Few things have been as consistent on our screens as television comedy. It’s been a mainstay of the media landscape from the very beginning of the broadcasting industry. One of the first ever shows to be broadcast Texaco Star Theatre, happened to be a comedy variety show. Television comedies have now evolved from being late night entertainment to genuine pop-culture phenomena, a la F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Some of television’s most beloved shows are comedies. Artists and creators have been experimenting more and more with the form, breaking new ground within the genre. Shows like The Office, BoJack Horseman, etc, have defied audience expectations and invariably figure in every best TV comedies list.
Thanks to the sheer force of comedy in the form of sitcoms and genre-based dramas, fictional characters from shows find themselves everywhere from quizzes to merchandise. And in the meanwhile, we have gotten genre-defining shows that have redefined the function of comedy. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest TV comedies of all time.
20. Modern Family (2009-2020)
Modern Family is easily one of the most recognizable shows to have emerged at the start of the 2010s. Filmed in the style of a mockumentary, the show revolves around three blended families in Los Angeles who are united by family patriarch, Jay Pritchett. One of the longest running sitcoms on television, it ran for eleven seasons before its series finale in 2020. The show’s reversal of tired comedy tropes like the nagging wife, gold-digger or exploitative stereotypes associated with the queer community have won it critical acclaim. With a focus on diverse stories and complex narratives such as gay parenthood, working mothers and mixed families, Modern Family is a heartwarming and hilarious watch.
19. Atlanta (2016-present)
Created by musician Donald Glover, Atlanta is a comedy drama that revolves around a musician and his rapper friend as they find themselves in the rap and hip-hop landscape of Atlanta. The show blends comedy with the charm of a well-written musical, and so far, it has yielded fantastic results. It was nominated for multiple awards, with Glover winning the award for Outstanding Direction in a Comedy Series. This made him the first African-American to receive this honor. Atlanta is notable for having a staff of all black writers, and centering intersectional African-American identity on television. Along with its relevant observations, the show is a refreshing catalogue of emerging hip-hop music as well.
18. Silicon Valley (2014-2019)
A show about tech nerds set in the hub of scientific innovation may not sound exciting, but Silicon Valley sure does shatter that assumption. Created as a parody of Silicon Valley culture, the show follows Richard Hendricks, who is trying to kick start his company and deal with bigger competitors in the process. With sharp observations about the ethics of big tech companies and uncanny parallels, the show is undoubtedly amongst the most relevant comedies to have emerged in recent years. Comedy aces like Kumail Nanjiani and Thomas Middleditch star in what can only be described as a techie’s worst nightmare colliding with a satirist’s paradise.
17. BoJack Horseman (2014-2020)
BoJack Horseman is somehow the perfect show to encapsulate the surreal feeling of the world turning upside down, that we’ve been having for a few years. The premise revolves around the titular anti-hero, an anthropomorphic horse who is a fading celebrity from the 1990s. To hold on to his fame, he plans to publish a ghostwritten book by his friend, Diane. While it received mixed reviews at the start, critics have since then appreciated the show’s blending of dark humor and topics like sexism, trauma, and the nature of life itself. A tragicomedy with absurd humor and biting commentary, the show does not shy away from approaching issues like mental health and drug addiction. BoJack Horseman is an utterly hilarious antidote to the uncertain times we live in.
16. M.A.S.H (1972-1983)
M.A.S.H, an acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, follows the lives of three army doctors who are embedded with an army unit in South Korea during the Korean War. Interestingly, the early seasons of the show aired during the time of the war in Vietnam. This meant that the show had to handle its own dark subject matter in a manner that did not appear as criticism or a commentary of the ongoing war. As one of the highest rated television shows in U.S. TV history, M.A.S.H retains the distinction of having the most watched final episode (Goodbye, Farewell, Amen) of any television show. The show’s treatment of sensitive subjects such as war, casualties and the loss of human life is often touted as groundbreaking. It has spawned multiple spinoffs, as well as inspired later shows like Scrubs and Community.
15. Rick and Morty (2013-)
A mad scientist grandfather and his 14-year-old grandson are at the center of this wacky animated series. Rick and Morty was originally conceived from a short parody of the Back to The Future films. The show revolves around Rick’s crazy, often interdimensional science experiments that Marty gets drawn into. The contrast between Rick’s alcoholism, narcissistic personality and naivete gives the show its comedic chops, with each episode rife with existential angst and nihilism. It is wonderfully off-kilter, and does not shy away from poking fun at the bleak idea that nothing really matters. The show has been praised for its dark humor, animation and irreverent style. If you like humor so dark that it borders on the disturbing, this show is surely for you.
14. Kim’s Convenience (2016-2021)
Kim’s Convenience revolves around a Korean-Canadian family, the Kims, who run a convenience store in Toronto. The series is notable for introducing Asian families and immigrants to television in a leading capacity, not just as sidekicks. It has received critical acclaim for portraying Asian families and immigrants in a positive light on television. It is one of the few sitcoms (along with One Day at A Time) to center discourse around first- and second-generation immigrant families. The humor of the show does not rely on overused tropes about Asians, instead, the writing treats its characters with dignity. With breakout performances from Simu Liu and Jean Yoon, it strikes the right balance between slapstick comedy and relevant commentary.
13. The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
Aging characters, especially aging women have hardly been afforded the space to shine in most media formats. The Golden Girls was groundbreaking in this aspect, featuring four elderly women — Blanche, Rose, Dorothy and her mother, Sophia, living together in Miami. The show’s premise revolved around their occasional spats and differences, drawing its humor at the expense of each other’s quirks. It was a rarity in the overwhelmingly conservative media landscape of the 1980s and did not back down from exhaustively discussing female pleasure and sexuality, the AIDS epidemic, elderly care and racial bias, to name a few. It is one of those rare shows to be as relevant today as it was when it was first released, and keeps getting better with age.
12. New Girl (2011-2018)
Originally created by Elizabeth Meriwether to showcase the eccentric talents of the show’s star, Zooey Deschanel, New Girl is every bit a sitcom that fully reflects the mood of the early 2010s. Originally promoted with the tagline, “Simply Adorkable”, the show revolves around Jess, who shares an apartment with Nick, Max, Coach and Winston. The show features unique characters who are written realistically. They have their own desires and motivations, instead of just being secondary characters.
As it progresses, the narrative gives equal space to every single character of its ensemble cast to shine. With touching moments and hilarious gags, New Girl has often been touted as the millennial answer to F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
11. Yes Minister (1980-1984)
Yes Minister was a British political satire created for and broadcasted on BBC Two. The show was based in the office of a cabinet minister and followed the career and life of Jim Hacker, a fictional Minister at Whitehall. The series was wildly popular in Britain, spawning a sequel Yes, Prime Minister. The show also had several of its episodes adapted for BBC Radio and also led to a stage play. Its nuanced and elegant portrayal of politics and civil servants earned it much praise and is often referenced in British textbooks. Despite the satirical content of the show that poked fun at conservative politics, it was reportedly the favorite program of the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
10. Parks and Recreation (2009-2015)
A mockumentary style comedy drama set in a small town in Indiana, Parks and Recreation follows Deputy Head of the Parks and Recreation department, Leslie Knope and her colleagues. Featuring a cast of television veterans like Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Rob Lowe and Nick Offerman, the series is a microcosm of American politics. It was inspired by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. Writers Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, who had previously worked together on another workplace comedy, The Office, extensively researched and consulted elected officials to get the tone of the show right. Parks and Recreation is a wonderful, feel-good comedy that brings heart and heft to something as banal as a small-town government. It has been touted by publications like The Rolling Stone and The Vox as “the show that accurately defined the cultural zeitgeist of the Obama Presidency.”
9. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-2021)
A police workplace comedy might not sound like the best idea in recent times, especially in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement. But creators Dan Goor and Michael Schur managed to find middle ground in the goofy antics of the protagonist, Jake Peralta. Played by Andy Samberg of SNL fame, Jake is a detective at Brooklyn’s 99th precinct, who chafes under the rigid management of his new boss, Captain Holt. With a solid supporting cast and organic storylines, the show addresses racism, corruption and the broken policing system in a refreshing way. Brooklyn Nine-Nine straddles the gulf between good old-fashioned workplace fun, and a sensitive take on social issues, always evolving with time. It’s one of the best shows on Netflix right now.
8. What We Do in the Shadows (2019-)
Vampires have been around a long time in fiction, always imagined as powerful, unapproachable bloodsuckers. Jemaine Clement’s mockumentary based on the 2014 film of the same name updates this trope, turning the show’s central trio of vampires — Nandor, Laszlo and Nadja, into undead friends who’ve been together for centuries. The show is a new take on conventional sitcom set ups that depict a tight knit group of people living in cities. Set in Staten Island, What We Do in the Shadows blends terror and laughter in every frame, following wonderfully weird storylines like the nightlife of vampires. The strong cast and writing, complemented by guest stars like Taika Waititi and Nick Kroll, is perfect for a nightly binge.
7. Master of None (2015-)
Aziz Ansari’s Master of None features the comedian-turned-actor playing a close version of himself Dev Shah, a thirty-something actor living in New York. The show revives a familiar premise by infusing it with references, easter eggs and themes from cinema classics. The influences range from French New Wave Cinema to La Dolce Vita and the neorealism of Bicycle Thieves (1948). A wonderful performance and script from Ansari, rewarded with three Emmys and a Golden Globe, encapsulate all that is special about this show. Told with a focus on immigrant identity and friendships, the show is a delightful search of love, life and laughter.
6. Veep (2012-2019)
A political satire, Veep is the brainchild of Armando Iannucci who had previously created another similar program called The Thick of It. Veep revolves around Selina Meyer, played by the iconic Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Meyer is the fictional Vice President of the United States, and the show follows her day-to-day involvements with the nitty-gritties of American politics. Its biting satire and tongue-in-cheek references to events in modern politics have garnered the show critical acclaim. For her portrayal of Meyer, Dreyfus has won six consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards. The show is a brilliant look at the depressing reality of politics, told with such precise comic timing that you can’t help but laugh through the pain.
5. The Dick Van Dyke Show (1960-1966)
No piece of work so perfectly encapsulates the suburban bliss and banality of 1960s Americana as The Dick Van Dyke Show did. Originally envisioned by Carl Reiner as a show starring himself, he eventually conceded the main role to Dick Van Dyke. The show follows in the familiar footsteps of previous sitcoms such as I Love Lucy that employed the dual setting of the workplace and the house. Van Dyke plays Robbie Petrie, who works as a comedy writer and is married to wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore). The show has since inspired numerous sitcoms, the most recent being Disney’s Emmy-winning WandaVision.
4. The Good Place (2016-2020)
A moral and philosophical rumination upon the afterlife, inspired by the theories of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre sounds pretty heavy. That is, until you watch a few episodes of The Good Place. The show revolves around a fictional afterlife of the same name, which is a paradise of sorts for people who were good in their earthly lives. Eleanor, a young deceased woman realizes that she has mistakenly entered this paradise and tries to evade detection by Michael, the all-knowing Architect. The show’s absurdist comedy and blending of high philosophy into its sitcom premise has earned it much praise. A heartwarming watch from start to finish, The Good Place offers plenty of laughs, as well as a blueprint of how to live a life of genuine goodness.
3. The Office (2009-2013)
A workplace comedy from Michael Schur and Greg Daniels, The Office is arguably the most recognizable television show of the millennium. It revolves around the employees of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company as they go about their professional and personal lives, and form long-lasting relationships with each other. A dysfunctional boss, office pranksters and a host of kooky employees make The Office the beloved juggernaut that it is today. Perfect for comfort-watching, it will have you teary eyed over Jim and Pam’s love story, and laughing hysterically over Dwight’s antics, all over again. And, trust us, you’ll always want more – that’s what she said!
2. The Simpsons (1989-)
No other show, animated or non-animated, is as ubiquitous with modern pop culture as The Simpsons is. Beginning its decades’ long run in 1989, the show has won universal acclaim for its satirical take on American life and culture. It revolves around a family of five — Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, in the fictional city of Springfield. The show is the longest running American sitcom, and has consistently received praise for its animation style, witty repartee and apparent foreshadowing of events. Publications have frequently described it as one of the greatest television shows, with the A.V Club describing it as “television’s crowning achievement, regardless of format.”
1. Seinfeld (1989-1998)
Often described as “a show about nothing”, Seinfeld was created by comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, with the latter starring as a fictionalized version of himself. The show follows the lives of four friends — Jerry, his ex-girlfriend, Elaine, George and Cosmo Kramer, as they deal with ups and downs in their life in New York. The show popularized the format of sitcoms set around a group of single friends, focusing on the little details and happenings of their life instead of major storylines focused on dramatic events. Seinfeld has superseded its status as a television show since its introduction and is regularly touted as an influence in shaping modern comedy.
The resurgence of comedy shows that play upon different genres, as well as the revival/reunions of popular shows such as F.R.I.E.N.D.S proves that these shows retain their massive appeal. Not only do they please their old fans, but due to the easy accessibility of streaming services, have amassed new fans over time. Familiar premises regarding friends and family, slapstick humor and an overall feel-good nature of these programs make for easy viewing. Perfectly for long binge-watching sessions and prone to garnering passionate fandoms, comedy shows are clearly here to stay.
So, here we are, then! These are our picks for the best television comedies of all time. Which are your favorites on the list?
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.