Tom started this off with his Top Ten Sitcoms (and a bizarre ‘No Animation’ rule), followed by Dr Sordid with a more-British perspective, and Logan. This was a while ago, admittedly, but, as you can tell if you read my blog regularly, being timely is not my strong point. I’ve been thinking of changing my sub-heading quote to ‘There’s No Clock On Criticism!’ Not wishing to feel left out when it comes to talking about comedy television programmes, here are my Top Five Sitcoms (I like the High Fidelity aspect of the Top Five concept):
Even though it didn’t really get funny until Blackadder II, the series as a whole is brilliant. For me, the six episodes of the second series are comedy perfection. Rowan Atkinson created a wonderful character, supported by a cast of great people, and it was consistently funny and very good. The historical setting means that it can never date as a sitcom, a problem that can happen to most other sitcoms that are set in their present time, so this will just keep on being wonderful while others may lose their relevance.
The Young Ones
The arrival of The Young Ones onto BBC2 announced to the rest of the country the official introduction to ‘alternative’ comedy. Anarchic, stupid, silly, but mostly just funny, it was the first time that you felt that a connection in a sitcom, rather than watching the dry farces of before. The second series really got it perfect for the group, with some moments of sublime comedy antics that live with me still. And, of course, they did it right by killing them off in the last show.
If The Young Ones was the first sitcom to cause a connection, it was Spaced that spoke directly to its audience. A show about twentysomethings trying to find meaning in their lives, it was the beautiful blend of humour, pop culture references, cinematic camera technique and brilliant characters that struck a chord with the audience, knowing that they were talking and referencing all the things that were important to you. Films, computer games, comic books, sex, drugs, skateboarding, guns, clubbing – Spaced was and will always be geek sitcom of choice.
The whole of the Alan Partridge on television (allowing me to include Knowing Me, Knowing You …, as well as the actual sitcom of I’m Alan Partridge) is a creation of comic genius by Steve Coogan (even if Lee & Herring were the first people to come up with the germ of the idea on Radio 4’s On The Hour). Starting off with ripping the shit out of the chat show format, then mining the vein of cringeworthy comedy that would see Ricky Gervais get his Golden Globes later for The Office, Partridge was pure British comedy distilled to perfection. Coogan may worry about Partridge being his legacy, but what a legacy.
The idea of three priests on an island does not sound like a very good situation for comedy to ensue. How wrong. In three deliriously oddball series, Father Ted proved to the perfect setting for comedy and wonderfully grotesque characters. Even though it is set in present time, with the occasional pop culture reference, the setting seems to exist outside of time, allowing it a long life in a similar way to Blackadder. The antics of Fathers Ted, Dougal and Jack, with their housekeeper Mrs Doyle, were spooky in their reality of Ireland and the approach to priests, the truth of which makes it even funnier. It was a shame when Dermot Morgan died so young, but he will always be remembered.
Outside of the Top Five, some close contenders:
Exquisite in painful laughter, where you were looking through your hands because you couldn’t believe what you were seeing, The Office is quite excellent, perfect in its creation of the real world and the larger-than-life characters that inhabit it. Kudos to Gervais and Marchant for agreeing to keep it short and sweet.
Another sitcom in the vein of excrutiating laughter, Peep Show sees the world literally through the eyes of the two central characters as we see what they see and hear what they are thinking at the time, no matter how embarrassing or horrible it might be. It is like nothing else on television, and brought to the world the talents of David Mitchell and Robert Webb. Hysterical stuff.
I have mentioned British comedy for the most part, and shows that didn’t go on forever. This doesn’t mean I am averse to long-running US sitcoms; even though I haven’t seen enough Seinfeld to be able to put it on this list, the small amount I have seen was superbly written and acted, and made me laugh. I could even occasionally chortle to the well-written lines of Friends and Will & Grace. However, Scrubs is the show that makes me laugh out loud the most consistently of any US show. Not only very funny, it is also very well made, with the single-camera set-up and the flashbacks, asides and fantasy sequences. I know it might be a bit early to put on a list like this, after only four seasons (for us over here) but it is that good.
Frasier was the only long-running US sitcom that didn’t just blend into the background, a problem I had with a lot of US shows I have seen. For example, I saw some Everybody Loves Raymond while I lived in the USA – a couple of laughs while watching it, perhaps, but nothing memorable to stick in the mind after it was gone. I got the feeling from shows, too many to remember or list, that they were as basic as possible so that they were like televisual wallpaper – you could have it on without being offended enough to turn it off but not engaged enough that you thought about switching over when the adverts came on. Frasier was different, with a wonderfully clever writing team and a sharp cast of actors being razor sharp every week.
This is my slightly unusual choice. The first series was above the norm, and the less said about the horrible fourth series the better. However, series two and three were just amazing in their mixture of laughter, emotion and challenging narrative structure, all in half-hour episodes of a traditional sitcom format. The setting up of scenes and jumping in time were brilliant, and, in Richard Coyle as Jeff, one of the most wonderfully perverse yet innocent characters ever created. When he left, so did the heart of the show. But when it was on, it was sheer delight. Ignore the Friends comparison; enjoy the bizarre uniqueness.