Comedy rules are made to be broken. If all laughter comes from some great psychological misdirect, then it follows that the funniest series are the ones that continue to take the unexpected routes.
But sometimes a comedy is memorable because of the rules that it inadvertently puts in place. Some foundational TV series have endured not because they were ratings or cultural juggernauts in their time, but because their spiritual descendants dotted programming lineups years — maybe even decades — after their cameras stopped rolling.
As in other realms of entertainment, the TV comedies that endure and that are worth revisiting manage to speak to something brewing in their day and the audiences watching generations after. Sometimes it’s a matter of seeing how much the idea of good governance has changed since some starry-eyed optimists in Indiana closed up shop just a few years ago. Other times, it’s recognizing how a quartet of thankful friends in Miami are still providing comfort for viewers the same age as their great-grandchildren.
Of course, the platonic ideal of a TV comedy has changed over that time, too. The three-jokes-per-page maxim became gospel…and then was summarily tossed out the window as shows found more ways to be cathartic than a parade of laughs. There are the clever shows, the witty and the dry, the outrageous and the provocative, the ones that lean on your knowledge of all those others while delivering references with a wink and a nod.
So, in an effort to gather that unpredictable cross-section of over a half-century of TV comedies, we’ve tried to form our picks for the 50 greatest. We’ve tried our best to combat recency bias, while acknowledging that the explosion in quality TV of late has made it impossible to ignore that some all-time work is still unfolding in front of our eyes. Those developments also extend into the world beyond the fictional ones, where once-vaunted series have become irreparably tainted by the conduct of their stars and creators. (You can guess which ones those are by their omission in the collection below.)
Even with those gone, there’s still a shocking number of possibilities to choose from. (The IndieWire team of writers began with a list of well over 100 and determined finalists through a series of votes.) At this point in TV history, 50 might be a representative sum, but it’s far from comprehensive. Still, it’s worth saluting the following shows, that range from the spectacular to the magnificent.
50. “Arrested Development” (Fox, 2003-2006; Netflix, 2013-2019)
20th Century Fox TV
“Arrested Development” is one of the quintessential examples of bad TV timing. Its first three seasons, which each rank among the best collection of episodes any comedy show has ever aired, came too soon to capitalize on a world where streaming and intense fandom could have kept the show afloat. Up until recently, it wouldn’t be all that controversial to say that Season 4 would be a topic of debate for years to come, but with the tepid, almost silent response to the show’s fifth (and let’s face it, probably final) season, we might be overestimating its staying power. Still, in whatever venue the show exists, there’s so much that’s irreproachable in those first three seasons the series still merits placement on a list like this. With its sheer joke density and looping, concentric storylines, it might just be as close as we’ll ever get to a live-action cartoon. — SG
49. “Roseanne” (ABC, 1988-1997; 2018)
As several shows on this list can attest, maintaining a comedic legacy can be difficult. Sometimes a show overstays its welcome or its star turns out to be a racist gasbag. And sometimes it’s both. Built on the back of Roseanne Barr’s stand-up career, the first five seasons of “Roseanne” are unimpeachable comedy, a showcase for middle America’s middle class. The Conner family became an avatar for people who often felt lost in a country that had left them behind. In “Roseanne,” viewers could see their own financial concerns, family struggles, and job instability mirrored on the TV screen; this time, infused with a wicked humor that can be so difficult to find in our own experiences. Buoyed by a stacked cast of comedic players, specifically John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, the Conners are a TV family for the ages. Even after its too-long original run and infamous 2018 return, the sitcom remains vital to the TV comedy conversation for providing an unflinching look at a family that you may not always like, but you can’t help but love. — LH
48. “Community” (NBC, 2009-2014; Yahoo! Screen, 2015)
One of the most malleable comedies in broadcast history, it still seems borderline impossible that Dan Harmon’s show was able to get away with as much as it did. With episodes that followed more conventional single-cam sitcom formats and ones that chucked all that out the window: chronicles of paintball death matches, a Ken Burns riff delivered via a pillow/blanket feud, and a chicken finger heist parody of “Goodfellas.” The volatility behind the scenes led to a few dips in quality at various points, but there’s a reason why the show’s devoted fan base fought so hard to help save the show and keep it alive on various sites in the half-decade since it went off the air. Any show that can develop its own lexicon and incredible background gags — like the Beetlejuice one or the episode that has Abed helping someone give birth over the course of a half-hour — is worthy of praise. — SG
47. “One Day at a Time” (Netflix, 2017-2019)
We come here to bury the 2017 revival of the Norman Lear classic sitcom, not to praise it. That said, it’s such a special show, its own streaming service bemoaned its cancelation — even though it was the one dropping the ax. Reimagined for modern audiences, “One Day at a Time” introduced the Alvarez family, whose Cuban roots meant they looked different from any other family sitcom. But it’s not the family’s heritage that made them a cut above; it was the tremendous empathy infused at every turn. Tackling issues of racism and mental illness, immigration and homophobia, the series embraced an ugly and imperfect world with open arms and a curious spirit. Netflix cited low viewership numbers for why it ended the show’s run. I prefer to think that the series was just too pure, too beautiful for this brutish existence. — LH
46. “Pushing Daisies” (ABC, 2007-2009)
Oh, to have Ned’s sweet touch of resurrection. “Pushing Daisies” only lasted two seasons, but Bryan Fuller’s self-styled forensic fairy tale is as marvelously morbid as that made-up genre sounds. Starring Lee Pace as Ned — a simple pie man with an extraordinary ability to resurrect the dead with one touch (but then send them to permanent rest with a second) — the series created a strange but ingenious device to solve murders. Kristin Chenoweth, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Swoosie Kurtz, and Ellen Greene join Pace in this madcap land known for its stunning visuals, bizarre sets, and deliciously gruesome puns. Director Barry Sonnenfeld helped set the style for the series and would later bring that eye to Netflix’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” This was the third series that Fuller, the master of macabre, created that flirted with the supernatural and it demonstrated in the most technicolor way what broadcast TV was capable of (and four years later, he’d do it again with “Hannibal”). No matter how one slices it, the show could be sweet or savory, but it was always satisfying. — HN
45. “Master of None” (Netflix, 2015 – present)
Based on the comedic viewpoints of Aziz Ansari, the series follows the personal and professional life of Dev, a 30-year-old actor in New York who has trouble deciding between life’s mundanities, not to mention its bigger challenges. Ambitious, amusing and cinematic, exploring various everyday themes, the series is simultaneously broad in scope and intensely personal. With oodles of heart and charm, it’s a refreshingly idiosyncratic take on an otherwise familiar premise that manages to outdo itself in its second of two seasons thus far, delivering an increasingly ambitious series of episodes. Boasting a diverse cast of eclectic characters, and beautifully shot on location in New York and Italy, it’s a remarkable undertaking in storytelling and demonstrates what a modern TV series can be. — TO
44. “Night Court” (NBC, 1984-1992)
From the mind of “Barney Miller” and “M*A*S*H” writer Reinhold Wedge, “Night Court” presides over a group of misfits who work the night shift at a municipal court in Manhattan. Led by youth judge Harry T. Stone (Harry Anderson), whose penchant for amateur magic tricks are only exceeded by his love for Mel Torme, the ensemble staff is as colorful as the miscreants hauled in at the late hour. The standout was sex-obsessed, narcissistic prosecutor Dan Fielding, played with such smarmy gusto by John Larroquette that he earned four Emmys four years in a row and may have continued that streak had he not withdrawn his name in 1989. Markie Post, Richard Moll, Marsha Warfield, and Charles Robinson joined in the hilarious courthouse shenanigans that helped bring NBC’s Thursday night comedy block acclaim before “Must See TV” was even a glint in the peacock’s eye. — HN
43. “Maude” (CBS, 1972–1978)
And then there’s Maude. Like so many of Norman Lear’s shows, “Maude” gave voice to a new kind of protagonist, this time a loud-mouthed, unapologetic feminist, who had no problem voicing her political opinions and going toe-to-toe with her adversaries. Maude Findlay, portrayed by an absolutely iconic Bea Arthur, served as a perfect women’s liberation counterpoint to network stablemate Mary Richards (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”). If Mary had spunk, then Maude had snark, and between the two, CBS covered the breadth of the 1970s Women’s Movement. Beyond that, “Maude” was innovative, playing with form and construct even within the rigid limitations of sitcoms, staging several episodes as conversations between Maude and husband Walter, and a landmark episode featuring the eponymous lead visiting an analyst and showcasing only Arthur. The series embraced untouchable topics; suicide, alcoholism, domestic violence and, famously, abortion, just another show that made its mark by delving into those concepts we’re too frightened to discuss on our own. — LH
42. “Martin” (Fox, 1992-1997)
The African American comedy classic centered around Martin Payne (played by an animated Martin Lawrence, co-creator of the series), a brash radio personality who never met a confrontation he didn’t like, often to the frustration of his spunky wife Gina (Tisha Campbell). His best pals, the straight-laced Tommy (Thomas Mikal Ford) and the bumbling Cole (Carl Anthony Payne II), are always on hand to lend support, especially when Martin locks horns with Gina’s equally confrontational friend and co-worker, Pam, played by Tichina Arnold. Of course, not to be left out of the ruckus, there’s Martin’s overprotective mother, Mama Payne, his sassy next-door neighbor, Sheneneh Jenkins, and the overbearing womanizer, Jerome — all performed by Lawrence himself, sometimes in the same scene. It was the kind of comedic range that Eddie Murphy was praised for in “Coming to America” years earlier. Living on in re-runs, as well as references from today’s hip-hop artists and in series like HBO’s “Insecure,” new audiences continue to discover what was a cultural benchmark at the time, and a highlight of what is considered the golden age of black sitcoms. — TO
41. “Murphy Brown” (CBS, 1988-1998; 2018)
Featuring one of TV’s most iconic female characters, “Murphy Brown” came back for a 2018 revival that almost captures what makes the original run of this series so special. Thanks to creator Diane English’s sharp scripts and Candice Bergen’s determination, the sitcom let its fearless protagonist take on important issues with uncompromising relish, making her a part of the national conversation on a level few other shows will ever achieve. That, and it was always incredibly funny, thanks to the “FYI” staff’s eclectic energy. Balancing politics, humor, and even the occasional moment of heart is the war so many shows fight and lose; at its best, “Murphy Brown” always triumphed. — LSM