10. Sullivan and Son
This working class comedy executive-produced by Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley is fraught with all the non-PC ethnic and sexual humor you’d hear in a working class, Irish-Korean, middle-American bar like the one in the show. Created by Korean American actor/comedian Steve Byrne and Cheers writer Rob Long, the TBS sitcom reminds you that some jokes are still OK to crack. The stellar cast features Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) and comic genius Brian Doyle-Murray, along with Christine Ebersole and Owen Benjamin, who portray the drop-dead hysterical mother-son dependent duo Carol and Owen Walsh.
Buried by Seth MacFarlane’s cartoon empire, Bob’s Burgers is a sleeper hit currently airing on FOX. Created by Loren Bouchard of Adult Swim’s Home Movies fame, the series mirrors the structure of The Simpsons and Family Guy: 2 parents, 3 kids in a working middle class environment. But that’s where the imitation ends. Loaded with snark that revolves around well-developed characters, instead of endless postmodern pop culture references, Bob’s Burgers is smart alt-comedy verite. The much under-talked about Kristen Schaal gives a standout performance as kid sister Louise in a stellar cast that also features the talented H. Jon Benjamin (Home Movies, Archer). Originally designed to fill the gap left by the ending of King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers is a break from the otherwise overripe milieu of Sunday night cartoon comedy.
Television today is all about breaking the fourth wall thanks, in great part, to Garry Shandling. In 1986, he partnered with Alan Zweibel of Saturday Night Live to create a sitcom about a stand-up comedian who, ironically, realizes he’s in a sitcom. For four seasons on Showtime, the semi-fictional Shandling (the show was based on his life down to the layout of his condo) would share his neuroses with the audience, a heretofore unseen technique in sitcom television. FOX picked the show up for re-air, but mainstream audiences didn’t dig the experimental vibe. Shandling would go on to stake his claim to fame via his HBO vehicle The Larry Sanders Show in the early ’90s.
Perhaps the most well-known under-appreciated show of all time, Community is the sitcom that launched a thousand Tweets demanding “six seasons and a movie.” During its rocky 5 season run, Community managed to become an almost Dali-like expression of single camera sitcom television. Series creator Dan Harmon’s strong influence propelled tighter writing, allowing the show to transcend typical sitcom status. Gen-X Harmon’s “story circles” would be translated into countless memes by a cult fandom of millennial viewers. Despite critical acclaim, the show slagged in the ratings, causing it to walk in the footsteps of similar alt-comedy hits like Arrested Development.
6. The Middle
The Hecks are a modern family, middle-America style. Take a 1950s family sitcom, turn it on its ear, and you have the Hecks, a proud family of five often seen sitting around their beat up kitchen table (the youngest in a folding chair), making a meal out of fast food takeout, peanut butter sandwiches, or nearly expired soup. Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) and Neil Flynn (Scrubs) lead a cast that includes the talented Eden Sher giving a standout performance as Sue Heck, the klutzy, high-spirited middle daughter who refuses to give up trying to make her mark on the world. Steady ratings keep this ABC lead-in airing Wednesday nights. Perhaps now that it’s being aired alongside The Goldbergs, both shows will get the credit they truly deserve.
Fans of Kentucky Fried Movie and the Airplane series flocked to this broadcast creation of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker in 1982. The audience wasn’t enough to sustain more than 6 episodes of this comedy rip on 1950s/60s television police dramas. Another brilliant execution starring Leslie Nielsen, Police Squad! would become the basis for the Naked Gun trilogy. In response to critical and fan outrage over the cancellation of the show, then-ABC President Tony Thomopoulos made the brilliant comment, “Police Squad! was cancelled because the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” When the show finally made it to VHS, Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote, “People can rent them and laugh, and then cry that ABC was so cruel.”
Imagine a mature teenage honors student who tempers her frustration with a healthy sense of sarcasm and actualized sense of self being the heroine on an MTV show. Before the network began to cash in on reality television’s teenage wasteland, MTV aired a snappy little spinoff of Beavis and Butthead called Daria. Drop the nerd and her artsy best friend and fellow outcast amidst the cast of Clueless and let the fun commence. “It’s not that I lack self esteem,” she reveals in the first episode, “it’s that I lack esteem for everyone else.” What teenager wouldn’t revel in that?
Nobody gets a real family sitcom any more. You mean there’s actually a show about a family that doesn’t feature divorce, abuse, booze, teen pregnancy or polygamy in the 21st century? The sleeper hit rolling in ’80s metaphors spouting from the seemingly almost forgotten structure of family unity is a charmer that’s spawned a cult following of Goldnerds (series creator Adam F. Goldberg was thrilled by the nickname, something he used to be taunted with as a kid) and an Emmy for Wendi internet campaign.
Written and produced by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel (of Saturday Night Live fame), Lookwell! starred Adam West as a washed-up TV action hero who dementedly believes he can solve real-life crimes. Sound familiar? Think Mayor Adam West from Family Guy and you won’t be too far off. Designed to be a single-camera comedy, the show was ahead of its time in 1991; so much for The Office breaking the mold. Despite being a favorite of NBC chairman Brandon Tartikoff, the show was scrapped after the pilot ranked dead last in the ratings. O’Brien would joke that the premiere episode “was the second-lowest rated television show of all time. It’s tied with a test pattern they show in Nova Scotia.” Adam West would go on to advocate for the show, referring to it as his favorite “funniest pilot that never got sold.” This was possibly due to the fact that Lookwell! earned West cult status among the followers of Hollywood’s humor elite.
There was a time before Mad Men when AMC actually produced creative, inspiring original programming sans nostalgic ennui. Created by Tony Award winner Rupert Holmes, Remember WENN was a dramedy (or, if you prefer, a comma) set in a Pittsburgh radio station in the years leading up to World War II. Holmes’s lyrical prose was the trademark of this small-screen gem shot in a New York studio and featuring a cast of Broadway’s finest, including Melinda Mullins, John Bedford Lloyd, Christopher Murney, and Kevin O’Rourke (who would go on to play Edward Bader in Boardwalk Empire). Guest stars included Patti LuPone, Molly Ringwald, and Jason Alexander. Exceedingly witty and insanely intelligent, the show would run into a wall after AMC’s new management decided it wanted to re-vamp the network’s image (less old movies, more depressing TV shows). Forced to drop the curtain before the final act, a hardcore fan base was left wondering how — or if — the series would ever end.