindly elderly roles in comedy movies of hot comics who were inspired by him. My fave characters though were selfish, lazy, spoilt-rich-girl maid Stephanie, and the 3 backwoods brothers, “Hi I’m Larry. This is my brother Daryl, and this is my other brother Daryl”. The two Daryl’s never uttered a word until the very last episode, and the famous (in America) last episode was a major treat as Dick (Bob) gets hit by a golf ball and wakes up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette realising the whole 8 series have been a dream (a la Dallas, and as more recently borrowed in Breaking Bad). Perfect way to go, really! Sadly, not much in the way of classic clips for Newhart, just whole episodes, as it doesn’t lend itself to isolated one-liners so much…

27. THE YOUNG ONES (1982-84)

One of my all-time fave shows in the 80’s and 90’s, this one is another 12-episode classic run that has worn off over the decades a bit, partly due to the pacing, partly due to repeat watching over and over. By this time I had a betamax videorecorder and I could watch fave shows often – which if anything makes the flaws stand out more. Some of the episodes though, especially second season ones like Bambi (a University Challenge piss-take that is still funny) never tire. Written by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall & Lise Mayer, setting up for Blackadder, the anarchic show about repulsively selfish, violent, hippie, and conniving students living in digs together was a riotous mickey-take of Uni life, but while it had extreme elements of recognition in it, it was more comic-strip violence and playfully playing with the sitcom format. Most episodes had bands as guests, like Madness and Motorhead, and characters could at any time address the audience directly – not exactly a TV first, but something I’ve always enjoyed – while in their flights of fancy.

Starring the fab much-missed Rik Mayall as Rik (a pretentious slimy poet anarchist with a penchant for Cliff Richard – hence the series name and a later charity collaboration – who everyone hates instantly), and Ade Edmondson as Vivyan (a punk with destructive tendencies, self-or-otherwise), Neil (Nigel Planer as the grimiest, most-depressed hippie ever – so popular he had a solo hit record covering Traffic’s Hole In My Shoe in character) and Mike, the character that was supposed to be Comic Strip mainman Peter Richardson, but wasn’t (it was taken on by Christopher Ryan) – Richardson was a driving force behind co-contemporary new wave of comedy series The Comic Strip Presents, which also starred Ade Edmondson, his future wife Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and many other live venue Comedy Store regulars who also crossed-over to guest on The Young Ones. The full list of guests is a veritable who’s who of Alternative Comedy of the early 80’s, and a veritable Giants Of British TV & Film Comedy of the next 30 years. Influential much!

Ben Elton, like the other main character-writer-stand-up Alexei Sayle (as various Balowski family members), specialised in politically-charged anti-Tory left-wing venomous stand-up. Not necessarily funny out-of-time, but ohmyword could we do with some of that right now. Thatcher then, May now. The other feature of the show were the cutaways (now a staple of Family Guy and the like), albeit to puppet-replicas of rats, bits of food, and anything really where the fancy took the writers. Best of all was the use of Rik & Ade as antagonists, based on their slapstick, insult-based, stand-up live routines, and which they took to perfection in their later TV sitcom Bottom. So anyway, “Daddy’s got a Jaguar”, get out the lentils, and put on Cliff singing Devil Woman cos here’s some clips…

 

26. Police Squad! (1982!)

Developed by the makers of Airplane, that classic zany movie pisstake of the Airport movies, David & Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and starring one of the main cast from that movie, Leslie Nielsen gaining a new lease of life as a comic actor having played the leading man for most of his career, this mickeytake of the 70’s cop show was hilarious. Just like the movies they specialised in it was a hit and miss collection of visual gags in the background, literal sentence word-play, childish gags, and comic-strip style violence and playing with and aping the television format, especially then-big Quinn Martin cop shows. The pacing was fast, very fast for the time, but ultra-modern if compared to current sitcoms in the post-Simpsons era, and it still works. Guest stars, such as Lorne Green, could be killed off in the opening scene without uttering a word. The voice-over episode title was always wrong compared to the text version. Just tickled me every time!
Leslie Neilsen was poker-faced brilliant, the supporting cast good (including Mission: Impossible’s Peter Lupus) and the show lasted a mere 6 episodes, one those bizarre instances of being ahead of it’s time. It did well in re-run’s though, despite being only half the episodes of even UK TV series like Fawlty Towers and The Young Ones. The producers had the last laugh though – they did the 3 Naked Gun movies on the back of the success in reruns, which were even better than the TV series. The show would rate higher – had they made more episodes – as I’m not including the Naked Gun movies in the rating: the first movie is firmly inside my all-time fave top 100 movies, as listed a few years back. Probably time for a review of that list what with some fab movies over the last 3 or 4 years that need adding…

25. THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (1962-71)

This show should never have worked, and the critics were out in force from day one at the concept: a family of hick hillbillies discover oil on their backwoods land become instant millionaires and move to the ultimate rich playground of Beverly Hills in a mansion next door to their conniving and greedy banker, so he can control their naivety. Coming over as if they had dropped complete out of 1865 with no awareness of the modern world (you have to accept the premise to get the love, and also forgive Granny’s otherwise loveably cantankerous gun-toting moonshine-making non-PC viewpoints) the show was actually a brilliant inverted way of looking at 1960‘s America which remains pretty relevant today in it’s targets (the pursuit of money, unscrupulous bankers, the condescending moneyed rich). The Clampetts, Jed (the widower family-leader), his nephew Jethro (dumb as good-natured dishwater, but hot and athletic), and daughter Ellie-May and her tomboy-yet-gorgeous animal lover innocent, along with wiry Granny, Jed’s mother-in-law, are loveable. Jed is not dumb, just unworldly, and there is a real moral backbone to the show, I’d go so far as to call it satire, albeit hidden amongst low-brow gags and lines. The cast is balanced by the slimy banker Milburn Drysdale, trying to keep the Clampett’s cash in his bank, usually by getting his Jethro-obsessed spinster secretary Miss Jane to do his bidding to keep the Clampett’s happy.

The cast is fabulous, including many guest stars and recurring characters, from Buddy Ebsen as Jed (who was the original Tin Man in the Wizard Of Oz till the body paint caused him to become ill and be replaced), Max Baer Jr (Jethro), Donna Douglas (Ellie-May) and Granny (Irene Ryan), Miss Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp, gay in real life and with a tendancy for plain dress suits in the show, quite unusual at the time), and tragically, Sharon Tate, who became world-famous as the pregnant murder victim of evil Charles Manson and his cult followers during the show’s run. The creator behind the show was Paul Henning, who proved he had the magic touch with 2 spin-offs, with related cast-members, Petticoat Junction, starring Bea Benaderet (who played Jethro’s ma in the Hillbilllies), and Green Acres – of which more later), but the shows various audiences proved to be the undoing of them – the “rural” comedies were seen to appeal to low-brow non-advertising-target-audiences, so despite high ratings and Emmies throughout the runs, they were cancelled in an attempt to replace them with more young, urban, advert-friendly shows in 1970/71.

The show’s TV theme pretty sets up the premise with a great country banjo track, and my own love is seeing how great character-actors use the “aliens-seeing-us-for-first-time” take on modern life, I don’t think there were any shows prior to Hillbillies that did that, and it fit right in to the fantasy sitcom explosion of the 60’s. Plus, I loved the characters, the warmth, and my Beverly Hillbillies comic annual 1965 or so, which I still have. As an adult, I kinda went cold then hot on the show during various re-runs over the decades, but have come back to it in recent years following the world banking crisis, cos this show kind of said all you needed to know about greedy bankers 50 years earlier. Some cliches remain evergreen because of the nuggets of truth in them. Oh, and Max Baer, hunky to the max, dressed in 19th century drag as Jethro’s sister Jethrine has to be seen. Fab!


24. RISING DAMP (1974-78)

Maybe a little flattered here in rankings, and somewhat dated these days, but this was the very rare beast back in the day: a great British ITV sitcom. They were as rare as unicorns in a hurricane. Eric Chappell was the creator and writer and takes the most credit: by 2004 it was still the highest-rated ITV sitcom of all time in the BBC’s Top 100 all-time list. What makes it work is the setting, a crummy series of bedsits and flats in a house run by a tight-fisted, bored, interfering, letching, right-wing landlord – as played to perfection by Leonard Rossiter – Rigsby could have become unlikeable, as the main antagonist in each episode as he forces himself on his lodgers Alan (played by the already-loveable Richard Beckinsale ex of decent sitcom The Lovers with Paula Wilcox, and father of actress Kate) and Philip (played by Don Warrington to smooth perfection). Both shared a bedsit, Alan as a poor medical student, a bit naive, and Philip more worldly and second generation black – chased by Miss Jones (the wonderful Frances De La Tour, more recently of Hogwarts) the single, sophisticated lady on hard times in the flat below. Philip has some fun pretending to be the son of an African Chief getting a British education, and Rigsby has the hots for Miss Jones (and every other woman).

The chemistry between the actors and the characters is a delight, and the scripts sharp. Maybe students don’t have such crummy digs anymore, but it was pretty common back in the day (see The Young Ones for a comic-strip version), and the setting allows more than a touch of farce, and some social commentary – Rigsby is politically-incorrect and outspoken and rude (when he’s not creeping to Miss Jones) but he’s not a bigot, which is a bit of a saving grace compared to other sitcoms at the time featuring mixed casts – the godawful Love Thy Neighbour springs to mind as a cast trying to rise above a terrible premise.

The guest actors were also fabulous and the plots whimsical – the episode where Rigsby thinks he’s run over his beloved cat Vienna is a goodie (It’s a fur-stole related to his social-climbing aspirations), as is the one where he tries to woo Miss Jones with waving in front of her nose some burning wood from an African Love-Tree (Philip’s wardrobe bottom, actually), guaranteed to make her fall for him (it doesn’t). Richard Beckinsale alternated between Porridge and Rising Damp, 2 giants of 70’s sitcom, until his very early death in 1979 the year after both series had finished. Leonard Rossiter had further success with The Rise & Fall Of Reggie Perrin in the 70’s, also working on 2 sitcoms, and he too died far too soon in 1984. Influence: Rossiter/Rigsby’s vocal style, I would suggest, not unlike Eddie Izzard…

23. THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (AKA YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH AKA BILKO) (1955-59)

The greatest sitcom of the late 50’s no contest, nothing else comes close, and a perennial re-run right through to the 90’s, this black & white show has been absent for too long, probably thanks to being in b&w which does the heads of younger TV viewers in – so they say. Poor things, so sensitive. Filmed live in front of an audience, mistakes and all, it was more of a stage show set in a backwards quiet Fort Baxter army motor pool in Kansas. In some ways the show is very 1950’s and of-its-time, a bit quaint, optimistic, nothing too demanding or dark but it works for 2 reasons: Creator & main writer Nat Hiken (who went on to write other hits like Car 54 Where Are You?) had snappy dialogue, and great characters, with an eye for comic actors (not necessarily skilled, just “right” for the role) and included early spots for future greats like Alan Alda and Dick Van Dyke; the other reason is Phil Silvers. The man was a force of nature with his break-neck delivery of dialogue, and his scheming, money-obsessed, gambling, lazy, but big-hearted and loyal Sgt Bilko was one of the great TV characters. Bilko was smart, inventive, and could pull the wool over the Jet Set socialites, and the army brass led by his adorably gullible Colonel Hall, and it made Phil Silvers a star – albeit typecast (even in Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Carry On…Follow That Camel he’s still brilliantly Bilko).

The back-up cast were equally endearing, and for the 50’s relatively ethnically mixed – as is only right for conscription representing the whole of the USA as it was comprised at the time. In one episode they even aped Elvis’ induction into the army, keeping it sitcom-“real”. Favourite characters for me are Colonel Hall as played scattily by Paul Ford, the sluggish Pvt Doberman (Maurice Gosfield, later Benny The Ball in the Bilko-based animated 60’s gem Top Cat), and Joe E. Ross as hopeless gambling Army Camp cook Sgt Ritzik and his nagging wife played by Beatrice Pons. So good they ended up starring in Nat Hiken’s next show Car 54 Where Are You in essentially the same roles, albeit police-based not army. The show won loads of awards, inspired later greats, and was beloved of many for decades. Quite right too.

22. PARKER LEWIS CAN’T LOSE (1990-93)

Probably the sitcom I most want on DVD, it’s hard to get hold of being as it was a Fox show only shown on SKY in the UK, which meant hardly anyone saw it. A real tragedy as it was very much a precursor to later fast-paced format-breaking, pop-culture-referencing, cool shows like Malcolm In The Middle. Parker Lewis went further though, breaking the barriers between audience and show in a way first seen in the 60’s on Green Acres, and it took use of camera-techniques into the realm of art. Smart, sassy and likeable, the show was basically a good vs evil fun look at High School, starring the cool Parker Lewis (Corin Nemec, later of Stargate) and his cool wannaberockstar mate Mikey, as they deal with plotlines involving the bratty short little sister, girlfriends, schoolwork, loud shirts, a prefect/vampire-like snitch of the Principal, and a huge bully/dim gentle giant obsessed with “eat now”. And what a Principal Grace Musso is. Far and away the highlight of the series is her loud, plotting, sneering character as played brilliantly by Melanie Chartoff – she shouts and the glass on her door smashes into pieces in every episode.

If you like surreal, want to get the vibes of the early 90’s US in a wholesome non-school-shooting world, a bit tongue-in-cheek, and engaging inventiveness, then you may wish to check out the show. it grows on you and deserves to be better known…

21. THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1964-66)

Written in part and originated by Marx Brothers scriptwriter Nat Perrin, the fantasy b&w show was based on a series of cartoons by Charles Addams, and ran opposite rival The Munsters. The Munsters won the ratings war, but The Addams Family was COOL. Siouxsie modelled her look on Morticia, the wife and mother of the Gothic household containing a bizarre extended well-off family of misfits and creatures that viewed themselves as normal and the rest of the world as distasteful and bizarre, but had hearts of gold in amongst the death-macabre-obsessions and lack of concern with shuffling off the mortal coil.

The characters and the cast are sheer brilliance, no less, and the scripts mildly amusing mickey-takes and distorted views of 1960’s America’s pop culture and values, and the black and white actually helps the monster mood of the show – colour would have been awful! It still comes over as charmingly classy, a bit dated, but the performances of Carolyn Jones as Morticia and John Astin as Gomez, deeply-in-love parents to Wednesday and Pugsley, are still just fabulously skilfull while the key mad-cap former child actor Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester, together with lesser faves like Lurch the Butler, Thing (a hand in a box), Grandmama, and Cousin It (a short mass of hair and nothing else much) give great support. They even had Morticia’s mother played by the terrific Margaret Hamilton, the immortal Wicked Witch Of The West in Wizard Of Oz.

Spawning remake TV series, TV movies, 2 fab feature films with an equally great cast, which made the fab Vic Mizzy finger-snapping theme tune a 90’s hit (albeit in remake), and cartoon TV series have all helped keep The Addams Family alive in pop culture as The Munsters have dropped out of favour. The episodes are those which give the stars a chance to shine, like Gomez driven by passion when Morticia speaks French. “Cara Mia!” “You Rang”, blowing up toy trains, chalking an x on Morticia’s sleeve to note where Gomez had got to kissing her hand and arm, and general anarchy fits totally in with the groundbreaking style of The Marx Brothers and is the 2nd-rated sitcom of the 60’s by me.

So, at last, only 20 to go…

1 from the 60’s
2 from the 70s
5 from the 80s
6 from the 90’s
5 from the 00’s
1 from the 10’s

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