Sitcoms have saved my life. They turn my world from grey to colour.
They are static electricity that shock and waken the boring parts of my brain.
And the lessons from them have helped me achieve every success I’ve ever had.
Many people are snobbish and down on TV. Even worse, they get down on comedies, even if they stick to good dramas.
But comedies are what bring me alive. They help me in business, in relationships, in life, in all communication.
I will tell you why here and more below:
– They often reveal hidden truths that would be hard to express in any other medium. When Seinfeld brings a date to “Schindler’s List” and makes out with her, this can’t be done in just about any other setting except a neo-Nazi propaganda film and yet Jerry Seinfeld can do it and it’s funny. When Louis CK talks to another comedian about suicide in an episode of “Louie” it’s a way to capture the inherent difficulties in building a career but, again, in the safer context of a comedy.
– They make me laugh. The body is meant to laugh, to climb, to jump, to relax. Note: the body is not meant (from an evolutionary perspective) to have a career or make money. But laughter is proven to have so many benefits it’s amazing we don’t spend more of our day actively trying to laugh.
– A good comedy allows the mind to “practice” a difficult situation and see that there is humour in it.
This is important. The brain CAN’T distinguish between what is on TV and what is happening in real life.
It knows it’s not AS real but that’s about it. A good comedy will end up in some dark or awkward place and use comedy to fight its way back. Or not. This is a good practice for the brain.
These are my favourite ten comedies. They are mostly based on white men.
Why? Because I’m a white man and I probably relate most to these. Also, most shows made over the past 50 years have been about white men.
I am happy to watch others (“Veep” could easily be on my list) and I’m open to suggestions.
I’ve watched each of these series, in their entirety, at least twice. Sometimes (“Louie” and “Freaks and Geeks”) over five times for the entire series.
I have never done that with any other series (oh, except for “Lost”, which I’ve now watched 4 times from beginning to end).
TV is the best vehicle right now for storytelling.
“CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM”
Larry David is the godfather of the modern sitcom.
Larry David has said that the “Larry David” he plays on “Curb” is not really him. It’s what he’d LIKE to be.
But the lesson from Curb is that comedy is often about subtraction.
You take the real Larry David and you subtract all sense of etiquette and “following the rules” and an ability to hold himself back from what he’s really thinking and you get Curb.
Steve Kaplan in “The Hidden Tools of Comedy” says that comedy is often about subtraction.
Another thing about Curb. Almost every scene is improvised. Instead of a 20-page outline, Larry David will often only write a 3-4 page outline and let people improvise.
So when you see the actors laughing, they are REALLY laughing, not just acting like someone laughing. There’s a big difference and the viewer can feel it.
Also, almost all the actors are professional comedians (JB Smoove is unbelievable in the show) or improv actors or (in the case of Ted Danson and the one season with Michael J. Fox) comedic actors.
I like the fact that such an accomplished scriptwriter can improve on the form to create a better show.
David Cross, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, and everyone else in the show – you can’t go wrong with that cast.
In 1997 I was once interviewing David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (who also appears in “Arrested” but is better known for “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”).
They made me laugh so hard my stomach was hurting and I had to leave the room. They were just riffing back and forth but it was incredible. I had never laughed so hard.
Additionally Arrested Development is narrated by Ron Howard and has regular cameos from Henry Winkler and Scott Baio.
In other words, it’s a callback to my favourite show when I was growing up – “Happy Days”.
There’s even a “breaking the fourth wall” moment when Scott Baio replaced Henry Winkler as the family’s lawyer and they specifically say “we need to appeal to a younger demographic” which is exactly the reason the young Chachi came on “Happy Days” alongside “The Fonz” (played respectively, by the younger Scott Baio and Henry Winkler).
Why would Ron Howard, one of the most successful directors of our time, narrate a sitcom?
Because its that good.
What is nothing?
It’s really the added up inconveniences and hardships and pains and awkwardness of daily living.
There’s no murder. There’s no heartbreaking romance. There’s no drug deals. And there’s specifically “no learning”.
But that’s what daily life is about.
Combine that with four actors, each with their own complete story line that HAS to intersect at the end of a 22 minute show, and you get the most successful sitcom of all time.
One interesting thing: Larry David was so worried about running out of New York stories that he’d roll over the writing staff every season with other writers from New York so he’d get those stories.
One of those writers, Alec Berg, became a producer, then a producer on “Curb”, and now the Executive Producer of “Silicon Valley”.
Another writer, Fred Stoller, one of my favorites, has written a great book titled “My Seinfeld Year” and is coming on my podcast this week.
Another writer, Carol Leifer, has been on my podcast.
And Marc Hirschfeld, the casting director of the original season, used to complain to me when my parties were too loud (but that’s another story). Hopefully he will come on my podcast.
“FREAKS AND GEEKS”
Cancelled after less than one season. But I could watch this series over and over again.
I also recommend Judd Apatow’s description of the failure of this show.
It was Judd Apatow’s first attempt at producing for TV. He hadn’t yet done: “The 40 Year old Virgin”, “Knocked Up”, my all time favorite comedy “Superbad”, “Funny People”, and other series like “Girls”, and “Crashing”.
Imagine creating a high school show without pretty people.
He wanted to create the opposite of “Beverly Hills 902010”. A bunch of geeky kids combined with a bunch of burnout kids and everyone’s awkward attempt to fit in.
Growing up is awkward and painful and there’s no guidebook.
But this is what’s amazing:
Imagine a show with the first appearances of unknown actors such as James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr (“Silicon Valley” much later, as well as others), Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men” much later), and also the comedic writing talents of Paul Feig (I recommend his book, “Superstud”, he wrote and directed “Spy”, he directed a lot of “The Office” and “Arrested Development”).
How did he find all these future mega-stars? Judd Apatow did it and they show their future skills in this show.
I didn’t want to watch it. It was made by the BBC. It’s very British. It’s hard enough for me to like something not made in America. I didn’t think I would like it.
It might be actually #1 on this list, it’s that funny.
Everything on this list is really too close to call. Which is why I’m not putting numbers here.
Imagine two great improv comedians, with cameras right on their eyes (the innovation in the show is how they do the camera work).
They are roommates but like an extreme “Odd Couple” and they both hate and love each other (like many roommates).
And they go through what I’ve gone through in career, relationships, awkwardness, friendship. etc.
It’s the ultimate bromance. And, I hate to use the phrase, it is “laugh out loud funny”.
I have never seen another British show before or since. But this one is it. David Mitchell, one of the actors, then did a very funny book about the experience.
Andy Samberg made a joke during the Golden Globes. He said, “There has been several reclassifications this year: ‘Orange is the New Black’ has gone from comedy to drama’ and ‘Louie’ has been reclassified as ‘Jazz’. “
Which is funny because Louie is obviously a comedy simply because it’s written, directed, produced and starring Louis CK, a comedian.
And it’s about a comedian named “Louis CK” (in the genre of comedians’u shows about comedians (Seinfeld, Louie, Jim Gaffigan Show, Maron, Crashing, and probably others I’m not thinking of).
But there is something jazz-like about the show, beginning with its opening theme.
There’s an improv to it that just barely stretches reality enough that you still believe what’s happening even though you are accepting of the stretches of reality.
And it’s DARK.
My favourite scene is when Louie is lonely for the holidays in the season finale of season 3. He runs into my all-time favorite actress, Parker Posey, on a bus and…something happens. You have to see it.
Every episode contains darkness. But the wisdom that drives Louis CK’s comedy drives this.
And Louie is the master of his craft. He took the umbrella of comedy 30 years ago decided to master all the sub-skills:
Standup, writing for a show, writing for a talk show, making a movie, making a TV series (“Lucky Louie” which was cancelled after one season on HBO), and then negotiating to become the first TV producer to completely create a TV show on his own terms without any notes from the executives.
Perhaps the first time that’s happened on a major network.
The result is a sitcom that completely plays with the form. For example, almost every other sitcom has a main storyline told in three acts.
Often Louie doesn’t do this. There are many episodes with two complete stories without the requisite breakdown into acts.
Plus, if you watch the compilation of just his standup-bits in the show, they are FUNNY. Unlike other shows about funny people (“30 Rock”, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” – a great drama), the “Louie” bits are incredibly funny.
But isn’t this just like Seinfeld, a show about a comedian with the same name as the show who is up and coming in the comedy world?
Yes, but this isn’t a show about nothing. Louie is darker in every way than Seinfeld and I found myself both laughing and crying often within the same episode.
Louie says he could’ve made many of these storylines into a movie. Instead he fit them tightly into an episode on this show.
The show is really like 50 quality movies.
Oh, my other favourite episode is also with Parker Posey. When they are on their first date and she sits on the edge of the roof and gives a beautiful monologue.
Please, Parker, come on my podcast.
(Parker talking to Louie)
Louie has turned his talents towards producing several other sitcoms (one with Zach Galifiniokis, another with Pamela Adlon, and another with himself and Steve Buscemi). All good.
“THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW”
AGAIN! A show about an up and coming comedian named after the creator of the show.
This is like a cleaner “Louie” although just describing it that way doesn’t do it justice.
Clean comedy is probably more difficult than crude comedy.
AJ Jacobs told me an experiment he did with Jim Gaffigan. He found out that the first joke ever recorded in history was a “fart joke” and he had Jim Gaffigan go on stage to see if people would still laugh.
Incidentally, AJ is working on a sitcom now about his experiences making the book “The Year of Living Biblically.” I hope it succeeds.
“Jim Gaffigan did his own version of the oldest joke ever,” AJ told me, “and people laughed”.
It’s easier to get people to laugh when you are crude. It’s harder to tell a joke about Cinabbons and get people to laugh.
Jim’s story is also different than many other comedians. He’s got five kids. His wife is involved in all of his material. He is probably compared to Louis CK all of the time (and at least one of the shows is about that).
Michael Ian Black, one of my favourite comedians, is also a regular on the show. Michael, come on my podcast! And Marc Hirschfeld (see “Seinfeld” above, plus my unknown story of him being my neighbour) is casting director.
“IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA”
This should be #1 if I were ranking by “Choose Yourself”- style stories.
A bunch of unknown aspiring actors shot a video in a dumpy bar in an obscure corner of Philadelphia, turned it into a sitcom, and pitched it to FOX.
FOX took it. The creators are now worth over $20 million each nine seasons later.
Fox brought on Danny Devito to provide some experienced comedic talent to the show but the show was already off to the races.
Unlike most of the shows above there aren’t many inter season arcs but they still exist. And each show holds up on its own and is hilarious.
This show is again an example of – take a regular group of people trying to find success and happiness and SUBTRACT some basic skills of being a responsible human and this EQUALS hilarious comedy.
The actors / creators were unknown before this show started. Now they’ve been in tons of other shows, movies, etc.
“THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW”
Like Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show is almost the grandfather of every other sitcom that came after it.
I can’t make a list about sitcoms without one of the most creative of all time.
A show about the inner workings of a talk show called “The Larry Sanders Show”.
Garry Shandling, one of the best comics of all time, stars in it, and the guest includes well known comedians such as Bob Odenkirk (him again! By the way, best sketch show of all-time is “Mr. Show” starring Odenirk and David Cross (“Arrested Development”) which also appeared on HBO, and also great actors such as Rip Torn and Larry Sanders and tons of guest appearances (David Letterman, etc).
Even more revealing is the amazing staff of writers who worked on that show including a young Judd Apatow who says Garry mentored him to success via this show.
I once wrote a spec script for this show that I was very proud of. It was about how Larry Sanders wanted to get respect and write a memoir.
I was about to send it in to the staff of the show when the very next episode was about this exact topic. So I missed my chance.
As Garry Shandling put it, “The show is about people who love each other but show business gets in the way”.
Garry wouldn’t do a joke simply because it was funny. It had to move the story forward. The jokes had to be about something.
Writers like Judd Apatow never forgot that (and 10 monster box office hits later, it’s clearly good advice that Judd used).
And, culturally significant. Even though it was fiction, whenever “Larry Sanders” went on vacation, his guest host on the fictional show was often a young comedian named “Jon Stewart”.
When the Larry Sanders Show finished its fun, even though the show was fiction and not real, Jon Stewart was finally given a chance to host his own talk show: The Daily Show.
Even though this list is not in any order, I had a hard time coming up with the tenth to put on this list.
Many other shows can fit in this spot: “Silicon Valley,” “Veep,” “Party Down,” “Undeclared” (another Judd Apatow show), “Entourage,” “The Brink,” “Taxi” (maybe one of the greatest shows of all time, introducing Danny Devitor, Judd Hirsch, Andy Kaufman, Christopher Lloyd, Tony Danza, MariluHenner, etc), “Mary Tyler Moore”, etc.
I also leave out the animated sitcoms: “The Simpsons”, “South Park”, etc.
But, for me, “The League” was must-see TV and I’ve seen the entire series at least twice.
It’s about a topic totally uninteresting to me: a fantasy sports league.
First, the creator: Jeff Schaeffer, worked on Seinfeld.
In many industries, the creators of quality got their start with a strong team of up and coming talented people on an earlier classic. How many actors got their start on Saturday Night Live, for instance?
How many great network executives (executives at Showtime, Viacom, Universal, Starz, Amazon, Netflix) for their start at HBO?
And many great writers got their start at Seinfeld, being trained by Larry David.
How many great Silicon Valley companies were started by people who worked at PayPal (Tesla, LinkedIn, YouTube, Palantir, are just a few).
Jeff Schaeffer worked side by side on Seinfeld with Alec Berg (“Curb” and “Silicon Valley”) and David Mandel (“Veep”).
And then the cast: Mark Duplass (who, in addition to making movies with his brother, also stars in “Togetherness” on HBO and several seasons of “The Mindy Project” with Mindy Kaling) super comedian, Nick Kroll, (who also hosted “The Kroll Show” on Comedy Central), etc.
The League provides a missing hole in my life.
I never had a group of guys that I hung out with where we all made fun of each other.
Perhaps this is traditional male bonding (a great example of this art form is in “Knocked Up” with Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, and Jason Segel, constantly making fun of each other.)
Most of my friends are women. Perhaps this is why I’ve “missed out” on this traditional male experience. I miss it and wish I had it.
The League is my favourite example of this. I would even join a fantasy sports league if I thought guys like this would be in my league.
I’ve left out a lot of great shows. And again, all of the shows above are about white men.
But: Veep, The Mindy Project, The Office, Silicon Valley, Entourage, The Brink, Undeclared, Party Down, Taxi, M.A.S.H, Roseanne (which Judd Apatow also wrote for), Ellen, Night Court, Girls, Cheers, Friends, Crashing, Maron, and probably a hundred other shows that are making their breakouts now, deserve special mention.
Oh, I also wanted to include “Episodes” and “The Comeback”, two Friends spin-offs.
“The Office” deserves special mention as not only a showcase of Steve Carrell’s amazing acting and comedic (Mindy Kaling says in her second book that her eight seasons with “The Office” was like going to an acting school taught by Steve Carrell) skills but the talent of its writer/performers like Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak, as well as how the comedy translates well from Ricky Gervais British version. (Oh, which reminds me: I forgot to include “Extras” with Ricky Gervais).
And maybe “Taxi” most of all in terms of the quality of the cast and the influence that had on later sitcoms.
It was also the first sitcom that had a particularly dark and grimy quality to it, (starting with the beautifully sad, minor-chord driven theme song) that turned sadness into humor every week with the most incredible cast, writers, and creators (Andy Kaufman!)
Why Write A List Of The Best Sitcoms Ever?
What value does it have for life, business, etc.
Answer: Everything. EVERYTHING!
– The body needs to laugh. For both mental and physical health reasons.
– Humour is a way to reveal hidden truths. We all live with boundaries made by the rules of society. Comedy is a way to look beyond those rules and determine which ones are worth bending.
– The story-telling is basic but super tight. Not a single extra word else you lose the humour.
And all communication is about storytelling. Too many people forget this. Whether you are writing a memo to your boss, or a tweet – you have to tell a story.
– The actors are not just actors, they are comedians with their own perspectives they’ve developed from years developing their comedic skills.
– Life is difficult. These sitcoms are like guides to navigating those difficult moments.
– Public speaking. The best public speakers realize they are not in the information business, they are in the entertainment business, and often that is done via humor.
Jerry Seinfeld (or someone, I forget) says it best:
Every situation a comedian is in, he looks for what is wrong. For most people, they only look for what is right.
This is closely related to the underlying philosophy of Stoicism.
Sometimes looking for what is wrong is the best way to see a reality in a situation. And then make it right.
Finally, Why Watch TV?
When I was younger, many people were snobs about TV. They would say, “Oh, we don’t even own a TV.”
I feel sorry for them. They are stuck in only their single lives, living them day in and day out. The same routines without deeper analysis (I am being harsh on purpose).
A sitcom is a way in 22 minutes to relive the awkwardness and horror of someone else’s worst moments. And to survive. Because we all are in this together. We simply want to survive.
Why not take every opportunity to learn how to do that?
Any suggestions are welcome. I realise the limitations of my particular point of view and I’m open to suggestions, both from the classics and maybe brand new sitcoms that I’m missing, or simply sitcoms that I’ve forgotten to include.
Also, if you like this style of “Top 10” please mention it in comments.
I have many other “Top 10s” that I LOVE. I would never do a list about something I am not passionate about. I am passionate about the best sitcoms.
Since I was a kid, they have been my parents and mentors and friends. I’d come home from school and watch sitcom after sitcom all day and night.
For better or worse, they raised me. And still do.
[This post by James Altucher first appeared on LinkedIn and has been reproduced with permission.]