Is Lucy Ricardo zanier than Liz Lemon, or David Brent more socially inept than Alan Partridge? Is Larry David more curmudgeonly than Victor Meldrew? They are questions best answered in the pub, so in no particular order, here are the 50 greatest sitcoms of all time.
Cheers is in the US sitcom 'big three,' up there along with M*A*SH and Taxi, for setting the bar (no pun intended) for intelligent, sophisticated comedy. The series was always ready to experiment with different narrative forms. Although the writing has to be top-notch to sustain a series for 11 seasons over ten years, and the action rarely left the bar, Cheers was always funny. The show that started in 1982 was not the same show that ended in 1992. It began with its focus on Lothario Sam (Ted Danson) and his convoluted love life.
It ended as more of an ensemble piece moving its attention to other characters like server Carla Tortelli and regular Frasier Crane (who later had his spin-off show). By the end of its run, Cheers episodes were less self-contained. The series became more serialised, included more multi-story arcs and the end-of-series show often ended on a cliffhanger. Cheers' popularity remains. It has fathered spin-offs, crossovers, remakes in Spain and Ireland, and a stage adaptation.
In 1972 the UK sitcom had entered its 'golden age', and US imports were often seen as inferior (what could match the blithe wit and subtlety of the Benny Hill Show or Are You Being Served?). We Brits complained about the raucous laugh tracks and the American inability to understand irony. Then M*A*S*H changed everything by setting a bar so other programmes could only gaze up and admire.
The timing was opportune as the Vietnam War continued, and the anti-war movement was still strong. Despite M*A*S*H's Korean war setting, it worked as an allegory for Vietnam and had an underlying sixties rebelliousness. What drove M*A*S*H and elevated the comedy was the dramatic tension between the draftees - Hawkeye and Trapper John, who had been dragged from their civilian lives and had little regard for the military, and the regular army characters - Houlihan and Colonel Potter, who represented unquestioning patriotism and a powerful sense of duty. The characters' brilliant repartee was its trademark, earning it a ranking of fifth in the 2013 American Writer's Guild poll of best-written TV series ever.
3. The Office
Reality TV shows like The Cruise and Big Brother were at their most popular when The Office hit the small screen in 2001. There had previously been mockumentaries on film- notability Spinal Tap- and the genre had often been lampooned in sketch shows. However, The Office was the first British TV programme (Survivors had aired on Canadian TV three months before) to use the format for a sitcom series.
Embarrassment or cringe comedy works exceptionally well in mockumentaries, and what made The Office stand was the extent to which Ricky Gervais, its co-writer, director, and lead actor, was willing to humiliate his character to get laughs. In the US version, manager Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, has many of the characteristics of his British counterpart.
Still, while David Brent has a vindictive streak, Carell's character is a little kinder. Each episode was self-contained, although, like most sitcoms, there were related themes. In The Office, it was the threat of redundancies, but while the antics of David Brent provided the laughs, the story arc came from the relationship between Tim and Dawn.
4. Fawlty Towers
For years most people would have ranked Fawlty Towers as the best sitcom ever, and for years I would have agreed. But after watching an episode recently, I was surprised at how uncomfortable I felt about some content. I can understand John Cleese's annoyance at BBC's decision to edit the episode, The Germans. I was always uneasy with that scene, and watching Manuel get knocked around no longer seems funny.
That out of the way, Fawlty Towers is still among the funniest sitcoms ever. Five decades on, Basil Fawlty's character still demonstrates the worst in middle-class snobbery - obsequious pandering to those he thinks are his social superiors, rudeness, contempt, and downright hostility toward the 'lowlier' guests.
What makes it hilarious is that Basil speaks to a part of us that wants to bite back at supercilious customers or rant at the fools who annoy us. There's a bit of Basil inside everyone, but we have to keep him there in our case.
Setting a sitcom in prison may not seem a clever idea. It is restrictive in terms of location and plot opportunities. Also, convicted criminals will not necessarily have a broad appeal to all viewers. There have been two other attempts, one in the US and the other in Holland, to use a similar setup, neither of which got past the first series. However, Porridge overcame its constrictions because of its superb cast, especially Ronnie Barker, and, secondly, by making Fletcher's small victories count.
The pull was to see how Fletcher had to get the better of the system, personified by his nemesis prison guard Mr Mackay. Despite his criminality, Fletcher was the 'little guy' - the underdog kicking against the pricks, and it was always satisfying to see him get one over on authority.
The relationship between Fletcher and the amiable Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale), who plays the role of a straight man both comedically and ethically, prevents the show from becoming acerbic.
6. Only Fools and Horses
Only Fools and Horses is, without a doubt, the best and most beloved sitcom on the list, at least for UK viewers over forty. Watch the first episode, though; you may find it rather ordinary, but familiarity bred fondness. The writing became so polished that there was hardly a need to set up the joke as they flowed naturally from the characters.
We love Del because he's pretty fly, and we know that he's not big on self-awareness. So when he comes out with, "You can't trust the Old Bill, can ya? Look at that time they planted six gas cookers in my bedroom.", it is the perfect pay-off. It is a fragment of the Trotter's backstory and just what we love to hear from Del, and it's a perfectly conceived line - remove the word 'gas', and it isn't the same.
Making Del a yuppie in the later episodes was the masterstroke that helped lift the show from an excellent sitcom to a classic. Not only did it catch the mood of the day, but Del's pretentiousness opens up a new set of possibilities for humour - "One of my most favouritist meals is Duck à l'Orange, but I don't know how to say that in French."
You will usually find Seinfeld near the top when browsing lists of great comedies. Famously described as a "show about nothing", Seinfeld relies on the interactions between the characters and focuses on the every day rather than on elaborate plots. Jerry Seinfeld plays a fictionalised version of himself. He works as a stand-up comedian, and the show cuts between his comedy set and his "real life", from which he draws his material.
Jerry is the voice of reason and a straight man amid the misadventures of the none-too-pleasant supporting characters - best friend George, neighbour Cosmo, and ex-girlfriend Elaine. Seinfeld ran for 180 episodes between 1989 and 1998 and gathered a host of awards.
Twenty-four years after its final episode, we still consider the show one of the best, most influential sitcoms of all time. At the time of writing, Seinfeld is available on Netflix with the original 4:3 aspect ratio upgraded to 16:9.
As I have mentioned, during the early 70s, US sitcoms have a terrible image. But, like M*A*S*H and Cheers, another sharp, funny show blew that misconception out of the water. The series' first episode went out in the US in September 1978, and although I have not confirmed the exact dates, it seems it ran concurrently in the UK.
Among its creators was James L. Brooks, who has been a doyen of US comedy and whose resume includes The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, Rhoda, The Tracy Ullman Show, and The Simpsons, as well as the films Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets. Apart from the disillusioned Alex Rieger (Judd Hirsch), the drivers are all New York City wannabes who view cabbing as a carryover job until they get their break.
Often the plots were based on characters getting within touching distance of their dream, only to be dragged back to earth. There was always conflict with the contemptuous and bullying dispatcher Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito) - the show's main antagonist. Taxi was another sitcom that was open about tackling severe issues. During its four-year run, it tackled homosexuality, racism, drug addiction, war, sexual harassment, single parenthood, and divorce.
9. I Love Lucy
For many boomers, I Love Lucy, or, in my case, the 1960s Lucille Ball Show, was the first US sitcom they remember. In the 1950s, women doing physical comedy were rare, and this made the show something special.
For a boy growing up in Somerset, the USA was a place of wonder and people who owned such items as "iceboxes" or went to the "drug store" and lived in "apartments" were beyond exotic. From their first seasons, I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners set the ground rules for sitcoms for many years, and we still see the techniques pioneered then being used today - recorded on a sound stage in front of a live audience and filmed in 35mm using multiple fixed cameras.
I Love Lucy also worked due to its blend of reality and artifice (Ball's character was called Lucy, and her husband was her real husband) that made the viewer feel they were watching real people and the events were unfolding in real-time.
10. Modern Family
A modern classic, Modern Family ran for 11 seasons from 2009 to 2020. It has all the panache and uses many techniques conceptualised in 21st-century sitcoms - an ensemble cast, mockumentary style, and characters removing the fourth wall and speaking directly into the camera.
The stories involve three interrelated families - a nuclear family with kids in high school, a family with stepchildren, and, the third, a same-sex family. The writers conceived the series idea while discussing their families and the difficulties they encountered. Modern Family looks beyond everyday problems and asks questions about how we live today (hence the name). For example, it examines what it takes to fulfil the role of a mum or dad, whether the viewer is being mum or dad enough, or what the best way to parent is.
Although well-received, it was not all plain sailing with the critics when they knocked it for portraying the mums as "stay at home" while the men had successful careers. One comment was, "If it's so 'modern', why don't the women have jobs?".
11. Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation took a while to get going. The first series drew unfavourable comparisons with The Office. So when they produced the second series, its principal character, Leslie Knope - played by Saturday Night Live stalwart, Amy Poehler, was written to be far more likeable and less dull-witted. The producers also avoided the cynicism prevalent in many TV comedies around that time and tried to make the show more amiable.
Parks and Recreation achieves this and is a feel-good show that is intelligent and warm-hearted without being mawkish or sentimental. While much of the narrative revolves around the Leslie Knope character, Parks and Recreation is an ensemble show and the various story arcs are nimbly woven together.
Chris Pratt as the lovable but dim Andy Dwyer, Rob Lowe and Adam Scott featured as guest stars but eventually joined the cast. During its run, between 2009 and 2015 (there was a special in 2020), Parks and Recreation received 14 Prime Time Emmy nominations and was named Time Magazine's 2012 number-one television series.
12. The Simpsons
Incredibly, for a TV series but even more so for an animated series, The Simpsons has been with us for 33 years, not counting the two years the characters appeared on The Tracey Ullman Show. Seven hundred and twenty episodes have been broadcast, and the show still runs on terrestrial TV in the UK.
Critics say it is not of the same high quality as during its golden age (around seasons 3-12), but that's a common refrain, and they said the second season wasn't as good as the first. Since 1989 The Simpsons has satirised American life using a hilarious mix of incisive parodies, running jokes, cultural references from television, movies, literature and history, and original songs.
And its catchphrases - Ay caramba, eat my shorts, and D'oh! (Added to the English Oxford Dictionary to indicate disappointment or the realisation one had done something foolish) were common parlance in the nineties and noughties. Not everybody has seen the joke, though, and the show has caused controversy by insulting Australia and Brazil - a trip to Rio shows rampant street crime, plus rat and monkey infestation.
French people have been referred to as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and George. H. W. Bush criticised the show's model of family values promising to make "American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons."
Frasier became as big as the show from which it spun. Fussy and uptight, sometimes pompous, and arrogant, Cheers regular Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) leaves Boston and returns to Seattle, where he has to take into his home and then try to reconnect with his injured detective father and his dog.
They are obliged to get a live-in therapist and carer to whom Frasier's even more pompous brother, Niles, becomes attracted. Most of the comedy derives from how the mismatched quartet rub up against each other as they struggle to readjust their lives. The brothers have high opinions of themselves, and their sibling rivalry often leads to uproar.
The brothers are both psychiatrists but cannot sort out their hang-ups, and both try to upstage the other as they compete to become accepted into Seattle high society. Although Frasier is a psychiatrist in Cheers, the creators wanted to avoid showing him in practice, concerned that there would be comparisons with the Bob Newhart Show, and consequently used a new idea from a Cheers episode, making him the resident psychiatrist for a radio station. In Frasier, the character was then more grounded, allowing the writers to make the rest of the cast more screwball.
14. Schitt's Creek
The idea for Schitt's Creek came to creators and lead characters Eugene and Dan Levy after they began to develop the concept of, "Would the Kardashians be the Kardashians if they lost their money?"
They became inspired when they learned how Kim Basinger had bought the town of Braselton in Georgia, hoping to turn it into a film location spot (and failed badly). The idea of a wealthy family that loses their money and has to go to live in a town they had purchased as a joke turned into a successful TV series.
It is a simple fish-out-of-water concept, a kind of reversed Beverly Hillbillies, with the humour coming from the family's attempts to come to terms with their situation and deal with the clash between their wealthy attitudes and their small-time life.
Although the premise on which Schitt's Creek is based is not new, the acting, writing, and humour received high critical acclaim and numerous awards, including being the first Canadian TV series nominated for the Critics' Choice Television Award. The series was also praised for portraying a pansexual character and won two GLAAD Media Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series.
15. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
It is thirty-one years since Will Smith first starred in his breakout role as a streetwise teenager who, after a confrontation, relocates from the streets of urban West Philadelphia, where he moves into his wealthy aunt and uncle's Bel-Air mansion—basically, another variation on the culture clash/fish-out-of-water comedy.
Fresh Prince is regarded as a watershed for hip-hop, moving it more into pop culture and black identity (although critics claimed that it was a somewhat "watered-down" version). As well as the show's cultural impact, it makes a list because it fulfils the main criteria of a sitcom in that it is funny.
There were many opportunities for laughs when Will clashed with his spoiled and pompous cousins, and in series 3, the addition of a sarcastic butler cranked up the humour. In the UK, the series was shown in the tea-time slot traditionally reserved for young people's TV, and this is thought to have lessened its impact. However, it still remains one of the most popular, best-loved programmes.
16. Steptoe and Son
I was nine years old when I first heard the theme tune for Steptoe and Son (Old Ned by Ron Grainer), and even today; it gives me a sinking feeling. I hated the claustrophobic, cluttered house and the Albert Steptoe character- although I understand that in real life, he was exceptionally clean, and especially the way Harold's plans to escape were always thwarted.
The first run ended in 1965 after four popular series. When the second run started in colour eight years later, I was still not a fan. Despite my aversion to the show, Steptoe and Son was voted 15th in a 2004 BBC poll for 'Britain's Best Sitcom'. It had versions franchised in five other countries and produced two spin-off movies.
Its writers, Galton and Simpson, had earlier success with Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son consolidated their reputation, yet in a sad case of life imitating art that Harry H Corbett (despite gaining critical acclaim in Richard II during the mid-sixties) couldn't escape the role of Harold Steptoe and was forced back to it repeatedly. The final episode of Steptoe and Son was broadcast on British television in 1974, but as late as 1977, Corbett and Brambell reunited for an ill-fated stage production in Australia.
17. Till Death Do Us Part
Alf Garnett was created as a bigoted, right-wing reactionary in whom writer Johnny Speight had intended to ridicule views he found deplorable. But, as we know, the plan went awry, and people tuned in wondering what pearls of wisdom Garnett had that week. Also, Speight's argument that the show challenged racism was frequently opposed.
Garnett's rants mostly went unchallenged, and in one episode, Spike Milligan appeared, blacked up, wearing a turban. Others (John Cleese being one) claimed that laughing at Garnett's prejudices discredited them. Till Death Do Us Part first aired in 1965 and came during rapid social change. The generation gap was widening, attitudes to sex were becoming more liberal, and Britain was fading as an imperial power.
Alf represented the old guard while his daughter and son-in-law were the new generations. The tensions from this helped generate the conflict that made the show so funny. We had never seen rants or heard language like that on a BBC sitcom, and soon Till Death Us Do Part became notorious. Guardian of public mores, Mary Whitehouse highlighted the show as an example of the BBC's degeneration and the moral laxity permeating society. As a consequence, people watched in their millions.
18. The Likely Lads & Whatever Happened the Likely Lads
Everyone of a certain age will remember Bob and Terry with great fondness. As the name suggests, they were likeable and slightly on the make - a quality that helped create many of the comedic situations they found themselves in. The chemistry of the two leads came (as it frequently does in sitcoms) from tension.
On this occasion, the tension was between Terry's (James Bolan) down-to-earth, cynical personality and Bob's (Rodney Bewes) wide-eyed innocent, more aspirational character. But they had gone to school together, they worked in the same factory, and despite what happened in the show, you always knew that they'd be friends.
The first run, The Likely Lads, only lasted two years and produced three series, but it reappeared seven years later in 1973 with Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais tweaked the format by giving Bob a white-collar job, a prissy librarian wife, and comfortable middle-class life. On the other hand, Terry claimed to have 'stayed true to his working-class roots and regarded Bob's suburban lifestyle as a cop-out.
19. Are You Being Served?
Between 1972 and 1977, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, and Croft and Perry had three sitcoms running- Dad's Army, Are You Being Served? and It Ain't Half Hot Mum. While all three shows again satirised the British class system and had their moments of farce, Are You Being Served relied much more heavily on its use of sophomoric humour and stereotypical characters.
The double entendres and racy sight gags, along with ridiculous costumes, constantly pushed the envelope, and even if it isn't to your taste, you have to wonder how they got away with it. Take the line from Mrs Slocome, for example; "Animals are very psychic. At the least sign of danger, my pussy's hair stands on end". In the UK, it's risque; elsewhere, it is unimaginable. Perhaps that is the reason the programme has huge fan clubs in America and Australia.
20. The Dick Van Dyke Show
Following closely in the footsteps of I Love Lucy, a little before he choked the life out of a cockney accent in Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke was comedy writer Rob Petrie. The Dick Van Dyke Show was created and co-written by Rob Reiner, who played the lead character in the pilot but handed it over thinking that Van Dyke was better suited to the part.
Reiner went on to play the role of Alan Brady in the series, the premise being that Rob (Dick) was head writer for the Alan Brady Comedy Show. One of the main settings for the show was in their production office, which allowed for a continuous string of jokes and humous banter- alongside Dick were co-workers Buddy, a sarcastic 'joke machine,' producer Mel, whose bald head is a constant source of fun for Buddy, and Sally, whose wit and strong personality scare off men. The other scenes focus on Rob's home life, where he lives with his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Richie.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the first so-called 'sophisticated comedies', the characters of which are well-off, middle-class people with nice homes and good jobs. A reason that The Dick Van Dyke Show still feels fresh is that Reiner avoided the use of slang and references to 60s pop culture, allowing Rob and Laura Petrie to remain a timeless, perpetual couple.
21. Yes, Minister
The show was rated sixth in the 2004 BBC poll to find Britain's Best Sitcom and was the favourite television programme of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Although political satire was common on British TV in sketch shows and programmes like That Was The Week That Was (TWTWTW), Yes Minister was one of the first political sitcoms.
While not as scathing as the latter, The Thick of It, Yes Minister, and the sequel, Yes Prime Minister, followed the efforts of a hapless cabinet minister trying to get policies enacted and pursue reform against his intransigent colleagues in the civil service. Much of the humour is derived from Minister Jim Hacker's frustrations when he tries to make changes only to have his efforts blocked by his permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby.
We see a politician who thinks he is in charge, struggling against a group of civil servants who believe they run the country. The show had high audience ratings when it was broadcast and received praise for how it did not speak down to its audience. The world admired Yes, Minister, as it spawned adaptations in Canada, India, Australia, and Turkey. Further, Ukraine produced a version that starred its current president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
22. The Good Life
By the mid-seventies, 'hippy' ideologies from the previous decade had filtered into and were absorbed by the mainstream, and no TV show captured the spirit better than The Good Life. Today it's called 'downsizing' or 'ruralising', but fifty years ago, it was 'getting out of the rat race'. It may not have been so common in 1975 but throwing in the job and becoming self-sufficient was a dream that sustained many a sleep-deprived urbanite as they squeezed into a crowded train or sped to the office through underground tunnels.
Tom Good was a primetime TV's first mid-life-crisis man who, on his 40th birthday, packs in his job and turns the Surbiton family home into a sustainable, self-sufficient smallholding. Fortunately, he has a supportive (although not always enthusiastic) wife who is practical enough to get him out of the various pratfalls he gets into. And then there are Margot and Jerry, bewildered by the Good's behaviour and often the butt of the joke, but who always come good in the end.
23. Murphy Brown
Back in its day (the series began in 1988), Murphy Brown was a little edgy and, for the faint-hearted, something mildly shocking. Murphy was a woman over 40, single (not the traditional type), and she was tough. A well-known journalist and news anchor who, after years of being 'one of the boys', has succumbed to the booze and smokes and begins the series having just got out of the Betty Ford Clinic.
Now she has to readjust and live without cigarettes and alcohol. Also somewhat unusual was the casting of Candice Bergen, who had made the crossover from Hollywood movies to TV - a rarity in the 1980s. She had also mostly been cast in more glamorous roles. This was against the stereotype, and although unexpected, it proved to be an inspired move. Bergen was more than up to the task, and the programme ran for 11 series, including a recent revival.
Controversy occurred when, in 1991, Brown became a single parent and US Vice President Dan Quayle criticised the character as a role model. Murphy Brown blazed a trail for single-mother-role shows such as Aly McBeal, Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives. It was revived again in 2018, but things had moved on, and it didn't have the same impact as in its glorious heyday.
24. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Here is the co-creator of Seinfeld in a sitcom where he plays a fictionalised version of himself (strongly fictionalised, one would hope). There are some similarities between Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave. They are both curmudgeons who often, through a labyrinth of coincidences and misunderstandings, find themselves caught up in ridiculous situations.
Yet, while Victor is a nice enough person tortured by life's turns, Larry is something of a monster. He does not seem to understand or completely ignores social conventions but expects others to follow them.
He is often tactless and unable to let go of the smallest grievance. He never allows things to drop, and this inevitably leads him to confrontation with others. Often, he finds himself in a situation where people think he has done something reprehensible. Much of the dialogue is improvised, although the creator, Larry David, writes the outlines. HBO owns the show, but episodes are available to buy on Amazon Prime or by subscription to Now TV.
25. The Young Ones
British television and radio comedy have consistently thrown up 'left-field' moments like The Goon Show, Q5, and Monty Python, and another came when The Young Ones exploded onto the nation's TV screens in 1982. Frequently described as 'anarchic,' 'surreal', and 'outlandish', the Young Ones was a jumble of violent slapstick, bizarre storylines, illogical cutaways, puppets, and music (included because the show was labelled 'situational comedy,' but with music added, it could then be classed as 'variety' and receive a bigger budget).
Alternative comedy had already established itself on the comedy club circuit, particularly in London's Comedy Store. The acts it spawned - Ric Mayall and Adrian Edmondson (The Dangerous Brothers), Nigel Planer (who was in a double act with Peter Richardson), Ben Elton, and Alexi Sayle - were recruited to the BBC's new venture.
According to producer Paul Jackson, the finished product was met with disbelief when presented to BBC chiefs. But, they broadcast it anyway, mostly because they needed a response to the newly launched Channel 4, and it was received positively with a large spoonful of incredulity.
'The Black Adder', as the first series was titled, was developed and written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson and came from an idea they had while working on Not the Nine O'clock News. The BBC had given the first 6 shows a large budget, and much of it was shot on location and had a large cast of extras and lavish costumes.
Initially, the Blackadder character was somewhat stupid, and Baldrick was the cleverer one. It was also, as I recall, not especially funny. For the second series (set during the Elizabethan period), Ben Elton had been drafted in on co-writing duties with Curtis, and it stayed studio-based. Blackadder was upgraded to the familiar scheming Machiavellian anti-hero, and Baldrick became his dumb sidekick and verbal punching bag.
Although the period changed with subsequent series, Blackadder and Baldrick's personalities remained constant, as did those of the regular actors who played similar characters with similar names. By the fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth; the show had reached its zenith, coming 16th in the 2000 BFI list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. The poignant final scene remains a classic piece of TV across all genres and still provides one of TV's most moving moments.
27. Hancock's Half Hour
Tony Hancock had a popular, well-established radio show before the sitcom appeared on television. Hancock's Half Hour was one of the first radio comedy shows that departed from the usual sketch/musical interlude format and focused on an uninterrupted half-hour sketch. The radio show began in 1954, and the first television series in 1956.
For two years, the series alternated between radio and TV, although the setups were different. Sid James was the one actor who transferred from one to the other (confusingly, he often played more than one role in the radio show), while radio show regulars Hattie Jakes and Kenneth Williams appeared in the TV series on a couple of occasions. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson continued writing the scripts all the way through to the last BBC series in 1961 (by then, and reduced the running time to 25 minutes, and the series retitled Hancock).
This was the one that produced the classic episodes 'The Bowmans', The Radio Ham', and 'The Blood Donor'. Later that year, Tony Hancock broke from Galton and Simpson and, in 1962, moved to ATV. Unfortunately, his new show was not a successful broadcast. It did not help that it was in the same time slot as the second series of Steptoe and Son, written by his former writers Galton and Simpson.
28. The Big Bang Theory
Put four brilliant but geeky, socially awkward scientists - they are predictably big sci-fi and comic book fans (Sheldon identifies strongly with Spock) - into an apartment, move in an attractive, aspiring actress across the hall, and you have a recipe for a sitcom. Initially, the premise seemed rather obvious, and the first series of CBS's The Big Bang Theory was met with a wave of indifference.
The original pilot was not picked up immediately, and then the rejigged first series received a mixed reception. By the time it had reached its 279th and final episode, it had charmed the critics and received a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 81%.
The reliance on science content in The Big Bang Theory makes it unique among sitcoms, especially as it employed science consultants to check the script, provide props, and even write dialogue. The show finished its run on terrestrial TV in 2019, but its popularity meant HBO Max franchised it a year later. All 12 series are available there and on Amazon Prime.
Six has to be the perfect number for a sitcom based on a group of friends (it's a comfortable number for people to assimilate, and it divides neatly into couples or threes). There are also enough character types for you to be able to relate to one of them, and you can possibly imagine that that person might be a friend of yours. So perhaps you could get to hang with the guys at their apartment or maybe at the Central Perk.
Initially dismissed as a Seinfeld' wannabe'- made by NBC and set in Manhattan - Friends didn't woo the critics after its first episode. Some complained that Mathew Perry (Chandler) and David Schwimmer (Ross) were trying too hard. But as the series progressed, though, reviews became more positive, and Friends went on to become one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. Despite the series finale being a whopping 17 years ago, it is certain that it is right now being streamed all around the globe, and tens of thousands of people will be watching it. Then there's the killer theme song.
The original choice had been Shiny Happy People by REM, but the band rejected the offer. Although The Rembrandts only had a small involvement in writing I'll Be There For You, and after watching the pilot episode, didn't want their name on the song, it has earned them an estimated $4,000,000 to date.
30. Will and Grace
In 1998 Will and Grace became the first US terrestrial TV series to feature characters who were openly gay. Not that this was new to sitcoms, as the British series Agony had featured a gay male couple nineteen years earlier. At the time, just as is possible today, the guardians of the moral high ground saw it as a further erosion of American morals, while predictably, others claimed that the show did not go far enough in challenging stereotypes.
Arguing that the 'gayness' was 'normalised' because it was based on the couple's heterosexual relationship, which ultimately drove the narrative. That notwithstanding, Will and Grace is still considered a breakthrough show that helped raise public awareness and create a more favourable opinion toward the LBGTQ+ community.
Then Vice-President Joe Biden commented that Will and Grace "probably did more to educate the American public" on LGBT issues "than almost anything anybody has ever done so far". In 2014 the Smithsonian Institute added items from the show to their LBGTQ+ collection.
31. The Honeymooners
One of the early TV sitcoms and one of the few that I can claim to be a bit before my time was shown on British TV between 1958 and 1963. While it was popular, it is not remembered as fondly in the UK as in the US. The show used a similar setup to the earlier I Love Lucy - recorded live in front of a studio audience and filmed on multi-cameras - that became the standard way to shoot a sitcom.
The Honeymooners was based on a recurring sketch in Jackie Gleeson's variety show, and it follows the lives of none-too-bright bus driver Ralph (played by Gleeson), Alice (his wife), Ed (Ralph's best friend), and Trixie (Ed's wife). However, the show was different from others running at the time as it portrayed blue-collar workers living in less-than-idyllic surroundings.
4Writers set the premise in a rundown apartment block in Brooklyn, and most of the stories - many based on Ralph's hair-brained attempts to make money - unfolded in Ralph and Alice's kitchen. Writers later used the characters and many situations as templates for The Flintstones.
It was surprising to find that Bewitched aired for eight seasons between 1964 and 1972. I guess that by the time it had got to the middle of its run, it had, for me at least, lost some of its magic. Maybe because Samantha's original husband, played by Dick York, had left in 1968 because of failing health, but more likely because, like many other people, I got fed up with it.
By the middle of its run, the show began suffering from poor ratings, and star Elizabeth Montgomery had wanted to stop after series 6. Nonetheless, in its heyday, Bewitched was marvellous. Pitched to the production company as "the occult destabilisation of the conformist life of an upwardly mobile advertising man" (who wouldn't jump at the opportunity to turn that idea into a primetime TV series?), the original producer kept the magic to a minimum and had Samantha trying to solve problems without resorting to it. In doing this, the show could concentrate more on the problems facing newlyweds, particularly those in a mixed or cross-cultural marriage.
So, when Sam unleashed the magic, it was all the more special. Much of the humour was allegorical and derived from how husband Darrin coped with his more powerful wife and spiteful mother-in-law, who supposedly, like all 1960s mothers-in-law, was angry that her daughter had married beneath herself. Eventually, ABC wanted more magic and gags; sadly, the enchantment faded.
33. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Of the sitcoms on the list, The Mary Tyler Moor Show is, to British audiences, one of the least familiar. It aired in the UK from 1971 to 1972, and the BBC broadcast only the first 34 episodes. Both ITV and Channel Four have repeated episodes, and the Family Channel showed the complete series in the mid-nineties.
Coming during the golden age of British sitcoms and with some antipathy toward the US shows at the time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show did not get the reception it deserved. The show was one of the first to feature a central female character who was unmarried, independent and dedicated to their career.
Critics acclaimed the show as being a show about grownups for grownups and as something which helped add gravity to a previously insipid, lightweight genre. It is often cited as being a ground-breaking series, and Mary Jo Murphy described it as helping to "define a new vision of American womanhood" in the New York Times.
The show was also different in that the plots were more complex, and the characters were more fully drawn (three were featured in three spin-off shows - the sitcoms Rhoda and Phyllis and the drama Lou Grant). As the series became established, it featured episodes that tackled topical issues like equal pay, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, infidelity, infertility, addiction, and divorce.
34. Gavin and Stacy
Like John Sullivan's Just Good Friends broadcast in the early 1980s, the plot of Gavin and Stacey unfolds as it follows a couple's relationship. However, unlike Just Good Friends, Gavin and Stacey get together early in the series and apart from one or two ups and downs, they stay together. The plots are not especially dramatic and are character-based.
There are plenty of running jokes (Pam's fake vegetarianism or Uncle Bryn and Jason's fishing trip), and for the most part, the humour is quite wry. Episodes centre around key events in the two families' lives, such as weddings, christenings, and Christmases when the Barry family and the Billericay family get together.
Gavin (apart from doing the robot occasionally) and Stacy are the sensible ones, and their relationship remains at the core of the story. It is left to the characters around them to come up with most of the laughs, and plenty of these come from Smithy and Nessa, whose on/off (mostly off) love/hate relationship (mostly hate) provides the humorous story arc. In 2019, Gavin & Stacey was named the 17th greatest British sitcom of all time in a poll conducted by The Radio Times and is still alive and well on BBC iPlayer.
35. I'm Alan Partridge
Alan Partridge, along with David Brent and Mark Corrigan, personify cringe comedy. All are devoid of self-awareness, and because they want to be seen as tolerant, champions of equal rights, popular, and politically correct, they are all the more socially inept. The fact that they aren't too bright also doesn't help.
As a result, they'll miss the point every time. As an example of Alan trying to be firm but inclusive at the same time, he says to his PA, "Lynn, get rid of her. She's a drunk racist. I'll tolerate one, but not both...". After playing U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday on his show, he remarks, "What a great song. It really encapsulates the frustration of a Sunday, doesn't it?" obviously oblivious to 40 years of 'troubles' in Northern Ireland.
The sitcom began in 1997 and followed Alan Partridge after his wife left him and his chat show (because he accidentally shot a guest) and was dropped by the BBC. Alan is living in cultural exile, staying in a hotel, presenting a radio show in Norwich, and pitching ideas for TV shows.
The second series catches up with him five years later when he is living in a static caravan recovering from a mental breakdown. Now, he's finally got his job back with the BBC and presents an early-evening programme similar to the One Show. He is older, no wiser and coming out with such gems as "A sobering reminder that war, be it the First World War, the Second World War or the Great War of China, always takes a heavy toll."
36. Dad's Army
Dad's Army is another qualifier for the ever-growing most 'beloved' British sitcom of all time category. "Don't tell him your name, Pike" still appears in the top five of the all-time funniest sitcom lines. Why is Dad's Army so loved?
It may be because it depicts the characters and characteristics of what we like to think of as quintessential Britishness - resourcefulness, muddling through but ultimately triumphing against adversity, bickering with family and colleagues, but ready to get stuck in together when the chips are down. They are an oddball mixture of ages and social classes - spivs and bank managers, seventeen-year-olds, and veterans from the Sudan campaign. It is the clash of classes and types, again so typically the source of humour in British sitcoms, which provides most of the laughs.
Then there are the catchphrases, some still in use today. Director and co-writer David Croft gave them what he described as a 'double-kick', a typical example of which would be Corporal Jones panicking while yelling, "Don't panic, don't panic". When the show was written, the Home Guard had been largely forgotten, and Jimmy Perry thought it would have only a limited appeal. Still, Dad's Army ensures that the memory of a hotch-potch group of Older Volunteers, teenagers and factory workers remains.
37. The Vicar of Dibley
If you take a quintessentially traditional institution such as the Church of England, place it in a bucolic English village and stir in, what was, at the time, the radical new idea of the ordination of women, add Dawn French (a role which will surely qualify her 'National Treasure' status), ask archetypal British comedy writer Richard Curtis (not forgetting Paul Mayhew-Archer) to do the script, you'll have the recipe for a TV classic.
If staying power is the mark of a great sitcom, then The Vicar of Dibley has it. Flip through a television guide, and it is impossible not to find it on one of the terrestrial channels. There have been numerous specials and some lockdown episodes, but only twenty scheduled episodes were screened before the series finished on New Year's Day 2000.
What makes it so popular? The characters are lovable. They are eccentric (a quality so beloved by us Brits), often they have an agenda to push, and they all have their quirks and foibles, but deep down, they are good, and that excuses everything.
38. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin
In the 70s, we had both the sweet mid-life crisis (The Good Life) and the bitter-sweet mid-life crisis (Butterflies), but Tom was happy with Barbara and the goats. Although Ria was dissatisfied, the relationship with Leonard wasn't consummated. They had their problems, but you never thought that anything bad was going to befall them.
Reginald Perrin, on the other hand, offered further proof that the line between tragedy and comedy is gossamer thin.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was dark compared to its contemporaries. Here was a man so driven by the despair at the pointlessness of his life that his mental health declines to the extent where he becomes impotent and fakes suicide on a Dorset beach. Admittedly the situations were absurd.
Reggie's increasingly bizarre behaviour and outlandish exchanges were hilarious, but the show was never far away from thanks edgy. It is thanks to David Nobbs' writing and excellent performances all around, especially from Leonard Rossiter, that the series balances desperation and laughter and shows how it is the mundane rather than the extraordinary that pushes us over the top.
39. Father Ted
Father Ted has been described as an Irish version of The Young Ones. True, three priests and their housekeeper living on an island are quite different to four unhinged students sharing a house, but in both, it is anarchy that prevails. The priests are separated from anything that resembles normality, each being banished for some dark incident in their past - financial impropriety, a sexual incident that resulted in many nuns' lives being 'irreparably damaged', and womanising and alcoholism.
Under these circumstances, they mostly eschew church matters and attempt to resolve a problem with the parish or a misunderstanding with their fellow Craggy Island residents. Like The Young Ones, Father Ted's world is surreal, and the conversation is nonsequitous. According to co-creator and writer Graham Linehan, the priests are "exaggerated-over-friendly, over-quiet, over-stupid, over-dull".
If they (mostly Ted) find themselves in a tricky situation, then, like Basil Fawlty, David Brent, or Larry David, they'll dig themselves a deeper hole by lying and dissembling trying to get out of it. Father Ted won several BAFTAs and, in 2019, was named the Second-Greatest British Sitcom by a panel of comedy experts for the Radio Times.
40. The Thick of It
By the mid-noughties, the political spin had become the tail wagging the dog. After arguing the case for Yes Minister in a 2004 BBC sitcom poll, Armando Iannucci produced the idea for a new hard-nosed satire showing the workings of 21st-century politics. In The Thick of It, the characters had fewer, if any, redeeming features; they were careerists and had fewer scruples and were 'thick' compared to their 1980s counterparts.
Actors improvised some of the scripts, and scenes were shot by handheld cameras, giving the sense that the action was unfolding as we watched. The language was famously profane - initially, scripts were sent to a 'swearing consultant' where the language was blued up (its most prodigious and creative user - the PM's chief enforcer, Martin Tucker - is reportedly based on Alister Campbell).
The Thick of It ran for four seasons, the first two on BBC 4 and the final two on BBC 2 and was consistently in the top ten weekly rankings. In 2010 HBO commissioned an American version, Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and several of the characters who had appeared in the spin-off movie, In the Loop. Veep ran for seven seasons, receiving high praise and many accolades.
I didn't get Fleabag at first. Is it because it's about a liberated, sexually active woman talking openly about her feelings and experiences? And if it were a man, would I be fine with it? To my discredit, yes, it probably is. But, putting my prejudices aside, I watched it again recently, and I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed it.
The series has received widespread acclaim for acting, writing, and originality and has been described as a "masterpiece", as having "feral energy", and "a near-perfect work of art". The show has received many awards, including a BAFTA for Best Female Comedy Performance, but what sets Fleabag apart is that behind the savage humour, it verges on the tragic.
Creator, writer, and lead Phoebe Waller-Bridge based the series on her 2013 one-woman show, which came about after being asked to create a 10-minute piece for a stand-up storytelling night. Waller-Bridge has ruled out the possibility of Fleabag returning for a third series any time soon, but the door is ajar if not open.
42. Absolutely Fabulous
Around the same time as the 'lad' and 'ladette' movements were flourishing, Absolutely Fabulous gave us middle-aged women behaving badly. The series evolved from a French and Saunders sketch called 'Modern Mother and Daughter' where traditional parenting roles are reversed with the mother acting like a teenager who relies on her teenage daughter, whose behaviour, in contrast, was like that of a middle-aged woman, for support.
Although Absolutely Fabulous worked wonderfully as a send-up of the 1990s PR and fashion industries, the real fun came from watching a pair of rich, self-obsessed women disgrace themselves (many of the jokes resulted from nights out with Bananarama).
The fact that Edina and Patsy got away with heavy drinking, drug abuse, and mistreating children without the moral comeuppance TV dramas normally dished out for such behaviour made it all the more delicious. Could a series like Absolutely Fabulous be produced today without generating a storm of offence? Maybe not, but Jennifer Saunders has not dismissed the idea, and as recently as 2020, when Joanne Lumley was asked about the possibility of a revival one day, her reply was, "Wait and see".
43. Peep Show
Peep Show has the distinction of being the longest-running comedy series broadcast on Channel 4, although when its 12 years on the air is compared with the 37 years of The Last of the Summer Wine, the superlative doesn't seem that special. But quality is better than quantity, and Peep Show has quality by the bucket full.
The name comes from the verité style in which the programme was filmed, using point-of-view shots making the main characters' thoughts audible. Peep Show has some similarities with classic sitcoms like Hancock, Steptoe, and Son, or Till Death Do Us Part, as its inhabitants live in existential limbo. 'Hell is other people', and you know that despite their best efforts, they are dammed to live their same humdrum lives for all eternity.
Co-creator Sam Bain described the show as portraying "the stubborn persistence of human suffering". Cheery stuff, you might think, but Peep Show was rated as the 13th Greatest Sitcom in a 2019 Radio Times poll. Despite this, Peep Show never reached high viewing figures (maybe there was too much angst even for the early 2000s), and this injustice is slowly being redressed as it continues to be popular on streaming sites and continues to score highly in all the Best-of polls.
44. The Royle Family
It is difficult to imagine that a sitcom, in which the characters sit around watching the television, would ever have gotten off the ground or that the phrase 'my arse' would become an acceptable way of expressing disbelief. It is even more surprising, and a testament to the observational and writing skills of Caroline Ahearne and Craig Cash, that the humour could come from the conversations sitting around the television (some of the later specials adopted a more traditional sitcom format) rather than from comic set-pieces.
The Royle Family was naturalistic and pithy, to say the least. This drew criticism from some quarters because, even though it was a parody, its detractors claimed that it looked down on working-class people and portrayed them as uncouth couch potatoes with bad diets. I thought it was amusing but just too skanky. After watching an episode, I would feel the rare desire to go for a run and then tuck into a big salad.
Two flat-seeking twentysomethings (Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, who also created and wrote the series) meet in a cafe, and despite not knowing each other, they pose as a professional couple and move in together. So, start their comedic, sometimes surreal (Daisy makes friends with a dog she calls Colin, named after the pet box she had as a child) misadventures.
Born on the cusp of the new millennium, Spaced was known for its distinctive style. Director Edgar Winter, who went on to work with Pegg and co-star Nick Frost in the movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz before directing Hollywood hits Baby Driver and Ant-Man, shot the series using a single camera and used modern dance music as part of the soundtrack. Scenes would often cut away in the middle of a pan, there were frequent references to popular culture and contemporary issues, and characters used recreational drugs.
In 2013 when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were asked about the possibility of another series, they said that it is "not who and where we are anymore". But with so many sequels, prequels, returns and reboots showing up these days, you never know.
46. Citizen Smith
In 2015, with a temporary rise in the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, Robert Lindsey was keen to reprise the role of Wolfie Smith. However, the late John Sullivan's family owned the character's rights and decided they did not want to bring Citizen Smith back.
As a disillusioned radical, he may have got some laughs, but as the self-styled Che Guevara and leader of the Tooting Popular Front, yelling slogans like 'Power to the People' and 'Freedom for Tooting' in 2022, would people have got it? Whatever you thought of his politics, as a work-shy slacker, Smith was too deluded to pose a threat but had enough good intentions to be likeable.
Wolfie is a forerunner of Del Trotter, and like Del, his reach exceeds his grasp. Unfortunately, his plans and half-baked schemes never stand a chance of succeeding because of his personal shortcomings. But it's not all bad. Wolfie has a doting, albeit long-suffering girlfriend and a group of friends and followers who accompany him through his misadventures, and so we, too, see him affectionately.
47. Some Mothers Do 'Ave' Em
Although the last episode of Some Mothers Do 'Ave' Em was in 1978, even today, it is impossible to resist doffing an opportunely placed beret, putting our forefinger to our lips, and saying "Ooh, Betty" (for all the purists out there, I know that he never actually said it and Mike Yarwood probably dreamt it up. Of course, any dealings with the hapless Frank Spencer would be infuriating, chaotic and result in destruction.
Yet, thanks to Michael Crawford's innocent, sympathetic portrayal, and comic stunts worthy of Buster Keaton, we all developed a strong affection for Frank (and Betty) to such an extent that audience figures regularly exceeded 25 million.
Michael Crawford invented many of Frank's phrases and mannerisms, and it is difficult to see anyone else in that role, but Ronny Barker and then Norman Wisdom had been the first and second choices for the part (David Jason was rejected for lacking 'star quality). Crawford took a while before shaking off the character before going on to wider success in shows like Barnum and The Phantom of the Opera.
48. Arrested Development
Arrested Development is a TV show that was hailed by critics but cancelled by Fox in 2006 because of low viewing figures and ratings. Subsequently, Netflix licenced new episodes in 2013 and recommissioned the fifth season in 2018. The series is yet another take on the impossibly wealthy, dysfunctional American family that goes bust (partly inspired by the high-profile corporate scandals happening around that time).
However, Arrested Development's style was unique. It had a serialised format and voiceover narration (from Ron Howard), historical footage and photos, and handheld camera work. The result was, rather than watching a story unfold, there was the sense that things had already happened, and so you are watching a documentary or a modern morality tale.
The premise is that patriarch George commits a white-collar crime and is sent to prison (which he gets to love), and it's down to good-hearted Michael, his son (Jason Bateman and Michael Cera playing the straight men who had been trying to escape their spoilt, grasping relatives), to hold things together.
49. Married…with Children
In 1987, when Married…with Children premiered, US family sitcoms were, by and large, sweeter than apple pie. Led by The Cosby Show and Family Ties, Dad had a well-paid job. Mom was the cement that held the odontologically perfect family together. Everything in the garden of the middle-class American family was rosy.
Then, Married...with Children came along, and held the door open for the entrance of the dysfunctional family comedy. They had been around before, as with the successful run of All in The Family (based on the UK sitcom Till Death Do Us Part), but not to this degree. Dad, Al Bundy is misanthropic - "I hate my life. Can't eat, can't sleep, can't bury the wife in the backyard" a former footballer, now a shoe salesman who lives with a lazy "I left you plenty of food. It's at the supermarket" nagging wife, who mocks him over his unglamorous job and sexual prowess.
If you haven't seen Married...with Children, it may not sound too encouraging (the show was named the 'Worst TV Show' by the American Parents Television Council), but it is extremely funny, and its influence made the likes of The Simpsons, Arrested Development, My Family and Not Going Out possible.
50. 30 Rock
30 Rock refers to 30 Rockwell Plaza in New York City, the location of NBS studios and the makers of Saturday Night Live. And it was on Saturday Night Live that series creator and star Tina Fey got the idea to parody the workings of a sketch show (originally, she was going to base it on cable news but decided there was a greater wealth of material in what she knew).
A show-within-a-show is not a new idea, but 30 Rock's biting and, at times, a surreal parody of TV's corporate structure, its fast-paced delivery, and quirkiness make the show something special and, in my opinion, up there in the top ten best sitcoms of all time.
During its seven-series run, 30 Rock won a heap of awards for writing and acting but, after being syndicated by Comedy Central, was rarely shown on Freeview in the UK and is not as widely known here as it deserves to be. However, it is available to buy by the series on Amazon Prime and on subscription at Hulu, and you could do much worse than to binge through what The Guardian once described as "the best show on television".
- The Golden Girls(Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty)
- Scrubs(Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison, Ken Jenkins, John C. McGinley, Judy Reyes, Neil Flynn, Eliza Coupe, Kerry Bishé, Michael Mosley, and Dave Franco)
- South Park(Trey Parker and Matt Stone)
- The Good Place(Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D'Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto, and Ted Danson)
- Community (Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase, and Jim Rash).