10. AMERICAN DAD (2005-2019)
Another Seth McFarlane animated Fox show – albeit dropped in 2014 and picked up by TBS – starring McFarlane as a redneck CIA agent Stan Smith with a typecast homebody housewife (at least she seems to be at first, but Fran’s as mad as Stan is). The nerd son Steve hangs about with his nerd friends, one of them voiced by Moonlighting’s Curtis Armstrong, while Steve is voiced by Scott Grimes, currently starring alongside Seth in the fab The Orville. Last family members are left-wing protestor hippie Hailey (Rachel McFarlane, Seth keeping it in the family) and Roger the alien (also Seth), a moral-free gender-fluid selfish alien taken in by the Smiths, and who has a million disguises. Lastly there’s Klaus the German fish – or rather a former spy in the body of a goldfish, still hoping to be a man again and as mad as the rest of the clan.
The mix is pretty fine for plots, social commentary, sci-fi, political, parodies, surreal (even the apocalypse end of days!) and sometimes very dark humour, and also features oodles of famous guest stars, notably the recurring role of Stan’s CIA boss – Patrick “Captain Picard” Stewart sending himself up beautifully. As with other Seth shows Walter Murphy is on hand to score the show fabulously – for oldies like me he’s the bloke who had a 1976 hit with A Fifth Of Beethoven, a disco classical bit of fun. Some of my fave guest stars: Alyson Hanigan, Andy Samberg, Bryan Cranston, Burt reynolds, Chris Isaak, David Boreanaz, Eartha Kitt, Ed Asner, George takei – and that’s just a selection of A to G on the full list! For cult TV fans like me (and clearly the show’s stars and creators) it’s a paradise of riches. Some of the episodes don’t always work, some of the stuff the characters do can make you feel a bit icky – but it’s not real! It’s got a talking walking goldfish and an alien! Still great.
9. CHEERS (1982-1993)
Great theme tune, heartwarming song and concept, that you can get a “family”, friends & romance by going out and drinking alcohol regularly – not sure about the last bit, but it certainly can help joining a club! Anyway, classy show which took time to become a huge hit, great writing, great cast (Shelley Long, Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Kirstie Alley, and many more who have appeared in things Star Trek, Star Wars, Pixar). Frasier was the spin-off success which is making a comeback soon, and while individual episodes were variable in belly-laughs, they tended to revolve around the Sam/Diane verbal sparring – he a former baseball star now running a bar, she a pretentious intellectual having to work as a barmaid – and their ongoing love/hate relationship. When Shelley Long left the show, Kirstie Alley brought in a new dynamic as hot-desperate-loser and corporate ownership of the bar as an extra. Still very watchable and the first of 2 American 80’s shows in the top 10.
8. BLACKADDER (1983-89)
Covering all 4 series & specials of the decade, this show falls only behind the over-rated Only Fools & Horses in polls to find the best comedy series of all-time in the UK, I would place it either 2nd or first in terms of UK series – today it’s second, but a year from now it might be top again, depends on how I’m feeling on the day. Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson & Ben Elton staked a unique premise – the same characters in different time-periods and different roles, which gave great opportunity to comment on themselves, the time-period, and contemporary society – this is currently being used again in Ben Elton’s great Upstart Crow series, a show that would definitely be included in my list of faves if I were to start from scratch today. The dialogue is sharp & witty & biting, the acting (or rather the cartoon over-acting) is fab, and the cast top-notch, the best of the 80’s pop up along the way, not least Rowan Atkinson & Tony Robinson as the conniving Blackadder & his put-upon dumb servant Baldrick, the core of each show. My fave series was Blackadder II in the Elizabethan period with Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry & a host of memorable guest spots from the likes of Rik Mayall & Tom Baker. The final scene of the final World War 1 episode (let’s just forget that Millennium Dome special) was as heart-breaking a moment as you can get in cartoon whimsy. Unlike most short-run series (just 24 episodes) I’ve never got bored with these 24 (plus specials).
7. THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN (1996-2001)
Manic, slapstick, quirky, this endearingly mad sitcom was broad in it’s humour, but followed the tradition of The Addams Family & Mork & Mindy in having central other-worldly characters able to shine a light on the quirks of the society they find themselves in – in this case 4 aliens are assigned a mission to observe culture from the point of view humans, and they masquerade as a family (The Solomons) led by the brilliant John Lithgow, a great actor who is in overdrive here, as Dick, the father, future movie-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the son Tommy (the oldest, wisest of the 4 aliens), Kristen Johnson as Sally, her militaristic alien having to cope with changing sex to a leggy female hot blonde, and Harry (French Stewart) as the sender of their messages to home through his seemingly-quite-damaged brain. The fab Jane Curtin (of sitcom Kate ‘n’ Allie, and Saturday Night Live 70’s fame) plays Dick’s co-Professor love interest, and Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight (also of Jurassic Park) plays a loveable tubby Police Officer with a crush on blunt Sally.
The humour comes from the antics of the aliens misunderstanding social niceties, having a ball let loose with all the nicer things in life, and yet still having anxieties about the bosses coming (William Shatner doing OTT fabulously, as The Big Giant Head, & John Cleese, trying to steal Mary away from Dick, being an extreme version of John Cleese). The cast were regulalrly rewarded with performance nominations, but the writing and show were never that highly-regarded, probably because it appeals to kids with it’s slapstick, manic broadness. I love it though, sometimes character, plot and acting is more than enough to be funny.
6. M*A*S*H (1972-83)
One of the most unlikely premises for a sitcom ever, never mind one that hit high ratings for a decade, the show was essentially a spin-off of the 1970 movie of the same title which was a dark comedy cult success. Set in the early 50’s Korean War, the show ran 3 times longer than the war did, but what it really was a political and socially liberal criticism of the Viet-Nam war, which had been running for 7 years by this time as the US plunged into the Watergate crisis along with the realisation that they can actually lose wars. So how did it work? There was a Marx Brothers disrespectfulness of stupid authority (later borrowed by Blackadder), lead Alan Alda (who had been in the Phil Silvers Show back in the 50’s) was even showed as a Groucho Marx fan, but this was tempered with the realisation that these 2 surgeons (drafted into military service to work in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) were entirely brilliant at their job – saving lives of young injured men. Co-star Wayne Rogers was a good foil for lead Hawkeye Pierce, as they weaved amongst a great cast of characters and actors (Loretta Swit, Head Nurse Hotlips Houlihan, who played it by the military book but wasnt above dalliances with prestigious military officers, or her weasel regular Frank Burns, a not-great surgeon with right-wing selfish views, and the butt of many a prank and caustic comment – played comically by Larry Linville).
One of the strengths of the show was the coming and going of cast members and characters: clumsy well-meaning Commnder Henry Blake was actually memorably and tearfully killed off when actor McLean Stevenson left, and was replaced by the great Dragnet-actor, and sitcom veteran Harry Morgan. A one-off character, Cpl KIlnger (Jamie Farr), dressed in drag to get a discharge from the army on mental grounds, became a huge fave and cast regular as his outfits got ever-more extravagant (no-one explained where he got the cash!) and his antics ever-more extreme to get that never-acquired discharged. The madness of living with war & death was the theme, and the show swung from black humour, farce to stark reality, commenting on the inhumanity of man to others. The show ran with the then-traditional laugh-track (against the producers, cast & writers wishes) in the States, except during the surgery scenes, but in the UK from day one there was no laugh track. This was a major plus in the critical acclaim of the show, leaving you to decide what was funny. I used to watch re-runs in the USA with the laugh track and it cheapens the impact quite considerably, the themes were too important for tackiness. Eventually some of the cast moved on to a spin-off, after Alda decided he’d had enough – by that time his power and influence over the show had moved it too much into maudlin self-righteousness at the expense of the darker edge that the early years had in spades – and the War ended in the most-watched final TV episode of all-time in the States. With 106 million, and viewing figures now split amongst online media, that will easily remain the biggest none-sporting or event moment of all-time. Biggest Ever TV episode of any show.
5. FATHER TED (1995-1998)
Gentle, amiable, loveable comedy set amongst witless priests in Ireland, this is the top-rated UK (Channel 4) sitcom on the list. It was irreverent, silly, had running character gags, cartoon-styled surreal plots and visuals, taking the piss out of the format, pop culture and people. Some of the great moments include “I don’t believe it” with Victor Meldrew actor Richard Wilson on location going apeshit at hearing his tired catch-phrase, Father Ted trying to explain to simple Father Dougal about cows in the distance not being the same as toy cows just because they looked the same size, a milk-float with a bomb on it a la Speed, and A Song For Europe’s My Lovely Horse.
Writer’s Arthur Matthews & Graham Linehan were men on a mission, inspired by Seinfeld, and Fawlty Towers, and the cast and characters were great OTT extremes: Dermot Morgan’s conniving Father (“the money was just resting in my account!”) Ted, Ardal O’Hanlan’s simple Father (“That’s mad Ted”) Dougal on hearing something religious, Frank Kelly’s angry alcoholic woman-chasing Father (“GIRLS! BOOZE! FECK!”) Jack, Pauline McLynn’s tea-obssessed Mrs (“tea father? Ah go on go on go on go on, GO ON!”) Doyle and a host of great supporting characters, not least Graham Norton as a hyperactive priest riverdancing with some students in a small unstable caravan.
The wistful irish theme tune and original songs were composed by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. Fans of the show were many and famous, Maurice Gibb being buried with a DVD box set of the show, and it just runs and runs to this day in the UK & Ireland. Sadly, 3 series was all there is, following actor Dermot Morgan’s sudden death shortly after the wrap-up of 3rd series filming and the decision to leave it there was made.
4. GREEN ACRES (1965-71)
The oldest sitcom in the top 20, the highest-placed non-animation show, and one of the most inventive and surreal shows, well ahead of it’s time. I watched it as a boy and loved it, watched it as a teen in Singapore and loved it, watched it as an adult and still loved it, and bought the book of the series with a foreword by Matt Groening who was inspired and influenced by it. Is it dated? Well yes, but also no: it exists in it’s own version of reality – in the first series it starts off traditional sitcom: an affluent New York City attorney (Eddie Albert) gets fed-up with the soul-less rat-race and moves to the country, buying a farm deep, deep in rural from an engaging conman Mr Haney (Pat Buttram) and drags his Hungarian socialite wife (Eva Gabor, the younger more talented sister of Zsa Zsa) kicking & screaming to a ramshackle farm in Hooterville, location of sister show Petticoat Junction, and including some of the cast as supporting occasional characters. Executive Producer Paul Henning had already had major success with The Beverley Hillbillies – Hick hillbillies strike oil and move to affluent Beverley Hills – and Petticoat Junction, and offered the show to writer/producer Jay Sommers, which was a stroke of genius.
From the first second the bouncy memorable theme tune burst into action the show hit the ground running, (the Vic Mizzy theme later popped up in many a hit record, notably Groove Is In The Heart (Deee-Lite) and Just Buggin’ (Whistle), Mizzy already having struck TV theme immortality with The Addams Family, and reportedly Green Acres was being planned to become a musical, starting with the theme song, but has yet to appear) parodying the famous 1930 painting American Gothic. Plotwise, the local community citizens seem to be a bit eccentric and out-of-time, treating anything more recent than the 20’s or 30’s and newly fandangles, or naive, or bizarre (not least Arnold The Pig, the most-famous TV pig ever, who appropriately loved watching TV and getting involved in people’s lives, with dreams of becoming a Hollywood star). Yes, this is 1965, and yes it’s a real pig.
The cast is brilliant, the characters live in their own universe with their own logic – at first Lisa Douglas (Gabor) seems utterly out of place and hates it, while the community views husband Oliver as a sad city dweller with no clue (but they are all supportive and utterly loveable and free from malice) – he drives a tractor dressed in his best NYC lawyers suit – but by the second season it’s Lisa who joins their mad world and lives by their inverted logic. The show isn’t really in the countryside, it’s painted backdrops, the credit sequences are aware that they are TV credits and pop up anywhere, on chicken eggs (even square ones laid by the square-egg chicken), side of buildings, and the cast (usually Eva Gabor) muse on them and what is happening this week with them, pure breaking-the-fourth-wall years before any other show did. They pioneered a return to nature a decade ahead of The Good Life. The Douglas’ farmhouse never got improved (The Monroe Brothers worked on it for 6 years and never managed to improve anything, Alf & Ralf quarrelled, Ralf always looked forlornly for a man – she was a girl, breaking stereotype barriers years ahead of other shows where women were housewives, even the fantasy shows, not manual labourers/”skilled” workers), Hank Kimball was the local agricultural advisor – who turned up, rambled in a chain of thought that he interrupted himself on, lost the plot quickly, and had to be prompted to get back to the point (sound familiar? Ronnie Corbett, The Two Ronnies?) and as played by Alvy Moore I never tire of the wordplay. All episodes were written by Jay Sommers, which gave the show continuity, running gags, and increasing playfulness with the format as it went on. Kids loved the slapstick and wacky characters, adults appreciate the wordplay and knowing winks.
Sadly, healthy ratings couldn’t save any of the rural shows surviving a massive purge of any rural-based or themed shows in 1971 when CBS decided they weren’t pulling in enough ad revenue. They opted instead for more urban-based shows missing the point that these were parodies of modern America, not dumb hick shows appealing to “dumb hicks” with no spending money.
Happily, TV Guide listed 2 of the episodes amongst the Top 100 Greatest Episodes Of All-Time, and it lives on in spirit in The Simpsons. Not bad for a 55-year-old daft show that no-one has heard of these days….
3. FAMILY GUY (1999-2019)
I didn’t take to this Fox show immediately – coming after The Simpsons it seemed harsher, brasher, less loveable, and walked a thin line between edgy humour and bad taste, something it has retained throughout the 20 years of production. Fox seemed to think so too, as it was cancelled in the early years, but always sprung back following strong performances on DVD and reruns. Creator & star Seth McFarlane (of which I’m a huge fan, still, with latest sci-fi show The Orville, movies like A Million Ways To Die In The West & Ted, & spin-off animated shows like American Dad & The Cleveland Show) based Family Guy on The Simpsons & the US 70’s sitcom All In The Family (itself a rewrite of UK Till Death Us Do Part) – which is why irreverence, politics, society, pop culture, relationships, get the same unsentimental, critical treatment. Being animated (taking the piss is protected under US law) allows them to go places other shows can’t, but also allows affection parody, most notably the trio of episodes based around the original Star Wars movies, which are brilliantly accurate and amusing without losing the love.
The Griffin family is led by Peter, a loud-mouthed buffoon with no social skills or boundaries (in one episode he is turned gay) is clearly modelled on Archie Bunker, and his wife Lois (Alex Borstein) on Edith Bunker, right down the parody of All In The Family’s TV theme song, while dumb Chris (voiced by Buffy’s Seth Green), plain, unpopular Meg, the butt of everyone’s bullying (voiced by movie star Mila Kunis), Stewie (a matricidal, genius-inventor talking baby) make up the kids, and talking , walking conceited racist dog Brian (voiced by MacFarlane, along with Peter & Stewie) completes the family. Back-up characters include Mayor West (Batman’s Adam West playing a scatty version of himself), ancient wanna-be paedophile Herbert, sex-obssessed borderline-abuser Quagmire, dull Cleveland, and disabled angry cop Joe, among many many more.
So….not surprising it’s not to everyone’s taste! There is no subject they won’t tackle or ridicule, sometimes go too far (for me it was the ridiculing of Amy Winehouse’s behaviour before she died, or the AID’s song) more often they hit the right note, showing a wide range of viewpoints but generally taking the “right” stance from my point of view, and the cult shows they reference are a joy to me. The violence? It’s the same as Tom & Jerry where Tom gets sliced into pieces, only to come back to life immediately, just bloodier. Usually. Sometimes the point is to lampoon, say, the media’s response to a tragedy, rather than laugh at the tragedy (it’s a cartoon, it’s not real!) and that point might get missed by some.
Anyway, still running, still on TV every night…
here’s some good bits from season 11, quality is pretty much consistent throughout.
2. FUTURAMA (1999-2013)
A Simpsons Matt Groening spin-off, stylistically, and probably my fave sitcom by virtue of the futuristic, sci-fi nerd worshipping setting and cast, and in-references to all things sci-fi/fantasy (long before Big Bang Theory). Problem was, it was never as big as The Simpsons, due to it’s more niche appeal, and kept getting cancelled, first time in 2003, from thereafter living on through DVD issues, one-off DVD’s, re-commissioning, and ultimately going for a good 140 episodes and 7 seasons. More compact than The Simpsons, the plots obviously have a wider remit, as they can take place anywhere, anytime (though The Simpsons did this, it wasn’t every episode) and they had brilliant writers, including key mover David X Cohen, who’d written many of the best Simpsons episodes. It’s no shock that the dip in quality of The Simpsons was directly attributable to the instant quality of Futurama, appealing to people you might not expect it to – such as Private Eye editor Ian Hislop. It didn’t hurt that they had talking heads in jars of 20th century politicians to keep commentaries contemporary, if less obvious. It also didn;t hurt that the writers were by far the most “over-educated” PHD-galore cast of sci-fi nerds in TV history (probably), packing as much into a show as they could, honing it constantly.
The cast was set around 20th century delivery-boy loser Fry getting frozen, awoken in the far future to become…a spaceship-based delivery boy (Played by Billy West, a regular voice-over in animation, and playing multiple characters like Zapp Branigan & Jewish crustacean Dr Zoidberg, and Professor Farnsworth, Fry’s distant and ancient mad-scientist nephew). He yearns for one-eyed assertive Leela, a mutant from the sewers of New New York (played by the fab Katey Sagal of Married: With Children fame), and his best mate moral-free loudmouth robot Bender, more into floozy female robots, beer and money than actual bending and working deliveries.
Amazingly, even after years away, the cast & crew all came back renewed with the same high quality as if they’d never been away, still dragging in guest stars (like the one with most of the Star Trek: Next Gen cast as their characters as if they were real and set in the future, or the one where Leonard Nimoy is the guest head in the water-filled bottle nibbling on fish food, or the one with Vice President Al Gore doing his Global Warming stuff – but funny). Overall the show has more consistency than Groening’s other show….but that other show at it’s best was as good as Futurama, AND was influential, so for that it’s getting top spot (even though I’d rather rewatch Futurama).
1. THE SIMPSONS (1989-19 so far)
From primitive Matt Groening shorts featured in The Tracey Ullman Show to the longest-running sitcom in US TV history. Sitcoms elsewhere may have lasted longer than 30 years (Last Of The Summer Wine ran from 1973 to 2010) but that involved complete cast changes and comparatively fewer episodes – 295 over 31 series (it regularly missed years during it’s run – while The Simpsons is still going, 656 episodes, 30 series, and commissioned for more, so apart from chronologically it will overhaul Wine shortly. Sadly, the quality hasn;t kept up with the decades. The first series was quirky and charming, but slow compared to it’s prime run (series 2 through 10 or 11) after which it became increasingly patchy. At it’s best though, oh my goodness it was a cultural phenomenon and completely changed the sitcom format in terms of what became possible: lampooning, satire, media references, a vast cast of recurring characters, a Tom & Jerry attitude to violence (Itchy & Scratchy were a pisstake of what it really look like), an awesome cast of famous guest voices, either as themselves, or as characters, and a whole mini-universe of musings on human beings and their quirks with elements of truth to them. More, it often went off at tangents and experimented with the animated format – computer-graphics, annual halloween gore-fests set outside the regular family Simpson “reality”, future-world guessing (in one famous instance they predict President Trump), but always good-natured – even when faced with actual monsters like Mr. Burns.
Bart Simpson, the son, was geared around being the centrepiece of the show initially, with his rascally catchphrases and conscience-lite “Just do it” attitude – he even got Michael Jackson on board with a chart-topping single Do The Bartman, and guesting too as an inmate who thinks he’s Michael Jackson. Don;t expect to see that one in future, though. Elsewhere, comics, games, a fab movie spin-off very late in the run, the fun Simpsons 3D ride at Universal Studios, and lucrative salaries for it’s ongoing stable of voice-over actors: Dan Castellenata as Homer, the actual star of the show once it found it’s feet, was also in the Tracey ullman Show along with Marge Simpson (and her sisters) actor Julie Kavner. Julie was long-familiar to me as beloved sister of Rhoda (The Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off which was widely-screened in the UK in the mid-70’s), while Hank Azaria (A NIght At The Museum’s Boris Karloff-a-like, Friends) and Harry Shearer (Spinal tap and much more) made up the bulk of the voices of most of the subsidiary characters. liberal hippie daughter Lisa (Yeardley Smith) & brash Bart (Nancy Cartwright, who also does a lot of the other kid voices) make up the main cast. One regular famous guest voice was Marcia Wallace (Mrs Krabappel – “Hah!” – Bart’s teacher, who’d been a fave of mine from 70’s sitcoms like The Bob Newhart Show, and guest spots in Bewitched, Taxi and many more. She became a fixture on US gameshows (being as she was funny) and I got to see her in 1979, guesting in The Match Game aka Blankety Blank, while in LA (they were giving out free audience tickets on Sunset Boulevard).
Fave characters? Comic Book Guy. Chief Wiggum. Ned Flanders. Krusty The Clown. Kelsey Grammar as Sideshow Bob. The wacky style of characters can be traced back to Green Acres, one of Groening’s TV show inspirations. Fave running gag? Bart phoning Mo for made-up people: “Phone call for Amanda. Last name Huggenkiss”. Mo (to the Bar): I’m looking for Amanda. Anyone seen Amanda. I’m after AmandaHuggenkiss”. Well, aren’t we all….
Greatest TV comedy show ever? Very probably. There isn’t a great compilation overview though, so here’s a Halloween cartoon within a cartoon clip cos you’ve all seen The Simpsons, and if you haven’t where have you been for 30 years!?