A comedy on TV can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some see the genre in its basest form: a show that makes us laugh. Others have expanded the definition (along with the Emmy rules) to include the drama-comedy hybrids, as long as they clock in at around half-an-hour. Still others find comedy in black humor or extra campy nighttime soaps.
But over the last few decades, what makes for great TV comedy has changed just as much as the genre itself. We’ve seen it all, and yet, there’s always something new right around the corner. So before we get too far along, let’s remember the best of what we’ve see so far, across the ever-changing landscape of television.
[Selection Criteria: We’ve stuck to shows that aired a majority of their episodes after the year 2000, and we’ve only included scripted programming. Also, in an effort to highlight more live-action series, we’ve eliminated animated comedies from contention. Finally, while definition of a “comedy” is somewhat elastic, if the show was predominantly funny or widely considered a comedy, we deemed it eligible for this list.]
HBO/BBC Two/BBC One
Everyone has a favorite episode of Ricky Gervais’ short-running HBO show, and everyone’s favorite is different. Whether you’re a sucker for Kate Winslet eviscerating the Oscars’ predictable voting tendencies, or you’re adamant no one can top Patrick Stewart‘s rather creepy rendition of his nudity-driven screenplay, there’s one moment that tops them all — even if the others are pretty great, too. While spanning just 13 episodes, Gervais successfully and thoroughly satirized show business and reframed our perspective on quite a few real-life actors who were clearly in on the joke. “Extras” was one of our first peeks behind the curtain in a century that would showcase many meta industry narratives, and few could compete with Gervais’ deft blend of charming original characters and hilarious Hollywood commentary. – BT
2015 – present
Sometimes chemistry leads to love, and “Catastrophe” puts that to the test and then some with this whirlwind rom-com in which a one-week stand leads to matrimony and parenthood. Co-creators, writers and stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney had us convinced that they were married to each other, so great was their chemistry and dialogue that’s far too filthy, raunchy and ultimately hilarious to be fake. (For the record, they’re not.) But that snort-inducing honesty is exactly why we also fall in love with the engaging characters Sharon and Rob, despite their many flaws. Each well-crafted, six-episode season is jam-packed with jokes with a stealthy side of soulfulness that makes you believe in love all over again. – HN
18. “Broad City”
2014 – present
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s web series turned cult Comedy Central sensation started hot and is still burning strong; an impressive feat given how quickly Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler tapped into the cultural milieu. In the episodic scripts and individual character moments, this duo captured the ever-elusive combination of being utterly unique and in touch with the zeitgeist, while doing their damnedest to make each other laugh. And you better believe if they’re laughing, everyone is laughing. These characters are human, but extreme, sweet but oh so dirty, and always pushing back against the status quo. Through four seasons, “Broad City” has been a delight, through and through. May it never end. – BT
17. “Party Down”
2009 – 2010
This comedy by “Veronica Mars” creator Rob Thomas was cut criminally short after only two seasons, but in that time it was able to depict a side of Hollywood that we rarely see: the underbelly of disappointments, broken dreams and settling for second-best. That dreary outlook is perfectly incongruous with its premise of a happy catering business with crisp white shirts and jaunty pink bowties, and that’s exactly what makes it work. Underlying the caustic observations about Tinseltown superficiality is a genuine understanding of the combination of hope and bitterness that comes with unrewarded talent. The ensemble’s easy chemistry — especially between Adam Scott and the always-excellent Lizzy Caplan — makes this an enjoyable hang while we reflect on our own ambitions. – HN
16. “Curb Your Enthusiasm”
2000 – present
A follow-up to “Seinfeld” that ended up reuniting the cast, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” somehow still managed to stand on its own two curmudgeon-y feet. Larry David built an empire analyzing the awkward social cues of four observant New Yorkers, but playing himself on HBO freed up the behind-the-scenes co-creator of a classic NBC sitcom to be his own man — no matter how standoffish he wanted to act. What resulted was a painfully funny comedy, as David’s efforts were as cringe-inducing as they were admirable — and rarely did the two emotions coincide. We rooted (and will root for) Larry’s schlemiel character to avoid what always feels like his inevitable undoing, but we’re just as eager to learn from his insightful faux pas. – BT