Friday, May 02, 2008

Laugh Tracks

I see that AOL appears to have named "TV's Best 50 Comedies of All Time." Most of the programs that should be on the list are on the list, but the numerical rankings are in some cases spectacularly misguided and wrong. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" at 33, just behind "Welcome Back Kotter" and "Will & Grace?" Are you kidding me? Somebody down there needs to put down the crack pipe and smoke a rock of historical perspective instead. Or something like that.

Anyway, putting their inane rankings aside (which we'd be forced to do with any list that put "Mork and Mindy" behind "Happy Days," or which put "Friends" in the top 10), here are the annotated top 10 sitcoms of all time as seen by the final authority on the matter: me, John Rabe.

10. Happy Days: Okay, I know it's not cutting social satire or Oscar Wilde wordplay, but Garry Marshall's show launched the career of Robin Williams, spun off "Laverne and Shirley," made the Fonz the phenomenon of the 70's, and gave us added the term "jump the shark" to the lexicon. Ever use the word "nerd"? Thank "Happy Days." (By the way, this has nothing to do with the topic, but go rent Albert Brooks' "Lost in America" sometime for the scene between Brooks and Garry Marshall as the Desert Inn casino manager. "We don't have Santy Claus." One of my favorite funny movie scenes of all time.)

9. Get Smart: I saw some of these on DVD recently (though they've only been released in Europe, apparently, which is borderline criminal) and the humor holds up surprisingly well. When I was about seven, I used to love to watch it because it had gadgets and spies. I came back to it when I was older and discovered that it was really, really funny. A beautiful combination of slapstick humor and sharp writing. If Mel Brooks and Buck Henry got together today to launch a show, who wouldn't watch that? Well they did do it, and it was tremendous.

8. Arrested Development: Huh? You heard right. This show only lasted about 2 1/2 seasons on Fox, but I've never seen a non-animated program with more funny per minute than AD. It was profane and not for the kiddies (or even sensitive adults), and when my friend Bud told me I had to watch it, I resisted because of the loony, slapstick promos I'd seen. After I'd finally watched one, it was only a matter of days before I'd consumed every available episode on DVD. I still keep hoping against hope they'll bring it back.

7. The Bob Newhart Show: Newhart is funnier struggling to say something than most people are saying anything. I'm rolling his other show, "Newhart" into this ranking too because of its finale--the greatest in television history, filmed before an unsuspecting studio audience.

6. The Simpsons: Out of the gate, this program threatened to be overrun by the merchandising bonanza that surrounded Bart-mania. It had fad written all over it. But 19 years later, they're still there cranking out the densest 30 minutes of comedy on television. And it's still funny. Minute-for-minute, year for year, the funniest program in the history of television.

5. Seinfeld: I know it's an easy choice, but there's no way around it--this show took nothing and made it hilarious. It's hard to believe that this month marks the 10th anniversary of the show's departure. Am I the only one who remembers that Frank Sinatra died on the night of the finale? These people managed to upstage Frank Sinatra's death. Now that's cultural currency! To get a measure of its influence, try double-dipping a chip into the dip at your next party and see what happens.

4. The Dick Van Dyke Show: This program did it all. Never straying beyond the bounds of good taste, this show put together great acting, wonderful characterizations, slapstick, sophisticated story structures, and great dialogue into an irresistible package. In many ways this program set the standard for all future sitcoms, and showed Carl Reiner to be a comic genius.

3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show: This wonderfully talented commedienne mostly played the straight man, allowing the best top-to-bottom cast in sitcom history flourish. Watching this program 30 years after it left the air, I'm coming to realize that however many Emmys Ed Asner won for this, it should've been more. It would be hard to find anyone in sitcom history who was funnier while using fewer words. Seasons 1-4 are available on DVD, and they're fairly inexpensive. Buy them and give yourself a treat.

2. Cheers: It took a real hit after Shelly Long left, but no program has better combined hilarious writing with amazing chemistry the way "Cheers" did. I know that there are even people who prefer the Kirstie Alley years. Those people are idiots. But the years when Diane and Coach were there were something to behold. There's probably no program I wish were still on more than this one.

1. M*A*S*H: Yes, the final eight or so seasons became increasingly pedantic, preachy, and maudlin. Unfortunately after about four seasons of success, somebody handed girly-man Alan Alda the reins and the program never recovered. But those first few seasons are at the apex of anything that's ever been done on TV. There has never, ever been a funnier sitcom character than early Hawkeye Pierce. Larry Gelbart's writing is even more amazing the fifth time you hear it than it was the first.

If pressed, I could probably be pursuaded to bump "Happy Days" in favor of "The Larry Sanders Show" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm." But something tells me the list should be confined to broadcast television in order to be authentic. Feel free to add your own choices in the comments thread.

Coming next (probably after my upcoming vacation): the shows that didn't make the list--and why.

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