Wednesday, January 07, 2009

TV's greatest sitcoms

A Long Island boy named "Eric" sometimes comments here. He's been suggesting a list of favorite tv shows. So, we're going to do them, but, I'm limiting it to traditional sitcoms, which, I think is what he meant anyway.

By traditional sitcoms, I mean non-surreal, non-fantasy shows (ruling out the likes of things like I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan's Island, Batman, etc.) usually set in one or more of the characters living rooms or work place. You may have shows you think are better and feel free to comment. Stanley Fish, a law professor who writes for the NY Times just did his top ten all time American movies, and, although he had a couple of winners, I thought his list ridiculous. However, as he said, it is really not to end the conversation, but to start it.

1) The Honeymooners It may be worth a blog post someday as to who was funnier, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) orEd Norton (Art Carney), but, all I can say is a lifetime after they were made these black and white episodes still make me howl. I can't say that about Abbot and Costello or The Three Stooges, great as they were. These two brilliant comics, I have to say comic geniuses, made writing that seems ridiculous, hysterical. When Norton, trying to teach Ralph how to golf out of a book, walks up with the club and goes to "address the ball" and says "Halloooooo, ball," it reads unfunny. But Art Carney doing it is up there with the funniest things I've ever seen in my life.

2) All in the Family This show broke alot of new ground with its fun loving ethnic baiting and taboo busting. Now, if a character is off screen and you hear a toilet flush, you might chuckle (because we are all little kids). But, when Archie did it, it was a first, at least on prime time tv, and it was gut busting funny. We were all thinking and saying, I can't believe they did that. Each of the four main charachters was archtypical but originally done: Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), the loveable and mostly harmless bigot; Bob Reiner's decent and hippie like, Michael; Jean Stapleton's befuddled, loving and often just idiotic, Edith; and, last and, probably least, the Bunker's emotional but doting daughter and wife to Michael, Gloria, played by Sally Struthers. Even some of the iconic lines still resonate - "Meathead" (Archie's name for Michael); "Would you stifle yourself?" (Archie to Edith); "Ohhhhh, Archie . . ." (Edith to Archie). They don't sound funny, but, you have to see it yourself to understand.

3)Seinfeld This show sometimes borders on too surreal for this category, but, as it is really a comedy of manners and I take it as that, it makes the list. Larry David is a writer and creator of genius who needed the right venue. The casting, particularly the Seinfeld's three friends, was as perfect as you were ever going to get. The guest stars, like J. Peterman, the Soup Nazi. Did I forget that Newman, Seinfeld's unloveable, irascible postman, is one of the best appearing supporting characters ever. I took an informal poll once as to who was funniest on the show. Kramer edged out George, followed by Jerry and then Elaine. There was definitely a gender bias shown in the poll. How many times in your life are you having a conversation and then someone says, "Oh, remember on Seinfeld when . . . .?" That's why it's rated so high. If I go five days without remembering something from the show, it's a long time.

4)The Odd Couple - Tony Randall and Jack Klugman's take off on the Broadway Neil Simon play. The two of them found a way to be funnier than Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon did in the movies or on stage and that is really, really hard. The innocent dating the stars did on the show is fun to watch for the sake of nostalgia. Who was better than Murray the Cop? Mostly though, it's Oscar and Felix playing one off the other. The opening narration, bits and theme music actually tells you all you need to know to get into the characters. A typical scene on the show is like this -- from the the very last episode - the insanely neat Felix remarries. Felix is saying goodbye to Oscar. Leaving the apartment, he picks up a small garbage can and says to the incurably sloppy Oscar* - As a tribute to you, I'm going to throw this garbage on the floor, and he does. Oscar says as a tribute to Felix he will clean it up. Felix leaves and Oscar says, I'm not going to clean it up, and goes to his room. A few seconds later Felix pokes his head back in the door, says I knew he wasn't going to clean it up, and does it himself.

*(Most of the quotes in this post are paraphrased and approximations - I'm not looking them up; sue me).

5)The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A pure ensemble effort with Mary being the gorgeous and sweet girl next door surrounded by a host of great friends, kooks and characters. Think about the cast - Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Gavin Macleod, Georgia Engel, Betty White, Nancy Walker and even, occasionally, John Amos. Not to mention guests like Penny Marshall, David Ogden Stiers, Gordon Jump, Jerry Van Dyke and so on. I'd stay home Saturday nights to watch it. Okay, I had nothing else to do, but still, this is what I'd watch Saturday nights when I was to young to really go out. Was I in love with Mary? Yeah, I was. I can't imagine many men weren't at the time. She was everything you could want.

6) M.A.S.H. The classic mixture of comedy and drama. Many of the episodes were not just funny, but riveting. No wonder it's last episode is still the king in the all time ratings (and they didn't screw it up like so many other shows). The show made Alan Alda (surgeon Hawkeye Pierce), and, since he was undoubtedly the main focus, perhaps he made the show. Of course, like Mary Tyler Moore's show, it was an ensemble, and such characters as Hotlips Hoolihan, Radar, Klinger, Colonel Burns, Winchester, Sherman Potter (new base commander) and Blake (old base commander), Father Mulcahey, Trapper John and Hunnicut live on in our memories. My favorite moment -- Alan Alda is dressed as Santa for a Xmas party when he is called to take a helicopter to save a soldier with a battlefield injury. The injured guy is moaning on the ground to his buddy -- is someone coming? His buddy looks at Santa climbing out of the helicopter and says -- you are not going to believe this. It is perhaps not unique in the way it seemlessly mixed drama and comedy but it was the best ever done.

7) Friends - Another brilliant ensemble show. The six friends, Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey were each engaging, recognizable and occasionally real characters. They may have been cardboard, but, that was part of the fun. You knew sort of how they would react, but not exactly how. In real life, we have a lot of those friends too. You really did almost feel like they were your friends, or wished they were. The show was comfortable; even when they were fighting, it seemed harmless and you knew it would resolve itself. Was I one of the sappy babies who wanted Ross and Rachel to finally get their act together in the very last show? Absolutely and with no apologies. No last episodes like Will and Grace or Seinfeld for me, please. Worse thing about the show - little Emma, Ross and Rachel's baby. She almost ruined the last few seasons. Nobody wanted that kind of drama or to watch Ross sing to his kid. Still, you can watch a marathon for 24 hours and never be bored for an instant. The episodes are all named - "The one where . . . ."

8) The Dick Van Dyke Show - some of you might not remember this old black and white quintessential sitcom. Dick was a comedy writer teamed up with Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, two old time stand up comedians with an endless supply of jokes, playing to Dick's quirky straight man, and it worked. Although in my opinion those two were the best part of the show, they were actually only in a little more than half the episodes, which often focused on Dick's home life. The three of them wrote for their boss, played by Carl Reiner and their foil was the producer, Mel, who was endlessly tormented by Amsterdam's character, Buddy Sorrell. Now that Dick is an ancient tv detective, people forget what a talented comedian he was. All they need do is watch an episode of this show (or Mary Poppins) to find out. Dick's wife was none other than the very young, Mary Tyler Moore, who occasionally (well, at least once that I remember) exhibited her dancing ability on the show. She was yet to explode in her own right.

9) Taxi -- How could I pass by Cheers for this ensemble act. Easy. Of the two, I thought it was the funnier. Although the lead was, at least technically, Judd Hirsch, playing the worn but wise Alex Reiger, the comedy was provided by Danny De Vito, who played the evil but pathetic Louie the Dispatcher, Andy Kaufman's brilliant Latka and Tony Danza as Tony, who was a blueprint for Friend's Joey character, and Christopher Lloyd's Reverend Jim. It's not surprising that most of these actors (and yes, Marilu Henner played Elaine - yawn - but Carol Kane was very funny as Latka's wife, Simka) went on to greater fame. My favorite moment on the show is still used by me when trying to advise people that they don't have to stick to a plan just because they said they would (sometimes called "quitting"); Jeff, the would be actor, is at the end of the five year period afterwhich he said he would give up trying to get an acting gig. The whole gang is sitting around the phone waiting for it to ring so he won't have to give up his dream. But the time passes and he doesn't get a role. The group is all quiet and sad, and, then Jeff says, Ah, I'll give it another five.

10) Two and A Half Men- I had to drop great shows like Barney Miller and the Office to include this in the list, but I think it's right. Two and a Half Men is just a silly, sophomoric show, with the kind of bathroom humor I usually hate. Charlie Sheen plays a rich jingle writer who is a shameless drunk and womenizer, but, who reluctantly takes in his straight, uptight brother thrown out by his wife, and on weekends, their young, overweight, perpetually perplexed kid. So, why do I and so many other adults I know just laugh till we cry when this show is on. Because as stupid as it is, and as much as it is the same schtick week after week, it's just so funny. It's mostly a series of double entendre's, which we get, but for some reason, the characters often don't. There is a small regular cast, including the boys' mother, Alan's often shrewish ex-wife, the loveable stalker downstairs and the maid, Berta, played perfectly by Conchata Ferrell (who deserves special mention). And, thankfully, a parade of unbelievably beautiful women who march in and out of the boys' lives and beds, including April Bowlby, who managed a season or two as the idiotic but sexy, Kandi (funniest woman on tv today)including Tina Fey) and every magazine in America's 2008's sexiest woman, Megan Fox, who played Berta's jail bait granddaughter. And, I almost forgot Alan (Jon Cryer) and his kid, Jake - (Angus Jones), who are as much the stars as Charlie Sheen (or almost), if less famous. In one sense, this is a modern take on the Odd Couple; in another sense, it is a satire on Charlie Sheen's life. Who cares? It is so funny I've choked on my dinner watching the same episode for the fifteenth time. One last thing though. The kid is too old and the show is getting too old with it. The time to stop already passed.

First Runner up) The Office A very different type of comedy and one I had trouble putting after Two and a Half Men. It is much more sophisticated, doesn't really make you laugh out loud and is based almost entirely (so I understand) on the British version which was the product of Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant (whose brilliant British production "Extras" was way too short lived). Steve Carell, whose choice of movies needs to be questioned, plays Michael Scott, the boss, a spoiled, awkward, terribly funny-because-he-is-so-unfunny (and thinks he is a comic genius), dying for love, understanding and attention from his office staff and others. He can make you uncomfortable the way George did on Seinfeld, but has a heart of gold, even at his worst, and is so stupid, his dark side is worth it. It's a character of a lifetime. His assistant, Dwight, is an almost psychopathic farm boy, endlessly fascinating in his bizarre quirks, who is tormented by Jim, who along with Pam, the receptionist, play the unique love interest around which a great deal of the show's softer moments revolve. By the way, the whole show is shown through a single camera manned by someone(s?) who are making a documentary. It's different and unique. It took me two or three episodes to figure out who everyone was and their characters, and then I was hooked. The only sitcom I now watch other than Two and A Half . . . . There are too many great things to mention about it that don't have time for here, but, one is the uncanny way Michael portrays bosses you and I have known. Is there something about being a boss that makes them this way? For you fans of the show - did you know Carol, the real estate agent is really Steve Carell's wife; that Jan, his other love interest, also plays the late Trudy on Monk; that Ryan the intern, Tobey, Kelley, and Dwight's even stranger cousin, Mose, are all writers on the show?

Okay, this stuff is as important as the above.

First: apologies to Barney Miller, The Beverly Hillbillies (not sure if it qualified anyway), Cheers and Everybody Loves Raymond, which probably deserve to make any list, if you could cram more into the top ten.

As for Will and Grace and Frazier, they were good shows I always enjoyed watching but they never cracked me up or meant as much to me the way these other shows do.

I never got I Love Lucy or her other shows.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is too surreal to make this list, but, if you do not watch this show, start. It is like a sick, demented version of Friends. Very clever and really funny. Danny DeVito is funnier here than in Taxi. But, it is so strange, I really can't describe it except to say a bunch of low lives own a bar and make each other and everyone else's lives a misery.

Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza was a little known show a few years ago that I could describe as a forerunner to It's Always Sunny . . . When I used to watch it I'd wonder what intangibles or luck made Friends so famous and this show, somehow not as great, because it was probably funnier. Why do I include Friends on my list then and not this one - maybe longevity and Friends somehow had a stronger story line. It lasted only 4 seasons. But, maybe someday I will go back and have them change places. This is Ryan Reynolds before Van Wilder, Scrubbs, Waiting (a great, but little known movie) and Just Friends. I popped onto Imdb.com to check the title (which has several variations) and read a user comment about the show which probably says it better than I just did: "It's fantastic! The Cast are brilliant, the writers are brilliant, the production team is brilliant!!! It has me in stitches all the time. I love the Halloween episodes. Actually, I love them all! I must have seen every one at least twice but I still love it. Should've gone on for longer, but as mentioned earlier, Fox suck...." Yeah, I should have just said that.

Your thoughts?

10 comments:

  1. Hello ball? After you learned from these lessons,I screamed hat we had a mouse in the kitchen (ok, I was going to say a mouse in house, but...). I told you to do SOMETHING. You did. You entered the room, smiled, waved your hand and said "Hello, mouse!"
    By the way, I went to a lecture last year on the Three Stooges (Grandma used to date Moe), and discovered that what they were making fun of was the nazis. Soooo interesting - you should watch them now!
    Love,
    Jan

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  2. "Love?" "Love?"

    We don't write Loooooove in blog commenting.

    Yeesh.

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  3. Not a bad list, Grasshopper, but I can't accept Friends and Two and a Half Men. You are out there on those two.
    I blogged on this already, so not going to repeat my list, but how could you leave out Barney Miller? Actually, it is the most underrated great comedy. It never gets it's due.
    We can argue forever about the Office, I tried to watch it again. Unwatchable. Not funny. It sucks.

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  4. Barney Miller just missed my list and I commented on it.

    Readers who are interested can find Bear's most memorable tv shows (not limited to sitcoms) on incorrect-bear.blogspot.com from last November.

    As to the Office, we will argue forever. I was there when you watched it the first time, and you never put the paper down. By then, you had made up your mind. I did that with both Star Trek: New Adventures and Northern Lights, until one day (I guess it was two separate days actually) watching reruns when stuck at home I said, wow, what great shows. I believe in my heart you will get there with The Office some day.

    As for Two and A Half Men - not to repeat myself, it is stupid and infantile, but hysterical. Only Family Guy, not in this category, is as laugh out loud funny on television these days.

    Any one out there want to add fuel to this fire.

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  5. Conchis9:00 AM

    Seems to me you forgot the wonderful (but short-lived) Herman's Head.

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  6. Oh my God. I did. What a great show - although it was too surreal for this category. It even had a wonderful young actor playing a playboy by the name of Hank Azaria (who says he didn't like the show) and Yeardly Smith, a strange looking little woman who is better known today for being the voice of Lisa on the Simpsons (where Azaria has his longest gig too). I checked up on the lead - Herman - played by William Ragsdale, who has an acting career, but it seems he is always just missing out on roles to better known actors like Matthew Broderick. In a nutsell, it is an office comedy, but we also go into Herman's head frequently, where 4 characters (occasionally others) act out his emotions. Honestly, like the stand up routine Seinfeld did during his first season (or two?), the show itself was better.

    So, because of the inside the head stuff, not for this category, but still a great and, yes, sadly short lived show.

    Nice comment, Conchis.

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  7. Agree that Friends does not belong. Friends is only worth watching for the girls. The men are almost unbearable. David Schwimmer's character may be the most annoying in the history of TV. I would add Cheers.

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  8. Well, as to the Friends haters, all I can say is that the public probably outvotes you on that one. But Schwimmer's character is really annoying. Why would Rachel or any of the girls he was with like him?

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  9. Anonymous1:03 PM

    dont forget king of queens kevin james and jerry stiller are as good of a dynamic duo as any in the history of tv

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  10. Thanks for the suggestion. I like the show and Jerry Stiller has re-lit his career like few others, but, it would not make my personal list. Still, not a bad way to spend a half hour.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .