Knock up a list of the top 10 funniest television shows of all time? Too easy, you’d think.
As a member of the HarshCritic Research Institute (it’s a lot like the Pond’s Institute, in so far as it may not actually exist), I was confident our patented market-research approach – asking a few of my mates at the pub for their favourites, would give us a snappy and highly credible list in no time.
Peculiarly, it wasn’t that easy. In fact, just about the only show that everyone agreed on is the one that’s come in at number one, and there was significant argument over British humour versus American, and whether Seinfeld is pure genius or utter shite (strangely, it never succeeded in England, for example, whereas Friends did – simply odd).
As a result, some people – even some of the staff here at harshcritic.com.au – won’t be happy with this list, but if you think a deserving show has been left out, feel free to shout at us.
Is it too soon to include this in a list of the Funniest Ever? Possibly, yes, because the next series might be utter shit and then we’ll look foolish. But the fact remains that it is not only a hugely hilarious situation comedy, it’s also the only show in television history where the characters talk directly to the camera, and it’s not annoying (check out the first season of Sex and the City, when Carrie was doing it, there’s a reason they stopped).
Ed O’Neill is very good as the rich old sugar Daddy, but he’s far from the star of the show (and no, Married With Children will not be on this list, have you seen it lately? God it’s awful, a man with his hand down his pants, fondling his testicles while grunting and misogynising his wife – how did we ever think that was funny?). His voluminous wife, Sofia Vergara, is apparently the highest-paid actress on television, so she must be perceived as the star, but most of the laughs come from the gay couple, played by the highly overrated Eric Stonestreet (his stand-up comedy makes Rove look like Billy Connolly) and the not really acting at all, actually that camp in real life Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
The episode where they lock their daughter in the car and Stonestreet loses it in wailing fashion, attempting to smash his way into the car with trash can, is high hilarity.
The real stars for me, though, are the Dunphys, the intensely strung Claire, the Homeresquely stupid Phil and their kids (although the boy is a bit thinly drawn as a doofus). The standout has to be Hayley, though, played by Sarah Hyland, because she looks so much like a young Mila Kunis would have. It’s like being able to watch Charles in Charge (another one that’s not making our list – ever) in time lapse – we had to wait for Alyssa Milano to grow up and look fabulous, but with Hyland we can already see it. Oh, she’s also very funny.
Can comedy be timeless? It’s a good question. Certainly Married With Children presents a good case that it ages badly, and even Cheers – as good as it was – suffers the ravages of time. F Troop, Gilligan’s Island, the list could go as far back as I Love Lucy.
And yet Fawlty Towers has aged so much better than its competitive set, or its star – John Cleese, whose recent attempts at stand-up have been so desperate and laboured he’s like a man attempting to give birth to a bowling ball, out the eye of his penis.
At his best, though, which Basil Fawlty surely represents, he was a genius of physical acting. The moment where he attacks a car with a tree, the repeated assualts on his Spanish waiter, Manuel – who suffered from the kind of rampant racism that would never go to air today, outside of South Africa – and his groping of a female guest’s breast, which he’s mistaken for a light switch, are all timeless classics.
We’re guessing no one will even argue with its inclusion here, unlike the other nine. It’s that good.
Yes, this is a radical and slightly personal choice, but we’re talking here about a comedy show so unique that it smashed through boundaries – boundaries of good taste, of what humour could and should be, of stomach churning nastiness and filth. It also paved the way for other disturbing humourists, like the boys at Little Britain, which doesn’t quite make our list because it went on a bit long and became a bit repetitive and self referential.
League, though, was something else. Picture a short, dumpy man with very strange teeth, dressed up as woman, suckling a pig on her breast while chewing on an onion and muttering strange phrases to her/hisself and you’ve got just a kernel of a tiny scene in this tortured tableaux of a TV show.
It’s about a small, local town, for local people, where outsiders are regularly maimed, tortured, killed or forced to drink their own urine. It’s about a vet who is cursed and kills every animal he touches. It features a scarecrow who’s actually a real man, imprisoned in a field where local children refuse to rescue him. It’s darker than the darkroom in Hell, and yet so surprisingly and unexpectedly funny that watching it will change your life. So just go and do it.
The fact that this show even exists is incredible, because the first series of Blackadder was so brain-numbingly boring and shit that no subsequent series should have been made. Thank goodness for the desperados of British television programming, we say, because Ben Elton really hits his peak here, with a show that’s quickfire in its delivery and packs an incredible punch of levity in its final episode and in particular its emotive final scene.
Rowan Atkinson may well be the most annoying comedian in the history of time when he’s being Mr Bean – a show created for simpletons, about a simpleton – but his undeniable comic genius is on display here, alongside a stellar cast of supporters including Rik Mayall, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The immortal “I have a cunning plan” line from Baldrick is perhaps at its best in this series, as Blackadder tears him down repeatedly. Here’s just one favourite: “Baldrick, that is the worst plan since Abe Lincoln said to his wife, ‘I’m sick of sitting around the house, let’s catch a show’.”
There are moments of Simpsons-like genius in the script, and it seemed, at the time, that Ben Elton and Richard Curtis could do no wrong. Curtis went on to do Four Weddings and a Funeral, while Elton went on to write god-awful musicals and produce possibly the worst show ever seen on Australian television. Genius doesn’t last forever, unless you’re Paul McCartney, apparently.
Too much British humour for you? Too bad. I had to talk myself out of putting The Goodies on the list as well, so just be grateful.
Many of you may not remember this show, but at the time it was simply the most talked about television in Australia, and the UK. At my school, a note went around to parents asking them to stop students from watching it, it was that risque. I wasted many hours of my life perfecting my Rik Mayall impersonation. Many of us yelled “Have we got a video?” at each other in a fashion that drove non-fans to murderous rage (younger readers, feel free to Wikipedia the word “video”).
It featured a punk kicking his own head along a railway line, smashing through walls and generally being insanely funny. And it was written by Ben Elton, well before he lost the plot. It wasn’t just humour, it was important, visceral, new and unprecedented. And if it hasn’t aged as well as Blackadder or Fawlty Towers, I just don’t care.
It could be argued that this show has lost its way of late, but it could equally be argued that Mila Kunis is still in it, playing Meg, so it can’t be all bad. What is not up for discussion is that the early seasons were sheer shock and awe genius. It took cartoon sketch humour to places that The Simpsons had never dared to go, and which South Park had merely flirted with.
I must admit I didn’t get it at all at first – what’s with the talking dog, the adult baby, can anyone understand him, or just the dog, why is Peter such a blatant rip off of Homer Simpson, so many questions – but it grew on me pretty quickly.
It also created one of my favourite Simpsons scenes, when Lisa is flicking through an Italian dictionary and sees a picture of Family Guy with the word “plagiarismo” and on the next page a picture of American Dad – “plagiarismo et plagiarismo”.
But Family Guy deserves to stand alone, even if it is a blatant copy of format and style in many ways. The very best moments are such a high level of low-level humour that its brilliance cannot be doubted, even if it has failed to coin as many catch phrases or enter popular culture as fully as the show it copied.
Seth Macfarlane is a certified comic weapon, and also good friends with Mila Kunis. I hate him. But his show rocks.
Okay, so I was wrong, there is another show where the characters talk directly to the camera, and it works, this one. What is particularly genius here is the way Ricky Gervais and the even cleverer Stephen Merchant have subverted television’s worst ever invention – reality television – and turned it into a brilliantly awkward brand of humour.
David Brent is as painful to watch as Mr Magoo, yet as funny as Homer, Peter Griffin or Basil Fawlty. His place in the comic canon is assured, and his rendition of Freelove on the Freelove Freeway is a musical masterpiece. He’s dislikeable, disheveled and at times incredibly painful to watch, yet you can’t tear your eyes away. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry.
Added to this is a layer of plot development, and a love story with Tim and Dawn, that is superlative in its execution. Typically of British humourists, they didn’t milke The Office to death, making just enough episodes to fulfill the character arks and then some finality-giving Christmas specials.
Absolutely superb in every way.
And then Merchant and Gervais went and did it again, with Extras. There is some argument over which of the two is better, but for me the celebrity guests, and the extra injection of Merchant as a major character, get Extras over the line.
Who can forget Merchant’s awful date, when he tries to whisk a turd down the bowl with the same swizzle stick he’s just mixed his lady’s drink with? Or Little Fat Man Who Sold His Soul, performed so brilliantly by Bowie? Or Kate Winslet simulating oral sex and claiming that she’d never win an Oscar until she played a “spaz”. She even name checked Gervais in her later acceptance speech, because he was absolutely right.
There are so many moments of greatness in this series and it is one of the few that stands up to repeated viewing. Utter genius.
When was the last time you used a Seinfeldism? For me it was today; while discussing the potential gayness of a male sports star who drives F1 cars for a living, the phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that” was bandied about, almost without a thought for its derivation.
Seinfeld has seeped into popular culture, into all our brains, in a way that only the great shows can. Here was a show ostensibly about nothing, a show that peered into its own navel and made whole episodes out of meaningless minutiae, a show, in short, that shouldn’t have been funny, starring a stand-up comedian who couldn’t act for toffee, and could clearly be seen laughing when he wasn’t supposed to, which somehow became the biggest show in the world, for quite a few years.
While the scripts are genius – the wanking episode, in which they never mention “masturbation”, the Second Spitter on the Gravelly Road, the “is there a marine biologist here?” moment – it was the brilliance that the actors brought to George, Kramer and Elaine that lifted this show onto another plane. Kramer’s entrances, his facial mountain climbing, Elaine’s dancing and “get OUT of here” shoving and George’s screaming demeanour are all much beloved.
Many would argue that this is the greatest comedy show of all time, and they’re very close to correct.
If you watch none of the other videos on this page, watch this next one. Fascinatingly funny.
(Sorry about the quality, it’s worth it – let’s rap, why not?)
For in the end, there can be only one, and that one is The Simpsons. A show that’s been with us so long it’s hard to imagine the impact its arrival had at the time. Looking back at those early, Bart-focused episodes it’s also hard to believe how much The Simpsons transformed itself over the years, into the story of Homer, the everyman schlub regularly voted the greatest TV character of all time.
This was, and is, a show written by whole teams of comic geniuses, including Conan O’Brien, back when the scripts were really firing.
The way this show manages to work on so many levels at once, entertaining children and their parents without causing offence, or boredom, to either, puts it at genius level.
There are so, so many great episodes, ingenious scenes and immortal catch phrases that it’s impossible to pick a favourite (although, interestingly, the episode where Homer has his eyes pecked out by his pet crows and then gets medicinal marijuana to cope with the pain is often voted the most popular on Fox 8, the 24/7 home of Simpsonsmania).
The characters and sub characters are all brilliant, the guest appearances are always perfectly judged and the number of belly-laugh jokes per episode, when it’s at its best, is simply higher than any other sitcom, ever.
As I said at the start, it’s also the one and only show that everyone we polled agreed should be on this list. It belongs at number one. And fortunately, like its characters, it should never age.
Here are the 10 so-called comedy shows that were never going to make this list. Anyone who suggested these to me during my extensive research phase — you know who you are — should hang yourselves in shame immediately.
10. Married With Children
8. Mr Bean
7. The American Office
6. They Royle Family
5. Kath and Kim
4. Hey Dad
3. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum
2. Dad’s Army
And, at number one for not funniest ever…
1. Two and a Half Fucking Idiotic Men