Saturday, October 08, 2011

My favorite sitcoms

Thanks again for listing your favorite sitcoms. Here are my top eleven (okay, I couldn’t narrow it down to ten) – in no particular order. For a series to be truly great in my eyes it has to hold up. The comedy has to be identifiable even if it’s fifty years old. This occurs when the characters and situations they face are timeless.

Not included are any of the series I was associated with. The point here is to single out shows that inspired me, not toot my own horn.

THE HONEYMOONERS – One crummy set, four characters, and sheer magic. A reader mentioned the word “rewatchability” I’ve seen the classic 39 episodes at least 39 times each.. The performances kill me. I marvel every time I see Jackie Gleason & Art Carney. All they have to do is just stand there and I’m laughing. And has there ever been a funnier TV wife than the sublime Audrey Meadows? Especially considering the sensibilities of 1955. TV wives were either ditz brains, or thunderously boring. Audrey was smart, acerbic, and clearly in charge. I fawn over THE HONEYMOONERS in more detail in this former post.

THE PHIL SILVER SHOW – Also from the '50s. Also known as the BILKO SHOW. This was the perfect marriage of the consummate comedian and greatest sitcom writer of his era. Phil Silvers as the lovable larcenous Sgt. Bilko was a comic classic and no one could write inspired dialogue and devise ingenious plotlines like Nat Hiken. Other writers included Neil Simon.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW – Created by Allan Burns & James L. Brooks. The gold standard for multi-camera ensemble shows. The reason I became a TV writer. And the forerunner for other greats like TAXI, CHEERS, and FRASIER.

THE BOB NEWHART SHOW – You’ll see I have favorite comedy writers and their work pops up in several places. Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses bring a refreshing irreverence and subtle lunacy (if there is such a thing) to everything they write. THE BOB NEWHART SHOW under their hand was sillier than THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW but often funnier.

BUFFALO BILL – Patchett & Tarses again. This short-lived '80s series starring Dabney Coleman was truly original. The lead character was a raging asshole. Not “irascible but with a heart of gold”, no, Bill Bittinger was a first class prick. And so much fun to watch. I’m sure he tested through the floor but lying, conniving, cowardly, cheap, lascivious, vain characters are comic gold.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW -- Your clear favorite as well.  A smart, urban, funny ensemble multi-camera comedy in the day of BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, F TROOP, GOMER PYLE, and THE MUNSTERS. It was the sitcom oasis of the '60s. Created by Carl Reiner, originally for himself to play. He had the good sense to check his ego at the door and recast Dick Van Dyke. And he had the further good sense to surround himself with the elite of the writing community – Jerry Belson, Garry Marshall, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff. This is another show with great “rewatchability”. And what kid in the '60s didn’t fall in love with Laura Petrie?

TAXI – James Brooks and staff sharpened, deepened, and further perfected the genre they launched with THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Certainly darker in tone than MTM but more scathingly funny. And for my money the best storytelling ever. It’s the one series I always recommend to sitcom writer wannabes interested in learning the form. Chekhov in a garage.

TOPPER – No one mentioned this one. Of course it’s from a million years ago (the '50s). But Anne Jeffries and Robert Sterling as the insouciant young ghosts haunting doddering old Leo G. Carroll are a stitch. And the real star of the show is Neil, their ghost St. Bernard dog who’s a raging alcoholic. One of TOPPER’S writers was Stephen Sondheim. He might have had a bright future if he had stuck to comedy writing.

THE PRACTICE – No, not the David Kelley lawyer show. This was a mid '70s comedy starring Danny Thomas as a cranky family doctor in New York. BECKER with a big nose. What distinguished this show was the writing. It was created by Steve Gordon who went on to write and direct ARTHUR. Here’s more background on Steve. Anyone who has seen ARTHUR knows that Gordon was an absolute master in comic dialogue. THE PRACTICE crackled. It only lasted one season and has disappeared into the ether. I would give anything to see those episodes again. Or even get my hands on those scripts. Confession: I did work on this show but only to write one freelance episode.

FAWLTY TOWERS – brilliant farce. As someone who has had to construct and write farces myself, I’m in complete awe of every single episode. And what can you say about John Cleese other than genius? American versions of this have been terrible. You can't replace John Cleese with Bea Arthur.

COUPLING (UK version) -- FRIENDS for grown ups. Steven Moffat has created vivid colorful characters and devilishly has found ways to connect them in any number of combination's. The storytelling is superb, the cast is perfect (and unlike the misguided NBC remake where they insisted on casting people even hotter than CHARLIE'S ANGELS – the British cast is funny and even goofy looking for the most part), and it’s the one romantic comedy that delivers on both fronts.

So there they are. There are lots of others I admire. Maybe in a future post I'll list my honorable mentions. Hint: None of them have chimps in them.


A Reminder said...

Maybe no chimps in the honorable mentions, but Harry Speakup made it to your top 11...

15-Seconds said...

Here is my favorite TV trivia question:

Name the dog who played "Neil" on Topper.

You have to be really old and really anal to know.

It was "Buck" according to the credits. Somehow IMDB misses this important fact.

Tony said...

The thing about British sitcoms isn't that the actors aren't beautiful people, but that they don't doll them up the way we do. Look at the difference between those same actors on Coupling or The Office when they're in movies or American shows.

Charlie O'Brien said...

Topper was on in the 60's as reruns where I grew up, so got to experience the sublime humour.
Not a Taxi/Cheers/Friends person and it even took me a while to warm up to Seinfield - yes, I was late to that game.
I have to toss in "Newsradio" as a fave, but agree with Dick Van Dyke, Faulty Towers - and give me WKRP In Cincinnati anytime for laughs.
It may be new , but Modern Family just amazes me weekly with it's humour, performnaces and quality. For sure top 10.
Also found a Season One set of "Buffalo Bill" in a sale bin and felt like I found a buried treasure.

Dan in Missouri said...

I loved Fawlty Towers but it is such a short run series that it is almost like a multi part mini-series.
I'm glad to see Topper mentioned. There are so many old series sitting on the shelf that should be seen. TVland thinks that I Love Luch, Mr. Ed, Beaver and Andy Griffith are the only black and white shows they can run.
I still love the north of the border series Corner Gas.
I've purchased the complete box set. The series holds up very well over multiple viewings. It is one of the best written comedies ever.

Mary Stella said...

Ohh, how could I have forgotten Topper and Taxi? Terrific shows.

(I caught Topper during the rerun years.)

Great list, Ken. Fun to see what everyone listed as favorites.

KG said...

No Frasier, no Cheers, no MASH? Come on, Ken!

Michael said...

The other thing to remember about The Honeymooners is that it also was a skit on Gleason's variety show. So the 39 episodes are the classics, but they also did them in shorter and longer forms, and they always worked. Imagine MASH being on as a regular sitcom, then part of a variety series as skits, then as a series of one-hour episodes. Wow.

METv is on my cable system, and last night I happened to watch The Bob Newhart Show and The Odd Couple. And I remembered how brilliant they were, indeed.

Wes Parker in Iowa said...

Wow..had forgotten about Topper

Mike Barer said...

I would like to see your list of least favorite and maybe most overrated. Hopefully in a future post!
PS To KG--he did not include any show that he had written for.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

Another topic I hash around with friends is our favorite sitcom themes, which you mourned once before here, Ken. As a kid I was knocked out by the one for "The Good Guys" - the one with Bob Denver and Herb Edelman.

Here's a site you'll spend weeks at:

And yes, The Good Guys is in there.

Anonymous said...

I thought of TOPPER but didn't seriously consider it because I haven't seen it since I was 12. Same for OUR MISS BROOKS. I wasn't sure they'd be as funny as I remember them

Great Big Radio Guy said...

Footnote to my comment: The GG's closing theme is the killer. It sounded like they threw the orchestra into a cavernous studio, played the opening theme for the musicians and said "Play that, but REALLY LOUD."

Uncle Al said...

A little late, but Aliens in America. Gentle, nuanced humor.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I loved Topper as a kid (but haven't seen it since).

As for the rewatchability of The Honeymooners, somewhere I have Groucho Marx saying he'd watched every one of those 39 episodes at least 8 times. It's hard to imagine higher praise. (And I do think of Art Carney whenever anyone plays "Swanee River".)

I never saw Buffalo Bill, but I remember Dabney Coleman had an even shorter-lived series as a PITA newspaper columnist, "Madman of the People".


Ken Copper said...

Great call on Buffalo Bill, but how about Slap Maxwell? You have to love a guy who worships at the church of the Splendid Splinter.

Ken Copper said...

Great call on Buffalo Bill, but how about Slap Maxwell? You have to love a guy who worships at the church of the Splendid Splinter.

Cantara Christopher said...

Since you're reminiscing about one-season wonders let me offer you He & She (1967-68), created and written by Get Smart veterans Jay Sandrich, Chris Hayward, Allan Burns, Leonard Stern, Jim Parker, Arne Sultan. Stars were Paula Prentiss, her husband Richard Benjamin, and Jack Cassidy. Remembering the episode about Jetman the Musical still makes me laugh out loud.

Mac said...

I've never heard of Buffalo Bill, but I I'm definitely going to check it out.
Fawlty Towers is amazing. 12 perfect farces. Apologies if you already know the story, but Fawlty was based on Donald Sinclair - manager of the Hotel Gleneagles in a place called Torbay, where the Pythons stayed in 1971. John Cleese said he was the rudest man he'd ever met, and was fascinated that such a misanthrope was running a hotel. Sinclair used to blow up at them for not holding their knives and forks correctly and once threw one of their briefcases over a wall, believing it might contain a bomb.
Cleese stayed on in the hotel, and with his then-wife Connie Booth (Polly) plotted out the episodes on huge long rolls of paper that ran the length of the room.
The first broadcast got mauled by the critics - "Long John Short On Jokes" ran one headline. Another critic called Richard Ingrams tore it to bits, which is why in series 2, Cleese named the guest caught with the blow-up doll "Mr Ingrams."
I could go on, but you probably know all that already. Anyway, nice to see it mentioned in your list.

Kirk said...

In addition to Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman played Basil in another US version, one that never got beyond the pilot stage. Betty White played the wife. It was a remake of an episode with hotel inspectors visiting incognito.

When I was a kid I remember seeing an episode of, all things things, Petticoat Junction that had a similar plot as theone mentioned above. As in Fawlty Towers, Uncle Joe gets wind of a visit by an inspector, and ends trying to impress the wrong person. Unlike on Towers, this has a happier (and much less humorous) ending, as the real inspector ends up liking the hotel anyway. I'm sure the similarities between the two are just coincidental, but it's kind of fun to speculate on whether John Cleese was spoofing Petticoat Junction.

Anonymous said...

Number One has to be I Love Lucy. It invented the sitcom. Everything since then has been a variation on a theme.

Pat Quinn said...

I thought that you were going to leave Fawlty Towers out!

Talk about re-watchability.

Before shows were available on VHS I bought a vinyl album with four of the show's audio. I listened to it more than many music albums.

Even without the visual of the moose landing on Basil's head, it was funny.

I loved the way the farcical cadence quickened from the subtle "don't mention anything about the war" to Basil screaming and goosestepping with everyone else reacting with horror.

As much as I would love to see Fawlty Towers 40 years on, I also saw Fierce Creatures hoping it would be as good as A Fish Called Wanda, so I am glad that Cleese leaves Fawlty alone.

Lipstick and Playdates said...

Great list. I personally am addicted to "The Office" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

D. McEwan said...

As a boy I loved TOPPER. I'd play our on our back patio with the drapes to the big picture window open, so in the window-reflection, I appeared to be moving about my living room while transparent, and play "George Kirby" haunting my parents' home.

But I grew older, and the series disappeared, Roland Young and Cary Grant eventually replaced Leo G. Carroll (who became The Man From UNCLE's boss, and was in so many Hitchchock movies that I forgot he'd ever been Cosmpo Topper) and Robert Sterling. Somehow, even Lee Patricks's film roles eventually replaced her as Henrietta Topper in my memories.

But these days, allow me to recommend the novels, Topper and Topper Takes a Trip, by the great American humorist Thorne Smith. Both books are still in print, although his out-of-print novels like Turnabout and Nightlife of the Gods are worth seeking out.

LinGin said...

Douglas -

Is there any doubt that Alexander Waverly (the UNCLE top guy) is the same character that Leo G. Carroll plays in "North by Northwest?"

Johnny Walker said...

Great to read! I should really check out all the ones I've not seen. (I enjoyed Taxi, but I found it uneven -- did the show have ups and downs, or was I just not getting it?)

Anonymous said...

Ken, here's a Friday question for you: I've always wondered about the scenes filmed to be part of a musical montage. Knowing the dialogue will never be heard, are the actors actually speaking scripted lines, or are they just improvising? Or are all the scenes shot with dialogue, and the scenes for the montage chosen later?

birdie said...

awww....i really thought you would have the odd couple on here - it's the best sitcom of the 70s as far as i'm concerned. and it more than meets all of your qualifications in terms of holding up and re-watchablility. oversight, perhaps? well, at least i knew you wouldn't include roseanne.:)

but this is an excuse to bring up a couple of friday questions.:)

during the odd couple's run, the ratings were never good and they thought they would be cancelled every season. while that can't be a secure feeling, do you think that, in a way, it worked out for the better, that - if you know that you can be cancelled at any time - it keeps the writers and actors on their toes and prevents them from getting complacent? it certainly seemed to work that way for the odd couple, which was tops (in quality) right up until the end.

another question - that's related to the show, but again can be applied more generally. why would a show like that not do well in the ratings when on the air, but then do huge business in syndication? where were all of those viewers during the original run?

someone above mentioned taxi as a show that could be great but often uneven - and i would have to agree. or rather that it lost steam quickly. it ran only 5 seasons, but by the last two i felt it had gone down noticeably. i also really, really did not like the addition of carol kane. that said, i still wish the show were on in re-runs somewhere.

poor dabney always hoped against hope that maybe, THIS TIME, his show would work, but you always knew that his characters would be way too unlikable for people to accept. i guess buffalo bill was the best of all of these vehicles, but i also liked slap maxwell a lot.

fragesteller said...

No love for Jeeves and Wooster?

Chris Anton said...

I couldn't find any episodes of THE PRACTICE but here is a link to the opening theme sequence. Enjoy.

Anonymous said...

All fine shows but the ommission of "Seinfeld" is glaring. What's your take on it?

Cap'n Bob said...

The original title of the Bilko show was You'll Never Get Rich. After a couple of months that became the subtitle, under The Phil Silvers Show.

As for the sitcom format, I'd say that was established on radio before Lucy or anyone else did a TV show.

My top ten would include Leave It to Beaver, Frasier, MTM, and Dragnet. jack Webb cracks me up.

Pat Reeder said...

I also watched "Topper" in reruns on a local station as a kid and loved it, but hadn't thought of it in years. I remember it was a big favorite of my late parents. They loved Neal, the drunken dog.

Doug McEwan beat me to it in giving a shout-out to "Topper's" uniquely brilliant creator, Thorne Smith. I also have a copy of "Turnabout" and an old edition of "The Glorious Pool," a fountain of youth novella, that I inherited from my parents.

If you'd like to catch up on some old shows that haven't been run on TVLand, look for a channel called Antenna TV. They launched after the digital switch-over, to entertain us diehards who still had TVs with rabbit ears. But it's now being carried by Time Warner Cable, and I assume, other cable companies. They show everything from "The Monkees" and "Bewitched" to the really old stuff, like "I Married Joan" and "My Little Margie" (now in blissfully royalty-free public domain). Also lots of old B&W crime shows and Westerns, from the sublime (B&W "Dragnets!") to the truly bizarre ("Shotgun Slade," the Western with hard-boiled detective film voiceovers and a "Peter Gunn" type jazz score. It's really jarring the first time you see it.)

Ron said...

How could I forget Topper, as a kid I watched it all the time first run. Also my dad was assistant director on the Cary Grant Topper movie at Roach and lifelong friend, sometime employee of McLeod.

Simon H. said...

The only thing for "The Practice" I could find on YouTube was the Opening Credits:

Danny Thomas has kind of a Groucho Marx thing going for him.

Little Miss Nomad said...

When Richard left Coupling, so did I.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Cantara Christopher: I, too, remember really liking He & She (and I've always really liked both Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin), but honestly I can't remember a thing about any of the episodes. I just have a mental image of them sitting at a desk as broadcasters.

You have a great name, btw. Kudos to your parents.


Paul Duca said...

Comments and clarifications to various folk:

Doug you remember there was a short-lived TV version of TURNABOUT on NBC in 1979? I actually watched it...Sharon Gless and John Schuck were the married couple whose spirits wound up in each other's bodies.

Cantara...there was an episide of HE & SHE where they were considering a musical version of "Jetman"? Talk about an in joke...the year before the series, Jack Cassidy was on Broadway (alongside Linda Lavin) in the musical IT'S A BIRD! IT'S A PLANE! IT'S SUPERMAN!

Wendy...your comments to Cantara are intriguing, and bring up interesting facts. On HE & SHE, Benjamin was a cartoonist, creator of the popular strip "Jetman" Prentiss had a part-time position working the Travelers Aid station at the airport. Maybe that's where you get your "newsdesk" image (and in one show her deskmate was Mariette Hartley)

Meanwhile, "Jetman" was so popular, they made a television show of it. Cassidy played the program's star, Oscar North...a pompous, self-centered egomaniac.

If those characteristics sound familiar, it's because a few years later, when some of the HE & SHE people were part of the team developing THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, they created the role of Ted Baxter specifically for Cassidy, but for whatever reason he refused. I find that sad--if he had, he likely wouldn't have been filled with resentment watching wife Shirley Jones and son David succeed with THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, while his career stalled. That undoubtedly contributed to the end of his marriage to Jones, and somewhat less directly to his tragic death (he didn't escape his burning apartment because he was passed out drunk).

Johnny Walker said...

I just watched my first HONEYMOONERS. My initial impression was how much Alice and Ralph's relationship reminded me of the one in King of Queens, but that may also just superficial (a large man in a uniform with a svelte wife).

The second thing I thought of was, of course, The Flintstones. This one was harder to overlook, especially when the "Barney" character appeared. And it's a shame. Hopefully as I keep watching the Flintstones will drift into the background more.

On the plus side, I also noticed just how funny Jackie Gleason is. His delivery was absolutely 110% every time. I was surprised that I was laughing at moderately funny lines simply because of how he delivered them. Alice also seemed like a great character, and as you've pointed out, very atypical for the time: She actually has a strong personality, which is great.

I have to say that the static nature of the show (one room) and its pace (quite slow) definitely make it harder for me to enjoy than something like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, though. Also, I could never imagine Rob Petrie physically threatening his wife (a horrible thought!), or cheating his only friend... In this regard Ralph is definitely a trickier character to enjoy.

Anyways, that's my first impression after one show. I look forward to working my way through the rest.

jbryant said...

I never get this "physically threatening" charge against Ralph Kramden. Someone brought it up in the original thread, too, actually citing it as a reason they could never enjoy the show. But it seems to me that anyone who ever watched more than an episode or two would realize that there is no way Ralph would ever strike Alice. And it's ever clearer that she knows this. She never flinches or backs down from his harmless bluster.

Johnny Walker said...

jbryant: That's true. Her reaction is definitely what makes him shaking his fist at her, and verbally threatening to hit her, a lot more palatable. It's still pretty dark by today's standards, though.

Hopefully I'll be able to look past it.

SeattleDan said...

I, too, loved Topper.
But the Hit the Road Jack Episode of Buffalo Bill may have been the best thing I've ever seen on SitCom Tv. Good post, Ken.

Question Mark said...

Ken, is there any particular reason that 'Coupling' is the only modern show on the list? Not that your choices aren't fantastic (and, y'know, they're your choices, so you can pick whatever the hell you wish), but it struck me that aside from Coupling, these shows have all been off the air for over 25 years? It is simply that these old classics have had more time to sink into your mind and make an impact?

Ken Levine said...

Question Mark,

Quite honestly, none of the sitcoms on today seem better than the ones I listed. Now granted, some of my favorites have sentimental value attached, and there are a few like SEINFELD that almost made the list. But I wonder, of the current crop, which will hold up in fifty years? Maybe MODERN FAMILY. Perhaps PARKS & REC. Most everything else I suspect will seem very very dated.

JRB said...

I actually saw several episodes of "The Practice," and can confirm that it was very special. For some reason, ABC in New York aired reruns of the show at 11 AM for one week when I was still in high school – I happened to stay home from school (who knows what nonsense I made up?) and saw three of the episodes. I can't remember anything much about it other than thinking that it was really funny, and being surprised that I'd never heard of it and it clearly hadn't been a success.

Myrna said...

Re: Fawlty Towers
"I could go on, but you probably know all that already. Anyway, nice to see it mentioned in your list."

Dear Mac,
Please do- go on that is. Fawlty Towers is an all-time favorite, and until now I didn't know the story behind it.

VP81955 said...

"Topper" was wonderful (and was a late-night favorite on WABC-TV in New York for decades), but I always preferred the first two movies a bit more, perhaps because I found Constance Bennett a splendidly sexy ghost.

Ron, glad to hear the story about your ties to those Roach films and Roy Seawright's superlative special effects.

Mimi said...

Mine is and will always be Frasier, the best present I ever got was the complete boxset and now I watch till I know the dialogue before it is spoken (annoys the hell out of my boyfriend, which is why he never watches it with me ;) )