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.
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[Editor’s Note: The below piece was originally published on May 23, 2017. It was updated on February 24, 2021.]
[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.]
Upon its premiere in 2012 Lena Dunham’s “Girls” felt like a breath of fresh air. The series, focused on four friends growing up in New York, aimed to be a “Sex and the City” for millennial women. The stories focused on felt fresh and had humor in their awkwardness, like the misguided realization that only the most adventurous women had HPV. Along the way there were tears, bad decisions, and dancing to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”
Though technically the first season of this Edgar Wright-created drama premiered in 1999, Season 2 didn’t launch until 2001. The series, giving us our first glimpse at the hilarity of Wright and actors Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, told the story of friends Tim and Daisy (Pegg and Jessica Stevenson) who become roommates. Their friends start to comingle with each other, leading to all manner of bizarre things. Their twentysomething shenanigans included a faux gunbattle, complete with finger-guns, confusion about pot or oregano, and a dog named Colin who Daisy clearly couldn’t tame. Along the way there was an inner sadness about knowing days like these were numbered, we all have to grow up sometime.
“The IT Crowd” was the perfect series for anyone who had ever experienced office culture. Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is sent to oversee the IT department of her company, only to find out it’s run by the bumbling pair of Moss and Roy (Richard Ayoade and Chris O’Dowd, respectively). The series hilariously poked fun at Jen’s complete lack of knowledge about computers; she presumed the actual internet was a black box. It also looked at just how awkward it is maintaining a friendship with the people you work with. Along the way it crafted some fantastic one-liners, including Jen’s exclamation of “the shoes,” in an episode dealing with her desire to wear a pair of posh shoes that are two sizes too small.
2015 – 2019
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
2014 – 2019
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
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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
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
2009 – 2020
“Modern Family” may have started to feel a bit old hat by its fifth Emmys win for Outstanding Comedy Series, but Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan’s series doesn’t deserve to be disrespected because it earned (arguably) too much respect. Family comedy is hard to do well without becoming redundant or predictable, and the Dunphy-Pritchett families were never either for more than 100 episodes. Moreover, their exploits were told with a formal elegance adults could admire and by a cast no one can resist. “Modern Family” is one of the last, great broadcast comedies, and that’s something we hope never goes out of style. – BT
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2003 – 2015
Setting aside the sheer high-wire balancing act of its formal trickery, “Peep Show” would merit inclusion on this list strictly on the samurai-sword-blade precision of its 21st century “Odd Couple” deconstruction. Over nine seasons of romantic turmoil, professional upheaval, and the general pitfalls of stagnant London life, Mark and Jez managed to be two of the most self-destructive protagonists in modern comedy. But even as the audience had the chance to literally listen in on their thoughts, David Mitchell and Robert Webb — along with writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain — still managed to find ways to move these two men into uncomfortable situations, born on the waves of an endlessly quotable string of insults, puns, and defeated proclamations. (The fact that this and “That Mitchell and Webb Look” aired concurrently is nothing short of a benevolent British comedy miracle.) – Steve Greene
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2009 – 2015
“Community” is a show for misfits who find belonging in their very outsider-ness. The series may have been on the bubble for most of its existence (hence the consistent #sixseasonsandamovie hashtag plea), but it never faltered in how it approached its love of TV in all its glory. While a study group at a community college was the entry point for the series, these were just the players who would usher us into a world of puppetry, espionage, horror, stop-motion animation, musicals, documentary and so much more. Reality and rules are mere guidelines on this supremely playful show that never settled for the status quo or expectation. And isn’t six seasons of fan devotion the ultimate reward for a misfit show that made good? We’re still waiting on that movie. – HN
2014 – 2019
Credit where credit is due to Amazon for the first scripted series that tackled a trans woman as a main character while finding the funny in her journey to embracing her true self. Beyond this groundbreaking territory, though, is an emotionally spirited story about a family in all of its unsubtle, messy glory. You need patience and understanding to deal with Pfeffermans, and it pays off in rewarding ways because they are pushing boundaries of gender, class and race that some would never even consider, yet happen every day. Watching “Transparent” is a transformative process not just for the characters on screen, but for the viewer who cannot help but be pushed to question one’s own beliefs and experiences. – HN
2014 – 2019
Brash and wickedly funny, this FX comedy’s celebration of our worst tendencies was a joy from the start. But over the course of its first three seasons, it began to evolve and deepen in surprisingly heartfelt ways that allowed our shallow heroes to become more than their labels. Its exploration of depression and trauma in its many forms has been eye-opening, understanding and tender. The ability to move into trailblazing emotional territory and create real stakes in relationships that makes it one of the most romantic series out there. – HN
2016 – present
Nearly every episode of Donald Glover’s FX series “Atlanta” will bring up laughter, as well as a heavy dose of social criticism. The actor and creator has taken the time to skewer everything from Juneteenth, to the music industry, and even the men of Florida. Season 2 brought with it more standalone episodes, including the utterly terrifying “Teddy Perkins” entry. More importantly, “Atlanta” has been a playground for Black actors to be humorous and nuanced. It’s unclear when we’ll be able to see the highly anticipated third season, but no doubt it’ll be another sharply comedic look at the world we’ll want to consume again and again.
1998 – 2020
Groundbreaking for all the right reasons, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick’s network multi-camera sitcom joined the ranks of NBC when their Thursday night lineup was still bonafide Must-See TV — and lived up to its slogan. The titular best friends played by Debra Messing and Eric McCormack made up half a winning casting combo, as Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally provided such iconic character work, it’s no wonder people still see them as Jack McFarland and Karen Walker to this day. Ellen may have made history by coming out on TV a year earlier, but “Will & Grace” opened more minds than we’ll ever know, and earned more laughs than anyone could count. – BT
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2001 – 2010
While this goofy medical comedy ascended to heights of lunacy and occasionally cartoonish fantasy, its humor should not be mistaken for off-color heartlessness. In fact, it was one of the shows that consistently wrung our emotions, mainly thanks to a deft hand by creator Bill Lawrence and Zach Braff’s charismatic take on the lead J.D., the earnest and puppy-doggish protagonist. Its unique vision perhaps is best encapsulated by its sound, a one-two punch of quirky voiceover and a killer soundtrack. Once the musical episode hit — with all original songs and ambitious choreography — its status as one of the top sitcoms of its day was cemented. – HN
1998 – 2004
This early feminist show was brash and unapologetic in how it presented modern women as fabulously flawed and sexual beings, who looked great… when they bothered to wear clothing. While there was some level of identification with its vibrant characters —Are you a Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte or Miranda? — the show also allowed viewers to explore the boundaries of what we may deem acceptable in our daily interactions, in the workplace our in the bedroom. Starring the incomparable Sarah Jessica Parker as writer Carrie Bradshaw, this series wasn’t about breaking the glass ceiling but finding any line imaginable and crossing it with a well-placed stiletto. – HN
2016 – 2019
It’s hard to imagine a time before Phoebe Waller-Bridge and “Fleabag.” The series, originally airing as a single season in 2016 captured fans instantly, but it wasn’t until the series made its Season 2 premiere on Amazon Prime Video that it became a cultural juggernaut. “Fleabag,” and Waller-Bridge, were about showing people can be screw-ups, especially women. The character of Fleabag herself doesn’t have anything figured out, and didn’t seem to care for a majority of the season. It wasn’t until the arrival of a certain sexy priest, played wonderfully by Andrew Scott, that the season’s declaration of being a love story proved that everyone is capable of change and love.
2005 – present
Honestly, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” secured its spot on this list the second “Kitten Mittens” aired — but that’s a slightly simplistic stance for a show that’s only superficially straightforward. Objectively, no other satire has fruitfully tracked despicable people for as long as Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton have told stories about the owners and employees of Paddy’s Pub. Even “Seinfeld” tapped out at eight seasons, while “Sunny” encompasses a city’s morally questionable reputation with consistent glee and endless originality. Mac, Charlie, Dennis, Dee (Kaitlin Olson), and Frank (Danny DeVito) love being bad, see themselves as good, and provide episode after episode of hilarity no matter where their low standards lead them. Season 12 was one of their best ever, and there’s still no end in sight. – BT
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2005 – 2013
“The Office” did what many could not: It actually adapted a successful British sitcom for Americans and didn’t die swiftly. In fact, this iteration surpassed its predecessor in longevity and may be considered the better of the two, making a voice for itself and really establishing the mockumentary sitcom. While the dreariness of its environs may have seemed like a prison or trap, for some of these oddball characters, it was also a sanctuary, with co-workers who were just as out-of-place and maybe borderline incompetent as they. We all know a Dwight or a Jim or even a Meredith for that matter, and these relatable characters made for an immediate connection, thanks to a stellar cast and writing. The Office” allowed us to escape into a place where the biggest stakes were bittersweet laughter, but mostly it combined hilarity and heart in a way that felt honest. – HN
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2003 – 2019
Listen, we don’t know what “Arrested Development” will become, but we know this: Mitch Hurwitz upended network comedy in a such a profound way that millions of fans were clamoring for more episodes, more seasons, more of the Bluths, however they could get them, for seven years. Season 4 was a grand experiment with many highs and lows, but the untouchable original episodes exemplify so many bests it’s absurd — and they were great at that, too! From deft meta comedy at its finest and to family dynamics at their most intricate, “Arrested Development” found humor in every corner of an ever-expanding model home. We’ll always look forward to what comes next. – BT
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2012 – 2019
Even before the American political system exploded into a fiery ball of wafting orange flames, “Veep” was a cathartic outlet for our frustrations with Washington D.C. Scottish creator Armando Iannucci conveyed such a penetrating outsider’s perspective one would think he’d worked in the White House himself, and the cast remains addictively game to lambaste the greedy array of power hungry politicians. When Iannucci left after Season 4, many expected “Veep” to take a step back. But the cast and crew (under new showrunner David Mandel) redoubled their efforts just in time for when they were most needed. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the only actor powerful enough to keep us laughing as the world burns. – BT
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2009 – 2015
What started as a sisterly successor to “The Office” not only adapted into a different beast entirely, but it also surpassed its inspiration. Michael Schur and Greg Daniels’ inspiring political comedy followed a diverse group of small town government workers with little else in common besides one defining bond: the desire to help people. Few characters have reached the beloved cultural stature of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman); so much so that it speaks to the cast’s outstanding overall quality that picking a favorite is still an impossible choice. This wasn’t a workplace comedy. “Parks and Recreation” was a human story that just happened to be really damn funny. – BT
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A treasure trove of talent, “30 Rock” could be goofily delightful one minute and incisively topical the next. Actually, that’s not true. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s clever mix of pop culture, political, and absurdist humor moved so quickly, its shifts have to be defined in seconds. “Laugh-a-minute” was too slow for this crew, as Liz Lemon’s ongoing crusade to “have it all” — and her regular conflicts with Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) — provided incredible momentum to her behind-the-scenes life on “TGS with Tracy Jordan.” The onslaught of humor set a high bar for the series’ many imitators, but it also embodied what the Netflix generation has come to demand of its favorite comedies: They’ve gotta be fast, they’ve gotta be funny, and and they have to be endlessly re-watchable. – BT
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