(Illustration by Kaelin Richardson - @HeyKaelin)
The magical box we refer to as television no longer exists. When I was a kid, we had a TV in every room, something unheard of in 1955 according to Back to the Future. Today, kids have screens in their pockets and YouTube alone provides more content than all of cable could have ever provided. Part of me loves the accessibility of content (and the ability to create content) on a whim - but a big part of me is sad for those growing up today who may never understand the sacred experience of primetime or Saturday morning programming.
Growing up, my entire life was scheduled around television. It was a door to another world, the ultimate escape from real life, which at times wasn't the happiest place to be. Television provided a way to better understand myself and the world around me, basic communication being something I struggled with due to moving to new cities and changing schools frequently. By the time I reached 4th grade my social anxieties were crippling. I couldn't look anyone in the eye or bring myself to engage in the simplest conversation, which ultimately led to being bullied. I disliked myself a great deal at the time, which is why I think I was so drawn to the self-depreciating humor of David Letterman on Late Night. I began studying Dave's mannerisms, the way he talked, and what he said. I took his jokes and reworked them into punchlines about school, teachers, and bullies to perform for the lunch table and on the playground. I began treating conversations with classmates like a talk show, even turning my desk into a set, complete with blue index cards that I would fumble with to hide my nervousness. I began interviewing people as a way of communicating, and telling jokes as a defense mechanism. It turns out that pretty much everyone loves to laugh and talk about themselves. No one around me realized it, but I was turning the world into my own soundstage. I became known as the class clown, and being funny and odd became what I was known for.
This is just one of the many ways in which being a couch potato rescued me from depression and ultimately gave me something to be passionate about. The sofa was my church and the religion of movies, TV, and video games ultimately saved my life. That is why these "Top 50" lists exist - it is not a critical assessment of the greatest achievements in the medium, but rather a list of shows that really meant something to me and had an impact on my life. Granted, there are some obsessions that didn't make the cut because I love them purely for nostalgic reasons (does anyone remember the live action Super Mario Bros. sitcom?), but most of the really important stuff is listed below. To my friends that have become parents who may think TV will rot their children's brains, don't touch that dial! I am forever grateful to my parents who allowed total freedom of the tube. Without it, I wouldn't be who I am today - though my vision would have probably been a lot better.
"TV is like the invention of indoor plumbing - it didn't change people's habits, it just kept them inside the house." - Alfred Hitchcock
"Yabba Dabba Doo!" One of the longest running primetime animated series and the first to parody the typical American family, The Flintstones featured storylines and comedy aimed at adults, done in part by hiring two of Jackie Gleason's live action writers as the series is itself inspired by The Honeymooners. The show draws its humor from the absurdities of ordinary life and ordinary relationships. The imaginative gags in the fantasy setting of Bedrock along with the vibrant colors & designs provide endless eye candy while the chemistry of the voice actors along with the original music by Hoyt Curtin and very funny animation (not to mention the genius addition of a laugh track) make this show about a modern Stone Age family an unforgettable "gay old time"!
"The past is prologue. Men like us have to keep looking to the future." A sitcom about the local government of New York City starring Michael J. Fox as the Deputy Mayor alongside what is arguably the funniest TV ensemble on this list, Spin City was unique for its filmic camera style - one of the few sitcoms to consistently use tracking shots to make you feel like you were there, one of the many conventional rules it broke during its time on the air. This show was also repeatedly at the forefront of gay rights and issues at a time when Ellen DeGeneres was being banned from Hollywood for it, featuring an incredible performance by Michael Boatman as a homosexual main character. Also, as the photo below indicates, there was one hell of a guest star roster. I'll never forget Fox signing off from the show in the fourth season's finale due to his diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, that episode's end credits being one of the most emotional moments in television history. This is the first of several shows on my list to be beautifully preserved on DVD by Shout! Factory, our savior of saving the best television programming.
"I wanted to change the world, but after a whole year of trying the only thing I changed was my underpants." Nickelodeon was once at the forefront of free-spirited channels, allowing creators to get away with a lot and take chances in order to develop an original voice. They fostered an environment that led to some of the best shows of the 90s. This strange show about two brothers was like Twin Peaks for kids. Nickelodeon gave us some major doses of weird to grow up on, and this surreal, hilarious, and sometimes horrifying look at adolescence is one of those series very much responsible for warping my mind at a young age. This series was at ground zero for the alternative revolution in children's programming, and I'm so happy I was there for it.
"Welcome back, stupid viewers! You'll watch anything!" One of the oddest TV series of all time, this late night talk show hosted by an intergalactic superhero with rapid-fire lowbrow humor and rough animation lifted from a 1966 Hanna-Barbera cartoon series is one of the greatest treasures of the medium. There is a consistent bizarre rhythm that takes this series beyond parody and into some strange comedy dimension where I want to live. This is the kind of show that will make you laugh and then make you question why you laughed. The best kind, in my opinion.
"Presenting his majesty... The King of Cartoons!" The ultimate Saturday morning arthouse experience (preserved beautifully by our heroes at Shout! Factory) this show bursted at the seams with imagination and insanity while at the same time educating and embracing racial equality. Also, if you're a fan of this show but have never seen the Christmas special, do yourself a favor and seek it out right now. Critic Jeffrey Kauffman wrote, "Even the legendary Salvador Dalí might have wondered what hallucinogenic Mrs. Dalí slipped into his meal had he been alive to watch any given episode." There has never been anything remotely like this in children's television, and most likely there never will be again. This is an amazing and unforgettably weird series.
"Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls!" One of the most chaotic comedies in history, this variety show was the biggest show on TV during its time. It was nonsensical vaudeville with political satire - a maniacal musical social commentary featuring a terrifically goofy cast (including Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin) that remains incredibly relevant today. There were so many rapid-fire jokes crammed into each surreal episode that it is hard to catch them all in one viewing, adding up to a wonderful time capsule of the era.
"In every generation, there is a chosen one..." While I am a fan of the 1992 film that the series was based on, this show is the true Buffy. Joss Whedon's creation about a typical high school girl with the ability to spot and kill supernatural monsters, which she balances with homework and friendships, would brilliantly push itself more and more outside of conventional storytelling norms as the series went on, moving into some truly dark territory all while maintaining its wonderfully unique sense of humor. This series popularized TV horror in a way no other shows before it had, presenting high school as a literal Hell. Its dialogue was considered so unique that it became known as "Buffyspeak", and every episode was crammed with metaphors for rebellion, subversion, predation, and sexuality. There is not a wasted word or missed beat in this entire series.
"You've got a good show... for me to poop on!" I will always love Conan, but the true gold mine of his material resides in his first iteration of Late Night (the pilot opens with him cheerfully about to hang himself at the pressure of living up to Letterman) which featured everything from a cigar chomping insult comic dog to a masturbating bear. The show was panned by critics for being too weird and O'Brien for being too inexperienced, which is exactly what made it better than anything else in late night television at the time. O'Brien wrote a review of the first episode for the New York Times called "O'Brien Flops!" in which he told readers, "Frankly, I was not impressed."
"Ambition is the willingness to kill the things you love and eat them to survive. Haven't you ever read my throw pillow?" What started as a very funny sitcom quickly became the funniest show on television with its absurd, surreal humor inspired by the making of Saturday Night Live. This show started solid and only got better all the way through to its series finale. I will forever continue to return to the lunacy of this wildly wacky comedy masterpiece filled with rich, zany characters and an endless guest star roster.
"Without laughter, life on our planet would be intolerable." Steve Allen was the co-creator and the first host of The Tonight Show, which was the first late night television talk show. This was his first primetime spinoff, and his wacky comedy inspired David Letterman, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams with segments such as Allen becoming a human hood ornament, jumping into vats of oatmeal and cottage cheese, and being slathered with dog food and allowing dogs backstage to feast on him. The show launched and fostered the careers of many, and remains the greatest of all the late night shows it would inspire.
"This must be where pies go when they die." One of the most original and unusual shows ever to air on network television, this hit series would inspire a (wonderfully strange) movie and a reboot, none of which would match the quality of its original surreal and quirky storytelling about the murder of a small town's prom queen. This show perfectly captures the darkness beneath America's wholesome surface in one of the most visually haunting mysteries to ever grace a TV set.
"Do you think there is too much violence on television?" A lampoon of the current political issues at the time wrapped in a children's show about a boy, his captain uncle, and a seasick serpent with a lisp. This spin-off of the Emmy award-winning puppet show, Time for Beany, was created by (my favorite) Looney Tunes director, Bob Clampett, and would later inspire the creation of Mystery Science Theater 3000. This is a show that fully embraced the sugar-fuled magic of Saturday morning programming and it's a tragedy that this series is currently under-discussed. These are the funniest TV cartoons ever made, infused with the psychedelic humor of a mad genius, consistently spiraling out of control and into complete mayhem.
"It's not HBO. It's regular ass TV." Critic Kurt Dahlke describes this show best in his review stating, "Brilliant, outrageous comedy that demands intelligence and immaturity while staring in the face of bigotry." This show was too short-lived, and even while considering Chappelle's own issues with some of the series' sketches, it's hard not to fall in love with the insanity of these episodes from a comedian who says he was inspired by Bugs Bunny. Pair this show with Michel Gondry's 2005 film, Dave Chappelle's Block Party.
"It stinks!" I guess it shouldn't be surprising that a cartoon about an overweight, balding, single parent movie critic wasn't a mainstream success, but that's the charm of this show - it's something that is shocking it ever got made in the first place. This show thrives on obscure movie references (even more obscure now that we are decades removed from its time), so I would typically only recommend it to film buffs, as its parody of the industry is its biggest strength. For movie fans, this show is impossible not to love!
"I don't understand anything about my entire life." Ben Savage did not try and imitate his big brother's dramedy, The Wonder Years, with this show - in fact, it runs entirely in the opposite direction. This show has a lot of heart and is a lot of fun, and I literally grew up with these characters (Topanga being my first crush). It's the kind of show they just don't make anymore (even though there is a wonderful reboot called Girl Meets World, the tone is completely different), sitcoms in the 90s just had a different grasp on presenting comedy that felt like it was actually performed in front of a live studio audience, something absent from today's slickly produced programs, even if they recorded live. If you subscribe to Disney+ the entire series is currently available to stream, I highly recommend adding it to your watchlist!
"What's the matter, Doc? Someone pull you through a knot hole?" Radio's last hurrah made, in a revolutionary move, the successful transition as TV's first "adult western". It stands today as one of the greatest shows of all time. This was a series all about dramatic characters and avoided the epic tropes of movie westerns at that time (even though one of its directors was Sam Peckinpah, and the pilot was introduced by John Wayne.) The first 26 episodes were all directed by one man, Charles Marquis Warren, who also wrote several of the episodes. This was an incredibly intimate show and as a kid watching these episodes with my grandparents, I believed not only that the characters were real but that they were actually filmed in the Old West. This isn't an easy show to find outside of the DVD releases, which can cost quite a bit considering there are 20 seasons. I'm hoping to see it properly streamed one day, as the CBS app currently only has seasons 6 and 7 available.
"I have never seen anyone drink so much coffee in my entire life." One of the simplest concepts ever executed - Jerry Seinfeld introduces a vintage car selected for a guest comedian, followed by a drive to a restaurant for coffee. That's it, and it's one of the most entertaining talk shows ever produced. Facebook and Vimeo both suggested that if the show exceeded 5 minutes per episode it would be a failure. As we cruise through Seinfeld's 11th caffeine-fueled season, I am very happy he ignored that advice.
"Sometimes I think that the dream is reality and life is the simulacrum." One of the first hits for Comedy Central (presented in Squigglevision!) follows the life of psychologist Jonathan Katz and his comedian patients, proving that laughter truly is the best medicine. This absurd cartoon feels like therapy on a talk show recorded without a studio audience, a show which Dave Attell once referred to as "a comedic garbage dump of material." This show is dry wit at its finest.
"The two most successful outlaws in the history of the West." A spirited Western romp executed in the style of 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this Universal series is probably the most under-discussed of all the popular cowboy television shows. Based on true events and characters, two outlaws secretly strike a deal with a governor to stay on the right side of the law for 12 months - if they do, they'll be granted amnesty. The only catch is that they'll have to elude all of the lawmen and criminals who wish to profit from turning them in. This is an intelligent, funny, action-packed adventure with intriguing stories from Glen A. Larson, the creator of Battlestar Galactica!
"Oh my God, they killed Kenny!" The Hollywood Reporter's first review says that this show is "a collection of poorly paced, lowest-common-denominator setups that are not even sophomorically funny or scatologically goofy" going on to call the show "witless" and "dumb." This rude and crude cartoon is a foul-mouthed masterpiece, and as a kid in school when it first came out, the show felt like a revolution in its obscenity. After 23 seasons it is still going strong.
"The west had grown up. It had changed. But this breed of man was still there, still looking for the fun and headlong adventure." This sensational and iconic 90-minute Western series can be perfectly summed up with its quote, "If there's a wrong, you fight it. If you don't, you become a part of it." This is a wonderful drama filled with beautiful scripts and terrific performances, and its 9 seasons of magic can be experienced if you have a subscription to STARZ.
"Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together..." There are very few comedies out there that can stand up to this show, which is easily the greatest of the dysfunctional family genre. The chemistry of this first-rate cast is unbelievable, every episode filled with unpredictable moments and marvelously funny storylines. One of the most imaginative and hilarious sitcoms out there, it's a shame that a show this great struggled so much.
"Two thumbs up!" No other critic has shaped the way I think about film more than Roger Ebert. Even today, years after he has passed, I refer to his reviews in seeking out classic films and to inform the way in which I write and speak about them. That influence all began with this show in which two film critics share their opinions about newly released movies. One of the greatest on-air love/hate relationships in TV history. Be sure to seek out their interview segments on Letterman via YouTube. There will never be another Ebert. I also recommend his beautifully written book, Life Itself.
"I'm so sick of the dean jamming his PC-ness down my throat." A formulaic sitcom premise disguised what might have been the most unique and groundbreaking writing I have ever witnessed on television. I came to this hilariously cynical series after it had ended, but will forever continue returning to it. One of the few shows out there that I feel has a direct line to my soul. Evident in its gleefully suicide-induced theme song, this is a bright comedy about dark times in the lives of adults who all consider themselves failures, all colliding in a study group at a "community college-shaped toilet."
"Dayman, fighter of the Nightman." A comedy about reprobates and narcissists featuring a group of friends who are consistently on the verge of turning on each other, this insanely funny and smartly written series is currently in its 14th season (not bad for a show that started with struggling actors making a short film on a digital camera) and for a good reason, it's one of the funniest shows in the history of television. It knows no bounds, it's like someone cut the brake lines but no one is letting their foot off the gas anyways. One of the most ambitious comedies ever made.
"Earth is a dream... one we've been chasing for a long time." At the time of its release, this was the most important thing to happen to science fiction in a long time. This is one of the most beautiful shows ever produced, and I was very fortunate to interview several people who worked on it for this blog. For an intimate study on man's relationship with God, technology, and humanity (or to see space cowboys fighting robots) look no further than this epic series.
"What is that, gay humor? Because I don't get it - that's how un-gay I am." There is no way to convey just how big of a deal it was for a major star to come out on primetime television in the 90s. When Ellen DeGeneres came out in real life, she decided to have her sitcom character do the same. Within what seemed no time at all, her show was canceled (a move that Ellen had to discover by reading about it in the trades) and she was practically banned from Hollywood, with even Elton John going on record telling her, "We get it, you're gay. Now shut up and be funny." Before this reveal in season four's "The Puppy Episode", Ellen (previously known as These Friends of Mine) was a show that helped me find my sense of humor. It was during the time of this show that I purchased her stand-up album Taste This, from which I stole several jokes to tell at the lunch table. This was not only an important series to me personally but groundbreaking in its ability to bring homosexuality to light for the first time on what was essentially a family show. This started an important conversation in our country, and gave us one of our most beloved entertainers with a simple, profound message - "Be kind to one another."
"As long as you're on TV people will respect you." The idea of a cartoon for adults was deemed a risk at the time of its release, but cut to 31 seasons later and The Simpsons is one of the most influential shows in television history, not to mention consistently one of the best shows on the air. I seriously doubt there's a single person reading this who needs me to describe the show. I'm very thankful to Disney+ for adding every single episode to their service - being a kid when this show premiered, many of us were not allowed to watch it due to its "bad attitude", we never could have anticipated Disney eventually buying it! I'm gonna go unwrap a Butterfinger and binge before finishing this list.
"I aim to misbehave." The biggest cult TV show of the millennium was also the most mishandled series ever by a network. If you don't love Firefly I can say with confidence that you are wrong. This is one of those rare shows that has inspired legions of fans around the world, myself being one of those convention attendees who has paid to take photos with the cast. No shame here. The protagonists are losers of a futuristic Civil War, diverse characters on a series of adventures including a girl by the name of River with a superior mind that has been enhanced to its breaking point by scientists. This show helped usher quality science fiction back to the world of television, as well as its own major motion picture adaptation by Universal with 2005's fantastic Serenity (mandatory viewing as the series finale of this wonderful show).
"Something weird might just be something familiar viewed from a different angle." One of the few shows to perfectly capture absolutely everything I love about animation. Has there ever been a stranger or more imaginative show? Even at its weirdest and funniest moments the show has something deep to say about the meaning of life. Sometimes bright, colorful, and sweet as candy and sometimes very dark and demented, the series truly feels like an adventure of the human spirit that will have you laughing through each of its incredibly fun 11-minute episodes. I wish this was part of my Saturday morning lineup as a kid, I'm jealous of those who grew up with this.
"Exactly what time did I lose control of this show?" Long before The Tonight Show became a showcase for viral YouTube clips of games and bits, Johnny Carson hosted what can best be described as a live cocktail party where friends enjoyed conversations and joke-telling each weeknight. His long, in-depth conversations with guests is something that is missing from late night shows today. For some reason networks don't think we have the attention spans to handle real interviews with shows like these, which had a tendency to be gut-bustlingly hilarious. Johnny is the true master of conversation, and my first late night obsession as a kid.
"In the not-too-distant future, next Sunday A.D." This show is truly a masterpiece, with a simple yet brilliant concept - three characters watch a bad movie and make fun of it. This series took one of my biggest pet peeves - talking during a movie - and turned it into an art form. It simultaneously turns cinematic trash into comedy gold. The original series is a laugh riot, as is the movie produced by Universal featuring their classic film, This Island Earth. This series has been preserved in a gold mine of DVDs produced yet again by Shout! Factory.
"You take a big chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan." As a kid I was obsessed with the Naked Gun movies, but did not realize until later that they were all based on this short-lived TV show that was even funnier than the films. It may be TV's most perfect parody, with humor so dry and visual that if you are only listening to the show you might not even realize it is a comedy. This series was way ahead of its time, demanding the full attention its viewers to fully appreciate its comedy. Highly recommended for those who appreciate the silly side of life.
"Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis. What's that, a law firm?" This show evoked feelings in me as a kid unlike anything else, a purely imaginative and terrifying series that equipped me with the ability to face my darkest fears head-on with a razor sharp sense of humor. This show was funny but offered up horror that we kids weren't used to on Saturday mornings, making it more unique and enticing than anything else on television at the time. The writing of the show, especially in the first two seasons (overseen by script editor J. Michael Straczynski), is very smart, fleshing out the character's relationships as well as the fictional physics of the technology. Perhaps the most genius move in the setup is that the cartoon characters are the real Ghostbusters, and the movies exist within the fictional world as films based on their lives. I can't even begin to fully express how much I love the character designs here, the work of Everett Peck on this show deserves a blog post all of its own. Some of the nightmare-inducing images (such as the Boogieman) convince me that the artists on this show hated children. But hey, I ain't afraid of no ghost.
"I've always been obsessed with awkward television and bad public access." Eric Andre has destroyed the talk show genre. It can never be the same. I grew up loving late night talk shows, but after the creation of this series it must be put to sleep. It can never be taken seriously again. Let's be honest, every late night talk show is ripping off everything that came before it. We are afraid to progress into something new. This is show is anarchy defined. I have never experienced anything like it, perfectly described by Rolling Stone as a "nightmarish funhouse."
"The world we live in would look pretty dull if Mother Nature used a black and white palette." Originally known as Walt Disney's Disneyland (1954 - 1958) and then Walt Disney Presents (1958 - 1961), this anthology show was renamed before airing on NBC (formally ABC) and introduced a new character, Ludwig Von Drake, who was the first Disney cartoon created for television. The show began by dealing with the principals of color and became the showcase for some incredible new made for TV content (my favorite being 1963's Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh), new animation, and network premieres of theatrical films. Easily the most magical of all Disney TV shows.
14.) ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1955 - 1965)
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to darkest Hollywood." Just the mention of his name and his theme song - Funeral March of a Marionette by Charles Gounod - starts playing in your head, doesn't it? You can just see him stepping into his hand-drawn silhouette. The show was ultimately a marketing gimmick similar to Walt Disney's, in this case making the man synonymous with mystery, murder, and intrigue. The cherry on top of these wonderful, experimental episodes of great television was Hitchcock hosting them, always with a strong dose of black comedy.
"Tune in tomorrow - same bat-time, same bat-channel!" This, the most iconically absurd portrayal of Gotham City, will always be my favorite iteration of the Dark Knight. A goofy creation full of wonderfully evil and over-the-top villains portrayed by incredible actors unafraid to be extremely silly in the funniest adventures of our caped crusaders ever committed to film. This was my introduction to Batman as a kid, and holy toledo nothing in the D.C. Universe has topped it for me since!
"And now for something completely different..." Probably the most influential comedy troupe (and TV show, for that matter) of the past 50 years. It's as weird and wonderful as comedy can get, perfectly described by critics as a "hilarious and thought-provoking kaleidoscope of madness and mayhem." I find that many people who have seen and love Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) have somehow missed this groundbreaking series, which is as wacky and wonderfully silly as anything I've ever seen.
"America's most lovable psycho." I cannot believe this show ever made it to network TV. It is the most unusual sitcom ever produced, one that seems to be buried in obscurity but has recently been resurrected in all of its black comedy glory on DVD by none other than Shout! Factory. Chris Elliot plays a 30-year-old paperboy who lives at home with his parents in a show so strange that it would nowadays only be seen on a network like Adult Swim. Watching it will ruin all other sitcoms for you as it destroys the formula we have all become numb to. There was nothing like this when it aired, and nothing has matched its odd existence since.
"Mornings are for coffee and contemplation." I cannot sum this series up better than critic Martin Liebman did in his review of the collectible VHS-themed Blu-ray box set saying, "an amazing show with a decidedly Spielberg flair and flavor. It's not easy to describe beyond calling it a beautifully assembled, instantly absorbing, and extraordinarily collage of classic movie elements in a convincingly 80s period." This series is an homage to moviemaking magic, and it turn becomes magic itself. Though it is rooted in nostalgia, it feels like something entirely new - and, in many ways, bests the content it is paying tribute to. I'm so happy to have Winona Ryder back.
"Live from New York..." Lorne Michaels gave sketch comedy new relevance with his groundbreaking series Saturday Night Live. The first 5 years of the show, known as NBC's Saturday Night, had much more of a rebellious, underground feel... almost like a real life Wayne's World. It's hard to make this hugely successful series feel underground now, even if the show pushes boundaries it will forever feel like a slick, corporate show. The first 5 years had no such polish and even stumbled to find its footing through the first season, referring to its cast as "The Not Ready for Prime Time Players" and boasting memorable repeat guest appearances by comedians like Steve Martin and Andy Kauffman. The show also featured adult segments of Jim Henson's Muppets (no Kermit the Frog here, folks. All creepy monsters), experimental short films by Albert Brooks, and The Mr. Bill Show which remains the funniest clay-made content in history. This will forever remain my favorite years of SNL.
"You unlock this door with the key of imagination..." This series was something wholly unique in the history of television, a science fiction/fantasy/horror show aimed squarely at adults - which is, in all honesty, still more thrilling and chilling than anything being done in those genres today. Filled with smart and scary social commentary delivered by Rod Serling, who beamed into America's living rooms for 5 years as our host from another dimension... of sight, sound, and mind. The dimension of imagination. It is a cynical yet hopeful show, fueled by the mysteries and terrors of the unknown. If you haven't already, dive deep into Serling's reflective and insightful netherworld in the "middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition." There's the sign post up ahead... your next stop, The Twilight Zone.
"Yada, yada, yada..." One of the most influential series of all time, and the first network sitcom to openly discuss taboo topics such as masturbation (an entire episode was built around the subject), Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David brought us a show with mean main characters that exposed the awkwardness of modern living. This was a show with characters that the creators did not care if you liked, the series' motto being: "No hugs. No learning." This "show about nothing" made us laugh about everything, even those things we were taught not to laugh at. The quality of Seinfeld does not once dip during its 180 episodes, they only get better and better, right up until its controversial series finale, a joke on its audience which I truly loved.
"I'm honest. When another comedian has a lousy show, I'm the first one to admit it." A comedy gold mine that is sadly fading into obscurity (recently resurrected on DVD by, you guessed it, Shout! Factory). Jack Benny plays himself (similar to Larry David) as a cheap, vain, superficially charming, untalented TV star in a late night/variety show/sitcom setting. He was a master of comic timing and subtle expressions who constantly broke character laughing at his guest stars during their bits, always revealing his pure joy and love of the craft. I'm hoping to see more eventual high quality releases of this show on DVD, but until then there is more than enough material available through Shout! Factory to get you started.
"Say the secret word and win $100." Groucho Marx successfully turned his comedic radio quiz show into a long-running television series which required little more than a desk and a featureless background as his face was the source of all the entertainment. This is technically a game show, but most of the time was spent in Groucho's hilarious conversations with the contestants. Shout! Factory (surprise, surprise) has released two beautifully packaged DVD sets of this series, and every episode presented is a laugh riot thanks to Groucho's masterful razor wit.
"Blast off to adventure in the amazing year 400 Billion!" Words can never express what this show means to me. Growing up, it was my primary source of happiness and inspiration. I would get lost in doodling the characters during school, sometimes turning in math tests with nothing but sketches of the characters on the page. My classmates actually paid me (in dimes) to draw these characters on notebook paper for them. I've interviewed the majority of the crew who worked on the show for this blog, much of which was used for a recent Ren & Stimpy book, and an oral printed history of its production for Hogan's Alley was my first paid commission as a writer. Most recently, I have executive produced a documentary about the show called Happy Happy, Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story, which is soon to be released. Needless to say, this show has had a major impact on my life. I will quote critic Bill Gibron in describing this show, he sums it up beautifully - "It arrived unannounced like a cataclysmic storm, packing the kind of instant success punch that very few cartoons ever produce. From the first moment it sprung its satire and surrealism onto an unwary public, genuine hysteria ensued. A new giant in the animated realm of anarchy was crowned. No one had ever seen anything like it. It spoke to a modern sensibility as it recalled several bygone eras. The jokes were as crude as the drawings, and all the elements that made pen and ink programs so successful (understandable plots, consistent character modeling, likable heroes) were virtually non-existent. There was a level of mean-spiritedness and menace that seemed to suggest a few very disturbed minds behind the cel-based shenanigans. It was a strange, unexplainable triumph - one surrounded by several befuddling ideals. It no longer gets the rousing respect it once owned outright. During its heyday, it was heralded and hated, praised as genius and degraded as trash. It screwed with the standards. It was animation pushing the envelope, paving the way for others to surpass and excel. The series lingers in the minds of its fans because of its overwhelming originality. It's just too bad it got lost in the shuffle."
"It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights..." Jim Henson was an absolute genius, and this Emmy-winning series is my favorite example as to why everyone refers to him as such. This anarchic series is all about the backstage fun and chaos of putting on a show, itself a show about making show. This seems to be the most fun Henson ever had behind the felt, and it shows in every glowing moment of the series. Overstuffed with celebrities, musical numbers, and puns, this show was the first to spark in me a desire to entertain, and taught me to laugh even when things go terribly wrong. This series perfectly defines the mayhem and happiness that is The Muppets.
"There is no off position on the genius switch." David Letterman has always been my favorite comedian and late night talk show host, even in his final CBS years on Late Show he was still rebelling against the system. But his early years were highly bizarre and anarchic. His new show on Netflix is a refreshing take on talk shows, but nothing matches the high octane insanity of his original late night series. I will leave all the surprises unspoiled as you can venture down this rabbit hole via YouTube, but I will leave you with the premiere episode's opening monologue as it perfectly captures the strange spirit of the best late night talk show in TV history... "Good evening. Certain NBC executives feel it would be a little unkind to present this show without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman; a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image, without reckoning upon God. It's one of the strangest tales ever told. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you; it might even horrify you. So if any of you feel like you don't care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now's your chance. Well, we warned you."
"And now, here's something we hope you'll really like..." I'll never forget my dad bringing home the new collection when I was a kid, retitled The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle for its VHS release. Here is a show (set during the Cold War) that rarely gets the credit it deserves. Above all other things in life, this sophisticated, political, wickedly satirical, and outright goofy show implanted in me a sense of humor. Watching this with my dad, we both laughed our way through the episodes, only he was laughing at the jokes I didn't get. The sloppy, minimal animation was a magical delight to behold! The show's strengths were its writing, colors, voice acting, and music. The thing that really caught my attention is that these characters are all very much self-aware. They know they are Saturday morning cartoon characters and constantly address the viewer. This was the wittiest, most inspired, and relentless half hours of animation ever produced, packed with a gleeful magic and cumulative joy that transcended the crude animation. Jay Ward was its magnificent visionary, who actually lobbied Washington for statehood for Moosylvania. No other show completely defines my personality like this one.
Rocky: Bullwinkle, you know what A-bomb means!
Bullwinkle: Sure! A bomb is what some people call our program.
Rocky: I don't think that's so funny.
Bullwinkle: Neither do they, apparently.
"The space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground." - Fred Rogers