TOP TEN SITCOMS OF ALL TIME
By Shaun Costello
Early television existed on a steady diet of rehashed and recycled material, mostly Westerns that had been exhibited theatrically in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In 1952 Gene Autry became one of the richest men in America when he purchased the old Monogram Studios, and its inventory of 750 “B” Westerns, renaming it Melody Ranch Studios. Autry saw the future, and recognized the vacuum of programming on early television as a gold mine for any enterprising soul with readily available entertainment to sell.
Those 750 “B” Westerns, newly owned by Autry, filled that programming vacuum with non-stop cowboy culture. A stop-gap measure to be sure, but an enormously profitable endeavor for the Singing Cowboy, until shows specifically produced for television could be developed. And Melody Ranch Studios became a major production facility for Western themed TV shows like; The Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, Hopalong Cassidy, Rin Tin Tin, The Cisco Kid and many others.
Most of the earliest shows specifically produced for television, that filled the gaps between Autry’s “B” Westerns, had been successful radio programs. I can remember listening regularly to radio shows like Gunsmoke, Jack Benny, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and The Lone Ranger; all of which became newly produced as television programs. America was hungry for television, and before long, newly produced entertainment began to outnumber Autry’s “B” Westerns.
The Fifties would give birth to a new phenomenon – television’s Situation Comedies. Some, like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Jack Benny had been radio hits; but television production was now in high gear, churning out original sitcoms like You’ll Never Get Rich, with Phil Silvers as the shameless Sergeant Bilko, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which introduced Warren Beatty and Tuesday Weld. The variety shows like Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Perry Como, and Red Skelton ruled the airwaves, but the Sitcom was knocking on America’s door with growing success, and would quickly become a staple of the country’s entertainment culture.
I recently Googled the top ten sitcoms and was horrified to find nothing, other than Seinfeld, on any list that was produced before this current millennium. List after list of bubble gum entertainment, all millennial fodder. Sorry kids, but shows like Friends, or How I Met Your Mother hardly qualify to be on an all-time top ten list. I decided right then and there, that the Top Ten Sitcoms of all Time list was a wrong that needed righting, and my Blog seemed like the appropriate venue for this adventure. Many years ago, Groucho Marks was interviewed on Dick Cavett’s late night talk show. Cavett asked him if he watched television. Groucho responded, “Not really. Well, I do watch Bunker. Oh, and the schwartzes.” (Sanford and Son) Both of Groucho’s programs made my list. Whittling all the Sitcoms ever produced down to ten has been difficult. Quality shows like You’ll Never Get Rich, Cheers, Happy Days, and Welcome Back Kotter didn’t make the cut, much as I loved them. Top Ten lists are subjective, so yours will probably vary from mine, but these ten stalwart shows, each born of great writing, and unique performers, all of which sociologically impacted the era in which they aired, in this viewer’s opinion, are the All-Time Champs.
In alphabetical order:
ALL IN THE FAMILY
(1971 to 1979)
Created, developed and produced by the redoubtable team of Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, whose names will appear again on this list, seldom has a television character so befuddled and delighted the American audience as Archie Bunker. Bigoted beyond all reason, Archie becomes the perfect tool though which Lear and Yorkin tackle the social issues facing America in the Seventies: racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, religion, miscarriage, abortion, breast cancer, Vietnam, menopause, and impotence – all seen through the dependably debauched eyes of Archie Bunker. The series became arguably one of television’s most influential comedic programs, as it injected the sitcom format with more realistic and topical conflicts. Carroll O’Connor’s portrayal of Archie yielded what is arguably television’s most controversial and unforgettable character. O’Connor is nimbly supported by the hilarious Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers. In 2013, the Writer’s Guild ranked All in the Family the fourth best written TV series ever, and TV Guide ranked it as the fourth greatest show of all time. In September of 1979, a new show, Archie Bunker’s Place, picked up where All in the Family had ended. It ran four additional years, ending in 1983.
THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW
(1961 to 1966)
The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on October 5, 1961, introducing to the television audience two relatively unknown performers who would become multi-media mega stars – Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. The show was developed by Carl Reiner and produced by Reiner along with Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. Loosely based on Reiner’s life as a television writer, the show follows the adventures of TV writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) who is the head writer for the fictional Alan Brady Show. Brady is played by Reiner as an arrogant, egocentric, and of course insecure TV star. A solid supporting cast including Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, and Richard Deacon as Reiner’s snobbish, bullying brother in law. An equally solid writing team including Reiner, Persky and Denoff; as well as Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson and Carl Kleinschmitt. Among the show’s directors were Sheldon Leonard, John Rich and Jerry Paris. The series won 15 Emmy Awards. In 1997 the episodes “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouths” and “It May Look Like a Walnut” were ranked at 8 and 15 respectively on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. In 2002 the series was ranked 13 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. A bit dated now, but Van Dyke’s nimble sight gags are still tops, and the dialogue’s still juicy.
(1955 to 1956)
Many of you will be stunned by the years listed above. I certainly was. How can something like The Honeymooners, a corner stone of American entertainment culture have only aired for a year? It debuted as a half hour series on October 1, 1955 and aired its final episode on September 22, 1956. There are only 39 episodes, now referred to as The Classic 39. The show’s history is complicated. Jackie Gleason was introduced to early television audiences on the DuMont Television Network’s Cavalcade of Stars (1949 to 1952). Gleason, who had made his mark on the first television incarnation of The Life of Riley sitcom, stepped into Cavalcade on July 15, 1950, and became an immediate sensation. He offered several skits including – The Loudmouth, Joe the Bartended, Reginald Van Gleason III, The Poor Soul, and The Honeymooners, which co-starred Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph. In 1952, CBS president William S. Paley offered Gleason a considerably higher salary. The series was retitled The Jackie Gleason Show and premiered on CBS Television on September 20, 1952. The show had a five year run, making its finale in 1957. An immediate hit for the network, Gleason’s format was basically of the Variety genre, offering guest performers, a musical interlude with the weekly appearance of The June Taylor Dancers, and Gleason’s standard skits, the most popular of which was The Honeymooners, a comedy sketch about a Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason), his pal Ed Norton (Art Carney), and their wives, played by Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph. This sketch became so enormously popular that Paley’s CBS network would lengthen it to a half hour, and offer it as a weekly sitcom. Although the new show was initially a ratings success, becoming the number two show in the country during its first season, it faced stiff competition at the beginning of season two from The Perry Como Show, dropping to number nineteen, and Paley decided to pull the plug. 39 episodes – that’s all that were produced, yet the show and its colorful characters have become a part of American entertainment folk lore. Everyone’s got a favorite episode. Mine is Chef of the Future. What’s yours?
I LOVE LUCY
(1951 to 1957)
I Love Lucy was the first scripted television program to be shot on 35MM film (in black and white) before a studio audience. The series won five Emmy Awards, and received numerous nominations in many categories. Although distributed by CBS, I love Lucy was the first television program to be owned by its creators, It was a DESILU production, shot at DESILU STUDIOS in Los Angeles, and owned by Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their partners. I Love Lucy was the most watched show in America for four of its six seasons, and was the first to end its run at the top of the Nielsen ratings. The show is still syndicated in dozens of languages, and remains popular with an American audience of 40 million each year.
Lucille Ball as Lucille Esmeralda “Lucy” McGillicuddy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Enrique Alberto Fernando y de Acha “Ricky” Ricardo III
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mae Potter Mertz
William Frawley as Frederick “Fred” Hobart Mertz
Richard Keith as Enrique Alberto Ricardo VI (Ricky Jr.)
Twins Mike Mayer and Joe Mayer played Little Ricky as a toddler
Originally set in an apartment building in New York City, I Love Lucy follows the adventures of Lucy Ricardo (Ball) her singer/band leader husband Ricky (Arnaz), along with their best friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (Frawley and Vance).
Lucille Ball’s real life pregnancy was scripted into the show. During the second season, Lucy and Ricky give birth to a son named Ricky Ricardo Jr, (Little Ricky) whose birth was timed to coincide with Ball’s real-life delivery of her son Desi Arnaz Jr. The American television audience watched their favorite television star give birth to what would become their favorite baby on their favorite show: and the Nielsen ratings went off the charts.
After the final episode in 1957, a modified version continued for three more seasons with 13 one hour specials, running from 1957 to 1960. It was first called The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, and later in re-runs as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. In 2012, the original I Love Lucy show was voted “Best TV Show of All Time” in a survey conducted by ABC News and People Magazine.
THE MART TYLER MOORE SHOW
(1970 to 1977)
In the late Sixties Mary Tyler Moore was a hot commodity. Her six season run as Laura on The Dick Van Dyke Show endeared her to America’s television audience, not to mention Hollywood, and the offers were plentiful. When she was offered her own show, which had been developed by James Brooks and Allan Burns, she took full advantage of her celebrity, taking a feather from Lucille Ball’s cap – why be a passenger on your own journey, when you can Captain the ship yourself. The show, originally entitled Mary Tyler Moore, would become the first production of MTM Enterprises, and would parody MGM’s Leo the lion, by featuring a cameo of a kitten meowing under the company name. Mary Tyler Moore would become a sociological breakthrough for television, with the first never-married, independent career woman as the central character. Mary Richards is a thirty-something single woman who settles in Minneapolis after breaking up with her boyfriend. She lands a job as Associate Producer of the evening news show on WJM-TV. The show’s characters consist of Mary’s co-workers and neighbors. Her Boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner), egocentric and inept anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), “Happy Home Maker” Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), her upstairs neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), and another neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman). The characters were so strong that three became spin-off shows. Ed Asner starred in Lou Grant (1977 to 1982), Valerie Harper starred in Rhoda (1974 to 1978), and Cloris Leachman starred in Phyllis (1975 to 1977). The show was one of the most acclaimed programs in American television history, winning Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series three years in a row ((1975 through 1977). In 2013 The Writers Guild of America ranked The Mary Tyler Moore Show Number 6 in its list of the 101 Best Written TV Series of All Time.
(1972 to 1983)
The long-running and incredibly successful TV series known as M*A*S*H was an adaptation of Robert Altman’s hilarious 1970 motion picture of the same name. The series was developed by Larry Gelbart. The writers included Gelbart, Alan Alda, Mike Farrell and McLean Stevenson. Gelbart kept Altman’s theme music (Suicide is Painless), and most of the original characters from the movie. The series follows the antics of the members of the “4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital” during the three years of the Korean Conflict. A wide range of bizarre characters interact in a show that spanned 256 episodes over eleven seasons. Cast members include: Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, Larry Linville, Gary Burghoff, Mike Farrell, Harry Morgan, and Jamie Farr. I can remember where I was when Kennedy was shot, and during New York’s great blackout in 1967, and where I watched the last episode of M*A*S*H. The show’s finale on February 28, 1983, Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen became, at the time, the most-watched, and highest-rated single television episode in American television history, with a record breaking 125 million viewers (60.2 rating and 77share). Many of the scripts in the early seasons were based on tales told by real MASH surgeons who were interviewed by the production team. Like Altman’s movie, the series was as much an allegory about the Vietnam War (still in progress when the show began) as it was about the Korean Conflict.
THE ODD COUPLE
(1970 to 1975)
It’s often the case that a theatrical character, given a signature performance by the perfect actor for that role, becomes unwanted territory forever after for actors seeking a role to play. Would any actor be believed as Patton, after the world has seen George C. Scott? No one in his right mind would consider attempting it. But then, rare as they might be, there are exceptions. When Neil Simon wrote the Odd Couple for Broadway, he created two characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, whose quirky personalities were so delightfully extreme that they might be performed by a variety of actors, with equal appeal to an audience. Simon’s original Felix was Art Carney, and his Oscar was Walter Matthau – perfect actors for those juicy roles. I saw The Odd Couple on Broadway with that cast three times, and at the time I couldn’t imagine any other actor playing either role. They were perfect. No one else could ever play those parts. It would be like trying to imagine anyone other than Zero Mostel as Max Bialystok. Then came the 1968 movie. Jack Lemmon was given the role of Felix, and the chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau was every bit as good as the Carney/Matthau combination had been in the stage play. I can remember looking forward to seeing the movie with some trepidation, having loved Carney in the play. But I was surprised – Lemmon was fabulous. This happens rarely. Then, in 1970, The Odd Couple, which had been an incredibly successful stage play, and equally successful movie, became a television sitcom. But who would play Felix? Who would play Oscar? Would a famous movie star like Jack Lemmon lower himself by acting in a TV series? The television version of The Odd Couple was developed by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for Paramount Television. Among the original casting considerations were Mickey Rooney or Martin Balsam as Oscar, and Dean Martin or Art Carney as Felix, the role Carney had invented on Broadway. Eventually, Tony Randall was cast as Felix, and Randall lobbied hard for Mickey Rooney to play Oscar. But the show’s producer, Garry Marshall, lobbied even harder for Jack Klugman, and Klugman got the part. So now we have Randall and Klugman as Felix and Oscar, and, surprise of surprises – they were great. Among the show’s directors were Marshall, Belson, Jerry Paris, Hal Cooper, and Alan Rafkin. The writing team included Marshall, Belson, Neil Simon, Mickey Rose, Ron Friedman, and Rick Mittleman. The Odd Couple is a permanent fixture in anyone’s recollections of the Seventies. I just loved the Seventies.
SANFORD AND SON
(1972 to 1977)
When Groucho Marks told Dick Cavett that he watched “The Schwartzes”, he of course meant Sanford and Son, a ground breaking sitcom with an entirely African American cast of characters. The show was based on the BBC’s hit sitcom Steptoe and Son, and was developed by, I told you they’d be back, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin; although Lear went uncredited. Has there ever been a more irascible and cantankerous character than Fred Sanford? He seemed like NBC’s answer to All in the Family – the black Archie Bunker. Fred Sanford’s bigoted banter – “Son, there aint nothin’ as ugly as a ole white woman.” – was tempered by his kinder and gentler son Lamont (Desmond Wilson), who is often bewildered by his father’s venomous opinions. The show was filled by an equally irascible cast of characters: Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page), Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo), Bubba Bexley (Don Bexley), and Rollo Lawson (Nathaniel Taylor). Sanford and Son was a ratings hit throughout its six season run. In 1977 Redd Foxx left the series to do a variety show for ABC. There were three NBC spin offs: Sanford (1980 to 1981), Grady (1975 to 1976) starring Whitman Mayo, and Sanford Arms (1977). The writing team included: Ray Galton, Norman Lear, Alan Simpson, Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turteltaub. In 2007, Time Magazine included the show on its list of the “100 Best TV Shows od All Time.
(1989 to 1998)
The last of the great sitcoms. Created and developed by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the series would remain a ratings colossus throughout its nine seasons, topping the Nielsen charts in four. The syndication royalties were astronomical, making Jerry Seinfeld a very, very rich man. In 2000 he would purchase Billy Joel’s oceanfront house in Amagansett for 35 Million Dollars. In 1997, the episodes The Boyfriend and The Parking Garage were respectively ranked numbers 4 and 33 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. In 2009, the episode The Contest was named number 1 on the same magazine’s 100 Greatest Episodes. In 2013, The Writer’s Guild named Seinfeld the 2nd best written series of all time (The Sopranos was #1). The show is set predominantly in Jerry’s Upper West Side apartment, the surrounding neighborhood, and the corner Diner. The characters, a craftily cast bunch if there ever was one, include: Jerry’s High School buddy George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Jerry’s former girlfriend Elaine Benes (Julia Louise-Dreyfus), and Jerry’s neighbor across the hall Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). Seinfeld was produced by Castle Rock Entertainment. In syndication, the series has been distributer by Sony Pictures Television since 2002. Week after week, season after season, Seinfeld consistently delivered cleverly written, hilariously performed, and craftily delivered shows on a level of the very best ever aired on television. The writing team included: Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Charles, Peter Mehlman, Steve Koren, Jennifer Crittenden, Tom Gammill, Marjorie Gross, Elaine Pope, and Spike Feresten. The Directors included: David Steinberg, Art Wolff, Tom Cherones, Andy Ackerman, and David Owen Trainor. As with The Honeymooners, everyone has a favorite Seinfeld episode. Mine are any containing the Soup Nazi.
(1978 to 1982 on ABC – 1982 to 1983 on NBC)
The series, which won 18 Emmy Awards, including three for Outstanding Comedy Series, follows the lives of a handful of New York City taxi drivers and their delightfully abusive dispatcher (Guess who). Taxi was produced by the John Charles Walters Company, in association with Paramount Network Television, and was created and developed by James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis and Ed Weinberger. The show is basically a one set production, the action taking place in the fleet garage of the fictional Sunshine Cab Company. The formula here seems to be: create an extraordinarily off-beat bunch of characters, cast these characters with an equally off-beat bunch of actors – throw it all in the hopper, and, with clever scripting and direction, hope for the best. And the best is exactly what happens. The employees of the Sunshine Cab Company are a motley crew, including frustrated actor Bobby (Jeff Conaway), struggling boxer Tony (Tony Danza), art gallery receptionist Elaine (Marilu Henner), and tyrannical dispatcher Louie (Danny DeVito). For almost everyone, the cab company is just a temporary job that can be left behind when they make it in their chosen professions. The hardened core of the company is disillusioned Alex (Judd Hirsch), who’s sure he will be driving a cab for the rest of his life. Burned-out ex-hippie minister Reverend Jim (Chistopher Lloyd) and mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman) to round out the group. I don’t think there has ever been a funnier character on television than Danny DeVito’s devilishly despotic Louie. James L. Brooks’s formula worked to a tee, delivering six seasons of delicious nonsense.
© 2015 Shaun Costello