Best Sitcoms Ever

People sometimes tend to write about old sitcoms from an angle of their personal memories of childhood bound up with the shows. That's a perfectly legitimate way to use the cultural artifacts. Moreover, such subjective personal things are inevitably going to be part of how any of us take this stuff. 

However, to the extent possible, I'm looking for things that had more substance than having happened to be the only thing on when I came in from grade school. Otherwise, it'd be Gilligan's Island and the frickin' Brady Bunch.

A word on the category: It's a little questionable and arbitrary as to exactly what shows qualify as sitcoms. Among animated shows, the Simpsons are clearly a sitcom model, but South Park really isn't quite. Parker and Stone tend to be oriented to a broader scope of outward bound topics and social targets, rather than being about one family or work situation. Also, I'm specifically excluding MASH, which I'm officially calling a drama. It's a fine show, but I'm sick of it and don't have anything to say about it anyway.

So then, here is the true and objective list of the greatest situation comedies of all time:

Archie Bunker

Granted, this is not a surprising or left-field pick that no one but me would come up with, but you have to give props to Norman Lear et al. The Bunkers set the gold standard for what situation comedy could do as art. They had it both ways with the family stuff and the broader social and political issues. Bringing it down to Archie Bunker vs the Meathead kept the social stuff, as per the title, all in the family. That made it real and personal in a thousand ways that no abstracted ideological ranting could touch.

All the politics was driven by the personalities, and that ended up with them saying much different things than the writers probably had started out intending. These "smartass New York Jews" (as Randy Newman's "Rednecks" narrator would say) likely started out intending the jokes to be largely at the expense of the big dumb conservative jerk. But as the show developed, and as Carroll O'Connor filled out the patriarchal role, Archie Bunker generally MORE than held his own against the supposedly smarter and better educated Michael Stivic. 

The Meathead really WAS a dumb Pollack a lot of the time, and he was the goat about as often as Archie. Archie was the provider who had some practical sense born of necessity, whereas the Meathead was a sponge and an ingrate and often an ideological fool who thought he was a lot smarter than he really was. Whereas Archie had a better sense of his own limits, and tended to have more of a clue as to when he was talking trash. Then again, they both got a little smarter over time, and the Meathead eventually even came to appreciate the value of Archie.

Then there were the Bunker women, charged with the classic duties of civilizing their men. Gloria had a pretty rough job trying to talk sense to her know-it-all husband, and negotiate his integration into the family, besides having her own issues. 

God bless Edith Bunker. She was conceived relatively simply to represent her husband's better angels, but she was eventually more than the equal of Archie. Edith Bunker has to rate as one of the truly holiest and most properly spiritual characters in the history of tv.

Finally, All in the Family had by far the best spin-offs of any sitcom ever. Maude was most excellent, and the Jeffersons were great. Maude Findlay and George Jefferson both are iconic characters. Heck, there were pretty good spin-offs from the spin-offs, notably Good Times.


Bernie Mac pictures  Jordan "keeping it real" at Thanksgiving

Forget Cliff Huxtable, Bernie Mac is the great sitcom father, black or otherwise. Cliff resented his own kids being around at all, and they were boring little nothings anyway. 

But Bernie's nephew and nieces, these kids are real personalities with normal kid issues and all kinds of extra stuff from dealing with their dope addict Mom, whose incarceration back home in Chicago results in them being sent to live with her brother, their wealthy comedian Uncle Bernie in Cali. The teenager Vanessa, for example, has missed out on a lot of childhood having to raise her siblings. 

But Master Jordan is my big favorite. The young actor Jeremy Suarez is really good, and you can see him eager both to please and defy his uncle, who's obviously God in his world, the father he didn't have his first 10 years. He's so empathetic, yet so delightfully malicious at times. Dig the relish with which he co-operated with Bernie's plan to dispense with Baby Girl Bryana's pesky doll in a wood chipper. He's got a particularly great trademark little evil laugh.

Besides the fact that Bernie Mac is just personally funnier than Bill Cosby, there's real writing and pathos to the show. Classic scenario: Scrawny, asthmatic and non-athletic Jordan is pushing himself really hard on the football field to earn a trophy to place on Bernie's "Mac Wall of Fame." He's pushing himself physically to a point of some danger to impress Uncle Bernie, with Aunt Wanda becoming increasingly concerned. There's Bernie torn between his pride in Jordan's achievement and wanting to see him earn that bit of glory, versus how much danger to accept before he has to pull the plug. That's not just a dumb sitcom setup. There's realness under that which any father with a son might appreciate.

Also, I appreciate especially the ways in which the show went against the grain with Uncle Bernie's generally perfectly reasonable old school ideas on child rearing, best encapsulated in his frequent threats regarding the boy that he was going to "bust his head till the white meat shows." He went as far as actually spanking the boy's ass in the aisle of the drug store shortly after their arrival in the pilot- not that it did him any good.


Yes, Minister pictures

Maggie Thatcher's favorite tv show detailed the exploits of a hack English politician rising to the level of his incompetence and cowardice. James Hacker was a back bench member of parliament who gets elevated to the cabinet largely because he's weak and unthreatening to others in his party. He's the new Minister for Administrative Affairs, which puts him (nominally) in charge of the bureaucracy. 

But the real ruler of this domain and star of the show is Nigel Hawthorne as wily and droll Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Under Secretary of State, i.e. the head of the professional bureaucracy charged with implementing government policy. His wry cynicism and beautifully opaque bureaucrat-speak is a wonder. "Yes, Minister" was the usual ending line as he agreed to do whatever he has just backed his nominal boss against his will into telling him to do.

Hacker liked to think himself something of a reformer, or at least a man with some backbone. Of course, neither was the case, and was so FAR from the truth as to make him foolish as well as unprincipled. The best running joke of the series was how Sir Humphrey could generally dissuade his minister from any unwanted order by praising his decision as "courageous." Hacker's alarmed reactions to these pronouncements were priceless.

Hacker the conservative idealist came in with the nominal intention of cutting the bureaucracy, streamlining and cutting waste. Of course, Sir Humphrey thought it ludicrous that some politician should think he could actually run the government, and was certainly not interested in having his turf cut. On the simpler end, this led to Sir Humphrey responding to an edict to trim the bureaucracy by hiring a bunch more people to do a study on the topic. 

In theory, everybody hates a damned bureaucrat, but Sir Humphrey was an exceptionally funny character. In the context, his clever cynicism looked good against the self-delusion and dimwitted cowardice of the politician. The show was really about the personality dynamics of bureaucrats vs politicians more than any particular issues of governance. 

The best episode of the two series run was the pivotal "Party Games," in which an opening arises in No 10. Exactly because he's weak and incapable of running things, Sir Humphrey plays the kingmaker nudging the unwitting Hacker into the top spot. Dig the machinations by which he maneuvers him into his new job played out in two seasons of Yes, Prime Minister.


J Montgomery Burns

Whatever genre you want to call it, however you want to slice it, obviously The Simpsons is one of the greatest things ever put on a television. Like the Bunkers, they started out as stereotypes, with a brat son and a fat, lazy father. Likewise, the stereotypes rapidly started being filled out to become real personalities. By this point, Homer Simpson has a lot more personality and seems more real than most "real" people. 

Most family sitcoms have a very limited production shelf life based on, for starters, child actors growing up. The Beaver couldn't stay 10 years old forever. Bart Simpson can. Simply being animated saves the whole cast from aging, and gives them the ability to carry on until the voice actors die of old age.

They've been skillful enough in the writing and conception that the characters have been developed deeply enough to sometimes play against their types, and to do so in manners that are expanding rather than corrupting them. Sometimes Lisa can break out of her goody two-shoes teachers-pet personae, and become the rebellious brat. 

Moreover, the producers have managed to build a huge arsenal of highly developed supporting characters with their own detailed histories and story lines. Principal Skinner and Apu and Krusty and definitely Ned Flanders could any one carry their own series. 

Then of course there is my personal role model J Montgomery Burns. Granted he's perhaps a bit evil, but the beautiful thing is that he's largely right in his analysis. His cynicism is well founded. I love when the villains have a legitimate and defensible point of view.

Largely, this very simple and low budget show has made a lasting impact because Jackie Gleason was willing to look like an asshole. For one thing, the abrasiveness of the Ralph Kramden character very effectively cut through all the sentimentality. "One of these days... to the MOON, Alice" Even though he had a heart of gold and would obviously never actually strike her, a little of that balances the pH.

More significantly though, Gleason was obviously personally invested in the Kramden character- ESPECIALLY his faults. There was no sense of ironic detachment, or of just being an actor playing a part that he walks away from after taping. Rather, there's a strong sense of personal confession in his performance, that extra level of honesty and commitment that gives The Honeymooners lasting literary value.

On one hand, the show was magic and fantastic, what with the witches and warlocks and tooth fairies and such. Samantha's world was a beautiful fount of creativity. I'd LOVE to party with some of her people. Paging Dr Bombay!

But it worked so well because it was built on a classic family situation. It's just that Darrin Stephen's mother-in-law really WAS a witch. You could empathize with the poor fellow struggling to maintain some modicum of control and calm in his own house with Endora literally popping in unannounced any time, and raising six kinds of hell with magic powers far beyond any normal pain in the butt in-law.

Yet surely you could appreciate Endora's point of exasperation with "Darwood," as she routinely purposely mispronounced his name as a continuing gesture of contempt. Her daughter is heir to elite magic powers and apparent immortality, with the ability to travel the world literally in the blink of an eye. Yet she insists on walking away from her heritage to breed with this boring stick-in-the-mud mortal. 

Then there's Samantha Stephens at the center, with her mixed feelings. You can appreciate her longing for normalcy, for simple hearth and home. Yet, if you've got all the world at your fingertips, how can you resist twitching that nose?

At least half a dozen of these characters have become lasting icons. You've got the greedy, short sighted and faithless boss Larry Tate. The yin of nosy neighborhood biddy Gladys Kravitz made good play to the yang of her disinterested husband Abner. 

Let me end this with a love note to Endora. Age 64 at the start of production, Agnes Moorehead was perhaps a bit long in the tooth to be sexy per se, but Endora looks better to me with every year passing on my calendar. I'll just say that Endora would be a great dinner date.

Donna Douglas, Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr, Buddy Ebsen

As I said at the beginning, I'm looking for shows based on literary merit rather than my extraneous personal history. The Clampetts, however, are certainly my top personal-type identification in sitcom land. The show first broadcast a couple of weeks before I was born on Irene Ryan's 60th birthday in 1962. Her Granny Clampett very much reminds me of my beloved grandmother Sallie Barger.

But that's not just me. Daisy Mae Moses reminded a lot of country folks of their strong granny women, and a lot of other things besides. Every single Clampett is now a literary archetype. Creator Paul Henning showed a great empathy for real backwoods personalities and thinking that made this pretty much the biggest sitcom hit ever in what would later be called Red State America.

On top of that though, The Beverly Hillbillies provided the very best parody or satire of the cultural and social movements of the 60s as they were happening. The Clampetts dealings with hippies were hilarious. Granny actually made pretty good sense as a hippie during her "groovy Granny" phase.  Mrs Drysdale having a shrink for her poodle was an especially good play on the ridiculous self-indulgence of pampered rich folk.

Jane Hathaway stands out at this juncture as particularly prescient. Think of her big-city stiffness and formality in getting in touch with nature as leader of the Biddle Bird Watchers, as opposed to the Clampetts who are at home in nature and would actually know something about the beasts of the field. She was Al Gore before he was.

But cousin Jethro Bodine really took the cake. The only Clampett with any nominal education, he was of course absolutely an idiot. Think of him aspiring to be an artist, and dragging around this HUGE ball and chain because you need to suffer to be a great artist. However, the main evidence that he was a total fool was his constant desire to be like these neurotic, miserable and unhealthy city folk.

I don't know if any of these characters would be iconic in an archetypal sort of way. They're every one individually a strong and unique personality really relative to all literary history. Moreover, they have perhaps the best, most interestingly thought out and intertwined set of personalities ever in a sitcom. They seem like a genuine family with real history.

This show had some of the most creatively inspired exotic stories going. I particularly appreciate the way young Dewey's overly active imagination went off into flights of fantasy. Dig the episode where unrecognized musical prodigy Dewey casts this huge involved dramatic fantasy opera based on Hal and Lois fighting over a new bed.

Plus, Jane Kaczmarek was the hottest sitcom mom ever. I felt great empathy for poor Hal in his helpless devotion. 

Hank Hill keeps the country going. He's the anti-Homer Simpson in the universe of cartoon fathers, a quiet and thoughtful responsible suburban parent walking in pathways of duty. It's just that everybody around him is nuts, starting with his wife Peggy and her sometimes overwhelming insecurities. The son Bobby Hill is one of the most brilliantly conceived child characters in tv history, all muted yearning as he tries to make his own freaky way in the world. That boy ain't right. 

Among other things, Hank Hill is an argument in defense of Red State America. I've never noticed them specifically say it, but Hank's obviously a conservative Republican, in the best responsible citizen sense of the word. This would be as opposed to the faithless right-wing paranoia of neighbor Dale Gribble. His crazed conspiracy theories have been the source of much great dialogue for a decade now.

But the big guy has his own issues, and they've gotten a lot of mileage out Hank's efforts to deal quietly and stoically with his narrow urethra and hateful war hero father. Plus, everyone around him is out of their trees.

Among many unique and creative plotlines, my personal favorite involved wide condemnation that Hank received as a "racist" because his old dog was hostile to a black repairman who came to the house. The convolutions by which everyone in town was making such a stupid judgment were beautifully wound up, and there's the poor socially awkward white dude being shamed even in his church. It's tough carrying the white man's burden.

Taxi managed to pack a great deal of yearning into mostly day-to-day work situation comedy. There was a strong sense of how these characters were all seeking more and better. It was just exceptionally well written. 
There were numerous strong, unique characters here, but I'm particularly drawn to the burnt out Rev Jim. He was somewhere past the point of thinking that he's going to be a star or a prize fighter or writer, but still had some great determination to being positive. I was particularly struck by the angst as he went home after the passing of his long estranged father, building up to listening to a recorded last message left for him from the Dad who hadn't spoken to him in years- which turned out to be simply a tape of Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."

Don Knotts and Andy Griffith

This was Barney Fife's world, of course. Don Knotts is beautiful. He was really the greatest everyman character in tv history, though most of us perhaps wouldn't want to admit that he represents for us personally.

Also, dig the quiet and subtle but deep weirdness of these laid-back small town characters. Just passing through town, you wouldn't necessarily think much unusual of Floyd the barber- but after a while, you might start to notice what a stone cold freak he was.

I particularly appreciate the way Sheriff Taylor was given some human foibles. He was smart and well-adjusted and a totally great guy, just who you'd want in charge. Yet, they had the faith in the character to let him be a fool himself from time to time, usually in the form of some romantic jealousy or stubbornness with his girlfriend. 

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Lucille Ball was a totally uniquely talented personality. For starters, she was maybe the most gifted female physical comedienne in the history of video, with due respect to some of the ladies of SNL. I Love Lucy was fairly well written, but clearly her physical performance of the material was the top selling point. No one could stomp a grape like Lucy.

Also though, the show caught a lot of spark from her famously volatile relationship with her husband and co-star Desi Arnaz. Besides adding some music and exotic Cuban flavor, they got a lot of mileage out their personal battle of the sexes. Even watered down for a 1950s sitcom, some of that realness of their physical attraction and personality clashes comes through.

christopher titus, stacy keach, cynthia watros, zack ward, david shatrow

This Fox series was perhaps the harshest sitcom ever. As such, it was too strong a medicine for a mass audience, based on Christopher Titus' severely dysfunctional family, including his violent alcoholic father and his mother who killed herself. He was just starting to edge up to that topic when the series was cancelled after 54 episodes. You really have to appreciate the pure transgressiveness of even trying to make comedy out of your mother's real suicide.

But the series was utterly hilarious, and used that harshness as the springboard for comedic greatness. Even violent and abusive, Stacy Keach made the father a weird kind of lovable. He definitely had his virtues, which Christopher was specifically praising in the very first scenes of the series. Titus was a tough little monkey, using the hardships and his own lapses of judgment as training in toughness rather than as an excuse for misery and stupidity.

They get a lot of credit from me for the tough and unlikely premise of a sitcom set in a Nazi POW camp. Even watered down from the Stalag 17 movie which apparently inspired it, this was pretty rough stuff for a network sitcom. Blowing up truckloads of Nazis was a recurring punch line.

Also, these were some beautiful characters. The pure vanity and self-delusion of Col Klink is unsurpassed. But most of all, I appreciate the willful ignorance of Sgt Schultz representing for all the "good Germans" and the lengths to which he would go to maintain his famous claim, "I see NOTHING." The dashing and ingenious American Col Hogan was a great testament to American pride, but Klink and Schultz were the real icons. Besides being very funny characters, they and their countrymen in the show are probably the best examination of that culture in popular entertainment.

There are people who like the Addams family, and those who like the Munsters. The Munsters were ok as a fairly obvious parody of family sitcom conventions. But the Addams family, they had rather more emotional realness. The original Charles Addams cartoons got fleshed out with personalities and passions. For starters, there was more real romantic chemistry between Gomez and Morticia than about any other sitcom couple ever.

But as opposed to the at root entirely conventional values of the Munsters, the Addams were rather more subversive in their macabre passions and mostly implicit perversions - themes explored more openly in the outstanding later film version. Plus, of course Uncle Fester is something of a role model for me personally.

Bob Newhart had two self-titled sitcoms that were quite different, but both excellent and witty. In both cases, he starred as the ultimate sitcom straight man. The Newhart character was not at all wild or wacky, nor was he perceived by the people around him as funny. He didn't tell many jokes, and the humor then was mostly in how flat they fell.

Rather, he was a stranger in a strange land. He wasn't a foreigner working as a shrink in Chicago in The Bob Newhart Show, it's just that his patients and the other natives were so many detailed kinds of out of their trees that he might as well have been from overseas. He got a lot of high comedy from the very careful acts of suppressing his frequent perceptions of everyone else's freakery, the great subtle acts of maintaining the facade of looking so determinedly calm in the face of constant provocation.

Then there were the small town uber-freaks of his 1980s Newhart show. Among other things, there was the rich girl maid who couldn't be expected to do much cleaning. Of course there was Larry and the brothers Darryl. The small town freaks were even more messed up than the city folk.

But the coup de grace that puts this show on my list is the final episode, season 8, episode 24 - "The Last Newhart." Turns out after eight seasons that it was really all one show. He wakes up in bed next to his wife from the first series, re-framing the entire eight years of the second series in the last minute as the dream of the Chicago psychologist. It's the best sitcom series finale ever.

OK, so I equivocate. I've mostly avoided personally based picks here, but let's conclude with one indulgence on my father's behalf. As the son of a small shopkeeper who spent most of his life living in the back of the store, this show is definitely a father/son thing for us. I don't know if this was quite up there writing wise with the Simpsons or the Bunkers, but it surely makes us laugh. 

Even discounting for personal identification though, Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford was one of the funniest fellows going. Though it was obviously toned down from his famously blue nightclub act for network tv, Redd was still delightfully crusty and difficult. The son Lamont was less interesting as a character, but his yearning for more in life added just enough flavor of pathos and made for a great straight man.  Finally, let's have a moment of appreciation for LaWanda Page as Aunt Esther, the righteous church lady and perfect foil for sinful ol' Fred.

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