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.