34 Best Sitcoms of All Time That Are Still Funny Today
The best sitcoms of all time are character-driven, memorable and, most important of all, laugh-out-loud funny
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Sitcoms are the comfort food of entertainment, the things we turn to when we need a boost or a smile. Unlike other genres of the best TV shows—like, say, crime shows, which we need to be in the mood to watch—we are always ready for a few laughs. Naming the best sitcoms of all time invites a lot of debate, but there’s no doubt that classic TV shows like I Love Lucy, which premiered in 1951, helped pioneer the format in which familiar characters find themselves in situations, whether realistic or ridiculous, that become fodder for laughs, usually within a tight, 22-minute episode.
In the 70 years since Lucy debuted, sitcom formats have evolved, and we’ve moved beyond traditional three-camera, filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience comedy TV shows. Cartoon shows like The Simpsons (hands down one of the best cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s), mock docuseries like The Office and meta-reality absurdity like Curb Your Enthusiasm all helped break traditional molds. But one thing is certain: These are all funny shows.
Yes, many sitcoms are products of their era, just like some of our favorite funny movies. For example, some of the best ’80s shows are family sitcoms with laugh tracks that, while still classics, feel a bit dated. But there’s a short list of sitcoms that are still funny—and in many cases, were years ahead of their time, whether in terms of their jokes, representation or politics. To make our list of the best sitcoms of all time, we considered Emmy winners, critics’ favorites, cult classics and shows that made a lasting mark on pop culture. (The shows are presented in no particular order because to pick a favorite would just be too hard.) So what are you waiting for? Hilarity is just a click away!
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Kelsey Grammer starred as Frasier Crane, a role that originated during season three of Cheers, when he joined the show as a love interest for the snooty, intellectual barmaid Diane Chambers (Shelley Long). Frasier became a beloved cast member in his own right, thanks to the comedy he mined from being, well, a snooty intellectual himself. Frasier transported the character from Boston to his hometown of Seattle, where he was reacquainted with his equally uptight brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), and his working-class father (John Mahoney).
The show worked because of the actors’ brilliant comedic performances, but it didn’t hurt that some of the greatest sitcom writers to work in the biz—including David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee—ran the show. Oh, and who can forget the show’s admittedly baffling theme song, “Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs”? Frasier is one of the most acclaimed comedy shows of all time, holding the current record for most Emmy awards for Outstanding Comedy Series, earning five of them from 1994 to 1998. (The show, which you can now watch on Hulu, earned 37 Emmys overall during its 11 seasons on air.)
Designing Women (1986–1993)
Memorable episode: “The Beauty Contest”
Designing Women premiered in 1986, almost one year to the day after The Golden Girls premiered (don’t worry, we’ll discuss those ladies later), and while its formula featuring four outspoken and hilarious women certainly rode on the shoulders of its predecessor, it was a much different show. Set in the office of the Sugarbaker & Associates design firm, Designing Women was flashy with its politics: As business owner Julia Sugarbaker, Dixie Carter’s impassioned speeches, often about being a Southern woman, are things of legend, and the very nature of four women running a successful business with no help from their husbands was a bit of a statement in itself. Its sharp, hilarious writing and storylines about AIDS, misogyny and mental health are as relevant as ever.
For the first five seasons, the cast consisted of Carter, Delta Burke, Jean Smart, Annie Potts and Meschach Taylor. Burke and Smart both left the show prior to the sixth season. While the best TV shows of today may look a little different, this one still stands up.
The Good Place (2016–2020)
Memorable episode: “Michael’s Gambit”
The Good Place is unique in that it combined a sitcom about “dirtbag human beings” with deep philosophical teachings. The NBC series began with the death of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who was hit by a truck after dropping her margarita mix in the liquor store parking lot. She gets sent to “the good place,” which she assumes is heaven, and is introduced to the “architect” who created it, a being named Michael (Ted Danson). What Eleanor and her fellow good place inhabitants (William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto and Jameela Jamil) all learn is that—SPOILER ALERT—the good place is actually the bad place, and they’re trapped in hell. Can they reconstruct their pasts to become more decent humans? Can they defeat the demons who have trapped them in this hell?
The Good Place is one of the best shows on Netflix, and it’s so layered with visual gags, regular jokes and philosophy that it takes a couple of rewatches to absorb it all. But at its core, it’s a show about being decent people on earth before we’re all sent to the next place, be it good or bad.
Abbott Elementary (2021–present)
Memorable episode: “Holiday Hookah”
ABC’s Abbott Elementary premiered in 2021 and has become one of the best sitcoms of all time in just two short seasons. Created by comedian Quinta Brunson, the show is shot in a faux-documentary style similar to The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, and it follows a group of faculty at a Philadelphia elementary school. Brunson also stars as teacher Janine Teagues, who remains upbeat despite her school’s lack of resources and her colleagues’ ineptitude.
The rest of the cast includes Lisa Ann Walter, Tyler James Williams and Sheryl Lee Ralph, who won an Emmy for her role on the show. And here’s a fun bit of pop-culture trivia: If Ralph looks familiar, it’s because she also appeared on The Jeffersons, Good Times and Designing Women, among many other things.
Will & Grace (1998–2006, 2017–2020)
Memorable episode: “Between a Rock and a Harlin’s Place”
Will & Grace needs no introduction, but we’ll give it one anyway. This sitcom, which ran on NBC from 1998 until 2006, was a critical darling and audience favorite, earning a whopping 18 Emmys and 88 nominations. It was also one of the first TV sitcoms to feature gay characters in main roles. The plot? A gay man named Will Truman (Eric McCormack) moves in with his straight female best friend, Grace (Debra Messing). While these two were always hilarious, their friends Karen (Megan Mullally) and Jack (Sean Hayes) arguably stole the show. And while the sharp writing and amazing guest stars certainly made Will and Grace pop, we can’t overestimate how truly groundbreaking the LGBTQ content was at the time, especially for prime-time TV.
The show was revived for a three-season run in 2017 and concluded with a (second) finale that the creators said was “a little bit more honest to the characters.” Judge for yourself if you missed it!
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996)
Memorable episodes: “Mistaken Identity” and “The Lucky Charm”
Before Will Smith was Box Office Superstar Will Smith, he was the Fresh Prince, a young rapper whose first hit single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” debuted in 1988. Not long after, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air arrived on NBC. The show was loosely based on Smith’s life (West Philadelphia, born and raised), though the fictional version sees Smith’s street-smart, rough-around-the-edges character shipped off to live with his wealthy Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil in the tony Bel-Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water sitcom trope, but Smith’s comedic chops carried the series for six years, and it was a breeding ground for his dramatic acting too. (Just watch his “How come he don’t want me?” speech, and keep your tissues handy.)
With indelible performances from Alphonso Ribeiro (of “Carlton dance” fame), Tatyana Ali and Karyn Parsons as Will’s cousins, and James Avery as Uncle Phil, the show is the perfect combination of humor and heart. And thanks to executive producer Quincy Jones, it also features dozens, if not hundreds, of cameos from acting and music legends like Boyz II Men, Oprah Winfrey and even Milton Berle.
Parks & Recreation (2009–2015)
Memorable episode: “Galentine’s Day”
Parks & Recreation, created by The Office producers Michael Schur and Greg Daniels, seemed like just another office mockumentary. But viewers quickly fell in love with the eclectic cast, led by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. Even though there were plenty of quirky, shallow characters on the show, Parks & Recreation was ultimately about kindness and community. Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, the workplace comedy takes place in the parks and recreation office in the local government building. While kindhearted Leslie Knope (Poehler) infuses good in all she does, her co-workers can be less than enthusiastic about their jobs.
The show was chock-full of jokes, but it also wasn’t afraid to get weird. (Just one example of the weirdness? A mini horse named Lil’ Sebastian, who was the town’s biggest celebrity.) It was a breakout vehicle for Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari and Ben Schwartz, whose Jean-Ralphio Saperstein is the office-comedy version of the wacky neighbor, something every classic sitcom needs.
Memorable episodes: “Leaves” and “Gone”
British sitcom Spaced has a short and sweet 14-episode arc over the course of two seasons. The series stars Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson as young Londoners who meet during their respective apartment hunts and pretend to be a couple in order to snag a flat. Once they move in, they have to keep up the ruse and deal with their eccentric landlady and neighbors. Full of pop-culture references, pop music and hilarious characters, the show also features director Edgar Wright’s signature shooting style, which you can find in his more modern films, like Baby Driver and Last Night in Soho. Pegg, by the way, went on to write and star in a few of our favorite end-of-the-world movies and action films.
Somebody Somewhere (2022–present)
Memorable episode: “Tee-Tee Pa-Pah”
This gem of a show, which premiered on HBO in 2022, revolves around a woman named Sam (Bridget Everett), who returns to her small hometown in Kansas. She struggles to find a place for herself there until she happens upon a group of performers at a local church choir practice. Leading the practice is Joel, played by Jeff Hiller, and soon the pair realize they’re kindred spirits, trying to live their dreams and be their best selves despite the limitations they have to deal with, including Sam’s complicated family life and Joel’s relationship with his faith. This quietly hilarious show is a perfect representation of true friendship and life in a small town.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–present)
Memorable episodes: “Vow of Silence” and “The Carpool Lane”
It’s been more than 20 years since Curb Your Enthusiasm premiered, and creator Larry David continues to prove that he’s always going to respond to things in a way that only Larry David can, and that he himself is timeless. (And by that we mean he will never evolve.) David plays a version of himself on the show, and many of his real-life friends—from Jerry Seinfeld to Ted Danson—make cameos. David is as unfiltered as any human has ever been, and that gets him into trouble that results in the show’s biggest (and cringiest) laughs. But it’s his ability to identify and name the weird human experiences that affect us all (the “chat and cut,” “phone cut-off times” and “encroachment” come to mind) that make the show what it is.
Everybody Loves Raymond (1996–2005)
Memorable episodes: “Standard Deviation” and “The Letter”
The mid-’90s was an era full of stand-up comedians developing their routines into half-hour sitcom formats—everyone from Ellen Degeneres to Kevin James to Jerry Seinfeld did it—but Ray Romano’s version, Everybody Loves Raymond, differed in that it was a show about his life as a family man in Long Island, New York. Co-starring Patricia Heaton as wife Debra, Brad Garrett as Ray’s brother, Robert, and Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts as Ray’s overbearing parents who live nearby, the series was based around Romano and co-creator Phil Rosenthal’s real-life families and the complicated, loving situations they often found themselves in.
The comedic performances were some of the best ever, and Romano, Heaton, Roberts and Garrett all won Emmys for their work on the series, which is easily considered one of the best sitcoms of all time. Everybody Loves Raymond currently airs on Peacock TV, one of the best free streaming services.
Memorable episodes: “Blind Date” and “Louie and the Nice Girl”
Work is where we spend the majority of our waking hours (well, at least when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic), and Taxi is another solid entry in the workplace-comedy category. Taxi wasn’t afraid to let the weird characters—from Andy Kaufman and Carole Kane as Latka and Simka, respectively, to Christopher Lloyd as Reverand Jim—take control of the show, and it paid off: The series won Emmys for Best Outstanding Comedy Series three years in a row.
Based in the garages of the Sunshine Cab Company in Manhattan, Taxi features Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner and Tony Danza as the cab drivers, and Danny DeVito as their dispatcher. Hirsch’s Alex is the everyman, the main character, and the only one with common sense, while the rest of the cast is irreverent and unpredictable. The show set the template for oddball character actors everywhere.
Schitt’s Creek (2015–2020)
Famous catchphrase: “Ew, David!”
Schitt’s Creek became a beloved cult favorite after Netflix acquired it and began running the full series. The show is about the recently bankrupted Rose family, who move to Schitt’s Creek, a town that patriarch Johnny Rose bought as a joke while the family still had all their money. Johnny (Eugene Levy), wife Moira (Catherine O’Hara), son David (show creator Dan Levy) and daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy) set up home at the town’s only motel, the only place they can afford.
While the series initially spends time showing how the wealthy family must adjust to their dingy new environment, it eventually highlights their realization that it’s possible to build a life in their new home. The show’s focus on kindness and acceptance also became an underlying theme (as did Moira’s eccentric and wonderful wardrobe and Alexis’s use of the phrase “Ew, David!”) and catapulted it into the mainstream by the end of its run in 2020. For proof, see the many popular group Halloween costumes Schitt’s Creek spawned.
The Simpsons (1989–present)
Famous catchphrase: “D’oh!”
Before The Simpsons, animated shows were primarily for kids. Setting a new standard for animation, this show was created specifically for adults, and its satire and political messages are often scathing and subversive. It was even decried by some in its early years as a bad influence. (If you’re looking for the best kids shows, we’ve got you covered.) Based on classic TV shows like The Honeymooners and Leave It to Beaver, The Simpsons is a thoroughly modern take on the trope of the dopey husband and mischievous kids. Though the quality of the jokes ebbs and flows, the show’s social satire will ensure it goes down in history as one of the best sitcoms ever made. Full disclosure: We’re partial to this show, which featured Reading Digest, a spoof of yours truly.
Memorable episode: “The Word”
Black-ish creator Kenya Barriss is a man of many talents, co-creating America’s Next Top Model and helming several great comedies on Netflix, including You People, BlackAF and Entergalactic. But for now, Black-ish remains the crown jewel among his lengthy achievements. Co-starring Tracee Ellis-Ross as Rainbow Johnson and Anthony Anderson as Dre, the show follows the couple as they raise their kids in a much different, and more privileged, world than the one they grew up in.
While Black-ish offers a fresh take on traditional sitcom tropes like family, parenting and work, what makes it so revolutionary is its ability to connect that humor to themes of race, class and politics. As the name itself implies, race is often a central theme to the show, but just like in real life, hard conversations are often flecked with biting jokes to add some levity. The show ran for eight seasons and spun off two other series: Grown-ish, which follows Yara Shahidi’s character, Zoey, as she heads to college, and Mixed-ish, a prequel about Ross’s character coming of age in a mixed-race family in the ’80s.
Ted Lasso (2020–present)
Famous catchphrase: “Believe!”
No one could have predicted that a goofy character created by SNL alum Jason Sudeikis for a bunch of NBC Sports commercials would become one of the most beloved TV characters of this decade, but here we are! Three seasons in, Ted Lasso continues to be the warm hug we all need. The show centers on an American football coach who’s brought to England to manage a struggling English soccer club. The club’s owner was hoping Ted would tank the team so she could get revenge on her ex-husband, a die-hard fan, but thanks to Coach Ted’s permanently positive attitude, he turns the team around, changing minds and hearts (of course) in the process.
Though Ted is prone to hokey, often funny sayings, his mantra, “Believe,” is infectious among the players he manages. And the show’s uniquely positive outlook has been embraced by audiences since it premiered in 2020.
Ugly Betty (2006–2010)
Memorable episodes: “Petra-gate” and “Fake Plastic Snow”
Ugly Betty, developed by Silvio Horta and based on the Colombian telenovela Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, brought the show to New York City, where Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) lives with her father (Tony Plana) and sister (Ana Ortiz). Betty, devoid of any style but desperate for a job, is hired at the Vogue-like Mode magazine, where she works for editor-in-chief Daniel Mead (Eric Mabius), a playboy and the son of the magazine’s publisher.
While much of the show sees Betty navigating life as a pure-hearted and naive outsider in a glamorous world, most of the comedy (and drama) comes from the always-spot-on Vanessa Williams, who relishes her role as the magazine’s devilish creative director, Wilhelmina Slater, who desperately wants to steal Daniel’s job. Wilhelmina, her assistant Marc (Michael Urie) and the company receptionist Amanda (Becki Newton) form an unholy union of scheming snark, making Betty’s life a nightmare. Ugly Betty toggles between a warmhearted family show about a fish out of water and a high-camp wink at the fashion world, and at its peak, it manages to be the best of both.
Only Murders in the Building (2021–present)
Memorable episode: “The Tell”
What do you get when you combine two comedy legends and a pop star with a hidden talent for comedy? The Hulu series Only Murders in the Building, which co-stars Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as three Manhattanites who band together to help solve the mysterious murders in their New York City apartment building, the Arconia. The trio is also obsessed with true-crime podcasts, so they produce one of their own and outline the details of their cases on their show within the show.
Each season features loads of incredible guest stars like Amy Schumer, Sting, Tina Fey and Shirley MacLaine. And here’s something to look forward to in Season 3, which premieres in summer 2023: Meryl Streep will be signing a lease at the Arconia.
Reservation Dogs (2021–present)
Famous catchphrase: “Skoden”
There have been quite a few sitcoms in recent years that seamlessly combine themes of grief and pathos with humor. Ted Lasso and Somebody Somewhere do it well, but Reservation Dogs—a show that is, on its surface, about four indigenous teenagers struggling to get by in Oklahoma—is the gold standard for blending genres. The Hulu series, co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, follows Elora Danon, Bear, Willie Jack and Cheese, who have grown up together on a reservation and are grieving the loss of the fifth member of their crew, Daniel, who took his own life. They dream of saving money to move to California, but the only money they can come by is what they earn from hijacking snack trucks and working hopeless jobs.
As dark as it sounds, the young actors are riotously funny, and the supporting cast helps create an environment that feels all-too-real and is darkly hilarious.
Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000)
Memorable episode: “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”
When Freaks and Geeks premiered in 1999, most of us had never heard of the show’s executive producer and writer, Judd Apatow, or its young stars. But we certainly know them today: Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, James Franco and Seth Rogen. The series follows Lindsey Weir (Cardellini) and her younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley) as they navigate life in their suburban high school in 1980. As Lindsey drops her old friends to become a part of a new crowd (the “freaks” in the show’s title), Sam clings to his nerdy friends (the “geeks”), who struggle to fit in.
Though it only ran for one season, this teen show has taken on legendary status for representing high school in a funny and honest way, and for propelling the careers of so many of its young actors.
The Jeffersons (1975–1985)
Famous catchphrase: “Weezie!”
The Jeffersons was a spinoff of All in the Family, another of producer Norman Lear’s hilarious and socially impactful creations, and starred Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as George and Louise Jefferson, a Black couple who famously “moved on up” from Queens to Manhattan, thanks to George’s thriving dry-cleaning business. Lear created the series to address a criticism he received from the Black Panthers that Black people were only ever perceived on TV as poor. It was one of the first TV shows to feature an interracial couple, played by Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover, and it covered topics ranging from gun control to suicide. On rewatch, it’s almost shocking to see how prescient the social commentary of The Jeffersons was.
Famous catchphrase: “How you doin’?”
When Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow were cast in Friends as six 20-something friends living in New York City, Cox was arguably the biggest star of the bunch, thanks to her previous work on Family Ties. The rest of the group, now household names, were all relative unknowns. One year later, everyone was getting “The Rachel” haircut and reciting Joey’s catchphrase, “How you doin’?”
There are certain aspects of Friends that don’t hold up today, like the unnecessary fat jokes, the lack of diversity and the casting of Kathleen Turner as a trans woman. But there is no denying the effect that Friends had on Hollywood, with countless shows seeking to copy its formula, the raging success of its stars and the indelible mark of so many of its memorable one-liners, from “Pivot!” to “We were on a break!”
Memorable episodes: “Five ‘o Clock Charlie” and “Turtle”
M*A*S*H is not just one of the best shows about doctors that has ever aired—it’s also one of the best shows, period. It was part sitcom, part drama, and it starred Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, George Morgan and McLean Stevenson as part of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital stationed in South Korea during the Korean War. The series was so beloved that its 2.5-hour finale in 1983 still holds the record for the most-watched sitcom finale ever. Though the show took place during the Korean War, it began airing at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and the show’s writers toed the line between creating fictional war stories and commenting on the country’s interventions and the tension that springs from international conflicts, topics that still feel relevant today.
Sex and the City (1998–2004)
Famous catchphrase: “And just like that …”
One reason you watch Sex and the City? It’s gorgeous. You’ll love looking at the clothes, the shoes and the backdrop of the city. But it was also a game-changer in terms of how it depicted single, sexually free women, the men (and sometimes women) they chose to be with, and the way their romantic relationships intertwine with their friendships and careers. The show chronicles Carrie and friends Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Samantha (Kim Cattrall) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) as they spend their 30s and 40s single and embracing their sexual selves on their quest for success—at their jobs, in their beds and maybe even down the aisle.
And here’s where we have to acknowledge that SATC is not a perfect show, and there are definitely references and jokes that might make you wince (there are more than a few jokes about race that are ever-so-casually insulting and insensitive). As a whole, though, the show deftly portrayed female friendship in a positive light, and it remains a source of solid jokes and unforgettable story lines that will be iconic for a long time to come.
Famous catchphrase: “Norm!”
Cheers is the perfect example of a classic sitcom, and it’s certainly one of the best ’80s TV shows, if not one of the all-time greats. There are memorable characters we care for, romantic tension and lasting catchphrases—the triumvirate needed for most successful sitcoms. Ted Danson’s Sam Malone was a former Red Sox player who became the owner of Cheers, a Boston bar. Populating the bar in the early years were bartender Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), waitresses Diane (Shelley Long) and Carla (Rhea Perlman), and customers Cliff Claven, Norm Peterson and Frasier Crane (John Ratzenberger, George Wendt and Kelsey Grammer, respectively). We can’t forget about the memorable writing that resulted in some of our favorite Cheers quotes either.
Memorable episodes: “Nicknames” and “Judge”
If Julia Louis-Dreyfus had stopped making TV shows after Seinfeld, she would’ve gone down in history as one of the greatest comedic actresses of all time. But her post-Seinfeld acting career has eclipsed her work on that show and made her something of a comedy goddess. Veep, which ran for seven seasons, featured Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, the VP of our great nation (who would later go on to become president), whose backroom political deals and ineptitude were punctuated by the most beautiful, brutal insults toward her staff, friends and enemies. Meyer was a walking Washington D.C., disaster, and considering the show’s writing staff featured Washington insiders, it was maybe a little too real.
30 Rock (2006–2013)
Famous catchphrase: “Blerg”
After Tina Fey left Saturday Night Live, she spent the next seven years writing a TV series about the chaotic, behind-the-scenes life of a Saturday Night Live–like show. 30 Rock was a laugh a minute, densely packed with jokes and gags that were so meta, they made fun of the show’s characters, the actors who played them (including Fey herself) and NBC, the network the show was on. While some of the jokes that have appeared on the series haven’t aged well, others have been oddly prescient, and still others are buried and require pausing and rewinding to catch. Thanks to over-the-top performances from Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski and Alec Baldwin, the show remains witty and sharp and is a hilarious sendup of both corporate life and show business.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977)
Memorable episodes: “The Last Show” and “Chuckles Bites the Dust”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show starred Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, an independent, professional woman who worked as a producer in the newsroom at a Minneapolis TV station. The series has one of the most legendary sitcom casts ever: In addition to Moore, the show featured Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern (she would later get her own spinoff), Cloris Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom (she got a spinoff too) and Ed Asner as newspaper editor Lou Grant (sense a trend here? Spinoff number three, baby!), as well as Betty White, Ted Knight, Gavin MacLeod and Georgia Engel. Revolutionary at the time for its depiction of a single, independent woman, the show was beloved by critics and fans alike, and both the theme song and final episode’s group hug are firmly cemented in popular culture.
The Bob Newhart Show (1972–1978)
Memorable episodes: “Death Be My Destiny” and “Over the River and Through the Woods”
Bob Newhart was the king of the sitcom during the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to both The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, the latter of which ran from 1982 to 1990. The Bob Newhart Show starred Newhart as a Chicago therapist named Bob Hartley and Suzanne Pleshette as his wife, Emily. Newhart’s signature deadpan humor was integrated into the show as he dealt with his unpredictable neighbors and the therapy sessions with his patients.
But it wasn’t until well after the series ended that it played a part in one of the greatest jokes in sitcom history. When Newhart was coming to an end in 1990, that series closed with Newhart’s character, Dick Hartley, getting hit on the head by a golf ball and knocked unconscious, later waking up next to Emily in the bed they shared on The Bob Newhart Show. When he opened his eyes, he told Emily he’d just had the strangest dream, and he recalled the plot of Newhart to her. It’s considered one of the best sitcom finales of all time—and it’s well worth the wait for a near-perfect joke.
All in the Family (1971–1979)
Memorable episodes: “Sammy’s Visit” and “Edith’s 50th birthday”
All in the Family might be the show Norman Lear is most famous for, running for eight seasons and featuring the character viewers most love to hate: Archie Bunker. Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, and his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton), were working-class Queens residents (and onetime neighbors of the Jeffersons). And while Archie’s cruelty toward his wife, whom he refers to as a dingbat, among other things, could be criticized, the satire here is that Archie is the dingbat. He’s prejudiced against pretty much anyone who’s different from him, has a superiority complex and is constantly irritated by the progressive, more accepting worldviews of his daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her husband, Meathead (Rob Reiner).
All in the Family features one of the most famous sitcom moments ever, when special guest star Sammy Davis Jr., playing himself, appeared on the show as a passenger in a cab driven by Archie. When he visits Archie’s house to retrieve a briefcase he left behind, he overhears Archie making disparaging, racist remarks and asks Archie to take a photo with him. As the camera flashes, Davis plants a kiss on Archie’s cheek, resulting in audience laughter that went on for so long, it had to be cut for time.
The Office (2005–2013)
Famous catchphrase: “That’s what she said.”
The Office centers around Dunder Mifflin, a paper company run by regional manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell), who likes to think he’s the world’s best boss. In reality, he’s tone deaf, inept and not as cool as he thinks. It was a career-making role for Carell, and it’s almost impossible to believe Michael was almost played by actor Paul Giamatti. The Office‘s straight-to-camera interview style gave the show a documentary feel, not unlike some of the best reality TV shows, and certainly adds a “breaking the fourth wall” feel. But it was the relationships—between Michael and Dwight Schrute, between will-they-or-won’t-they couple Jim and Pam, and between everyone else at the office—that will long be remembered. Well, all that and the “that’s what she said” jokes.
Famous catchphrase: “No soup for you!”
Everyone, including Jerry Seinfeld himself, has said that Seinfeld is a show about nothing. We would like to disagree and say that Seinfeld is a show about everything. There’s not a day that goes by where something mundane happens that can’t be traced back to Seinfeld. Someone walked away with your pen? Your pretzels made you thirsty? You became disgruntled when someone took your parking space? It’s all right there in the show. And let’s not forget that some people actually celebrate Festivus, the Christmas alternative created by Frank Costanza.
Granted, the characters of George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer probably dealt with these issues in less-than-kind ways. But the show, created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, turned Seinfeld’s observational stand-up comedy into a lifestyle. Seinfeld was deliberately made without mining pop-culture references for humor, which makes most of the episodes feel as fresh and relevant as the day they premiered. (Some others, like the Donna Chang episode and the infamous, rarely aired Puerto Rican Day Parade episode, while satirical, miss the mark and come off a little tasteless in hindsight.) Still, the basic tenet of the show was “no hugging, no learning,” and the characters stayed true to that throughout. There was never a “very special episode”—they were all just about regular people who made questionable choices and then kept it moving. Seinfeld is now one of the classic shows you can stream on Netflix.
The Golden Girls (1985–1992)
Famous catchphrase: “Back in Saint Olaf …”
The Golden Girls has been the gift that keeps on giving since it first aired in 1985. Back then, a show that starred four women over 50 as the leads was unlikely to succeed. And yet here we are, nearly 40 years later, still talking about it. The premise of the show, which is easily one of the best sitcoms of all time, is simple: A recent widow, Blanche Devereaux (Rue McLanahan), opens her Miami home to divorcée Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), widow Rose Nylund (Betty White) and Dorothy’s mother, Sophia (Estelle Getty), all of whom need a new place to live due to recent life changes.
The series was revolutionary for the way it portrayed the careers and sexuality of older women, and the comedy series sets the bar for incredible jokes throughout, delivered by some of the finest comedic actresses ever. (It has also inspired several generations of us to love caftans, cheesecake and rattan furniture.) The show mined laughs from jokes about Medicare and sending Sophia back to Shady Pines just as easily as it did from Blanche’s sex life and Rose’s time in Saint Olaf, but it also handled LGBTQ issues, illness and grief with sensitivity and humor.
I Love Lucy (1951–1957)
Memorable episode: “Job Switching”
Lucille Ball and her husband at the time, Desi Arnaz, starred in I Love Lucy, which premiered in 1951 as one of the first half-hour televised sitcoms ever. Though the word sitcom is synonymous with television, the format of the “situation comedy” was originally conceived for radio. Lucy and Desi took things up a notch, and theirs was the first scripted show to be filmed in front of a studio audience and with an ensemble cast, which included Vivian Vance and William Frawley as neighbors Ethel and Fred Mertz. It pioneered the format that would be copied by so many funny sitcoms that came after it.
But it’s not just the format that makes I Love Lucy so important; it’s the writing and performances too. Ball, a gifted comedian who had already worked in radio and films, was a trailblazer for women in TV. She insisted on casting her real-life husband as her on-screen spouse, and their chemistry and comedy were perfection. The series also produced more than a few iconic moments, from Lucy and Ethel shoving chocolates into their mouths while working at a candy factory to Lucy stomping grapes to her attempt to star in a commercial for “Vitameatavegemin” health tonic. Put simply, it set the bar for every sitcom that followed and is still hilarious to this day.