The 50 Greatest Television Comedies: 1950-2000 (US)
The 50 Greatest Television Comedies: 1950-2000
Criteria: Series must have aired at least 1 full season and not received a “TV-M” content rating. This list only contains shows originating in the U.S. and Canada that originally aired in the United States. Shows that are predominantly dramas but included comedy would not be considered as a comedy. Game shows did not qualify as comedy.
1. M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
The television series based on a movie based on a historic conflict makes our list at number one on the list of the 50 greatest shows of 1950-2000. There was never a more eloquently written series, a more emotional dynamic, or a more perfectly cast ensemble.
The 4077th finale was the greatest close to a television show in history, garnering the largest audience and perhaps the most tears, but for 11 seasons, the medical comedy/ drama had more memorable episodes than any show could ever hope to match.
Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, William Christopher, Harry Morgan, Mike Farrell, Gary Burghoff, David Ogden Stiers, Larry Linville, Kelly Nakahara, Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Todd Susman and a continuous cast of doctors and nurses kept us in stitches when we laughed, celebrated holidays with us from overseas and showed us that war is a hell that no one should have to endure.
2. Seinfeld (1989-1998)
The show about nothing was considered by many to be the funniest show on TV. A somewhat neurotic comedian and his odd mix of friends, all of whom seemed to represent someone we all know personally. Most of the shows focused on the most absurd, minute detail of a person or a situation one of the characters could find, then completely obsess over that detail until it’s taken as far as it can possibly go.
The uncomfortable, offbeat friendships were a first. The show was original and fresh in a time that most shows were not. Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were on 172 episodes together of the 173. Dreyfus was not present for only one. The show has successfully lived on in syndication ever since it went off the air.
3. All in the Family (1975-1985)
When Norman Lear started to address the reality of the world through television, it wasn’t exactly a welcome change to many. To use words like “bigot” to describe someone, or to address someone’s religion, race, or sexual orientation made many people angry and made others squirm in their seats, yet the bet paid off.
The popular series starring Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers became a can’t miss night of television and led to spinoffs like “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” and “Archie Bunker’s Place.”
4. The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)
There were countless variety shows in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them were the same rehashed guests, scripts and songs. Only one makes our list, for good reason. Carol Burnett is the funniest woman in television history. Her versatility and likability went hand-in-hand. For 279 episodes, Carol and her friends would make us laugh until we cried.
Carol, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman and Lyle Waggoner made up the funniest ensemble of talented people a live stage could handle. Carol’s musical duets were timeless, her special guests were iconic and the scripts were brilliant. From parodies to the classic “Family” sketch that led to “Mama’s Family,” Carol and the gang showcased comedy routines no other troupe could pull off.
5. Cheers (1982-1993)
A bar in Boston became our Thursday night stop in primetime for many years, as Ted Danson, Rhea Perlman, John Ratzenberger, George Wendt, Kelsey Grammer, Woody Harrelson, Shelley Long, Kirstie Alley and others introduced us to a place where everybody knew us and cared about each other’s problems.
No one had a perfect life, most were washed up, or had lousy jobs, but the laughs kept us all going and the writing was exactly what we needed after a long week of work. For 271 episodes, “Cheers” gave us a place to go and a theme song we still sing to this day.
6. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
No other show captured the trials of a single working woman in the 1970s through a comedic approach than “Mary Tyler Moore.” For 168 episodes, she dealt with workplace sexism, low wages, nosy neighbors, a grumpy boss and worst of all, Ted Baxter. But she did make it, after all.
Mary’s positive outlook through typical struggles and uncertainty were a breath of fresh air in a decade of high unemployment, inflation and polyester outfits. Spawning great spin-offs, like “Rhoda,” “Lou Grant,” and “Phyllis,” Mary’s finale STILL makes us cry every time we see it. The hug that we never wanted to let go.
7. Happy Days (1974-1984)
The Cunningham family brought the 1950s into the 1970s with our first dose of television nostalgia. 255 episodes of “Happy Days” aired, along with spin-offs “Laverne & Shirley,” “Mork & Mindy” and “Joanie Loves Chachi.” The Fonz became a cultural sensation and Richie became the nerdy guy we all could relate to.
The successful use of rock music in the series made it even better, as families could come together to relive moments, or to share stories. Garry Marshall was artfully brilliant and one of the truly good guys in television.
8. The Simpsons (1989-)
For more than 26 years, the animated family from Springfield has brought us their dysfunctional lives to the small screen, even giving us a big screen movie a few years back. More than 600 episodes have passed and we’re still seeing Sunday night’s most famous family make mistakes, get into trouble and resolve every problem with no thought of it the next week.
9. I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
While it’s hard to believe it only ran for 6 seasons, the Ricardo family and the Mertz family brought 181 episodes of physical comedy out of a housewife who simply wanted to be part of the act. While I understand why many would put the series at the top of the list because of its groundbreaking brand of humor, it has drawbacks too. For a series that only lasted 6 years, there are great episodes and several episodes that won’t hold your attention for various reasons. As a whole, it still falls into the top ten.
10. The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966)
Carl Reiner’s creativity was at its best for this series. A cast that was fun, fast-paced and witty, introducing us to Mary Tyler Moore. The make-believe “Alan Brady TV Show” was the backdrop for Rob’s career, while his family life was a focus for the viewers. 158 episodes aired and the series broke silly walls for what the network said women should and shouldn’t do, like Moore wearing capri pants.
11. The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968)
Winning 6 Emmys, for Outstanding Supporting Actress, Outstanding Supporting Actor, Outstanding Comedy Series as well as nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series. “The Andy Griffith Show” is so incredibly popular that an entire town in North Carolina (Mt. Airy) has been transformed into a Mayberry tourist attraction.
12. Friends (1994-2004)
While the writing isn’t exactly the greatest, the show’s strength is in its ability to create a story of relationships and friendships that the audience could relate to and anticipate. Six friends in 2 apartments over the course of 10 years. Few shows could make this concept work.
13. Your Show of Shows (1950-1954)
The greatest collection of writers ever assembled on one television series, Sid Caesar’s masterpiece of comedy drew from the writing talents of Mel Brooks, Lucille Kallen, Danny Simon, Neil Simon, as well as the mind and onscreen talent of Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and many others. The zaniness of the series was loud, abrasive, raucous and inviting. The series won 2 Emmys.
14. The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
While Cosby’s legacy is in question, the series certainly stands on its own. There is a certain place in television history for the Huxtable family, as we learned life’s valuable lessons from a standpoint of laughs. This also broke down the barriers of “poverty writing” when it came to black characters. There was a boundary that kept characters from reaching goals based on race and gender up until this point. Shows such as this helped to eliminate that boundary.
15. Newhart (1982-1990)
A series within a dream within a series. Newhart started off with a cast that didn’t quite mesh until Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari joined, along with the characters of Larry, Darryl & Darryl. The show gave us Tom Poston at his funniest, along with a town of slow witted, confused simpletons who simply existed to get on the nerves of Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart). Newhart’s was at his brightest during this series, as we got to see the mastery of his craft, the stammering, bumbling, self defeating man with an expressionless view of the world around him.
16. The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)
One of the most overlooked, dynamic comedies of all time. This long running series gave us some of the greatest observation comedy of all time, bringing us laughs, without them being at the expense of those we’re laughing at.
The character development for the Clampetts, Bodines and Granny Moses, as well as Mr. Drysdale and Ms. Hathaway, was deeper than you first notice. Yes, they’re simple, but the intelligence behind the simplicity for a character like Jed, or the anger that could quickly turn to humility on the part of Granny, made this show impressive. The shows were filled with laughs and the show was one of the first to have continuity in the weekly storylines.
17. Green Acres (1965-1971)
A show completely ahead of its time. The quick witted jokes, many so fast you miss them on first viewing, along with characters so dumb they accidentally break the fourth wall, makes “Green Acres” a riot. The frustration of Eddie Albert’s character, Oliver, is so easy to see. The entire community is happily oblivious to the real world, some to the point you wonder how they could possibly get by in life.
18. The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978)
This show about a stammering psychologist with ridiculous patients and a great set of office colleagues, along with his wife, played by Suzanne Pleshette and his neighbor, played by Bill Daily, is a showcase of the talent Bob Newhart truly has. His ability to deliver a line with a deadpan expression, often at his own expense, has been studied by other comedians for decades. The show itself is great, but its the interaction between the characters and Newhart himself that actually brings the laughs.
19. The Jeffersons (1975-1985)
One of the greatest spin-offs ever made, this “All in the Family” Lear creation was an angry bigoted loudmouth, similar to Archie Bunker, but with a couple of notable exceptions. He was rich and he was black. Thankfully, George (Sherman Hemsley) was kept in line by his wife, Louise (Isabel Sanford) and their no nonsense housekeeper, Florence (Marla Gibbs), who provided some of the best one-liners of the series.
20. Murphy Brown (1988-1998)
Journalism was nothing new to the comedy spectrum when the series started, but building the characters is what made this series great. Rather than just a simple female journalist, Candice Bergen’s character, Murphy Brown was selfish, angry, stubborn and hard-nosed. The independence to the character is what actually created a fanbase.
Corky (Faith Ford) was as unlike Brown as she could be, while Jim (Charles Kimbrough) was what we think of when we think of a classic news anchor from the 1960s. The revolving secretaries for Brown were a center of comic fodder every week.
21. The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952-1966)
This extremely slow paced comedy was the original “show about nothing.” The Nelson family was an average family with a somewhat goofy dad, a witty mom and two sons who stole the show. The comedy often came from the boys, whose dating life, friendships and later careers and marriages were the center of the family’s attention.
22. The Kids in the Hall (1988-1994)
Lorne Michaels created Saturday Night Live to be the premiere sketch comedy program. While that series has had more misses than hits, his show “The Kids in the Hall” was always cutting edge and showed the originality that ‘Generation X’ers were looking for at the time. They also knew when it was time to hang it up. While still successful in 1994 and after being nominated for 3 Emmys, the troupe halted production, picking up again in 2011 for a short revamped season.
23. Good Times (1974-1979)
Norman Lear introduced us to the Evans family, who showed us what real optimism is. To have nothing, struggling every day, yet having a positive outlook on tomorrow, we were shown a side of life many of us didn’t know.
Set in the projects of Chicago, the series focused on hope. The breakout star, Jimmie Walker, played the slick talking fun loving son, J.J., an amazing artist hoping to get noticed for his work, while also hoping to get noticed by the ladies. The show ran for 133 episodes and was nominated for 3 Golden Globes.
24. The Odd Couple 1970-1975)
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, to me, will always be “The Odd Couple.” The dialogue between these two actors was as genuine as any on television, with the disagreements on how things should be done and what’s right and wrong. Winner of a Golden Globe, the series was another Garry Marshall series that just clicked with audiences and introduced us to Al Molinaro and Penny Marshall before “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley.”
25. Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983)
The spin-off to “Happy Days” set in Milwaukee of two roommates trying to find love, good jobs, friendship and their direction in life. The physical comedy was an added bonus to an already well-written script and a great cast of characters. The show was great up until the weird move to California, at which point it was just ‘ok.’
26. Taxi (1978-1983)
Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza and Marilu Henner were incredible in this show about a taxi company and its cab drivers. The struggles, the relationships, the side jobs, their families and their goals were always enough for a great script. Add in Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim Ignatowski, Carol Kane as Simka and Andy Kaufman as Latka and you see why the show ranks so high on our list.
27. Second City Television/SC-TV Network (1976-1981, 1982-1983)
A fake television station is the premise of this brilliant series. There were phony commercials, phony bumpers, phony news, phony ads for phony upcoming programs, all surrounded by the behind the scenes antics of those at the station.
One of the best casts in comedy was assembled for this show, including Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Tony Rosato, Robin Duke, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Martin Short and special guests like Robin Williams and Fred Willard. The parodies were sarcastic, the humor was often intentionally corny and the effort was made to give the appearance that the station was running on a shoestring budget, which the show, in fact, was.
28. Get Smart (1965-1970)
Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were able to show their independent style of creativity that would make each a success. Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Edward Platt were part of the agency, CONTROL, battling KAOS. A great satirization of the “James Bond” type of spy movies. The ability to spoof put into motion the entire lega
cy of Brooks.
29. Frasier (1993-2004)
A spin-off that lasted as long as the show it came from (Cheers), with nearly as much success, “Frasier” won 3 Golden Globe Awards and created a brand of comedy that was odd and irregular: the geeky, cultured guys. Frasier and his brother Niles (Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce) were joined by Jane Leeves, Jeri Gilpin and John Mahoney on this sitcom about a Seattle psychiatrist with a radio show.
30. The Jack Benny Program (1950-1965)
In the earliest days of television, the radio shows were the prime target to harvest stars. Few were able to make the transition, but Jack Benny was a notable exception. His comedic timing, improvisational skills and self loathing character was a hit with television audiences immediately, giving him a long running, hugely popular series with Don Wilson and Rochester Van Jones.
31. Saturday Night Live (1975-)
While the majority of the seasons, particularly lately, have been horrible, the roots of the show provide comic gold. “SNL” brought us some of the brightest comedians of any generation and some of the greatest characters in movies or television. What it lacks in most years, it makes up for in the few.
32. Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999)
This cult classic is such an awesome concept. Talking over the worst movies ever made and making them watchable. The sarcastic, yet lovable crew of the Satellite of Love are given the task of watching horribly cheesy movies while giving commentary as they go. Without their interaction, the movies they provide the audience would be impossible to sit through. One of Comedy Central’s best offerings of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
33. The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
A golden ensemble cast of actresses from hit shows were assembled into a wisecracking series that broke stereotypes of what it meant to reach your golden years. The series ran 177 episodes and won 4 Golden Globes. Betty White’s character, Rose, was so far removed from her character Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that it was remarkable that casting ended up as it did, with McClanahan and White swapping roles.
34. Sanford and Son (1972-1977)
Norman Lear’s classic sitcom about a junkyard father and son and their neighborhood probably would not have worked without the casting of stand-up comic Redd Foxx as Fred G. Sanford. Particularly, Foxx’s ability to insult people he didn’t like, while playing on the sympathy of people he wanted to take advantage of. Foxx’s comic timing was perfect for the role and his gravely voice delivery of each line was very effective for the show. By 1977, both Foxx and Demond Wilson (Lamont) were tired of the show and ready to move on. Otherwise, the series would have continued on with its fame.
35. (TIE) Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1967-1973) and Hee-Haw (1969-1997)
While it was specifically designed for a late 1960s audience, “Laugh-In” was simply sight gags, punch lines and fast paced scenes thrown at the audience with a sort of party atmosphere. There was no rhyme or reason, yet the audience felt they were a part of the psychedelic fun with celebrity guests, including a president, one-liners and memorable catch phrases, like “sock it to me” and “you bet your sweet bippy.”
“Hee-Haw” started 2 years later, but lasted 24 years longer. The same premise, only from a country & western perspective, with the inclusion of music to make it more of a variety show at times, while still offering the sight gags, one-liners, comedy sketches and catch phrases. The cast was constantly changing, but through most of the run included Roy Clark, Gunilla Hutton, Buck Owens, Junior Samples, Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl. Clark and Owens would “pick ‘n’ grin” with celebrity guests each week.
36. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991)
One of the most award winning children’s comedies of all time, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” won 6 Emmys in 1987, 3 Emmys in 1988, 3 in 1989, was nominated for 12 in 1990, won 3 more in 1991 — as well as being nominated for Television Critics Association Awards and an International Monitor Award. The series transformed the landscape of Saturday morning programming and the pace and comedy style that people came to expect.
37. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)
While other sitcoms in the 1990s were providing the same old storylines, Will Smith brought something “fresh” to NBC in the form of a new wave of hip hop artist with a rich family that had little in common with him.
The show often tackled serious issues, like racism, the sickness and bad dancing, but for the most part was light hearted and fun. It was nominated for 2 Golden Globe Awards and really exemplified the culture, music, clothing and style of the popular culture of the 1990s.
38. Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963)
A show that left the air because color television was taking the place of black & white, the Cleaver family was about as strict and nosy as any 2 parents could ever be, yet somehow Theodore still managed to get into more trouble than any child ever did. Wally and the Beav (Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow), were your average kids, growing up with your average friends.
The show was a feel-good style series, but always offered a lesson at the end. For its time, the child actors were incredibly talented, particularly Wally’s sneak pal, Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond).
39. Diff’rent Strokes (1978-1986)
If ever the “behind the scenes” troubles overshadowed a show’s on screen success, it would be this one. “Diff’rent Strokes” was groundbreaking, by any standard, with a Manhattan millionaire and father of a teenage daughter adopting to black orphans from Harlem, after promising to their dying mother to take care of them. The series was a launching pad for star, Gary Coleman, but tragedy, drug abuse and trouble followed the three child actors throughout their lives.
40. Barney Miller (1974-1982)
The police series seemed more like an off-Broadway play than a television series of the 1970s, as nearly every scene took place on a single stage, in a single room, with very few props. The dialogue would often involve 2 people 5 feet away from where the next 2 people would be talking, as if it didn’t matter. The series dealt with serious issues, like excessive force, homelessness, police shooting deaths and job cutbacks. Some things never change.
41. WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982)
A struggling radio station with a motley crew of DJs, advertising agents and co-workers, WKRP was funny, hip and memorable. It ended so abruptly that fans have to simply guess what could have ever happened to the station and its players, particularly when the show was nominated for 3 Golden Globes. The most memorable episode is one that is played every Thanksgiving, “Turkeys Away” with the memorable line, “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
42. Three’s Company (1977-1984)
Winner of 2 Golden Globes through 174 episodes, “Three’s Company” was controversial for its time, with sexy roommates living along the beach, co-ed style. The show’s script was a constant source of miscommunication, as the cast always got into hijinks because they failed to listen to each other, often only hearing a portion of the conversation.
Behind the scenes, the situation was similar as Suzanne Somers left after 102 episodes due to disagreements and the original landlords, The Ropers (Norman Fell and Audra Lindley) didn’t get to return to the show after their spin-off failed to gain traction. “Three’s Company” was a light weight comedy, not intended to change the world. The physical comedy, the good looking cast and the goofiness were all great, but adding Don Knotts to the cast was a life saving moment when most shows would have probably just given up.
43. The Red Skelton Show (1951-1971)
One of the longest running shows on our list, the simple premise and traditional gags made this show a classic. Skelton spotlighted guest performers each week, along with David Rose and his Orchestra. The show saw both, black & white and color episodes, as well as 30 minute and 60 minute episodes. Skelton was said to be hard to work for, if you were a writer, because he liked to write solely for himself. This would sometimes mean that he would have no clue what the sketch he was in was about, because he failed to read ahead what his writers would work out for him.
44. The Honeymooners (1955-1956)
One of the shortest running shows on our list, “The Honeymooners” was extremely successful and well written, with a cast that any show would love to have, but Gleason felt that one season was enough. The story focuses on a loud mouth, short tempered bus driver and his patient wife and good hearted neighbors. The character of Ralph is the inspiration for the animated character of Fred Flintstone.
45. The Muppet Show (1976-1981)
A faux variety show is, in this case, better than countless other variety shows. Kermit the Frog and pals host and orchestrate the behind the scenes prep-work for the show as we watch. The interaction with guests behind the scenes and in their dressing rooms set this show apart from others that simply did musical routines and short skits. The Muppets got a good push a year earlier on “Saturday Night Live’s” rookie year and continued its 30 minute format for 120 episodes.
46. Moonlighting (1985-1989)
A wise cracking detective and a model run one of the sexiest detective agencies of the 1980s. Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd were pure magic together on camera, yet couldn’t get along behind the scenes, causing this series to have a rather short life. What we had was impressive, as a romantic comedy of witty dialogue. The series won 3 Golden Globes.
47. Who’s the Boss (1984-1992)
ABC’s creative comedy about a retired baseball player (Tony Danza) helped the star pick right up where he left off on “Taxi” as a semi-retired boxer.
A single father of a daughter (Alyssa Milano) goes to work as an unlikely housekeeper for a nerdy single mom and advertising agent, Angela Bower (Judith Light), her son Jonathan (Danny Pintauro) and her mother, Mona (Katherine Helmond). The series played the “will they/won’t they” relationship game for many years, building up to a relationship, a job change and eventually a return the very scene that started it all, Tony asking for a job as Angela’s housekeeper.
48. Married… with Children (1987-1997)
The fledgling FOX Network had its first official hit with this lowbrow comedy about a shoe salesman with a family he can barely stand and neighbors he simply can’t. What was supposed to be a fill-in until the network could find out what direction it was taking turned out to be one of its most successful original creations with its biggest stars, Ed O’Neill, Katey Sagal, Amanda Bearse, David Faustino, Christina Applegate and Ted McGinley.
49. Alice (1976-1985)
Blue collar working class women at a greasy-spoon diner in Arizona normally wouldn’t make a list of the top 50. When it’s done right, it does. Linda Lavin, who previously played a detective on “Barney Miller” was a struggling singer trying to provide for her son, working a job she didn’t particularly want to work for a boss who she didn’t particularly like. Her co-workers made the show a classic with Flo’s (Polly Holliday) catchphrase, “Kiss my grits!”
50. Soap (1977-1981)
The first comedy to take the soap opera parody to the heights of humor was “Soap.” The continuing storyline was unique to comedy plots and considered a groundbreaking series. It was one of the first comedies to take the stigma of homosexuality out of ridicule and lampooning. While the entire cast is crazy in their own way, the parody is less a critique on culture and more a critique on soap dramas.