50. I LOVE LUCY (1951 – 1960)
Actually this sit-com should be a few places higher, but I wanted to start the run-down with the most important sit-com in history. That isn’t hyperbole, it’s a cast-iron fact, if only for the various innovations that Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz made to television: Lucy was a B-list cinema star, the only real female actor who could do physical comedy both in facial expressions, delivery of lines and body slapstick, this made her a natural to develop a TV show; She insisted her Cuban singer/bandleader husband be the co-star against Network Exec wishes; they refused to move to New York to film the usual low-quality TV recordings which were broadcast – instead they based in LA and took a large paycut to pay for the shows to be recorded on film (in b&w); this decision had massive effect – I Love Lucy was filmed with 3 cameras, in high quality, in front of an actual enthusiastic live studio audience (no canned laughter, other TV shows “borrowed” Lucy’s laugh-track!), with film professionals (TV union rules disallowed TV employees) and giving Lucille Ball the ability to play to the audience, making the show lively and vital; in exchange for the paycut Lucille & Desi set up their own studio and business Desilu (who later became famous for the first Star Trek episodes), and were able to broadcast I Love Lucy throughout the world, and in re-run for the next 65 years and counting. Lucille Ball became the most-famous female face in the world for the next 10 or 20 years.
The show itself? It’s all about Lucy, the ambitious, talentless, optimistic, trouble-prone but loveable housewife, and her sidekick best-friend Ethel (Vivan Vance), getting into scrapes. It’s very 1950’s idealised pre-feminist Americana, but that was what sold it to the rest of the world – here was a normal way of life that was positively affluent compared to life in other societies, things like refrigerators were mod-cons out of reach of ordinary people. It became so successful, some of the routines became comic immortal, and at the time Lucy’s pregancy led to massive TV ratings, the show topped the ratings for years, as Lucy attracted bigger and bigger guest stars (all as themselves) – Hollywood royalty joined in on the fun wholeheartedly, but Lucy never became one of them, she ridiculed her star-struck self, and spoke to the man or woman in the street. Ironically, as Lucille Ball was totally in control, a powerful woman in the male-dominated media industry of the 50‘s. Obviously, it is now utterly period, but it’s still charming, amusing, and as the template for all that followed it is guaranteed to remain referred back to by TV sitcom creators for as long as the form remains popular – I’d guess, as long as western society endures then…
My take? I only caught the much inferior 3rd Lucy series Here’s Lucy from the late 60’s, by which time she was getting on a bit and there were better shows on TV, but Lucy was still a TV legend. When I finally got to see the 50‘s shows in the 80’s, it was easy to see they were the real deal, I got to visit the Lucy shop-cum-tribute many times at Universal Studios Florida, and I bought the DVD’s. Still holds up well.
her classic scene:
her slapstick brilliance:
…and finally the comedy dialogue
49. ARE YOU BEING SERVED (1972-85)
British innuendo saucy seaside humour at it’s best, this Jeremy “Laugh-In” Lloyd and David Croft creation became a hit in the USA and topped Australian ratings, against all the odds – it’s VERY English, a bit low-brow, mocks the posh establishment and manners, and also the working class. It gently takes the mickey out of people putting on airs and graces, lauding it with superiority, and is a microcosm of British society social strata. If that sounds too pompous, then it’s a big laugh with fabulous caricatures, great comic actors, pushing the boat to see what you can get away with in prime time (who could forget Mrs Slocombe’s bedraggled pussy, or Mr. Humphrey’s camp “I’m free!”), terrific slapstick, OTT delivery, and it was always always good-natured. Mollie Sugden is immortal as Mrs Slocombe, already well-loved from Carla Lane’s decent The Liver Birds, and it made a star of John Inman as Mr. Humphreys, and Wendy Richard as dolly-bird Miss Brahms, years after she was the cockney lass on Mike Sarne’s fab novelty UK chart-topper Come Outside – Eastenders fame beckoned once the show was cancelled in the 80’s. It ran for too long, to be honest, and never really got over the loss of 2 of the original cast members, Trevor Bannister leaving and Arthur Brough dying, by which time it had become more of a self-caricature in the 80’s, though not so much that the cast and characters couldn’t reunite for Grace & Favour in 1992.
For me, it was camp fun, I loved Molly Sugden, the very Carry On.. British humour was right up my street, ooerr missus, and appropriately this just scrapes into my chart ahead of the equally saucy Frankie Howard one-man TV sitcom vehicle Up Pompeii. That had better scripts, but lacked an ensemble affectionate group to support it. This was just lovable, albeit of it’s time. Precious few clips on youtube though…
48. SEINFELD (1989-1998)
Stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld is the star of, and co-creator with Larry David of, this very New York urban comedy. The show famously “about nothing” is really about 4 friends and their families and lives, and where none of them are really that likeable – the golden rule of sitcoms is to be loveable, but Jerry, George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and Kramer (Michael Richards)are essentially self-absorbed, selfish, and picky – and in the case of Kramer crazy to boot. Emotional depth is absent, no lovey-dovey stuff at any time, the characters never learn from their mistakes and they aren’t sympathetic towards each other: instead you have a wealth of guest actors, some on the way to big things, a tight script, great one-liners in the New York Jewish tradition, and inventiveness – the notion of re-gifting took up one episode to great effect, another was waiting to get served in a restaurant. Critically lauded and a 90’s US ratings topper, they killed the show off at the height of it’s popularity and have stuck to that decision.
Shockingly low in my ratings, that’s 2 giants of sitcoms disposed of already in my list! Both Seinfeld and I Love Lucy are clearly greats of sitcoms, and “better” than many higher up the list, but in my case I came to Seinfeld a bit late in the day. For a start, the selfishness of the characters annoyed me, the arguing grated, the shouting put my teeth on edge, that boo-doop, boo-doo, boop doop soundtrack every 5 minutes just got on my nerves early on and got worse with time. I was, however, won over by the cast and scripts, and the more bizarre the plot the more I liked it. I also can’t resist a golden one-liner, and there loads of them throughout the show’s run.
47. TAXI (1978-83)
A good-natured sit-com set around a taxi cab company in New York, run by the short-of-stature tyrannical Louis (Danny De Vito), starring Judd Hirsch as Alex, Marilu Henner as Elaine, Tony Danza as Tony, Jeff Conaway as Bobby, Andy Kaufman as the annoying and sweet Latka, Carol Kane as his girlfriend, and in the 2nd series the real star of the show Christopher Lloyd as the Rev Jim Ignatowski, a burnt-out hippie from years of substance abuse. Guest stars included Danny De Vito’s real-life wife Rhea Perlman and many others. Needless to say it made stars of all of the above, most migrating to movie success, or else TV sitcom success post-Taxi.
This James L. Brooks & co show was a precurser to even-better sitcoms which will feature later, won Emmy’s, was well-written, warm without being too sentimental or cloying, and had very good well-defined characters and covered any number of dark or unusual topics for plots. Unusually for a US TV show, it was also shown in UK prime-time and repeated over the next decade or so before being banished as if it never existed, despite the big-name cast. Andy Kaufman died young, a stand-up comic who inspired REM’s Man In The Moon song and the movie of the same name – in which the cast played themselves in the biopic!
I always enjoyed the show, but my real enthusiasm was for Christopher Lloyd, just before he did Back To The Future, and his character had me laughing-out loud at some points (I tend to be a smiler, punctuated with very occasional bouts of helpless, crying laughter) especially the taxi-driving exam he had to take to become a permanent cast member. Crying I was!
46. THE FLINTSTONES (1960-66)
No, this wasn’t a kids show, it was Prime Time animated fantasy soap in the States, the first to do that and the most successful for 30 years. Hanna-Barbera churned out kids TV shows for decades, but they hit gold with this innovative show: essentially they took the 2nd-biggest US sitcom of the 50’s (The Honeymooners) and transplanted the characters into the Stone Age, but a fantasy world with dinosaurs as modern-convenience equipment or pets, homes made of rock, and sabre-tooth tigers as kitty-cats. I can’t stress just how unlikely it was that this got past TV Execs!
What made it work was the cast of working-class American characters, Fred and Wilma, and their best friends Barney & Betty Rubble. Later on the kids came along, Pebbles and Bam Bam, and added to cast – along with numerous guest stars of the screen and sports portraying Stone Age versions of themselves (Ann-Margrock for example voiced by then-big Ann-Margaret). The renamed stone-age wordplay alone was genius (Gina Loadabricks, Mick Jadestone & The Rolling Boulders, Rock Pile – for Rock Hudson), the pastiche perverted look at mid-20th century suburban culture and pop culture was brilliant, and the voicing, especially Mel Blanc and Alan Reed as Barney and Fred, just great. Barney & Fred had more than a touch of the Laurel & Hardy, 2 lovable idiots, the loud one thinking he’s smarter than the quieter one – but not really in fact. The invention was terrific – the poor downtrodden dinosaurs address the audience direct lamenting their lot and the humans, the cars run on people legs, showers are woolly mammoths blowing water out their trunk.
2 live action movies eventually turned up in the 90’s, both perfectly good fun and full of stars, the B52’s immortalised the wonderful theme tune (one of the first TV greats) as themselves (the BC52’s) and in the charts, but they never really quite clicked totally, being an affectionate parody of a parody and all. As with I Love Lucy, the show still stands up well, much better than the one it was based on, the somewhat unlovable aggressive loudmouth of The Honeymooners, his “Bang zoom, to the the moon” threats to his wife are most definitely not-PC these days. Fred is a pussycat underneath the bluster, thankfully. So great it has turned up in shows owing a lot to it, such as The Simpsons and Family Guy, and for me, I have a 1965 Flintstones annual from xmas prezzie time, kept it all these years and still fun – love the Gruesomes (take on The Munsters/Addams Family, who were directly made in the fantasy 60’s sitcom explosion that owed it all to The Flinstones: don’t what TV execs were on in those days, but they need to get on it again!). Fab!
45. THE MUPPET SHOW (1976-81)
Jim Henson’s Sesame Street sorta-spinoff that had to move to the UK to get produced and broadcast (shame on Exec Suits!), helped by Lew Grade, UK TV giant. I’d loved Sesame Street’s fresh style when it turned up on Singapore sometime in late 1970 or early 1971, so I was already a fan for some more-adult-oriented gags, puns, Vaudeville songs, silliness, and a host of UK or US guest stars, and as time went by, and The Muppets became huge, the guest names got bigger as everyone joined in the fun. Now, some may be exclaiming that the Muppets wasn’t a sitcom, it was a variety show – sorry, no I’m not having that – each episode was plotted, usually around the guest stars interacting with the amazing cast of characters, be it Miss Piggy gunning for Kermit, the guest wanting to perform some high art (and ending up over-run with muppets) or Kermit just exasperated at the anarchy. The sketches, and the musical numbers were integrated into the plot as interruptions, while the real story went on backstage.
The cast, voiced by Jim Henson, Frank Oz and others, was a list of incredible still-famous Muppet characters, Gonzo, Sam The Eagle, Fozzie Bear, Statler & Waldorf (my faves, loved the put-downs), The Swedish Chef, Beaker, Animal and many others. All were just brilliant creations, and the recurring in-jokes a joy (Doctor Bob, Pigs In Space for a start), they were a hit with kids and with A Level students (take my word, I was one) and with older folk too, with the Music Hall backdrop and old-time tunes. So good, in fact, that numerous movies, spin-offs, parodies, merchandise and sequel series all trotted along before and after Disney acquired the rights and made a fun 3D Theme Park attraction out of the setting too. Of course, the jokes were very hit and miss, the songs could be rubbish or brilliant (Mah Na Mah Na was a hit as a result, ditto the Muppets own singles Halfway Down The Stairs and Don’t Dilly-Dally On The Way and Wipeout) and some guests were better than others, but the just good-natured feel-good vibes outweigh the naff bits. Legends!
44. GIRLS ON TOP (1985-6)
One of those rare things: an ITV sitcom that I liked, this was like a female answer to The Young Ones in the 80’s new wave of young comics, written-by and starring Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ruby Wax and Tracey Ullman. The show was about 4 wacky flatmates, leftie-activist bullying Dawn/Amanda, simple and docile Jennifer, loud, brash, self-centered Ruby/Shelley and manipulative flirt Tracey/Candice. The landlady (Joan Greenwood was so cool, too) – totally off-the-wall romance writer. I don’t get why this has been forgotten in the mists of time, I prefer it to all the huge successes the cast went on to do (so that means no Abfab, Vicar Of Dibley, Tracey Ullman Show among others, sorry, and Comic Strip presents – which predated and featured the future superstar female comedy double act French & Saunders – is ineligible). At least one-spin-off in the list though, no prizes for guessing which!
Guest stars include Helen Lederer, Stephen Frost, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Hugh Laurie, Harry Enfield, and Katherine Helmond, star of a US show of which more later. Perhaps because it was only 13 episodes (with Tracey missing the last 6 due to being pregnant, so that’s an reasonable excuse!), and despite having a theme song written by the fab Squeeze, it never really got repeated much – personally I think it was much more cult Channel 4 or BBC2-ish product and would have been better remembered if it had been shown on them. It never really fit into ITV target audiences. The other main point is that the characters were not-sympathetic, being caricatures, but that never hurt The Young Ones in a younger target-audience, but not so helpful in a cosy ITV environment. Still a forgotten goodie, anyway.
43. MORK AND MINDY (1978-82)
Happy Days was a cult sitcom among teens, set in the 50’s, and sending Ron Howard on the way to movies, and The Fonz made Henry Winkler a star. Amiable enough, it had 2 spin-offs while on the air, the wacky Laverne & Shirley which was more fun, starring Penny Marshall, sister of producer the late Garry Marshall, who then spotted talent when he saw it in the shape of the not-just-wacky-but-out-of-this-world hyperactive million-words-a-second late Robin Williams guesting (oddly!) as an alien from outer space (Mork from Ork). Cue this family-friendly spin-off set in Boulder, Colorado. I think we can all agree that without Robin Williams hitting the screens like a whirlwind of energy, and adlibbing much of his dialogue (as he did subsequently in movies), this show would have been at best mildly pleasant and forgettable. As it is, especially in the first season, Williams’ Mork is unforgettable, a lost innocent puzzled by an uncaring world, and his loudmouth obese off-screen alien boss.
It’s main downfall is also Robin Williams main downfall in the movies: as we now know prone to real-life depression, Williams (and Mork) is also prone to cloying oversentimentality at times, largely around his love for Mindy (Pam Dawber), and it can get a tad preachy in later seasons, even with the also-wacky comic hero of Williams’ Jonathan Winters, as a baby “adult” alien. The scripts aren’t great, overall (certainly the worst scripts of any series in this list), and the supporting characters not great (bar the fab mentally spaced-out “Prophet” Exidor) but it has to be here for Mork and Robin Williams contributions. The first season is the best season, too many cast changes and mucking around and blanding out ruined the later seasons, but for 12 months it was fresh and exciting, and made a major movie star of Robin Williams. No clips from the actual show, as the Out-takes (not broadcast-able on 1970’s US TV) give much more of a flavour of the frenetic pace and ad-libbing of Robin Williams, and I SO wish I could have been in those audiences for taping!
42. BEST OF THE WEST (1981/82)
Eh? Wassat? I hear everyone exclaim. This is an Earl Pomerantz creation, scriptwriter on Taxi and 3 other higher-rated shows which featured many of the guest stars in this great Western mickey-take, such as Christopher Lloyd and Betty White, two giants of TV comedy for me, and other TV & film faves like Slim Pickens, or Richard Moll, bald-headed Night Court star and regular lovable big, tall villain of screen. Night Court very nearly made my list too. The main cast was also fab, the idealistic marshall Sam Best (Joel Higgins), his wisecracking cooky wife (Carlene Watkins), the slimy saloon owner (Leonard Frey), veteran Tom Ewell as the town doctor, Valri Bromfield as a rather tomboy gal, and Tracey Walter as the fab henchman Frog.
So, I loved the cast, the scripts were great, famous guest stars, and the creative team side all went on to even greater things, so what could possibly go wrong? Err, ABC dilly-dallied over renewing it, so the star buggered off to another show and they cancelled it after one season – having decided late to renew when it was too late. Idiots. This could have been one of the greats, I’m sure it would have built up an audience over time like so many classy sitcoms have. The comedy western was already a nostalgic film genre, from the 50’s right through to the last great Mel Brooks movie, and it just seemed so right to have a sitcom dedicated to it a decade on. On the plus side, the writers found gainful employment in 1983 in a giant of the sitcom so they weren’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs and that show’s gain was at this show’s loss, so I can’t be too crabby. I just wish it would be repeated or made available on DVD!
No clips available sadly…
41. THE MUNSTERS (1964-6)
Hot on the heels of My Favorite Martian’s TV sitcom success, The Munsters was one of two “freak-family” sitcoms to air the same month (Sept 1964), both black and white (which really suited the mood and look and design of both), The Munsters was the more popular – the rival will appear later in the list – but the less oddball. A lot of the laughs was the juxtaposition of The Munsters traditional American sitcom family set-up, the hapless working dad, the homebody mum, the kid in school, the teen girl, and grumpy grandpa who lived with them, complete with their suburban lifestyle ambitions versus their actual Horror Movie roots: Herman Munster (the brilliant Fred Gwynne) was a Frankenstein monster created by Grandpa (the equally brilliant Al lewis – both he and Gwynne had starred for years together in Car 54 Where Are You? and worked great together in their various scrapes). Grandpa was a vampire mad scientist, Herman had married nagging, pushy, Vampira-ish Lily (Hollywood star Yvonne De Carlo) and their son Eddie (Butch Patrick) was a young Werewolf. Marilyn (Pat Priest and Beverley Owen) was the plain teen daughter who couldn’t keep a boyfriend (to the family – to everyone else she was a gorgeous Monroe-esque blonde who’s dates were scared off by the rest of the family).
The show worked because of the cast chemistry, especially the three adult leads, who were just SO lovable. The novelty wore off after a while, admittedly, script-wise, as there are only so many spooked visiting officials in a state of shock and surprise you can base a wacky plot around, but the performances were never less than worthwhile, and including child actor Butch Patrick who unusually seemed confident and capable without being either sickly sweet or annoyingly arrogant, like most child-stars. The theme tune was also a masterpiece of surfer-instrumental-done-Halloween-stylee, though the more traditional season 1 version was the better than the season 2:
Other fave things: Paul Lynde (Uncle Arthur in Bewitched which also debuted this month, The Hooded Claw in Perils Of Penelope Pitstop) as a near-sighted doctor, John Carradine and Dom DeLuise as guests; The Munstermobile (a souped-up Hearse); Lily’s floating light silky dresses; Herman referring to his job at the Parlor all the time (Funeral Parlor); Eddie’s hero-worship of his buffoonish well-meaning dad. To get an idea of how good the cast was you only have to sit through 10 minutes of the remake from 1988, in colour, and despite good old fave actors like John Schuck and Lee Meriweather in it. It just wasn’t worthy! The problem was, of course, for the cast they became huge in re-runs and eternally typecast as the characters they played. Poor Old Fred Gwynne grew to hate Herman Munster, understandably, as he was a good actor. Has it worn well? Yes, provided you don’t try and watch them back to back and just enjoy the classy silliness, and can ignore that 60’s insistence on laugh-tracks for filmed sitcoms.
40. FAWLTY TOWERS (1975-9)
Or Farty Towels as one intro sign read. Only 12 episodes of this classic sitcom from writers and stars John Cleese and Connie Booth (real-life UK/US ex-husband-wife) were made, 2 seasons of 6, but what an impact it had for the Monty Python star, and on British pop culture! Basil Fawlty was a conceited, angry, social-climbing intolerant hotel owner better at annoying and insulting his guests than catering for them, and his bossy, nagging wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) was the real force behind the business. Throw in maid Polly (Booth) the voice of tolerance and reason, and stereotypical simple and underpaid Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs) – “Que?” “No, he haaamster” (a pet rat) – and you have a great 4-some to hang on wacky regulars and guest stars around.
Sometimes John Cleese’s OTT Basil made me squirm, sometimes his casual bullying and hitting his imported cheap labour just annoyed me, but it was forgiven for the classic one-liners and insults, and flowery descriptive sarcasm. Basil invariably got himself into trouble in his snobbish attempts to impress people he regarded as socially superior, or by mistakingly being dismissive to people he regarded as plebs (but who weren’t), and much of the humour was based around British obsessions with niceties and social faux pas, never more so than the visiting Germans episode (“Don’t mention the war!”) when he was suffering from concussion and mentioned the war at every opportunity, or bluntly stares at his nurse:
John Cleese pretty much grabbed his movie career more from Basil Fawlty than Python, and guested in other classic (American) sitcoms which it inspired and which will pop up later in the rundown, and in turn guest actors like Bernard Cribbins, Geoffrey Palmer and David Kelly popped up in FT. Becoming a critically-acclaimed and popular masterpiece of conciseness (12 episodes only) inspired other creative sitcom talents to do the same in the decades that followed, because it left no bad taste in the mouth that shows that run on too long tend to leave behind, and there is a cohesiveness that having the same writers gives while leaving you begging for more and keeping the quality high. The only reason it’s not higher is I’ve seen them so many times that minor flaws start to annoy, and familiarity breeds contempt. Give me a decade away and I’ll rate it much higher again…
Top 10 clips here:
39. THE GOLDEN GIRLS (1985-92)
Smart, sharp, witty, caustic and lovable Emmy-award-winning and popular, The Golden Girls went against perceived wisdom and had 4 elderly main characters, and all women, as the stars. Susan Harris, creator of Soap, set the show in Miami, Florida as 3 women and an elderly Italian-American mother shared a house – I toured past the house exterior in Disney MGM/Hollwood Studios many times before they bulldozed it – and it reached a whole new audience. Why was it so great? The scripts were good, the cast were fab (Bea Arthur & Rue McClanahan had worked together on Maude, the timeless Betty White had been in sitcoms back to the 50’s, and most famously in The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1970 onwards, and Estelle Getty made-up to look much older), the topics covered romance (Obviously) but also more ground-breaking serious issues.
Rue and Betty switched their lined-up roles to avoid being typecast – McClanahan had already done scatter-brained, and White the Man-Eater – which was good for them, but spoiled it for me cos Betty White is at her best when dealing out assertive flirty dialogue. Bea Arthur’s character Dorothy annoyed me more than the others, though she had most of the clever put-down lines, this tended to grate after a while. A flaw was the lack of sympathy for simple-minded Rose from the other 3, though they are shown to love each other as good friends as the series grows, cue the theme song Thank You For Being A Friend. Enormously popular with many confirmed bachelors, the OAP setting appealed beyond that thanks to the cool, knowing dialogue and content, and it helped to show that retiring didn’t mean at-death’s-door and knitting for older women. The amazing Betty White is now in her 90’s and still a hero for me, Uber-cool, she’ll do a celebrity roast, an awards, or a comedy movie cameo and steal the show from everyone else, sharp and fun-filled, cutting but good-natured.
38. PORRIDGE (1974-7)
Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ best TV sitcom, everything just worked beautifully in this prison-set show, great sharp dialogue, cynicism with a warm heart, great characters and a fabulous cast led by the wonderful multitalented “Two Ronnies” Ronny Barker as repeat-prison-offender thief Norman Stanley Fletcher. Support from Richard Beckinsale as Godber was a step-up from his previous TV series The Lovers and as good as another top TV show from 1974 he starred in which is yet to feature. The supporting cast included prison warders Fulton Mackay and Brian Wilde with recurring co-stars and guests like Christopher Biggins, David Jason and many others.
A mere 21 episodes over 3 series, it spawned the little-seen TV series Going Straight, which featured Fletch out of prison and with his family (his daughter Ingrid was now girlfriend to Godber), and a feature film spin-off. In 2016 a remake one-off (so far) had a completely new cast, but lacked the sparkle of the originals. The show managed to avoid getting too sentimental but was somehow probably too clever and too cosy to be realistic, but who cares, the scripts were terrific! Great set-ups to one-liners like “Beautiful Babs”, “Fill that jar” and “are you a practicing homosexual?” stick in my mind with the punchlines “don’t know what her name is”, “what – from here?” and “what, with these feet?” Trust me, hilarious in context…!
37. PHYLLIS (1975-77)
A forgotten gem starring the timelessly wonderful Cloris Leachman, star of Young Frankenstein and other comedy movies, and numerous sitcoms from Mary Tyler Moore Show to Malcolm In The Middle. Phyllis was actually a spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where she starred as Mary’s conceited, self-obsessed, critical landlady. The first spin-off, Rhoda, was doing fine in the ratings in 1975, so they stuck Phyllis between it and huge show All In The Family, with a great supporting cast, some great scripts (later borrowed and essentially rewritten in other creatively-related sitcoms like The Golden Girls and Cheers – Glen & Les Charles were writers and producers of Taxi, Cheers, MTM and David Lloyd writer of those shows and also Soap, Frasier & The Bob Newhart Show. In other words, a first-class pedigree. The first season of the show was instantly struck by real-life tragedy as one of the cast was murdered 3 episodes in, but the ratings were actually even higher than for Rhoda – a show I also loved and which just missed the list – and Mary Tyler Moore Show. Sadly, the Network forgot the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” scenario and mucked around with the cast and setting for the second season of both Phyllis and Rhoda, which led to both plummeting ratings and cancellation for both, Phyllis only lasting 2 seasons, unable to cope with the deaths of two more elderly (and popular) cast members, and the illness of another on top of all the changes.
the fab cheesy showtune theme tune
I loved Cloris and Phyllis, it was what you would call Politically Incorrect, and genuinely side-splitting at times, most memorably an episode i recorded on reel-to-reel featuring Phyllis’ daughter Beth going out with a boy who’s parents were little people, and Phyllis’ inability to avoid referring to height accidentally in every way possible was so good it cropped up in The Golden Girls in much the same scenario and gags. Cloris Leachman is an 8-time Emmy-winner, and 1946 (!!) Miss America finalist, always funny and inventive, and at the age of 82 became the oldest perfomer on Dancing With The Stars, and the 90-year-old keeps on working, from Family Guy to Hawaii 5-0 guest spots and more. Just to show she can do drama as easily as comedy, she turned in an Oscar-winning dramatic performance in The Last Picture Show in 1971, among many others. Legend! Love her.
36. THE MONKEES (1966-68)
Half pop-video of a pop group created for TV, and inspired by the Beatles madcap movies, and stylistically The Marx Brothers movies crossed with playing with the relatively new artform of television in creative ways, The Monkees sitcom seemed to enrage the British press for daring to (gasp) feature some actors singing other people’s songs to backing musicians. The Beatles had no such problems with the instantly huge band who dominated the charts in 1967 in both the USA and UK: they saw them for what they were (two musician singer-songwriters who took a chance on a break – Mike Nesmith wrote many of the best Monkees songs, not to mention having a hand in MTV’s start-up, and Peter Tork was a hippie folkie) along with two actors who happened to be great singers (child actors Micky Dolenz, and the Brit Davy Jones) and occasional good songwriters. The promo videos were amusing, and from my point of view, powerful, 2 or 3 a week tucked inside loose fantastical plotlines.
The Monkees played themselves, as struggling Californian musicians, and the plots ranged from saving European princesses, mad scientists with groovy monsters, Davy’s string of romances, and many more toying with Hollywood movie settings in a playful way (see Some Like It Lukewarm cross-dressing clip).
That’s not to say they didn’t take the piss out of the charlatans in the movie and music business (they did), but it was always madcap, not vicious. The irony was, The Monkees fought a battle with Don Kirshner, music maestro, over having control over their own recordings (which they won, and creatively successfully). Don was so angered he started his next TV show band as a cartoon band so they couldn’t argue back (The Archies) who I also loved (musically), the TV show was kindergarten tosh I’m afraid. The TV show creators, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, had greater ambitions though – they went on to do The Monkees hippie psychedelia-tripping movie Head and then Hippie-cult Easy Rider. They were proper cool! Me, I still love the TV show in small doses – it’s endlessly endearing and whimsical, albeit not “belly-laughs” in any way: the characters are too broad, and the scripts aren’t built along smart-dialogue lines, it was more in the self-mocking pop-culture vein of the 1966 Batman series (which is actually funnier, but doesn’t qualify as it’s not really a “sitcom” as such, it’s a superhero show which is intentionally hammy). Best episode: I Was A Teenage Monster, starring future Bond villain Richard Kiel and a fabulous German mad scientist and hunchback henchman. All together now: “Goorahhhh!”
35. THE HIGH LIFE (1994/5)
A short-lived sitcom of only 7 episodes, this Scottish-based piss-take of budget airlines remains an unknown BBC treat, starring and created by future movie-star Alan Cummings and Forbes Masson. A sort of advance-scout for Come Fly With Me, this series was much-more satisfyingly whole, with it’s madcap surreal moments of Eurovision mickey-taking, Batman spoofing and a host of camp, bitchy quips and characters like Hitler-In-Tights Shona Spurtle, or the drunk, clueless posh pilot Captain Duff. The showtune theme song sets the mood….
The stars though were Cummings & Masson as Sebastian & Steve, based on their stage characters that developed on the live circuit, and the scripts were also written by them. I loved the one-liners, putdowns and flights (arf!) of fantasy, and felt it had much more life in it than one series. They actually wrote another series, but Alan Cummings decided he’d rather be an international movie star in America than a minor cult comic actor in Scotland and England (selfish git!), so sadly it never happened. Doh! Still, sitcom’s loss was The X-Men’s gain. Memorable moment: Their Eurovision entry song. Such a pisstake!
34. THE NEW STATESMAN (1987-94)
This rarity (an ITV British series that I actually rate) rested on two main attractions: The brilliant Rik Mayall as a slimy, unscrupulous, lascivious Tory MP in Thatcher’s Britain, and fabulous biting satire on the British Government (from Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran), and to a lesser extent all of those on the edges and manipulations of British politics. That Rik Mayall, as Alan B’Stard, was at his best, was a bonus – a sort of less manic version of his Rik from the The Young Ones, but one who had ambitions of power and money, perfect for 80’s UK and it’s Yuppy privatisation middle-class obsessions. The scripts were sharp, the plots increasingly ludicrous; starting from B’Stard’s arms sales, his large majority after having his car brake lines cut, using pornography for blackmail, getting shot, nuclear waste dumping for profit, offshore banking, BDSM in brothels, getting poor voters to agree to lose the right to vote for tax exemption, underage girls for sex, slavery, nazis, cocaine and US politics, attempted murder, capital punishment returning, the end of North Sea Oil, animal testing activists, KGB collaborations to restore Cold War budgets, Siberian Prison, EU blackmailing using his wife as prostitute, adolph Hitler’s penis, charity scams, Robert Maxwell spending time dead for tax purposes, and ending on B’Stard manipulating events to cause a vote to leave the EU, ending Trade Unions, and heading a new right-wing party which sweeps to power using the French to drum up anti-foreigner fever, only to find that he can’t be Prime Minister and in power after all.
In short, it’s predicted every sordid headline in British politics for the next 30 years, exposed the ruling classes for what they are, and got many a laugh along the way, including at the expense of the inbred stupid titled rich, played beautifully by Michael Troughton (son of Doctor Who Patrick Troughton). The show ended in 1994, but remains just as relevant and needs repeating. Never as cosy and gentle as Yes Minister, it’s setting was too broad and biting for that, it was also more farcical than political shows that followed, such as The Thick Of It, and remains my fave political-based show. Rik Mayall brought the cast back together in 2006 and 2007 for a stage show touring version that had New Labour as the backdrop. I saw it and it was fab, and Rik was a legend. Much missed.
Comic Relief No. 10 Special..
33. GET SMART (1965-70)
Smack in the middle of the James-Bond-inspired superspy surge came this fabulous parody of the genre. Starring stand-up Don Adams as Agent 86 (Max Smart) and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99, the show had catch-phrases galore and was hugely successful, including spin-off movies and a good remake movie in 2008. The secret of it’s success? Mel Brooks (along with Buck Henry) and the scripts, which were witty, childish, popculture parodying, a bit of romance, a marvellous human-looking robot (Hymie), who took every instruction literally, and an oh-so-cool modern groove that adults and kids loved. They did a series of novel adaptations of many episodes, and I bought them all in the early 70’s, nostalgic for the cult TV show that was now off the air, but a real fave. The books, if anything, were better than the TV episodes, very funny and a little more depth (in a shallow way).
Quotable, award-winning, and in Don Adams an OTT bumbling, inept, yet successful Spy, here’s a few lines and guest stars:
“I ASKED you not to tell me that!” (after someone had just told him that)
“Would you believe…?” (after Max invariably was trying to make outlandish excuses on being captured by KAOS agents)
The Cone Of Silence (a plastic bowl lowered over the Chief’s desk for confidential conversations. Sadly Max and the Chief never hear each other properly)’
Harry Hoo, guest Hawaiian Private Eye. “This is Hoo”. “Who?” “That’s what I said, Hoo” Cue Abbott & Costello routines.
Don Rickles, legendary comic guest star (still going and on twitter in his 90’s)
Milton Berle, huge TV legend of the 50’s and 60’s
Ernest Borgnine, Carol Burnett, James Caan, Bob Hope (!!!), Leonard Nimoy, Vincent Price, and many many more
Mel Brooks went off to movie success mid-series, leaving Buck Henry to keep the fight up against the network execs trying to bland out the premise and show, as they will always tend to try to do, not having a clue why comedy works and all. Max and 99 (we never did get her name) eventually marry and have kids, but she made history being the first American working sitcom mom, still a spy. Worst thing about the show? That annoying 60’s sitcom staple, canned laughter. It would work much better without….
32. SLEDGE HAMMER! (1986-88)
From spies to a show inspired by Get Smart featuring detectives – in this case a piss-take of the numerous US cop shows that dominated 70’s and 80’s TV, with the ultimate 80’s anti-hero, right-wing, gun-loving (he sleeps with his gun and talks to it), sadistic, over-the-top misogynist – given his partner is a very capable woman, cue lots of friction and snappy dialogue. There is no depth to the character, of course, he’s a total caricature, but he is just played so brilliantly by David Rasche as a wild-eyed one-liner he becomes quite lovable in his anti-pc-ness. No doubt Alt-Right fans took him to be a hero, but the intent is to mock (some people would be too stupid to realise that, or just revel in it anyway). The show had a laugh-track forced on it for US broadcast, against the creator’s wishes, but the DVD’s are mercifully laugh-track free, and it works beautifully well.
The scripts ranged from mocking the cliched plots and devices of many a cop show, but extreme (the Elvis Impersonator Killer is very funny) to getting on the verge of fantasy (at the end of season 1 a nuclear bomb goes off killing everyone in the show as a teaser for the network to renew a show they were about to kill off – it worked but they made the production drop the beautiful actual film quality recordings for a cheap, fuzzy, low-fi video substitute in season 2). The dialogue was witty and banter-full, and the guest actors to the small cast were many and varied: Adam Ant, Ray Walston (he of My Favorite Martian, another fave show of mine, and Paint Your Wagon/ South Pacific, among many), Armin Shimerman (DS9’s Quark), Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: TNG), Bernie Kopell (Get Smart), Clint Howard (brother of Ron, minor star of many a cult fave TV show and movie), Bill Bixby (the other My favorite Martian star, and the Incredible Hulk’s alter-ego on TV), and Davy Jones (The Monkees) – if there’s one thing I love it’s a great guest cast, and this show had great taste in picking them! Great fun!
an appreciation of the show
31. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (1970-77)
Mary Tyler Moore is pretty unknown these days, but once upon a time the star of the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie was a huge TV sitcom star, and along with her co-owning MTM production company husband, a veritable TV byword for quality, Emmy-award-winning, television. Mary first became famous as the dutiful housewife Laurie Petrie in the classy and highly-regarded early 60’s The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran until 1966. Her own show, though, which was as well-written (still rated one of the greatest of all-time) was also groundbreaking – Mary was a single working-woman in her 30’s, the show based both on her home life and her working office life, and was the first to allow women the freedom not to be just housewives. Engaging and insecure, but kind and intelligent, the show worked as an ensemble show – James L. Brooks, Executive Producer and co-creator, crops up time and again in my list, proving it a great format – and the wackier-supporting cast were just brilliant.
For a start, Valerie Harper’s pushy, blunt, Jewish Rhoda Morgenstern was instantly popular (Mary’s best friend) and eventually spun-off into a successful sitcom of her own – you may know her screen sister better as Julie Kavner aka Marge Simpson. Mary’s landlord was the egotistical, superficial Phyllis Lindstrom, played by huge fave of mine Cloris Leachman, of many a great TV series and movie (see spin-off Phyllis lower-down the list). Mary’s boss was the loud, brash, but goodhearted Lou Grant, head of the TV newsroom on the local TV station who hired Mary as Producer cos she was cheap to hire and easy to push around (initially). Ed Asner is also a great an accomplished actor of TV and film, (see “Up”, “Roots” and his own drama-TV spin-off Lou Grant that took over the reigns as the sitcom ended. The same character in a serious setting (investigative journalism) that MTM show, like all the others, was quality.
Later characters replaced those in the spin-offs, but the greatest one was the fabulous Betty White as rival show host Sue Ann Nivens, a scheming, smiling, flirtatious, ruthless gem of a character (the template for Blanche in The Golden Girls, who White was initially set up to play before swapping with Rue McLanahan for empty-headed Rose). Sue Ann grabbed many of the one-liner insults, and Betty delivered them with just as much skill as she still does. Invite her to a celebrity roast at your risk! I first saw the show in Singapore as a 12-year-old and loved it throughout it’s run, I loved the melodic, wistful theme tune and credits, the cast, the characters, the scripts – at it’s best it was side-splitting, not least the award-winning episode featuring the death of station TV host Chuckles The Clown, where he is reported to have died while in a town parade dressed in a peanut costume. A rampaging elephant attempted to shell him… Just. Brilliant.
Tragically, the show remains largely unknown in the UK, where the BBC only showed series 1, bailing out just as it started to find it’s feet, and it was left for late-night ITV regional showings sporadically from 1975 to give it some airtime (spin-off Rhoda, for example, was much more successful on BBC2 from 1974 onwards). The final episode and the show itself, though, are much more revered in the USA. Quite rightly.