Monday, December 19, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: the 1970s

The 1970s are still my favorite Comfort TV comfort zone, not because the shows were inherently better but because they were the ones that I watched through my formative years.

It was an era that introduced some of television’s best situation comedies, including several that pushed the envelope on what could be said, shown or implied in prime time. Here are my picks for the decade’s ten funniest episodes.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
“Chuckles Bites the Dust” (1975)
“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”
I’ve never read the script David Lloyd wrote for this episode, but for the funeral scene I can’t imagine it gave Mary Tyler Moore any more to work with than “Mary tries to suppress her laughter.” And look at the magic she created from such a simple directive. That scene is justifiably famous but the whole episode is brilliant, from Lou and Murray swapping tasteless jokes about Chuckles’ demise to Ted’s on-air obituary: “I'd like to think that somewhere, up there tonight, in his honor, a choir of angels is sitting on whoopee cushions.”

All in the Family
“Sammy’s Visit” (1972)
When high profile stars visit a situation comedy, they tend to pull so much focus that the episode becomes more about them than the show’s regular characters. One of the great achievements of “Sammy’s Visit” is how it brings Sammy Davis. Jr. and the working class Bunkers together in a believable way, and then finds the right balance to distribute the content and the laughs equally. Kirk and Uhura may have shared TV’s first interracial kiss, but the one in this episode is much more memorable.  

The Bob Newhart Show
“Over the River and Through the Woods” (1975)
“More goo to go!”
It’s regrettable that drunk scenes have become yet another casualty of our enlightened age. Once they were to great comic actors what a hanging curve ball was to a .300 batter – a golden opportunity to hit one out of the park. That’s what happened when Bob Newhart, Bill Daily, Jack Riley and Peter Bonerz were handed a scene in which their characters get sloshed over Thanksgiving. They hit their rhythm early and for ten minutes set-ups and punch lines are served and volleyed with perfect timing and precision. When it all comes together like this, there’s nothing better. 

Fawlty Towers
“Gourmet Night” (1975)
I’m not sure if a British show should be eligible, but how can Fawlty Towers be left off any list of the funniest situation comedies? The question then becomes which of its 12 amazing episodes to select. “The Germans” might be the most obvious choice, with Basil’s constant references to the war he’s not supposed to mention, and that unforgettable long-limbed goosestep, but I’ve always been partial to “Gourmet Night.” It’s a classic farce that builds to a feverish climax in which Basil yells at and then beats up his car. The final line is perfect. 

The Odd Couple
“Password” (1972)
Oscar is invited to be a celebrity guest on Password, and self-proclaimed expert Felix, who owns two copies of the Password home game (one for his car) pleads to be picked as his partner. The results are predictably disastrous (and hilarious), and are made even more memorable by the range of reactions from guest stars Allen Ludden and Betty White. 

“Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” (1979)
When an episode is so funny that even the cast can’t contain their laughter, it deserves to be here. During the famous driving test scene, Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Conaway keep repeating the "What does a yellow light mean?" joke and it kills every time. By the third run-through, Marilu Henner and Tony Danza can clearly be seen laughing when their characters are supposed to be frustrated.

Laverne & Shirley
“Guinea Pigs” (1977)
The girls are invited to a fancy cocktail party but can’t afford the $20 admission. To earn the money they volunteer at the Institute for Behavioral Sciences – Shirley is only allowed to eat dirt as part of a nutrition study, while Laverne is deprived of sleep. They make it to the bash, and what follows is more than five minutes of non-stop laughs. Timeless episodes like this and “The Diner” are why, out of all the Garry Marshall ‘70s sitcoms, Laverne & Shirley has aged the most gracefully. 

“Rhoda’s Wedding” (1974)
This two-part episode would be memorable just for the milestone referenced in the title and the Mary Tyler Moore Show crossover cast appearances. But this is also the rare “event” show that is also among the best written of the entire series run. 

Green Acres
“The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud” (1970)
Green Acres just kept getting nuttier with each passing season, and yes, that’s a compliment. I could try to summarize the plot of “The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud” but it won’t do the episode justice: the town folk receive an unexpected (and undeserved) windfall and Mr. Haney convinces them to invest in monkey racing, in which little monkeys race around a track chasing after a wooden banana. Some things are better experienced than described.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
“Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcasters School” (1975)
We started with this series so we’ll end here as well. The idea of Ted lending his name to a school of broadcasting is already funny; the fact it was a scheme floated by a con artist is even funnier, but the best part is when the WJM news team show up for the first class and find only one student in the room. On the short list of things that always make me laugh, there is Ted singing the school’s theme song, and Lou Grant’s Ralph Kramden-like reaction. 

Next: The 1980s


  1. "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is my favorite of your list above, and it once won an award from TV GUIDE as best sitcom episode ever.
    The plot for "Guinea Pig" was reused from Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson's 1966-67 series, HEY, LANDLORD!. On that show it was an episode called "Testing... One, Two", which had Rob Reiner & Richard Dreyfuss among its guest performers.

    1. Interesting Jon - I didn't know that about "Guinea Pigs." Nothing wrong with recycling, though - 'I Love Lucy' certainly did enough of it with plots from Lucy's radio show.

  2. Nice list, but I think you missed two obvious ones......1 WKRP.....Thanksgiving episode......As God is my witness I thought turkeys could fly. 2 Barney Miller......HASH.....Mooshy mooshy mooshy. Nice call on the Password episode of The Odd Couple, best episode in the series.

    1. I agree . WKRP Thanksgiving episode should head the list. The funniest 20+ minutes from an American sitcom ever . Plus anything from Fawlty Towers . " Whatever you do , don't mention the war."

  3. I couldn't leave out SANFORD AND SON on a 1970's list. "The Card Sharps", "Lamont Goes African", "The Dowry"...actually you could almost pick out any episode from the second season and not go wrong. My pick for the decade's funniest sitcom.

    Seconding the BARNEY MILLER "Hash" episode and WKRP "Turkeys Away", though I also have a soft spot for "Fish Story" (the one with Johnny taking the on-air reflex test under the influence)

    Any FAWLTY TOWERS would do as well. I'm kind of partial to "Waldorf Salad".

  4. Some great choices here. I'll second "Hash" from BARNEY MILLER and "Turkeys Away" from W.K.R.P. and would add "episode 13, season 1" of SOAP (Soap didn't have individual titles). It's a hilarious episode where Chief of Police (or as he calls himself "Piece of Chelief") Tinkler has all the characters assembled in one room and gives reasons why they're all suspects of Peter Campbell's murder. It's a tour de force by Gordon Jump!

  5. I'd have to add "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" from the fourth season of Sanford & Son. I saw that a couple of years ago and about choked laughing as well as from shock over some of the language. The seventies, man. They got away with murder on TV then.

  6. Vivians First Funeral from Maude should be on it but good list