When I was putting together this top 10 list, I realized that needed more out of American sitcoms than just funny episodes, iconic characters, and memorable scenes. Because shows like Seinfeld, Arrested Development, and I Love Lucy, all provided those moments and memories that I loved and laughed along with. But none of those shows hit me in the gut and the heart. I needed to connect with the characters in some way, and I pretty well know that Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer would throw each other off of a cliff to save their own asses in a heartbeat.
I know this is a top 10, but it isn’t a ranking. Please don’t read anything into the order of this list. How on earth could I rate one over the other, especially when each stands alone for their own merits? Anyway, away we go…
1. All in the Family – Very much derived from the British sitcom, Till Death Us Do Part, All in the Family centered around Archie Bunker, a World War II veteran and a working-class laborer living in Queens and his wife, Edith, his loving and long-suffering wife who he dubbed “Dingbat”. Much to Archie’s chagrin, his only child, Gloria, married Mike, a liberal college student who opposes everything that Archie holds dear. Mike has to live with Archie degrading everything he says and being called “Meathead” on a daily basis. In spite of Archie’s bigotry and verbal abuse, Carroll O’Connor infused the character with a vulnerable humanity and humor that made us actually like him. Being a Norman Lear created show, it tackled topics that many shows were afraid to touch, such as when Edith hit menopause. Here Archie and Meathead have a chat about it, and Archie is his usual sensitive self. On a real life note, Archie’s signature chair actually sits in the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.
2. M*A*S*H – Set during the Korean War, we laughed, cried, and worried with the gang of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. I remembered when the final episode was the TV event that everyone had to see. We know the characters: Hawkeye, Trapper John, B.J., Frank Burns, Radar, Klinger, Father Mulcahy, Hot Lips, Henry Blake, Col. Potter, and even Winchester. It started off more like a situation comedy, but the tone became more of a comedy drama as the series evolved. In this short clip, you can see how skillfully the actors and script writers balanced the darkness of war with the humor it takes to cope with the insanity.
3. Good Times – Here we have it…a spin off of a spin off. From All in the Family came Archie Bunker’s arch nemesis, Edith’s cousin, Maude Findlay. Maude, played adeptly by the great Bea Arthur, had her own self-titled sitcom and employed an African-American maid named Florida Evans. Well, Florida must have grown tired of Maude’s big mouth because she fled Tuckahoe, New York to move into the Chicago projects with her husband James and her three children: J.J., Thelma, and Michael. Though most people remember Jimmie Walker goofing around the TV screen screaming DY-NO-MITE, this was also a show that tackled the more serious issues of racism, poverty, family divisions, and child abuse, to name a few. In other words, this show is still relevant today. A standard episode has been abridged by Crackle into 5 minutes.
4. The Simpsons – Damn straight, the Simpsons belong on this list. They may be animated, but there are actual human artists and voice actors who brought them to life. And an extra thank you to Matt Groening for creating them in the first place! We wouldn’t have Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, American Dad or any of the others of this genre without the original. And I think my family can attest that I was very much a Lisa growing up. Meanwhile, enjoy Homer and his Forbidden Donut.
5. Family Ties– Columbus, Ohio. Mom’s an architect. Dad’s a manager of the local PBS station. These two former hippies spawn a Young Republican, a dopey fashionista, a tomboy, and eventually another kid to boost ratings. Sounds like it was going to just plain suck. But it didn’t. Well-scripted and well-acted, it didn’t get overly sentimental, nor did it get overly preachy. The sitcom that started the career of Michael J. Fox can’t be all bad. And we had Tom Hanks guest star in a few episodes as alcoholic Uncle Ned.
6. The Golden Girls – The American sitcom dream team was right here. Bea Arthur reunited with Rue McClanahan from Maude to play friends and roommates Dorothy and Blanche. Betty White from The Mary Tyler Moore Show fame signed on to play another roomie, Rose. And Estelle Getty landed her breakout role playing Dorothy’s mother, Sophia, who ended up moving in after her nursing home, Shady Pines, burned down. Betty White needs to give the acting master class on how to play ditzy now that Jean Stapleton, All in the Family‘s Edith Bunker, isn’t with us anymore. Watch and learn how comedic dialogue is done.
7. The Big Bang Theory – How can you say that I can emotionally connect with a bunch of socially awkward, but brilliant STEM types? Because I live it. I am Penny with a liberal arts degree. My late father-in-law was basically Sheldon Cooper with a British accent, even down to the degree in Theoretical Physics. The Boffin? Well, he is a category unto himself. It is a world where one does not break an arm because you slip in the shower. It is because you do not have adhesive ducks.
8. Taxi – The band of misfits of the Sunshine Cab Company hold a place near to my heart. Christopher Lloyd, Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Andy Kaufman, Marilu Henner, Jeff Conaway, and Tony Danza became household names at this time. It was the classic ensemble cast who created the right chemistry to make a truly funny show. Watch the Reverend Jim take his driver’s test to see.
9. Cheers – Ecclectic cast of characters set in one of the best cities in the country all in a neighborhood bar. What could be better than that? A simple formula perfectly executed. Who deep down doesn’t want everyone screaming your name when you walk into the local haunt just like everyone did with Norm? How can anyone forget Cliff Clavin’s appearance on Jeopardy!? Talk about life imitating art, the original bar that was shown on the exterior shots was called the Bull and Finch Pub, and it is on Beacon Street in Boston. I poked my head in there to see what it looked like. Of course, it was nothing like the set. In 2002, they changed the name to Cheers Beacon Hill.
10. Frasier – Dr. Frasier Crane, the Big Ninny of the sitcom Cheers gets his own show twice. Kelsey Grammar gets his TV show, and on the TV show, he hosts a call-in radio show in Seattle where he gives his expert psychological advice. Too bad Dr. Crane can’t heal himself. He lives with his father and foil, Martin, a street-wise retired cop and Martin’s physical therapist, Daphne, a kind, eccentric English woman. Let’s not forget, Eddie, Martin’s Jack Russell terrier, who steals the scene many times with his antics. His brother, Niles, is another psychiatrist with refined tastes and a propensity to be a complete snot. What’s great about this show is that it didn’t need fantastic plot lines. It was the little moments that were worthwhile.
I certainly don’t expect you to agree with me over what I consider the best. Feel free to let me which ones are your favorites and why. Of course, I am working on a list of my favorites from the UK. Hint: There won’t be a whiff of Benny Hill coming your way.