Imagine, if you can, a world suffering a global pandemic along with a climate catastrophe said to pose an existential threat to life on the planet. Hey, that’s us!
At such a time, many people will even experience the news as dystopian. Not me. I am a news junkie — until 11 p.m. At that time, I need something different to sweeten my dreams. Something humorous, whimsical, maybe nostalgic. Not another episode of The Walking Dead. I need an antidote to the zombie apocalypse. I need a good situation comedy. In short, I need Seinfeld.
Best television sitcoms of all time
I am about to list my favorite sitcoms of all time. It will have a predictably baby boomer slant.
By my standards, a sitcom must be a half-hour in length. It must have originated on network television, not cable channels or streaming services.
As a personal preference, I have eliminated cartoons. (Sorry, The Flintstones and The Simpsons.)
Also gone are several good shows in military settings (The Phil Silvers Show, M*A*S*H, McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes).
Also out are popular shows of which I have never seen a full episode (Everybody Loves Raymond, Golden Girls and Friends).
Here are my criteria for selection to the sitcom hall of fame:
• Every episode makes me laugh out loud, at least once.
• The shows are so consistently good that I want to send a thank-you note to the writers.
• If I am channel surfing and come upon a rerun of an episode, I will stop and watch it to the end.
• In addition to the stars, the great shows have a supporting character who is a notorious scene stealer and who becomes iconic.
• We know these shows so well that we begin to incorporate scenes and catchphrases into our daily lives. If you have ever said “yada yada,” you know what I mean.
• For nostalgia, I give extra points to shows that are in black and white.
A drumroll, please
The four greatest television sitcoms:
Seinfeld: Four neurotic New Yorkers seek love and success in the 1990s. What made this show special for me was that the biggest laughs came from secondary characters, such as George’s father (played by Jerry Stiller) and Jerry Seinfeld’s foil, the portly postal worker Newman (Wayne Knight), who steals every scene in which he appears. Minor characters, like the Library Cop played by Philip Baker Hall, raise the laugh level to the roof. No topic was too taboo.
I Love Lucy: First aired in 1951, I Love Lucy is the progenitor of the sitcom as we know it and arguably the most important entertainment show in television history. Everything about this show seemed funny and original when I watched it as a boy. My father, an even-tempered man, would gasp and then howl in laughter. My favorite comic moment is the controlled rehearsal of taking Lucy to the hospital to have her baby, only to be followed by slapstick chaos when the real moment comes.
The Dick Van Dyke Show: I am struck by how all three of my top picks are shows about show business. Dick Van Dyke plays Rob Petrie, comedy writer for a television variety show, starring comic genius Carl Reiner. There are plenty of sight gags and baldy jokes, along with occasional song and dance numbers. But this show would not have gone as far as it did without the incandescent Mary Tyler Moore. Her beauty and comedic talent are on full display. More important, perhaps, is how this showcase would become a launching pad toward The Mary Tyler Moore Show, changing forever the way a single professional woman could be portrayed in television comedy.
The Andy Griffith Show: Andy Griffith built his career upon a persona, the congenial country fellow, full of humility, hospitality and small-town wisdom. Mayberry offered an uncomplicated vision of the South, with no direct reference to the legacy of slavery. Sheriff Andy was always up to the task, usually with the questionable help of perhaps the greatest second banana in the history of television comedy: Deputy Barnie Fife, played by Don Knotts. Once he left the show, I became less interested. But he stands forever as a parody of the person who is given a little more authority than he deserves.
All in the Family: It gave us Archie and Edith, and brought social issues of the 1960s to center stage. Great spinoffs included Maude and The Jeffersons.
The Honeymooners: Best scene: Ralph and Ed in the kitchen trying to figure out how to hit a golf ball from written instructions: “Address the ball.” Norton: “Hello, ball!”
Family Matters: It offered a wonderful ensemble of Black actors, a multigenerational family, where each character gets to step forward in an emotional or comedic way. A young Jaleel White turned Urkel into a social type.
Leave It To Beaver: It gave us the most patient and thoughtful of 1950s know-it-all fathers; the most stylish of stay-at-home moms; the funniest character nicknames (Beaver and Lumpy); and Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond), the most obsequious and unctuous young hypocrite to ever appear on stage or screen.
Highs and the lows
Most important question raised by a sitcom: Ginger or Mary Ann (Gilligan’s Island)
Show I loved but can no longer watch: The Cosby Show
My guilty pleasure: Married With Children
Spinoffs better than the original: Laverne & Shirley from Happy Days; Frasier from Cheers.
Shows where women stand up against efforts to keep them in their place: I Love Lucy, Bewitched, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Most ridiculous moment: The Fonz, waterskiing in his leather jacket, jumps over a man-eating shark, leading to the popular phrase “jump the shark.”
Which is a sign I should stop here.
When things are down, what is your go-to sitcom?