Monday, December 26, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: the 1980s

Whenever I do these decade-by-decade surveys (essential shows, best theme songs, etc.) I always stop at the 1980s, as that is when the Comfort TV era ends. The ascension of cable and VCRs changed both what we watched and how we watched it, while also shattering the limits on acceptable content.

Television would continue to create classic sitcoms in the 1990s, from Wings to Friends, but this will be the last stop on our tour. Fortunately, with these ten shows we’ll be able to exit laughing.

“April Fools” (1980)
Generating laughs wasn’t always a top priority at the 4077th, especially in the series’ later seasons. But when the show’s gifted ensemble was allowed to cut loose the results were as funny as anything on television. In “April Fools” the camp becomes obsessed with practical jokes prior to a visit from a no-nonsense colonel. 

Three’s Company
“Up in the Air” (1982)
Those who dismiss Three’s Company as a lowbrow sex comedy…are not altogether wrong. But John Ritter was a truly gifted comedic actor who elevated many of its best episodes. “Up in the Air” offers a splendid showcase for his talents. 

Police Squad!
“Revenge and Remorse” (1982)
I’ve argued before that the joke-a-minute formula of writer/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker was probably not built for the long haul in television. That’s why I’m not as disappointed as most that there were only six episodes of Police Squad – they came, they made us laugh, and they left before the format grew stale. “Revenge and Remorse” features hilarious courtroom gags, William Shatner and Dr. Joyce Brothers. 

“Elegant Iggy” (1982)
“Did I have a good time tonight?”
One of the series’ best-remembered shows has Elaine dreading the prospect of attending a society function with the ever-addled Reverend Jim. The party scene is by turns funny, surprising and heartwarming. 

The Cosby Show
“Happy Anniversary” (1985)
As with many of the episodes on these lists, “Happy Anniversary” provides many memorable moments that lead up to one perfect, classic scene (surely you recall the Huxtables lip-synching Ray Charles’ “Night Time is the Right Time”?). 

“Pick a Con…Any Con” (1983)
Nothing against Woody Harrelson, but for me Cheers was at its best in the first two seasons, with the original cast and the tempestuous romance between Sam and Diane. I selected this episode out of many early classics for its guest appearance from Harry Anderson, as a con man hired to take down a fellow grifter who swindled Coach. 

Designing Women
“Big Haas and Little Falsie” (1988)
Like MASH, Designing Women often had more on its mind than comedy. But we’re just looking for laughs now and this is one of the funniest shows from the show’s glory years. In “Big Haas and Little Falsie,” Mary Jo considers getting breast implants, and takes out a loaner pair before making a decision. 

Married…with Children
“976-SHOE” (1989)
This was one of the shows that led us out of the Comfort TV era of television, with its happy, well-adjusted families and admiration for kindness and civility. But funny is funny, and watching Al Bundy’s get-rich-quick schemes crash and burn was almost as amusing as it was with Ralph Kramden 40 years earlier. My favorite episode of the series will always be “Can’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me,” but “976-SHOE” may be the funniest show in the run. 

The Golden Girls
“A Little Romance” (1985)
I can’t help it – I love politically incorrect humor. This is supposedly Betty White’s favorite Golden Girls episode and its easy to see why – Rose is dating a short person that she hides from her friends, because she doesn’t know how they will react. When he meets the rest of the girls get ready to laugh. 

“Good News, Bad News” (1989)
“The only difference between a date and a job interview is that not many job interviews is there a chance you'll end up naked at the end of it.”
The pilot was the only Seinfeld episode to air in the 1980s. It’s not yet the series it would become – there’s no Elaine, Kramer is “Kessler,” and Jason Alexander’s George is more a riff on Woody Allen than the misanthrope he’d become. But in moments like the laundromat scene and the first conversation between Jerry and George, it’s clear there’s something inventive going on. “Good News, Bad News” is not here merely as a harbinger for “The Contest” and “The Marine Biologist” – it makes the list on its own merits. 


  1. I can't say that "Santa Barbara" didn't feel like a sitcom at times.

  2. "April Fools" was my favorite MASH episode from its season, if not the whole series. Klinger looked funny as Cleopatra, and I loved the ending.
    I didn't get much into SEINFELD until I started seeing it in late-night reruns around 1995-96, but I've been a fan since then and have the whole series on DVD now.