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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

QOTD: What’s the best modern American sitcom?

Larry Sanders Show Jeffrey Tambor Rip Torn Garry Shandling

Vulture is currently engaging in what they’re calling a Sitcom Smackdown, asking their readers to help their panel of experts choose the best American sitcom of the past 30 years:

[W]here to mark the beginning of the modern era of comedy, a time that similarly introduced a qualitative reinvention of the form? We decided on 1982: The year of Cheers’ debut. ..

Cheers — while at its heart a traditional workplace sitcom, and coming from alumni of the similar-minded Taxi — wasn’t just hilarious; it added something to the form: a dramalike will-they-won’t-they arc that took seasons to resolve. (Its precursor, Soap, was, yes, soapy, but that was part of its unique, satirical raison d’etre, as opposed to something to be repeated.) Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who knew a thing or two about great writing, was ahead of the curve when he said back in 1991 that he’d “rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written.” He already got that the sitcom was emerging as the most perfect of American art forms — the one thing our deeply divided country can agree on: It’s fun to make fun of people! Or, more diplomatically: It’s better to laugh and cry than just cry.

Oh, my. Is the sitcom really the pinnacle of American civilization? God, I hope not.

(Click over to Vulture to see how their ongoing smackdown is going; it ends mid-March.)

What’s the best modern American sitcom? What makes it work so well?

I probably shouldn’t be allowed to participate because I still haven’t seen Arrested Development and even though everyone says Community is amazing, the little bits I’ve seen haven’t appealed to me, and in general I just don’t like sitcoms anyway. But I’ll choose HBO’s 1990s series The Larry Sanders Show, which I found biting and hilarious, but also sad and poignant in many ways. It was a brilliant tragi-comedy about fame and celebrity, and a don’t-ask-what’s-in-the-sausage look at how talk TV gets made.


(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • RogerBW

    I’m watching old episodes of Community at the moment, and finding it very patchy (a lot depends on the writer) but on balance good value. I’ve tried to watch The Big Bang Theory but the classic sitcom framing and obviousness tends to put me off. I’m told it gets better later on.
    For my money the best comedy show on TV right now is Top Gear, particularly since it’s clear that most of the people watching it don’t realise that it’s a comedy show at all.

  • Lisa

    Larry Sanders, Cheers, Arrested Development were all great. My favorite episode of Larry Sanders is the one were Larry gets angry at his agent for not putting him up to present the People’s Choice awards because Larry asked him not to! I hate sitcoms generally. Cheers had a mean spiritedness that was almost British!

  • I_Sell_Books

    Arrested Development is, hands down, one of the funniest shows ever made anywhere. And I say that as someone who adores Father Ted, Spaced, Falty Towers, Friends, Are You Being Served, and Community. I think it is actually my #1…wow. Community’s first season is patchy, but picks up into brilliance with ‘Modern Warfare’.

  • I_Sell_Books

    HTML fail, and why can’t I edit like other people do? *pout*

  • KEAplin

    I’m really tempted to say Fox News, but I won’t.

  • I don’t like sitcoms in general, either. I just feel like I’m wasting my time. Like I’d rather be watching a REAL show, with REAL characters, and REAL plots.

    It’s kind of the same attitude I take towards movie comedies.

    I love to be proven wrong, though. I’ve heard about all these great shows, and have been tempted to try them, but just can’t do it.

    I watched some clips of Big Bang Theory on YT, and it just seemed like a typical, stupid sitcom. I especially hate laugh tracks.

    I DID love Seinfeld back when it was on. One of the few sitcoms I actually watched. It was a bit different than typical silly sitcoms, though.

  • I’m thinking Community is far too different and creative to be called a sitcom. It’s my favourite show at the moment. Yes, Season 1 takes some time to truly get into, but the other seasons have been great.

    Modern sitcoms: Arrested Development and The Big Bang Theory. Although The Big Bang Theory is walking a thin line. Personally, I’d get rid of Sheldon and Amy’s “relationship,” make Raj gay, and avoid ANY child births or anymore weddings for that matter. It’s becoming quite typical, but the first seasons were terrific and gut-busting. Sitcoms are almost always ruined by weddings and babies. Like life, I guess. (I’m only kidding…or am I?)

  • David N-T

    Maybe if it had a laugh track?

  • Bluejay

    I’d rather be watching a REAL show, with REAL characters, and REAL plots.

    Those kinds of shows aren’t “real” either, you know. If you prefer dramas, then just say you like dramas. ;-)

    I love to be proven wrong, though. I’ve heard about all these great shows, and have been tempted to try them, but just can’t do it.

    You say you welcome being proven wrong; but if you don’t give shows a chance to prove you wrong, how can they?

  • Rob

    The Big Bang Theory actually doesn’t have a laugh track. It’s filmed live before an audience.

  • Rob

    It’s also an extremely intelligent show. Watching random clips out of context really doesn’t constitute giving it a chance.

  • MisterAntrobus

    Even shows that are filmed in front of live audiences have laugh tracks, or at the very least, “sweeteners” that augment live audience reactions with canned sounds. Some shows have even employed choruses of professional laughers, which, while they’re “live,” aren’t exactly spontaneous reactions either.

  • For one, I don’t know where to start. I keep hearing about TBBT from this guy at work. I also keep hearing(on the internet. Not in the real world) how great Community or Arrested Development is. There’s also shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm which has been ranked by many as one of the funniest shows of all time.
    Secondly, I have other series that I’ve been wanting to start watching as well. If it’s a choice between silliness and drama, I’m going to take the drama every time. I only watch a couple series at a time, so said time is very precious. A show has to be damn great for me to add it to the roster.
    Give me a drama with a side of comedy(or even vice versa), and I’d be more willing to give it a shot. Do any of the above shows qualify?

  • Man, it sure as heck sounded like it did. Or at least has what the other fellow describes.
    So what kind of chance should I give it? An episode or two? I would think watching 20 minutes of the “best of” would be enough to convince me, right? Should I seek out a particular episode? Or would it not work without proper background?

  • RogerBW

    Even when the laughter in a broadcast is entirely natural and unforced – to the extent it ever is – I still find it annoying when I’m watching on my own at home, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call it a “laugh track” (as opposed to “canned laughter”, which I’ll agree it isn’t).

  • Bluejay

    A show has to be damn great for me to add it to the roster.

    Wait, so you want a guarantee that you’ll love a show, before you even try it? Sorry, but that’s never going to happen.

    No show, no matter how critically acclaimed, can be to everyone’s taste. From your previous comments, I know there are some films (and musicians and cuisines) that I think are excellent, but that you probably won’t like. And although you probably usually agree with MaryAnn’s reviews, you probably don’t agree 100% with everything she likes either.

    If you hear great things about a show, and you’re at all curious about whether you’d personally like it, the only real way to find out is to try it. Make time to try it. Watch a few episodes. Will there be shows you won’t wind up liking? Absolutely. But that’s also how you discover new things you never thought you’d enjoy. Life’s an adventure, MarkyD! Embrace the risk! :-)

    Give me a drama with a side of comedy(or even vice versa), and I’d be more willing to give it a shot. Do any of the above shows qualify?

    Well, look: I think Community is a very intelligent, self-aware comedy, with a dark and dramatic underside. Season 1 is good (and it’s where you should start, if you do), but it really hits its stride in Seasons 2 and 3. (The jury’s still out on Season 4, because the show’s had a change of management.) The characters are hilarious and complicated: on the surface they’re types (the cynical lawyer, the jock, the Jesus freak, the militant atheist/feminist, the pop-culture nerd, etc) but they all grow out of their types to reveal how they’re all human and broken and hurting in different ways.

    But, you know, that’s me. (And I know what you think of some other recommendations I’ve given you.) I have absolutely no idea if you’d like it or not. That’s for you to find out. Or not.

  • Seriously, Arrested Development. You should get on that.

  • 30 years seems specifically picked to keep WKRP out of the mix, since it ended in 1982 and it is now 2013, so I’m not playing Vulture’s reindeer games!

  • Lisa

    I love Curb your enthusiasm because I am Larry David. I love it when Garlin says he loves the quiet life and Larry goes that must why you married your wife lol

  • dwa

    My favorite is “the love car displacement”. You have to have some appreciation of the characters and why they act like they do but it becomes obvious quite quickly. The episodes that poke fun at fundamental Christians..sheldon’s mom….are quite good. (and I say that as a person of faith…on the whole they manage to do it while still feeling like they are treating people respectfully..not always an easy task) If I remember your bent from previous posts correctly you would likely enjoy those. The mr Spock Xmas episode is also quite good. I will find the names of those last 2 episodes and post later.

  • A friend of mine with a distinctive laugh was in a sitcom studio audience once, and we swear his laugh showed up in the laugh track of various show *for years.*

  • Exactly. They’re still telling me when I’m supposed to laugh. How about letting me decide on my own?

  • Patrick

    The early to middle seasons of Night Court. Sure, there are more sophisticated sitcoms, but NC has that delicious working class, middlebrow sense of humor that tickles me to no end (except for the later seasons which was truly dreck).

  • Dokeo

    Oh, please, yes.

  • I don’t know how to do the quoting thing you’re doing so you get a combobbled post.

    When I say “it has to be great” I just mean that I’ve had to have heard good things about it from multiple sources. Combine that with my own personal interest, and then I’m more willing to try it out.

    I can probably list on less than 10 fingers the amount of series I have tried and watched in the past TEN years. This is why I’m picky.

    Some of these I’ve only watched because of this here site.

    Life on Mars – Can’t stand the 70’s, but MaryAnn’s talking about it being one of the best shows ever finally got me to try it anyway. I loved it. The perfect example of me breaking out of the box.

    Doctor Who
    Battlestar Galactica
    The Walking Dead
    American Horror Story
    Game of Thrones

    aaaand that’s all I can think of. I’ve liked, and in some cases still like, all of these shows. 9 for 9. Not bad.

    It’s obvious from this list that I like serious, fantastical type shows. My wife and I want to start watching Being Human soon. Because of this, I won’t even have room in my life for another show for quite awhile anyway. No matter how good a TV show may be, it’s still the bottom of the barrel when it comes to ways to spend my time. Gardening is 1-5, then movies, games, books, tv.

    Thanks for your responses. I appreciate the discussion!

  • cal

    I vote for Community too, and as it is a comedy set in a particular situation, it is a sitcom. True, there is no live studio audience and it isn’t shot with three cameras, as is typical, but it still fits the criteria. And it is my favorite show at the moment, also.

    I laugh at other shows, BBT included, but Community is far cleverer than most shows. Even the stuff in the background is part of the jokes. I’ve only seen a little of Arrested Development, but I found that quite funny as well. I also like NewsRadio, when Phil Hartman was on it.

  • possum

    Seinfeld without a doubt. The “square to spare” was one of the funniest things ever on television.

    (And whenever I see Garry Shandling I automatically get the “It’s the Garry Shandling Show” theme song in my head- darn you MaryAnn).

  • Two of the best modern sitcoms (and two of the best shows on TV right now) are Louie and Parks and Recreation. They both feel very of the moment, and they both have surprising amounts of heart and depth.

  • FormerlyKnownAsBill

    scrubs. it’s axiomatic.

  • fionna

    I always found Cheers mean-spirited too; I thought Frasier was a much warmer show, and easier to watch and enjoy for that reason.

  • Parks and Rec is wonderful (especially once it begins to hit its stride in late S2) -it’s a show that genuinely got both funnier AND more warm-hearted as it went on, and it has a wonderful dynamic between all the actors, with a great female lead in Amy Poehler.

    Arrested Development is also absolute genius and one of the most inventive sitcoms I can think of. The Bluths are completely dysfunctional but brilliant at it, and it’s one of those shows that builds up the running gags and meshes plotlines together brilliantly.

    All over, though? My pick for favourite American sitcom is Frasier, based especially on the sheer quality of the writing. It was just a genius, counter-intuitive move to give Frasier a brother who was MORE neurotic than him, and then balance them as a duo against everyone else. It’s just the gift that keeps on giving, and it hits the perfect balance between acerbic and heartwarming, with a great dash of farce. The episode “Ham Radio” is one of my favourite things ever, and how can you not love a series that has a line like this:

    Niles: “I’d love to stay but I have my therapy group meeting, and last time I was late the compulsive gamblers were betting the passive aggressives that they couldn’t make the over-eaters cry.”

  • Hmmm since 1992…maybe Cheers…then The Big Bang Theory

  • teenygozer

    I was watching one of Big Bang Theory’s outtake reels on youtube the other day, and it became evident that they had to do some lines over and over because the audience was laughing *too much*–it ruined the flow when a character was saying a line and a mid-point joke in his sentence got too long a laugh, so that it became difficult for the character to continue the sentence naturally, where the biggest punchline lay at the end of the sentence. So they’d do the scene a few times to get to a point where the audience wouldn’t laugh so much at the middle joke, having heard it a few times. But then, that might screw up the big punchline joke in that scene.

    I have no problem when the sweetener is used to balance out the flow of a scene, as long as it’s not being used to laugh at unfunny jokes.

  • teenygozer

    Gone but not forgotten: Better Off Ted, Scrubs, Friends. Also The Nanny, not usually anyone’s top sitcom, but full of Broadway in-jokes and an accent that this ex-New Yorker missed when she moved to another state.

    Here and well-loved: The Big Bang Theory, Community, New Girl, Raising Hope.

    Resurrected on TBS: Cougar Town, which was created by the same people who created and wrote Scrubs and constantly has actors who used to be on Scrubs show up. In fact, they did an episode where they had a running gag that one of the main characters noticed that everyone he knew looked like a character from Scrubs. Also, I love that Abed from Community showed up on it and loves the show, too. Cougar Town has a comedic feel of Friends + Scrubs.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    That’s what a laugh track is. The audience is mic’ed and recorded onto a separate audio track. The boom mics on set, by design, only pick up a small fraction of background sound. They’re listening for the actors.

    What you’re thinking of is “canned” laugh tracks. Those are snippets from laugh tracks that are saved from other productions. The sound engineers will insert these into the audio for a sitcom in post. These are used to either create the illusion of a live audience, or to “cue” the home audience to laugh when the live audience didn’t laugh as much as the director and/or producers wanted them to. It’s been a while since any show used them to do the former, but they’re still used for the latter. Although the engineers have at least gotten clever enough to not use the same 10 second track, played from the beginning, for every cue, unless they’re using it ironically.

  • flick


  • Paul

    “What’s the best modern American sitcom?”

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    I love The Big Bang Theory. When you watch it from start to finish it works beautifully. The characters also grow and even manage to stay entertaining that way.

    It looks like they might be working up to a happy finale for everyone, and like the characters of Seinfeld with their finale, they’ll deserve it.

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