It's always a challenge to narrow to ten the entries for any top list of a particular category, let alone historic television situation comedies. Besides those mentioned below, there are countless quality sitcoms that could have easily made this tally, but did not for various reasons. Namely, Curb Your Enthusiasm (too mean), The Golden Girls, (went on one season too many), The Odd Couple (hilarious, but uneven - due to a switch in formats), Sanford & Son (leads replaced over time), and on and on.
Either way, and again, there could only be ten, and fortunately, all of them listed below are available on DVD. Unfortunately, those not listed below just didn't measure up to snuff when it came to particular criteria:
A) Each show chosen had to be, as TBS might say it, "very funny."
B) The overall series team of players, behind and in front of the camera – from the make-up and wardrobe department of a particular show (many of which on this list were headed by Columbia's iconic Ben Lane) to their lead actors.
C) It's nice when a show that is billed as a "comedy" deals with "issues," as was the case in the 1970s with CBS-TV's Maude (a famous first season episode of which dealt with abortion) and M*A*S*H, (which took place in a war setting, the Korean War), etc. But to make this list, the "issues" (and some of their "answers"), along with any mean-spiritedness, simply disqualified certain "situations" would could simply not be classified as "comedy."
D) The likeability factor had to come into play. TV characters may be unlikable, as was the case with Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker on CBS-TV's 1970s smash, All in the Family. But as long as the performances of the actor portraying the character was likeable (as was indeed the case with O'Connor), the series would receive a pass. Unfortunately, however, All in the Family didn't make this list because it was too issues-oriented. Seinfeld, NBC's mega-hit of the 1990s, is another alleged sitcom that did not make this list due to the lack of likeability. For the first few seasons of this groundbreaking sitcom, it played like genius little Woody Allen half-hour films. The characters of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer were pretty much unlikable, but the performances of Jerry Seinfeld (the actor), Julia Louis Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards were likable. That is, until the last few years, when both the characters AND the performances of the actors became unlikable. In short, Seinfeld lost its charm - and its ultimate place on this list.
In all, the sitcoms listed below were consistently funny, likable, and glittered with quality for their entire original run, from their pilot episode to their series finale (Seinfeld's of which was a disaster). In certain instances, however, a particular show's overall consistent quality outweighed what may have been snippets of mean-spiritedness or issue-oriented scripts. But even when a sitcom was not mean-spirited or issue-oriented, as is the case with ABC's 1960s hit, That Girl, it does not mean it would make this list. The energy and talent that oozes out of Girl star Marlo Thomas in every scene of this appealing sitcom is undeniable, and her chemistry with co-star Ted Bessel (as boyfriend Don Hollinger) is astounding and enjoyable. And even though Thomas' Ann Marie was the first female single independent character in the medium's history (some five years before Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.), the show was not consistently funny through its entire run. That last season (when Ann went braless, parted her hair down the middle, and became engaged to Don) just didn't cut it.
That said, here now are the Top Ten TV Sitcoms Of All Time…or at least one edition of the Top Ten TV Sitcoms Of All Time. As Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden would say on CBS's classic 1950s hit The Honeymooners (which did not make the list), "And away we go…"
1) The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966): Can't be beat. Astounding talent, behind and in front of the scenes. Magic happens each time Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore sing, dance, perform and act together here (and actually, anywhere). Once intended as a starring vehicle for creator Carl Reiner (father to actor-cum-director Rob Meathead Reiner), who starred in a failed pilot with a similar premise (and titled Head of the Family), the former Show of Shows performer wisely opted instead to take a back seat and cast Dick Van Dyke in the lead. The result: the best male-lead sitcom in TV history (that makes all the I Love Lucy fans, happy, right?).
2) The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977): Changed the face of television forever, turned the world on with her smile, indeed. One of the first weekly sitcoms to showcase the "story" scene, in which one particular character delivers "conveying dialogue" to another or group of characters to assist with the set-up of a joke, which ultimately becomes sophisticated humor beyond mention. But fortunately, they do mention it – to the delight of anyone who watches.
3) Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1972): Not really a sitcom, but something beyond a sitcom, this supernatural-based comedy deserves to be on this list. Totally underrated as a sophisticated television show, the adventures of Samantha – the house witch-with-a-twitch Stephens (played to perfection by Elizabeth Montgomery) was too many times labeled as "silly." So far from silly, this elegant series is more a love story about a mortal man who marries a woman who happens to be a witch than it is a fantasy series. The real magic is the solid and sincere characterizations and stories within the consistent "logic within the illogic" of the premise.
4) Father Knows Best (CBS, NBC, ABC, 1955-1963): Like Bewitched, and for many watchers, this wonderful series may not necessarily be categorized as a sitcom. Though extremely funny at times, when this family show is viewed by anyone who screens the episodes faithfully, it also becomes apparent just how real and dramatic this series was for its time. It may even be classified as TV's first half-hour "dramedy" (long before that phrase was coined in the 1980s with shows like Buffalo Bill and The Wonder Years). In either case, there was a consistent quality that ran through every single episode of this long-running show.
5) I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957): No one, no where, no way was or is funnier or more talented than Lucille Ball - the grand dame of television comedy. Like Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, Ball combined comedy chops, voice and dance skills with performance art, and brought it all to new heights with everyday, regular situations. (captured so endearingly well by brilliant writing partners Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Davis, both of whom have now passed away, Davis, just recently). Suffice it to say, if Mary Richards turned us all on with her smile, Lucy pretty much saved the world by making us all smile, again, and again and continues to do so – with her "broad" sense of humor.
6) The Andy Griffith Show (CBS, 1960-1968): Who wouldn't want to live in Mayberry, USA, which is where this monumental sitcom was set? Sprinkled with the likes of enormously likable characters (and the extremely talented actors who brought them to life), the adventures of Sheriff Taylor (Griffith), his deputy Barney Fife (the irreplaceable Don Knotts, who Jack Burns as Deputy Warren Ferguson tried to replace after Knotts left to do feature films), the ever-affable Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), Opie (Ron Happy Days Howard), and all the rest. Down-home, family, small town fun with, yes…heart.
7) Gidget(ABC, 1965-66)/The Flying Nun (ABC, 1967-71): You don't get much more TV cozy than Gidget gets, as this show is superior in many ways to even the Gidget feature films that arrived before it. Star Sally Field (who granted exclusive interviews for the DVD release of this show) has so much charismatic verve, she makes Marlo Thomas on That Girl look like Jed Clampett - from The Beverly Hillbillies). The show lasted only one season due to low ratings but when rerun in the summer of 1966, the ratings went through the roof. Consequently, ABC rescinded its decision and sought to bring the show back for a second year. But it was too late. The cast and production team had moved on. However, the future-Oscar winning Sally Field (a mere 15-years-old when she filmed the pilot) was still available (and under contract to Screen Gems, the show's proprietor), As a result, she took the lead one year later in The Flying Nun/ , which could easily have been titled, Gidget Joins The Convent, which is why TFN shares the Number 7 spot on this list with Field's first series. That said, not only was The Flying Nun consistently funny throughout its three year run, it became the first general series and sitcom in the history of television that introduced spiritual studies to the mainstream American viewing audience (some ten years before Kung Fu debuted on ABC in 1972). It may have even converted a few viewers to Catholicism, who knows? One thing is for sure, esteemed representatives of the Roman Catholic Church served as consultants, and that meant a great deal to the authenticity of the series which, ironically enough, like the supernaturally-based Bewitched was given a bad rap in some "critical" sectors because of its fantastical elements. In either case, this series should not be missed, and potential buyers should pray that DVD copies are still available.
8) The Bob Newhart Show(CBS, 1972-78): Coupled with The Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS Saturday nights for years, this show was the first to display a sophisticated childless couple. It was adult fare, without being too adult at all. The comedy was simultaneously zany and thoughtful, as Bob Newhart's deadpan deliveries to his beautiful, witty and gutsy TV wife Emily (portrayed by Suzanne Pleshette, gone too soon in 2007) is the stuff of legends. Unfortunately, Bob's later CBS series, Newhart, simply could not compare, except of course in the last moment of the final episode. Here, Pleshette surprises everyone (even actress Mary Frann, Newhart's new on-screen wife Joanna, who was non-too happy about the way the series ended) by popping-out her lovely head from beneath the sheets in what has now become the most legendary bedroom scene in TV history. Bob then proceeds to tell her - and the rest of us - that that this second series was all a dream. Classic, indeed.
9) Car 54, Where Are You? (NBC, 1961-1963): Genius. Hilarious. Realistic. Ground-breaking. Had it not been for the series (and the brilliance of its creator, writer/director Nat Hiken, who had created The Phil Silvers Show), there would have been no future Barney Miller or subsequent Night Court, for that matter. On many levels, Car 54 was eons ahead of its time and yet, for its time, very contemporary. A conundrum if there ever was one.
10) Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004): The writing was crisp. Each episode is a weekly edition of a Neil Simon play. Throw in some of the most beautiful sets in the history of TV, and you have yourself one of the best TV sitcoms of all time.
Herbie J Pilato is a producer/director/writer, and author of a number of media tie-in books (including Bewitched Forever and The Kung Fu Book Of Caine, Life Story – The Book of Life Goes On: TV's First And best Family Show of Challenge, The Bionic Book, and NBC & ME: My Life As A Page In A Book. He's worked for A&E, TLC, Syfy, and Bravo's hit five-part TV series, The 100 Greatest TV Characters. Herbie J is also the Founder and Executive Director of The Classic TV Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that helps to close the gap between popular culture and education. For more information, please see www.ClassicTVPS.blogspot.com. To contact Herbie J, or to order any of his books, email: ClassicTVPS@gmail.com.
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