Television’s top-five greatest situation comedies.
Author: Nick Gardener.
The sit-com is not exactly a revered art form with so many of them just imported American schedule –fillers that indulge the obsessions of painfully chirpy, unrealistically attractive twenty-somethings. A precious few sit-coms, however, have rightfully established themselves as comedy masterpieces, television pinnacles and provocative representations of contemporary life, culture and human frailty. The best sit-coms shine an inescapable light on the psyche revealing the sordid obsessions, neuroses and embarrassing foibles we all possess. Some are almost a form of therapy as, for 22 minutes our anxieties, idiosyncrasies and failings are expiated through the antics of reprehensible but strangely lovable characters. Most importantly, though, they make you laugh so hard you almost incur bodily harm.
The list below contains the sit-coms, I believe, exemplify these traits and represent the zenith of television comedy.
1. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2000 – present)
Curb Your Enthusiasm depicts the semi-fictionalised daily life of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David. Like many of TV’s greatest comic characters, Larry is both contemptible and sympathetic. Despite having enormous wealth and success as well as a stunning and immensely tolerant wife (Cheryl Hines), Larry just can’t stay out of trouble. Whether he’s attending a funeral, playing golf or buying a pair of pants, Larry’s thoughtless bumbling, paranoid obsessions and boundless capacity for social faux pas cause conflict, chaos and even death. The fact that David has made a completely selfish, neurotic, super-rich layabout such a funny and likeable character is a testament to his perverse comic genius.
Curb in many ways resembles Seinfeld with its quirky karmic plotlines and critique of annoying social trends while Larry has revealed himself as the basis for George Costanza. Curb, however, is a much edgier show than Seinfeld with more acidic observations about human behaviour, a progressive political agenda (environmental causes are a recurring theme), hookers, drugs, terminal disease and a level of obscenity rivalled only by The Sopranos. Curb is also more striking visually than Seinfeld with its starkly realistic home-video look that makes the crazy things Larry does more painfully believable and funny.
The show was created when Larry David sought greater creative freedom for his comic writing and moved to HBO in 1999. Curb hit the ground running in the first episode and hasn’t faltered since. Through its nine seasons we’ve seen Larry sink Mel Brooks’ The Producers, steal from coffins, put TiVo repair ahead of his wife’ Cheryl’s life, re-unite and almost destroy Seinfeld and even start a punch-up in a nativity scene…here’s hoping the despicable Larry never learns his lesson.
2. FAWLTY TOWERS (1975 & 1979)
Pompous, highly-strung, contemptuous and constantly on the verge of a breakdown, Torquay hotel owner Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) was one of the few real people on TV. Like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Basil Fawlty was a man whose rigid commitment to a set of crazed values and paranoid beliefs sent him on a collision course with the rest of humanity.
While some hotel owners might welcome guests, Fawlty regarded them as an appalling inconvenience and saw their desire for competent service as unforgiveable. Rather than busy himself with the proper duties of a hotel manager Fawlty preferred to assault guests and staff, lock elderly ladies in cupboards, verbally abuse corpses and almost kill a spoon salesman. The only guests Fawlty didn’t attack were supposed members of the upper-class whose ranks he was desperate to join and around whom he would suddenly become as giddy as a school girl meeting One Direction.
Fawlty Towers worked brilliantly for many reasons but its greatest achievement was to unite the slapstick energy and fun of theatrical farce with scathing wit and a dead-on observation of someone left bitter and disillusioned by a life spent bowing to others; Fawlty’s views may have been crazed but anyone in a service industry would feel a twinge of empathy for him.
Fawlty Towers was reportedly inspired by a bizarre encounter John Cleese and the Monty Python crew had with the owner of a Torquay hotel in 1971. Cleese and wife Connie Booth, who played Fawlty Towers’ put-upon waitress Polly, noted, with great amusement, the owner’s strange and aggressive behaviour which included throwing bus timetables at guests and hiding Eric Idle’s briefcase behind a wall fearing it might contain a bomb. We can’t thank that man enough for his lack of service.
3. THE OFFICE (UK) (2001 – 2003)
Like Fawlty Towers, The Office showed that the impact the workplace has on people’s mental state can be disastrous and at the same time hilarious. Through its patented cringe comedy, The Office targeted, with laser precision, the myriad annoyances of office life, particularly the outlandish, petty and infuriating behaviour of the co-workers whom we are forced to endure for most of our adult lives.
Set in the office of a paper company in the English town of Slough, the show employed a mockumentary format with the camera trailing various employees throughout their day. This approach allowed characters to directly address the camera and expound their anger and twisted beliefs in brief interview segments, a style now adopted by shows like Modern Family.
The Office heralded the arrival of a new comic genius in Ricky Gervais who co-wrote the series and starred as leering, pudgy buffoon boss David Brent. Brent’s adolescent craving for popularity, his tragically misguided belief that his staff considered him a wise and witty bon vivant and his talent for politically incorrect gaffs saw him constantly enrage everyone he encountered. Brent was hilarious but also sad in his desperation and disillusion; his eventual descent into self-loathing and later redemption were as emotionally affecting as just about anything in straight drama.
Recoiling from him but also, at times, movingly supporting him was genuinely witty but disenchanted salesman Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman). Tim’s incredulous responses to Brent’s bizarre, petulant outbursts not only made us laugh but revealed in Tim an articulate and sensitive character with whom every down-trodden office minion could identify.
While the American Office achieved the remarkable feat of establishing an entirely new identity for a much loved show, the UK original gets the nod for creating the concept and for its painfully raw view of people oppressed by office life.
4. THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW (1992 – 1998)
As TV talk show hosts ascended to superstar status in the 1990’s and a network battle for supremacy erupted between Jay Leno’s Tonight Show on NBC and David Letterman’s Late Show on CBS, Gary Shandling concocted this wonderfully droll yet scathing depiction of the backstage machinations of a fictitious TV talk show.
Shandling, who had earlier revealed his comic genius in the criminally ignored It’s Gary Shandling’s Show, played the hilariously smarmy and spineless host Larry Sanders while Jeffrey Tambour played his petty, paranoid sidekick Hank. Tambour almost stole the show as the diva-esque Hank, providing some of the funniest and most poignant moments in sit-coms as he brashly demanded star treatment only to wind up begging pathetically for crumbs from Larry’s table.
The show had its quirky aspects particularly in the form of Larry’s blustering producer Artie played by Rip Torn but it mostly succeeded because of its believable, unsensational depiction of the Hollywood underbelly.
With its low-key, matter-of-fact approach and its device of having celebrities parody themselves as vain, contemptible tossers The Larry Sanders Show clearly inspired subsequent sit-coms such as Ricky Gervais’ Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
5. SEINFELD (1989 – 1998)
Seinfeld is one of the most successful shows in TV history because it was clever, original and took risks such as combining the sit-com format with stand-up interludes and gleefully making its lead characters selfish and manipulative just like real people.
The show claimed to be about nothing but this was just a gimmick as each episode actually contained multiple intertwining plot threads that explored everyday annoyances, infuriating people and the perils of relationships. There was even a vague morality as characters inevitably payed a price for their sins.
The show’s genius was to convincingly place perceptive observations about people and everyday life in a fun alternate universe. In this way the show could play the destructive screwball quirkiness of a character like Kramer against the bitter neuroses of a George Costanza.
Unlike the other shows on this list, though, Seinfeld took some time to find its feet. When viewed now, the first two seasons seem stilted and slow-moving and full of sequences that barely raise a laugh. From season three onward, though, the show produced an astonishing stream of classic comedy moments and expressions that have ensconced themselves in the pop-cultural lexicon.
The next best:
- BLACK ADDER (1985-1989)
- THE SIMPSONS (1989 – present)
- IT’S GARY SHANDLING SHOW (1986- 1990)
- EXTRAS (2005-2007)
- 30 ROCK (2006-2013)
- KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU WITH ALAN PARTRIDGE (1994-1995)
- MODERN FAMILY (2009-present)
Special mention should also be made of the classic Warner Bros cartoons, particularly the Bugs Bunnies, Foghorn Leghorns and Porky Pigs from the late ‘40’s. These weren’t sit-coms but were a TV fixture for anyone growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and contained some of the most brilliant comedy of any medium.
About the author:
Nick currently presents film, television and music reviews every Friday from 8-10pm on “Built for Speed” on 88.3 Southern FM, reviews new release films and discusses film culture on “The Good The Bad and The Ugly film show” podcast and reviews new release films on 94.1 3WBC FM’s Wednesday breakfast show.