We are halfway through the first round of this insane endeavor (that could have been even more insane–wait til you see some of the shows not on this). And it’s number one seed is one of the titans of TV–the home of close talkers, low talkers, puffy shirts and masters of their own domain… yada yada yada…
So, here’s the ballot, please cast your vote, and drop by GBOAT to discuss…
16. Benson (ABC, 1979-86) – Ok, to a degree this is my indulgence of my favorite childhood show. However, this Soap spinoff lasted six seasons in an era when there were three networks and less space on the schedule. Robert Guillaume won two Emmys for the role of Benson DuBois one-time house manager for the Tate Family who for this show rose to the role of budget director for the goofy governor for an unnamed state. It also boasted one of the greatest accidental show finales, but we’ll talk about that later. Interestingly enough, it gave the first role to its opponent and the number one show in this section.
15. Reno 911 (Comedy Central, 2003-09, Quibi/Roku 2020) – This section is loaded with spin-offs, especially if we stretch for this one. While it’s not directly inspired by a sketch on the ahead-of-its-time show The State, it was created by 30% of that talented troupe. Thomas Lennon, Kerri Kenney-Silver and Robert Ben Garant created the dumbest little cops in the biggest little city and created semi-connected sketches featuring guests like Nick Swardson, Jim Rash, Patton Oswalt, and Keegan-Michael Key (as the hilarious Hypothetical Criminal).
14. Mork & Mindy (ABC, 1978-82) – It’s Robin Williams at his cocaine-iest. His fast talking alien from Ork first showed up in Milwaukee in Richie Cunningham’s dream before bouncing to a Boulder, Colorado, music shop so he can observe human life. There, Mork meets Mindy, eventually giving birth to 70-year-old Jonathan Winters. All the while he reports the oddities of daily life to his Orkan boss Orson.
13. Maude (CBS, 1972-78) – A spinoff that would inspire its own spinoff (as the Leariverse grew), the tale of Bea Arthur’s Maude Findlay began as the vocally liberal cousin of Archie Bunker on a couple episodes of All in the Family, and proved popular enough that she got her own popular sitcom. Her interactions with her husband Walter, her Republican neighbor (whose wife was played by her future fellow Golden Girl Rue McClanahan), and three successive maids. The first one was Ester Rolle’s Flora Evans, who would go on to front Good Times. In a bit of weird trivia, the third was played by Marsha Warfield making this one of two shows where Warfield replaces a character who replaced another character.
12. Drunk History (Comedy Central, 2013-19) – Derek Waters got the idea for this show rather organically when actor Jake Johnson (who coincidentally stars in another show from this section) drunkenly regailed him with the story of Otis Redding. His experiment of actors playing out the drunken remembrances (and often misremembrances) started online with an impressive collection of A-list stars, but would eventually become a Comedy Central hit.
11. Search Party (TBS 2016-17, HBO Max 2018-present) – One of the darkest shows in the whole tourney, the story begins when listless and unsatisfied Dory (Alia Shawkat) finds herself obsessed by the disappearance of an acquaintance named Chantal from college, and aided by her neurotic, but abiding boyfriend Drew and their two eccentric friends Portia and Elliott, she tries to unravel the mystery. However, her quest leads to a web of deceit that tests both the limits of her friendships (shockingly high) and her sanity (less so).
10. The Kids in the Hall (CBC/CBS/HBO, 1988-95) – Almost absorbed by the Death Star of sketch comedy when two of its members became SNL staff writers in the mid-1980s, Lorne Michaels changed gears and in 1988 gave David Foley, Bruce McCullouch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson their own series, where the troupe practically invented the idea of alt-comedy with their absurdly hilarious creations, such as the flying pig who entertains people on ATM lines, the head crusher, or the middle manager who goes crazy on a moderate amount of power. I will say the “He’s Hip, He’s Cool, He’s 45!” sketch feels a bit closer to home watching it now.
9. Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-96, 2001-04, 2011-12) – Ab Fab for short, the soused and debauched antics of Edina and Patsy will never die nor get old–especially if the appearance-obsessed pair played by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley can help it. Whether making scenes at well-to-do events or heaping way too much abuse on Edina’s prim, proper daughter Saffy, the two were always about 10 steps over-the-top. As a cult phenomenon, it has been revived multiple times, on both TV and the big screen.
8. Police Squad! (CBS, 1982) – After the massive success of the movie Airplane! in 1980, Zucker-Abrams-Zucker aimed their joke-a-second formula to the smaller screen, parodying cop shows like those from the Quinn-Martin grab bag. While both critics and a small circle of fans absolutely loved this zany show starring Leslie Nielsen as hard-boiled and oblivious Det. Frank Drebin, the show bombed–partially due to the fact that even before social media and second screens, people’s attention spans could be short and many viewers would turn away and miss a crucial joke. While at six episodes, it’s the shortest run of any series in our tournament, its brief run is legendary and its cult following would grow and eventually the comedy hit as three hit movies were born from its files.
7. Flight of the Conchords (HBO, 2007-09) – Not quite as absurdly short-lived, this similarly silly satire featured Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement as the fourth most popular comedy folk duo of the title. With the “help” of inept manager Marty (played by Rhys Darby), the pair tried to parlay their homeland fame into international stardom, or at least moderate respect, as they navigated life and love on the streets of NYC–breaking into music video at least once per episode
6. King of the Hill (Fox, 1997-2010) – Easily Mike Judge’s longest-running show at 13 seasons, the tale of the Hills began on Beavis & Butt-Head with a primitive version of patriarch Hank Hill as the miscreants’ antagonist in sketches like “Frog Baseball.” Relocated to fictional Arlen, Texas, Hill, his proud wife Peggy, precious son/boy-who-ain’t-right Bobby and an ample population of kooky neighbors, the animated show combined genuine heart with belly laughs. It also gave us the late Tom Petty as Lucky, who gave Bobby the opportunity to eat a potato chip right from the line.
5. The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985-92) – Although I just recently found out these characters were supposed to be in their early 50s (NO, just NO!), nothing could stop this beloved classic ’80s show with the absurdly talented class of Arthur, McClanahan, Estelle Getty, and the unstoppable Betty White from being in this tournament with a high seed. The Florida retirees could play both gentle and fairly risque and the humor remains funny to this day.
4. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO, 2014-present) – Welcome! Welcome ! Welcome! The Daily Show/British ex-pat was clearly fairly unsure of what his show would be when he started, but he was quick to discover just how ready a certain segment of the public was for his patented deep dives into topics that might not normally seem interesting, like municipal violations or infrastructure. However, with his wicked wit and embrace of mascots and bizarre running bits (see Adam Driver), he brought to light the pernicious danger hiding in the seemingly banal. And against a common misperception, he is just as ecstatic as a lot of us are to not have Trump to kick around anymore.
3. Bob’s Burgers (Fox, 2011-present) – Similar to how the movie Annie Hall supposedly started as a murder mystery, rumor has it this animated series about a delightfully dysfunctional family running an unsuccessful burger shop (don’t ever call it a diner) had a darker start as well. They were supposed to be a family of cannibals. While the program still does go to some places that are danker than their creepy basement, the misadventures of the Belchers is one of the most flat-out funny shows on television.
2. New Girl (Fox, 2011-18) – Here’s another example of a show that took some time to find its footing, but when it did, it became a classic. Arguably that happened when the show realized that it was more an ensemble about friends sharing a loft rather than a kooky Zooey Deschanel vehicle. The fact that Jess, Nick, Schmidt, and Winston (also CeCe and later Coach) were all fully-formed flawed figures instead of sitcom caricatures was the engine of this charming, yet insidiously funny show. It even featured Curtis “Booger” Armstrong as Jess’ boss.
1. Seinfeld (NBC, 1999-2008) – Speaking of shows which benefitted from evolution, comedian Jerry Seinfeld… yadda yadda yadda… worst finale, yet many still love this and it’s inarguably one of the most important half-hour comedies in history.