20. FRASIER (1993-2004)
Spin-off of the long-running Cheers, Frasier also ran for 11 years and was record-award-winning, giving Kelsey Grammer the unique record of playing the same character for a record-breaking 20 years for a sitcom character. A huge fave of critics, the scriptwriting was sharp, smart and full of great one-liners. The cast was superb, now moved from Boston to Seattle, divorced from Lilith, a radio Shrink, and newly-reacquainted with his family, Frasier had a great supporting cast of characters in his pernickity pyschiatrist brother Niles, his ex-cop disabled no-nonsense dad Martin, and his dog, his radio producer Man-eating Roz, and Martin’s live-in carer from Manchester the blunt Daphne. All beautifully acted, and invariably the cast either were nominated or won Emmys each year of it’s run. Millicent Martin played Daphne’s mum, which was a nice bit of 60’s UK TV nostalgia for older viewers, and one of my fave characters was Frasier’s ruthless Manager, Bebe.
One of the fun bits were the celebrity cameo voice-overs popping in as radio phone-in’s with issues for Frasier to advise on: Christopher Reeve, Daryl Hannah, John Lithgow, Ben Stiller, and oodles of others. The relationships between the main characters provided the backbone to the show, but the most-popular was probably married-man Niles falling secretly in love with Daphne, and the show ran with it for years – peaking with Daphne finding out, Niles being divorced from his never-seen-much-talked-about-wife Maris by then, and them eloping to get married on impulse. Thereafter the show lost it’s sparkle, which is generally a huge no-no in TV’s: once you lose the flirting and longing, you get cosy and boring as the replacement, or else tedious melodrama. One of my fave spin-offs were Frasier and Niles essentially morphing into Sideshow Bob and his brother Cecil in the Simpsons. Both poised and dignified, the loss of dignity and murderous intent for Bart Simpson in the show is hilarious.
The show that never dies, and an unlikely long-runner (sporadically) being as it’s a cast of 4 or 5 set in the distant future on a mining space ship Red Dwarf after the end of the rest of the human race bar one – Dave Lister, beer-swilling laddy Scouser inspiring a whole TV channel in his name, and latterly paying for 2 great revival series (with one more to go). Rob Grant & Doug Naylor started, executive-produced and scripted the early episodes and series, and following the partnership split, Doug Naylor carried on alone from series 7.
As I’m a sci-fi nerd you’d expect I’d get into the show right off the bat – not so. Sci-fi comedy had always been crap, so I expected this to be the same, especially with the premise: former street-poet Craig Charles as Dave, a descendant of a cat (Cat – Danny John-Jules), and an obnoxious dead now-hologram Arnold Rimmer (impressionist comic actor Chris Barrie) together with sarcastic seemingly-simple Norman Lovett as a computer. My mum enjoyed it though, and I gradually started watching it series 2 and 3 and it just got better as it went on with the addition of android Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) and computer Holly replaced by Hilly (stand-up Hattie Hayridge). Peaking around series 5 or 6, the next two series went onto film and the whole mood changed, it needed the studio audience. Plus the whole banter and interplay changed for the worse with the addition of Kochanski (Lister’s long-crush, originally an occasional welcome guest played by pop star Claire Grogan) – played by Chloe Annett, which waters down the basic concept of the last human and his frustrations, kept sane by his non-human mates and escapades. A total lads show.
The BBC run ended in 1999 and it took channel Dave to commission a 2008 filmed 3-episode special to boost it back to life, as the cast became available in between other work, like Coronation Street (Craig Charles). It didn’t quite work, but did let Dave bring the show back proper, studio audience and cast of 4, in 2012 for series 10, then series 11 and 12 2016 and 2017, all of which caught the classic mood of the early 90’s. Great one-liners, great sci-fi homages, great characters, fun plotting and a very warm unsentimental ensemble make for a show that is still good fun. I hope they do more!
Still running, though not quite as sharp and geeky as it’s earlier seasons, The Big bang Theory is a sci-fi nerd’s wet dream: so many pop culture, science and sci-fi/fantasy references run through the show that you would imagine it would be a minority interest sitcom. Not so. It’s huge worldwide. The premise, 4 geeky scientists/engineers in their 20’s, is a sort of nerdy version of Friends, minus the women – the only regular female cast mate is neighbour Penny to flat-sharing Sheldon & Leonard (named after sitcom legend Sheldon Leonard), a not at-all nerd, hot and popular and self-assured. Over the seasons Leonard and Penny get together and marry, and she gets 2 scientist girlfriends to hang out with (Bernadette, Howard’s future wife, and Amy, Sheldon’s future wife) leaving poor old Raj unhitched to date). With more female cast members the balance of the show got less nerdy and more soap, but still maintained it’s sci-fi credentials, notably the number of Star Trek actors passing through, not least semi-regular former child actor and Next Gen star Will Wheaton playing himself.
Overall I prefer it to it’s obvious ancestor Friends, not just for the sci-fi/pop culture elements that I can relate to, but because the characters aren’t as annoying – more lovable than irritating, as Ross, Chandler, Monica and co could be at times. There’s also a sort of spiritual Roseanne going on (only not as tedious, and thank goodness no Roseanne Barr) with 3 cast members featuring, 2 as semi-regulars, and Johnny Galecki as star. The break-out star though is Jim Parsons as award-winning super-ego-super-nerd-super-IQ scientist Sheldon, complete with all his many many hang-ups, quirks and foibles. My introduction to the show came through my niece who said I should watch it (3 seasons in I’d not heard much of it really) as it was so Me. Apparently I’m a bit like Sheldon. Well, not in my universe am I anything remotely like Sheldon! (Except in the less annoying ways). I did love it though, right from the Barenaked Ladies theme song down to the endless guest stars from the sci-fi genre that I admire, and the long-running worship of Stephen Hawking, and the lads-together comics-fans camaraderie. The Comic Shop is a world I know every well.
Currently I’m one and a half seasons behind so can’t comment on recent quality, but it remains enjoyable if no longer my fave live-acted sitcom – that baton has been passed on to another still to come. There is at least one more season (the 12th) to go, after that probably renogotiating all the contracts will become too expensive and onerous I’m guessing…
Who doesn’t love a great Bottom? No, not Shakespeare, not naughtiness, but Bottom Of The Heap. The late great Rik Mayall & the equally great Ade Edmondson are basically playing older, less niche, less animated, versions of their Young Ones characters, but this time it’s Richie and Eddie, a couple of unemployed flatmate losers obsessed with trying to have sex with a woman. Any woman (Richie is till a 40-year-old Virgin). Slapstick, sentiment-free, aggressive, joyful, loveable, annoying, conscienceless, manic, pitiable, and very very funny. It spawned a stageshow version during the TV run, and a movie Guest House Paradiso in 1999, and was created by the duo as a sort of logical extension of their Comedy Club routines in the early 80’s The Dangerous Brothers.
Fellow “Young Ones” actor Christopher Ryan joined the cast, a mere 18 episodes were filmed over 3 series, and the stupid BBC brass turned down the fourth series someone on high just not getting the jokes. Not a man. Of the sexes, men more likely find the show very funny, because it’s men as losers, it’s easy to see bits of oneself in it, in a cartoon Tom & Jerry violent fashion, and it’s Ade & Rik at the top of their game. It’s not as innovative and game-changing as The Young Ones but it works way better as a sitcom. The Young Ones, apart from less than a handful of episodes tends to feel a bit disjointed and hit ‘n’ miss it’s approach, not unlike Python where bits of it remain brilliant, but chunks of it are less so.
Best episode: I think the gas man taped to the ceiling…here’s the lead-up
and for good measure here’s a bunch of stage ad-libbing equally funny…
A complete parody of US daytime soap operas, Soap was madcap, chock-full of great outrageous characters, smart and takes soap plotting to fantastical extremes, such as sex-change, gangsters, cheating politicians, gay relationships, murder and onwards through devil-child possession, alien abduction and south-american dictators. The casting was genius, not least Katherine Helmond as well-off matriarch of the richer of two main squabbling-related families The Tates & The Campbells, Jessica Tate. She was flirty, naive, genuinely funny (she later turned up in the UK Girls On Top series). Then there was Robert Guillarme as butler Benson, black, sarcastic, caustic and pretty disliked and commented on most people in the show and all their bad traits. So popular the character got his own spin-off show set in the world politics.
Billy Crystal was innovative as gay son Jody Campbell, at first stereotypically camp but settling in to become not-remotely-camp and a proper role model in a UK TV world that didn’t have any non-camp recurring characters of gay men. It also made him a huge movie star. Then there was the ventriloquist half brother who though his doll was real and had ongoing arguments with him, the doll offending everyone at ever opportunity – Chuck & Bob. Dinah Manoff & Richard Mulligan also starred in another TV sitcom sort-of-spinoff Empty Nest (also by Soap creator Susan “Golden Girls” Harris), while Dinah was one of the pink ladies in Grease to boot. The large supporting cast was equally manic and inventive throughout the 4 series, and is regularly and rightly played as one of, if not the greatest ever, ensembles ever put together.
Very daring for it’s time, and subject to outrage and criticism from some more conservative quarters, I loved the first 3 series especially, recording them on reel-to-reel tape and playing them over and over until the advent of video-recorders came along, and then DVD’s. It only played late night on various ITV regions in the UK, so it was a bit sporadic to catch and meant dedication to staying up late. Totally worth it. These days it rarely ever gets shown (BOOOOOOO!) but as the template for later styled shows like Third Rock From The Sun, The Golden Girls (the former equally manic, the latter equally wise-cracking and pop-culture-smart), not to mention animated shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy and others, it deserves the kudos it has had from Time Magazine (one of the 100 Best TV shows of all-time), The Huffington Post (“timeless”) and The Museum of Broadcast Communications “arguably one of the most creative efforts by network television before or after”. It’s also bloody hilarious.
The new Fox TV’s low-brow sitcom success (for Fox, very much an infant network) was anti-PC, broad innuendo and toilet humour writ large on American TV for the very first time. The British know all about that genre, though, it’s basically the format of the Carry-On movie series. When I’ve said how much I love the show, I’m more likely to get sighs of despair than I am anyone agreeing with me that it’s beautifully written, at least the early series are, and the characters are just terrific with spot-on performances from Ed O’Neill (later of Modern Family), Katey Sagal (who will appear again on this list), Christina Applegate (later of various comedy movies), and David Faustino as the Bundy family, selfish all – from shoe-salesman failure father Al, his lazy sex-staved wife Peggy, sneaky, conniving son Bud, and dumb babe daughter Kelly. Throw in the nagging Marcie (Amanda Bearse), Peg’s neighbour and friend & her 2 hubbies, and you have a show littered with unsentimental ridicule, one-liners, insults, social commentary, and any number of -ism-based comments, notably sexism.
It might sound like a no-hoper in these PC-days, and it was attcked at the time by many groups taking offense at it’s crudity and non-pc lines, but it does actually break the mould in the US where nobody had ever gone to the bathroom in over 30 years (except to have a bath), or talked about males with low sex-drives, or slagged off the neighbour for her chicken legs. The actors make it endearing, no question, it’s very much influential in attitude, at which point I refer to any Seth MacFarlane show, unafraid to make statements that might challenge, but at the same time make it plain that the Bundy’s are not NICE people, and they only reluctantly stand-up for each other when they are under attack from non-Bundy’s. The format was nicked by many networks in other countries, including the UK (ITV did a 7-episode attempt which showed how much you need a great cast, cos it was utter rubbish headed by Russ Abbot). As for me, I’m not generally offended by comedy, especially when words come out the mouths of characters not meant to be role models – that is, after all, real life, and ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist is just sticking your head in the sand. And the baser universal side of human existence can be smart and beautifully-written too, and worthy of taking the piss out of, or allowing it to take the piss out of pretentiousness and insincerity. It IS cruel at times though, so you have been warned!
The first of 2 Graham Linehan-written shows in the top 20, and a wacky joy for me – great scripts, off-the-wall eccentricity, characters, a great cast (most of whom have popped up in films since), and anyone who has an IT department at work can see little nuggets of absurd recognition in some of this. Granted it’s taken to extremes, but beautifully done. I particularly loved Noel Fielding as goth Richmond, banished to a mystery room and with the ability to seemingly hang from the ceiling at will, IT nerd Moss (Richard Ayoade), and the IT-illiterate Jen (nominally in charge but thinks she has the whole of the internet in a box). Throw in later seasons manic ego Matt Berry as Douglas Reynholm, and this Channel 4 gem is a wonder to watch and enjoy.
One of the great ensemble US comedies of the last decade, packed with great actors and characters, minority-supporting, loveable, smart, sharp, witty, fast-paced, character-driven scripts, leading to one of the great mysteries in modern TV – why on Earth Fox cancelled it in 2018! Fox, to be fair, have consistency in cancelling the greatest sitcoms on their books, clearly not having a clue what quality is. Happily NBC picked it up, and I’m still waiting to see the result of that. The break-out character was stand-up Chelsea Peretti as Gina, though the star and backbone is comedian-actor Andy Samberg, and the creative force was Parks & Recreation creators Dan Goor & Michael Schur. The whole cast is great though!
Stylistically borrowing heavily from the earlier Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, this filmed sitcom had no studio audience and no laugh track, leaving the viewer to work out what was funny and clever and exaggerated. One of many Fox shows at the top end of my listings (much as it pains to me to admit it, Fox have made quality comedy shows, pushing the boundary away from traditional sitcoms), this was a fabulous ensemble cast, full of charm, wackiness, character, and based around a dysfunctional household of boys and an over-bearing mother and laddish father, played brilliantly by Jane Kaczmarek and the now-big-movie-star Bryan Cranston. Any show with a lot of child actors usually is a sign to turn off right away, but the boys are all played sentiment-free, much more rounded and flawed, like real kids, and wholesomeness and goody-goodness is an actual target of the family, but not in a broad Married With Children way. I especially love the supporting cast, the large, geeky Craig, co-worker of the family’s mom Lois, who is infatuated with her, the grandma (Cloris Leachman as always providing OTT greats, this time a bitter, vindictive humorless ogre) and the German immigrant rancher Otto (Kenneth Mars honing the same character he played to brilliance in What’s Up Doc and Young Frankenstein screwball comedy movies). Cloris Leachman was Phyllis in Mary Tyler Moore, and Phyllis her spin-off, and also was in Young Frankenstein, Mel Brook’s genius pastiche of horror movies, among many films and TV shows. It’s a great show.
One of 3 Seth McFarlane animated sitcoms in the top 11, This Family Guy spin-off lasted 4 years before the cast was assimilated back into Family Guy (in the case of Cleveland Brown, notoriously dull friend and neighbour of Peter Griffin) and newly-added in the case of the rest of the family, Donna, Rallo, Cleveland Jr & Roberta who were all newly-created or revamped for the new location of Stoolbend. Cleveland was much wackier in his new role, and dull was dropped, and his sidekicks included Tim The Bear (voiced by Seth McFarlane) & his wife (voiced by news magnate Ariana Huffington), redneck Lester & His wife, mobile scooter-bound and overweight, Gus the barman (film director David Lynch), short-arse Holt (Jason Sudeikis) & a host of other great characters.
I was sad the show never really caught on & got prematurely cancelled (not least because they only released the first 2 seasons on DVD boo!), to me it was almost on a par with other McFarlane shows – who has since moved into movies like A Million Ways To Die In The West & Ted, and the fab new Star Trek parody comedy-drama The Orville on Fox. Yes, it’s another Fox show, yes, it’s often broad and crude and cruel, but it’s also culturally observant, politically-commenting & socially-smart with great and silly dialogue and situations. It’s also free from gooey sentiment & has a host of famous guest stars like Kanye West & Bruno Mars. Top notch.