Sitcoms That Still Make Me Laugh

I enjoy watching sitcoms. I also enjoy buying/renting/borrowing entire seasons of shows. Consequently, I've been delving into older, available sitcoms all the way from Barney Miller to Frasier. Some hold up better than others. (For the purposes of this post, I'm sticking to American sitcoms.)

Barney Miller holds up surprisingly well. The cast is excellent, especially that ham Abe Vigoda. One of the refreshing aspects of the show is how truly tolerant it is (not the pseudo-tolerance that supposedly open-minded people throw around today). Everyone from crazy UFO con artists to nudists is treated kindly and respectfully by Barney. The only show that comes close to this attitude today, in my estimation, is Numb3rs.

M.A.S.H. also holds up although I tend to watch it less than the others. Interestingly enough, it is the most historical of the shows, partly because it is based around the Korean War and mostly because it was written at the time of the Vietnam War. However, it remains extremely viewable. I don't think this is due to the "message." I think it is due to the acting and to the premise. Basically, M.A.S.H. is House with Alan Alda playing House and Mike Farrell playing Wilson. (And Gary Burghoff just being adorable.)

Night Court, oddly enough, does not hold up. It is still funny, and John Larroquette is worth watching in just about anything. But the 80's sentimentality is somewhat off-putting. Barney, at least, locks people up. Night Court talks them to death.

So does Family Ties, but Family Ties has Alex P. Keaton plus some real grist. The family problems are all solved with big hugs, but at least they are solved intelligently. (It is simply more believable that two loving parents will be able to talk their children out of making stupid mistakes than that a judge can talk a stranger out of a lifetime of crime.)

However, in terms of intelligent family sitcoms, Home Improvement has the best longevity. The show is funny and clever, and the family relationships are quite believable. I am on Season 7 of Home Improvement and have been continually impressed by how the show's issues mature around the characters without splitting up the parents or resorting to other distasteful plot arcs.

I'm also a big fan of Coach. The comedy is actually quite different from the above shows. For one thing, Craig T. Nelson is a far more physical actor and Jerry Van Dyke a far more vaudevillian one. Yet, individual Coach episodes are more likely to split my sides than any of the others. (Note to ABC: Will you hurry up and work out whatever the problem is and get the remaining seasons onto DVD? I'm not going to do Watch Instantly on Netflix. If I wanted to do Watch Instantly, I'd get cable.)

Speaking of sitcoms not released onto DVD, only the first season of Dharma & Greg has been released so far. I own that season. It is delightful. I have always preferred romances/movies/television shows where the premise is NOT "Will they get together?" but "Now that they are together, how will they work things out?"

I have watched the first two seasons of News Radio to death. I kind of lost interest in the show after that, but the first two seasons are some of the best comedy ever produced on television. Few people do straight man comedy as well as David Foley. Few people do odd straight man comedy as well as Stephen Root. Maura Tierney and Vicki Lewis have perfect comedic timing. And nobody has ever been as wonderful as Phil Hartman.

I enjoy Frasier although I tend to skip the episodes where Frasier gets completely humiliated (I don't really enjoy those types of sitcoms; I loathe Everybody Loves Raymond). More than any of the others listed so far, Frasier episodes can get positively British in their set-up and pay-off. That is, some minor joke will be set up in the first ten minutes and then paid off with complete precision in the last five. The only other sitcoms I know that do this better are British sitcoms.

Sitcoms I'm interested in: I've had such luck with Barney, I've considered checking out The Jeffersons, All in the Family, and Taxi.

Sitcoms I'm not interested in: Oddly enough, I like Cosby but I have no real interest in the sitcom. I'm not sure why. Partly, it could be that my Cosby is the Cosby from the live recordings he did before he got really famous. I grew up in a more affluent neighborhood than Cosby, but my childhood resembles his real childhood far more closely than the childhood of his sitcom family. (Basically, my childhood was Sandlot.)

I tried to get into Mork & Mindy. Bizarrely enough, I thought it just wasn't funny. I mean, Robin Williams is a funny guy, but there just wasn't anything that made me laugh.

This is also true of Drew Carey. He himself is hilarious. His show isn't. I don't know why.

I like Friends when I watch it directly on television. Renting it deliberately just makes me feel skanky. I don't know why. It isn't any raunchier than anything else I watch. But it's just so . . . cotton candyish. Very funny. Very lite. Very "I actually bothered to rent this"? (But if the T.V. is on, and Friends just happens to be on . . . I have actually seen most of Friends. I used to watch it right after work in the local station's 5:00/5:30 slots.)

I am more likely to rent Becker, but I don't watch it in batches like other shows.

People keep telling me to watch The Office. I'm not sure it is as much my type of thing as people think. They think I like sarcastic stuff, and I do, but I really hate mean stuff. I don't know where The Office falls. Okay, I guess I'll have to watch it!

Cheers is extremely well-written and funny, but it may be too raunchy for me. (There's a distinction between raunchiness and earthiness which is too extensive a conversation to go into here. Let's just say, British comedies generally bother me less than American sitcoms, and Dexter doesn't bother me at all.) Actually, though, I think my main problem is Shelley Long. I don't know if it is she or the character she plays, but watching her in Cheers is like nails on a blackboard to me.

Can't stand Two and a Half Men.

Haven't seen Soap in a million years.

Wow, that's a lot of sitcoms!


Wm Morris said...

The first two seasons of News Radio really are quite excellent. And I couldn't agree more on Frasier. In reruns the only ones that I can watch are those that are clearly going to let Niles do his Niles thing where he gets all frantic and frazzled.

The Office can get quite mean, but more than mean it has intense moments of social awkwardness -- some people find them almost painfully intense.

My favorite of the new crop is Community. It starts a little slow and almost cliched for a sitcom but as the season progresses, the characters really develop and you get these moments where the funny just cascades because of all that's gone on before. To me that's a big reason to watch a sitcom -- to really get to know the characters and the "situation" so that the funny isn't just the joke, but how the joke resonates with the world of the sitcom. Most sitcoms don't do that well. And it's also kinda sweet. Parks & Recreation is also fairly good for many of the same reasons.

I also like 30 Rock but it tends towards the absurd, the raunchy, the corny and the political.

Joe said...

I highly recommend Modern Family. Community is a hit or miss affair, but hits a certain stride by mid-season when it stopped taking itself so seriously.

Third Rock from the Son,Just Shoot Me, Wings, Spin City, Newhart and The Bob Newhart Show can also be a little hit or miss, but when funny are very funny.

Taxi is very hit or miss for me.

For some reason, I can't bear watching M.A.S.H. or at least the later seasons with Mike Farrell; it lacks the irreverence of the earlier shows.

For sentimentality, I enjoy watching The Andy Griffith Show and Bewitched (especially the first two seasons of the latter.)

For the record, I despise Seinfield and find Friends to be unwatchable in reruns. The Simpons used to be funny; now it's just tedious.

For a non-American, but a little known, sitcom, check out The Games. (Starring the fellows from the economics of the world video.)

Joe said...

Forgot The Addams Family. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but eminently enjoyable. (It's on Hulu, so you can check it out for free.)

I loved Better Off Ted, but apparently was alone since it got canceled. Cougar Town started out rough, but got quite funny.

Wm Morris said...

Oh, yeah. I forgot about Better Off Ted too. It's a pity it was canceled -- part of the problem was that it didn't really fit with ABC.

Mike Cherniske said...

My sense of humor is pretty weird- I'm the only person I know that doesn't like the office. Awkward, mean humor just doesn't make me laugh.

I do love cosby, always have, but I have no idea why... it doesn't correspond with my demographic in any way!

I'm a big fan of The Big Bang Theory right now. But then again, I really relate to it well. Sometimes it hits close to home, but never so close I get depressed. The show is about four really geeky (in the modern and classical sense) guys that work at a college. All four are really smart, and the befriend the "normal girl" across the hall. The pilot, oddly, is my least favorite episode, but it gets awesome from there.

The show is so dead on about geek culture, in fact, that Lanae and I will be watching, and suddenly something will strike her just a bit funnier than it should. That means I better pay attention, cause the guys are doing something I do!

One of the characters, sheldon, is basically a perfect case of asperger's- basically you're classic detached and socially inept genius. As a behavioral therapist, not only is he interesting to watch, but I died when he began to use behavioral condition to positively reinforce his roommate's girlfriend with chocolate when she displayed what he considered appropriate behavior!

it's great!

Eugene said...

My reaction to Friends is the same as Kate's. If it were just about Monica and Chandler, I might well love it, because theirs is one of the very few sit-com relationships developed to its logical ends, without stalling out for fear of running afoul of its premise. As Time Goes By is another good example of a mature character arc.

The News Radio approach--dealing with and resolving the sexual tension right from the start--is a worthy workaround when done right (which it does).

Alas, Ross and Rachel--who epitomize everything that's wrong with sit-com romances--are loathsome creatures whose presence stains the whole thing. Ross in particular illustrates how Hollywood gets academics totally wrong. Maybe if Ross were supposed to be the caricature of a pomo liberal arts professor. But instead he's an embarrassment to the hard sciences.

Sheldon from Big Bang Theory gets it totally right. Bizarrely, it's produced by the same guys who do Two and a Half Men, but they get introverts totally right too. Extroverts assume that all introverts want to be like them. This is the conflict that Leonard deals with--wanting to belong to both worlds--and partially succeeding at it. While Howard completely fails at it.

Unlike Howard, Raj is self-aware enough to know he's socially inept, so he doesn't try. Smart introverts like Raj will go out of their way not to be Howard. They'll never end up like Ross.

But Sheldon couldn't care less. If the real world doesn't agree with him, then it never deserved his attention in the first place. He won't surrender a particle of his ego to what other people think of him. Sheldon may be the most alpha character on TV. He's the Arnold Schwarzenegger of nerddom. That Sheldon is a theoretical physicist while Leonard is an experimental physicist is also spot on.

Kate Woodbury said...

You know, I'm planning a post in the next few weeks (I still have to do "X" is for . . . Xenophon actually) about the distinction between Hollywood introverts and real introverts. I got the idea when I was watching NCIS (which I generally like although it is TOTAL cotton candy), and Tony referred to McGee as an introvert. And I thought, "Oh my gosh, this subject is just BEGGING to be explored."

But I'm now thinking I need to watch Big Bang Theory first. Kezia (my niece) recommended it too. (I thought it was a NOVA special.) So it's in my queue!

Maybe I should do Hollywood scientists versus real scientists? But science is so broad (and "real" in science is so broad), I would end up way outside my experience. Although the introverts I know also tend to be scientists, I actually do know more introverts than scientists. (I am also one of the few people I know who doesn't conflate shyness with introversion; they are related; they are not the same. I will believe people are introverts when others won't believe they are introverts because they don't seem "shy." But I think a person can behave in a non-shy manner and still be an introvert. I admit that the two things often go together, but according to my definition, Tony might actually be more introverted than McGee. Okay, I'm stretching things a bit. Just wait for my post!)

Kate Woodbury said...

So I began Big Bang Theory and what a hoot!! And what a bunch of sweeties. Okay, Howard is creepy, but he's so non-aggressive about it, it's kind of cute (so long as it is aimed at someone else).

I've been impressed not only by the funny lines but by the funny physical gags. Good, non-three-Stooges gags are hard to pull off. Big Bang physical gags are actually worth several minutes of laughing. Like Sheldon's Doppler effect costume. He's so tall, yet slouches, he's like this lanky zebra or antelope following Leonard around. (Mike, I'm guessing one scene Lanae found hilarious is when Leonard uses a light-saber, instead of a flashlight, to check the apartment. I just about fell off my couch laughing.)

What I really love, though, is that the show is ultimately rooting for the geeks. Even when Sheldon is at his most strange--first of all, like the geeks in good British sitcoms, he gets all the good lines. And second of all, he wins! So his mother has to get his job back for him, BUT he did get his illuminated fish to work!

I admit to a momentary qualm when they introduced Sara Gilbert. I think Gilbert is a very talented comedic actress with great dry delivery, but I was afraid they were going to use her to make fun of the geeky scientist chick. However, so far, they've used her pretty well.

So thanks for the suggestion, folks! Boy, there's already four seasons. That's LOTS of episodes!!

Mike Cherniske said...

So I JUST saw this comment! I'm so glad you liked it! It's really one of my favorites. I have some good/bad news though- I'm pretty sure it was the third season that just wrapped up on tv- and it's not on dvd yet. I THINK. I could be wrong.

Anyway, I need to start checking for e-mail notification!

Mike Cherniske said...

reply notification enabled. silly thing? you van only mark it as part of a comment, and only after you're signed in (which I usually do when I publish the comment).

Kate Woodbury said...

My favorite Big Bang episode so far is the one where Sheldon comes up with this completely convoluted lie because he is sure Penny won't believe Leonard's simple lie. It results in Sheldon inventing a fake cousin, Leo, who has a drug problem. Of course, then Sheldon has to HIRE a guy to play his cousin,* and there's this huge argument over whether drug abuse is due to trauma or to a genetic disposition, which latter has to be played "subtextually." And every time Leonard is asked a question about Sheldon's convoluted lie, he just says, "I don't know what to say!"

I haven't laughed this hard this continuously at a sitcom episode in a long time. It's very British, meaning they take one tiny little thing and just wear it to death.

I've got to slow down; I'll be so sad when I reach the end of the available DVDs!

* P.S. DJ Qualls as Leo/Toby gets kudos for overacting a crazy drug abuser when he actually plays a plausible, scary drug abuser most of the time (CSI, Criminal Minds, etc.).