I love sitcoms. There’s something about spending 25 minutes each week in the company of familiar characters as they ape their way through life that just resonates with me.
The 90s was great for sitcoms too. Generation X and MTV culture was hitting its stride and comedy was changing from being politically angst-driven to being more observational, taking lots of inspiration from the Jewish New York stand-up comedians. Sitcoms were also allowed to make more risks, as we’ll discover in this list. So without further ado, and in no particular order, let’s get into it!
1/ The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
A show about the behind the scenes production of a talk show.
This is the sitcom that started the trend for single camera, no laugh track, awkward situation embarrassment comedy. While there have been many imitators, especially in recent years, Larry Sanders might do it the best.
Garry Shandling plays Larry Sanders, a fictional comedian and host of a long-running daily talk show while Rip Torn plays his smooth-talking, no bull**** taking producer who struggles to keep Larry happy while keeping the network happy. Jeffrey Tambor plays Larry’s sidekick, Hey Now Hank Kingsley, who, with delusions of grandeur, often feels he is the butt of all jokes and fights to get the respect he thinks (wrongfully) that he deserves.
Shandling uses his own experiences of performing on The Tonight Show and eventually becoming the permanent guest host in the mid-80s as Johnny Carson was winding down his tenure.
Much like in the Ricky Gervais show ‘Extras’, The Larry Sanders Show features several celebrity guest appearances playing exaggerated versions of themselves. Perhaps the best celebrity cameo comes from David Duchovny who Larry is convinced has a man crush on him.
The show focuses on the personal and professional lives of the main cast above, but the show also has a variety of very well fleshed out ancillary characters such as Beverley (Larry’s assistant), Paula (the show booker), and Phil (the head writer). All of the characters have huge egos, are incredibly insecure and narcissistic, have terrible experiences in relationships and all have great chemistry making this sitcom from the 90s a must see.
Best Episode: Artie After Hours
“Tired of the way Larry treats him, Arthur spends an intoxicated, late night in the studio telling his troubles to a new friend.” – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0625338/
(Rip Torn won a Primetime Emmy for his portrayal of Arthur in this episode)
2/ Seinfeld (1989-1998)
A show about nothing.
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s seminal sitcom focuses on a fictionalised version of Jerry Seinfeld’s life, friendships, relationships and the everyday things that inspire or annoy them. Based on the real life experiences of the writers, episodes revolve around experiences such as waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant, looking for a car in a car park, and George getting a massage from a male masseuse. The show is opened and closed by snippets from Seinfeld performing his stand-up comedy routine and references events in the episode, allowing the audience to get a glimpse of how a stand-up comedian gets their material (“What’s the deal with airline peanuts?”).
In the show, Seinfeld is supported by best friend George Costanza (Jason Alexander), former girlfriend and now friend Elain Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and whacky neighbour Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). The earlier seasons focus on Jerry, George, and Elaine but Kramer really comes into his own as a character from season three onwards. Michael Richard’s performance is a masterclass in physical comedy.
The characters are deliberately contrary, often having ideologies that oppose convention and who often take it upon themselves to intervene in each other’s lives with disastrous results. Hell, the characters aren’t especially likeable, but they are loveable. Much like with The Larry Sanders Show, there are no moments of pathos, characters don’t learn any lessons and the audience is never made to feel sorry for the characters – all of who are equally pathetic in their own ways!
The show even goes all Shakespearean on us with its own play within a play! During series four George and Jerry create their own sitcom for NBC where they pitch a show about nothing and Jerry – already playing a fictional version of himself – plays a fictionalised fictional version of himself! Fictional…
Seinfeld often appears in lists of greatest TV shows of all time, and for good reason. Aside from a very janky final episode, and some questions about Davids and Seinfeld’s ability to write for female characters, the show is full of memorable moments and characters
Best Episode: The Contest
“After George’s mother catches him alone in a somewhat embarrassing situation, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer stage a contest to see who can last the longest without any sexual gratification.” – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0697679/
3/ Spaced (1999-2001)
British pop culture classic.
The first Bitish sitcom on this list, and probably the least well known. Spaced is one of the first pieces of work between Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright. While they all went on to have huge success with hits like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it all started here with two unrelated twenty-somethings searching for a flat in London.
Daisy (Jessica Hynes) and Tim (Simon Pegg) meet in a coffee shop and share the fact that they are both looking for somewhere to live. Despite barely knowing each other, they scheme to pretend to be partners to take advantage of an apartment available to young professional couples. The building is managed by permanently drunk Marsha and also is home to conceptual artist Brian (“Anger. Pain. Fear. Aggression”). The cast is completed with Daisy’s best friend Twist and Tim’s best friend Mike (Nick Frost).
Despite protesting to everyone but Marsha that they aren’t interested in each other, romantic tension envelopes Daisy and Tim throughout the series – especially series two. Like with all of Edgar Wright’s work, Spaced is littered with pop culture references – especially geek culture with Tim being a big videogame, movie and comic book fan. The series often riffs on genre conventions such as horror and action with great visuals and to great comic effect.
Best Episode: Gone
“Daisy convinces Tim to go out on the town with her that night, leaving Brain and Mike to keep an eye on Colin, which they fail at. Tim and Daisy have an exciting night of drinking, escaping from angry college boys looking to get some weed, an irritating conversation with Tim’s arch-nemesis, Duane Benzie, and losing their car/house keys.” – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0706392/?ref_=ttep_ep5
4/ Friends (1994-2004)
The one that took over the world.
Does anything really need to be said about Friends? The show focuses on a group of friends who live in Manhattan, NYC. For most of the series, Joey and Chandler live across the hall from Monica and Rachel and Ross and Phoebe each have their own places. The show mainly takes place in the two apartments and nearby coffee shop Central Perk and episodes revolve around the characters love lives (often with each other), careers, and life in the Big Apple.
Friends was phenomenally successful during its original run and it’s no surprise that it’s still in syndication 11 years after the season finale aired.
I’ve just recently re-watched Friends in its entirety and I can safely say that it does stand the test of time. The characters are still as funny as they were 20 years ago and the celebrity appearances and minor characters are used perfectly. Special shout outs have to go to Elliott Gould who plays Ross and Monica’s Dad Jack Geller and to Tom Selleck and Maggie Wheeler who play Monica’s love interest Richard and Chandler’s annoying on-again, off-again girlfriend Janice, respectively.
Friends launched the careers of Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer, and Courteney Cox. Towards the very of the show, the writing does suffer a little bit but it is all kept together by the hilarious Ross Geller who steals every single scene is involved in. Their work since Friends has perhaps not met up to the dizzying standards set by this sitcom (although Episodes starring LeBlanc is worth checking out!).
Best Episode: The One With The Prom Video
“The gang watch a home video from the night of Monica and Rachel’s prom. Joey gives Chandler a hideous bracelet.” – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0583635/
5/ Father Ted (1995-1998)
Three Irish Roman Catholic priests live chaotically together.
The final entry in this list comes from the minds of Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, the latter of which also worked on fine sitcoms such as Black Books and The IT Crowd, and focuses on the lives of three Roman Catholic priests living on Craggy Island who really don’t want to be there and their housekeeper who tries to keep order.
The eponymous Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan) is punished for stealing Church money to fund a trip to Vegas by being sent to Craggy Island by Bishop Brennan. Two other priests also live in the Craggy Island Parochial House; the childlike buffoon Father Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon) and the abusive and alcohol-fuelled Father Jack (Frank Kelly). Topping off this cast is their neurotic housekeeper, Mrs Doyle (Pauline McLynn).
The show deals with the characters attending to matters of the church or, more commonly, trying to deal with the rest of the inhabitants of the island or trying to one-up the other priests who live nearby. Ted is ostensibly the only ‘fully rounded’ person on the island but often creates embarrassing situations for himself by lying and being caught out or trying to cheat his way to victory. With Ted and Dougal, the show has a brilliant straight man and comic foil partnership; Dougal is an idiot who knows nothing and Ted is an idiot who thinks he knows everything but in fact actually knows nothing.
Unfortunately, Dermot Morgan died from a heart attack just one day after wrapping up filming on season three of Father Ted, posthumously winning a BAFTA for Best Comedy Appearance. There were offers from agents and casting directors to continue the show with either a new ‘Ted’ or creating a spin-off without him but thankfully Linehan and Matthews refused and the show’s legacy and impact remains.
Best Episode: Speed 3
“A local milkman seeks revenge after Father Ted gets him fired.” – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0578518/
Agree with this list? Think I’ve missed something off? Let me know in the comments below!