[Editor’s note: The below article was originally published on March 27, 2020. It has been expanded from the 50 greatest TV comedies of all time to the 65 greatest as of April 21, 2022.]
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 65 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, 65 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.
Libby Hill, Liz Shannon Miller, Noel Murray, Hanh Nguyen, and Tambay Obenson also contributed to this list.
Courtesy Everett Collection
65. “The Honeymooners” (1955-56)
Throughout Jackie Gleason’s long run as a star and producer of TV variety shows, he relied on a few recurring characters — including an irascible New York City bus driver named Ralph Kramden, in a sketch called “The Honeymooners.” The cornerstone of the Gleason legacy is the 39 half-hour “Honeymooners” episodes he shot on film, which have aired in syndication continuously for over 50 years. The premise is simple: Ralph Kramden is a perpetually luckless working man, trying to get ahead in life with the help of his loving-but-exhausted wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) and his dopey-but-loyal neighbor Ed (Art Carney). Unlike all those ‘50s and ‘60s sitcoms steeped in a milieu of mild middle-class comfort, “The Honeymooners” was rooted in desperate failure. But it’s entertaining nonetheless, in part because the show has the spontaneity of live theater. Gleason knew how to work an audience, milking laughs with a slow burn followed by a hilarious eruption. —NM
©FX Networks/Courtesy Everett Collection
64. “Archer” (2009-present)
It would’ve been easy for “Archer” creator Adam Reed to rest on his animated spy spoof’s core comic question: What if a secret agent was every bit as capable and lethal as James Bond and Ethan Hunt, but was also an overgrown teenager, obsessed with Burt Reynolds movies and sophomoric sexual innuendo? Instead, Reed and his writers keep reinventing “Archer” from season to season — while always making sure that it works both as a wry parody and as a genuinely exciting action-adventure. H. Jon Benjamin’s voice performance as the anti-hero Sterling Archer goes a long way toward making this show as funny as it is, though he’s also aided by an ace supporting cast (including Jessica Walter, Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, and the phenomenal Amber Nash), who play Archer’s quirky co-workers and make international espionage seem like just another dreary office gig, filled with mundane daily hassles. —NM
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
63. “Absolutely Fabulous” (1992-96; 2001-04)
Television in the 1990s was generally less edgy than it’s been in the 21st century, which may be why the British sitcom “Absolutely Fabulous” became such a phenomenon — and has remained so influential. The show’s creator Jennifer Saunders plays a high-powered publicist named Edina, who alongside her fashion journalist pal Patsy (Joanna Lumley) tries to keep living like she did 20 years earlier as a hard-partying youngster, much to the chagrin of her prim, disapproving daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha). Saunders and her cast and crew make jokes about drugs, booze, sex, celebrities, female relationships and aging, and do so with a raw energy that makes even the best comedies of their era look relatively tame. American producers scrambled to catch up, and by the end of the decade were pumping out more shows about unapologetically reckless women. —NM
Courtesy of Comedy Central
62. “South Park” (1997-present)
It’s impossible to overstate how fearless “South Park” and its creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been over the course of the show’s 25 seasons (and counting!). Though Parker and Stone’s libertarian politics and “everything’s a joke” attitude have often rubbed people on both the right and the left the wrong way, their willingness to ignore taboos and mock pomposity of all kinds — while producing a cartoon that’s often finished just before airtime, so that it’s as fresh as possible — has put them on the frontlines of the free speech wars. Plus, for a series ostensibly about a handful of goofy, troublemaking Colorado grade-schoolers, “South Park” has been impressively inventive, telling stories that spin out into inspired absurdism. There’s never been a TV comedy quite like it. —NM
61. “Barry” (2018-present)
Bill Hader is one of the funniest sketch comics in the history of “Saturday Night Live,” capable of uncanny impressions and amusingly odd original characters. But his post-“SNL” work on “Barry” — which he co-created with Alec Berg — may be remembered as his masterpiece. Hader plays Barry Berkman, a psychologically disturbed ex-Marine and skilled hitman who suffers a crisis of conscience on a job in Los Angeles and decides to study acting with a ridiculous but kindly old drama coach named Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). The show is partly about the sometimes pathetic aspirations of Gene’s students (including the promising ingenue Sally, well-played by Sarah Goldberg), and partly about the bloody dominoes that fall in the criminal underworld due to Barry’s defection. “Barry” is as dark and gripping as it is funny. —NM
©Comedy Central/Courtesy Everett Collect / Everett Collection
60. “The Other Two” (2019-present)
The too-little-seen gem “The Other Two” is the story of siblings Cary and Brooke Dubek (played by Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke), who struggled for years to find a foothold in New York show business only to become mildly famous overnight when their teenage brother Chase (Case Walker) turns into a YouTube superstar. Molly Shannon gives a winning performance as Pat, the Dubeks’ can-do matriarch — a recent widow whose tragic backstory and sunny disposition keep “The Other Two” from tipping too far into acerbic cynicism. Created by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider (the former co-head writers for “Saturday Night Live”), this show is both savvy and savage about the craziness of modern celebrity culture; but at its heart it’s a very human comedy, about some well-meaning people caught in the gears of internet fame’s perpetual motion machine. —NM