We’re so focused on “peak TV” that we’re forgetting some of the best shows have already come out. Even better, they completed their run so long ago, you don’t need a special streaming service to watch them. For a bunch of picks on this list, all you have to do to catch up is search for them on YouTube. If you consider yourself any kind of TV aficionado, these are the sitcoms you have to watch. And don’t worry. This isn’t like when we all struggled through mandatory school reading. These shows all aged extremely well.
Sanford and Son
Sanford and Son is one of the best, most relatable family comedies we’ve ever seen. If you have a cantankerous old relative and have ever found yourself attempting to match wits with them, you’ll find a lot to like in the conversations between Fred Sanford and his son, Lamont. Watching them try to balance business and family, as well as the old and new ways of thinking is as entertaining as it’s ever been. You also get to watch television history being made. This was one of the first African-American led sitcoms in history, as well as being popular enough to prompt the cancellation of The Brady Bunch.
Everything you need to know about Police Squad! can be learned from this clip, when Drebin is doing a preliminary interview with a murder witness. It has the visual humor, rapid fire wordplay, and Leslie Nielsen’s amazing delivery that keep it feeling fresh 35 years after it first came out. There are only six episodes, but there’s so much going on in them. But unlike other shows, deconstructing this one feels less like ruining and more like full appreciation. Another good indication as to whether or not you’d like this show is if you’ve seen (and enjoyed) The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! Basically, when the show didn’t take off, they made a movie with all the same elements, but more OJ Simpson and Priscilla Presley.
In all likelihood, we’re not telling you anything you don’t already know about Fawlty Towers. If you haven’t seen it, know that it was written by Monty Python’s John Cleese and packed full of the comedy veteran’s quick wit and manic energy. It’s a traditional sitcom, so don’t expect other Pythons to be jumping in and out of sketches, but Cleese’s character, Basil Fawlty, is accompanied by an equally unique cast. Netflix
The Bob Newhart Show
We defy you to find anyone with more deadpan of a delivery than Bob Newhart. You already know that if you’re older than 40 or saw Elf, which might be every person in the country, come to think of it. But where most people only got to see a few minutes of his excellent talent in Elf, The Bob Newhart Show puts him on full display and surrounds him with a supporting cast that’s nearly and/or equally talented, albeit for different reasons. One of our favorite episodes is when Bob and his wife take IQ tests and her score ends up higher than his. Watching the two of them, though mostly Bob, grapple with the situation extracts every bit of humor from the subtleties of marriage, especially since the show took a fairly progressive angle and made his wife Emily every bit as witty and intelligent as Bob. What they end up with is an entertaining battle of wits that stands out even today. Hulu
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show is the oldest show on this list by a good bit, and it’s one of the main reasons we’re starting to bemoan the current state of comedy writing. Not that we’re trying to sound like stuck up prudes, but it can be nice to watch comedy that doesn’t constantly fall back on sex and drugs. It’s almost like having strict television standards forced people to find funnier ways to talk about everything. For example, the show mines a good two minutes of comedy out of a wife trying to keep her husband from turning around too quickly or obviously. The whole show’s like that, with equal parts family and adult situations, both equally steeped in quick wit, wordplay, and some good old fashioned slapstick. We wouldn’t be opposed to some stricter writing guidelines if it meant we get some Dick Van Dyke style sitcoms back.
The Carol Burnett Show
The Carol Burnett Show is more of a sketch show than a sitcom, but it’s way too good to leave off a list of old comedies that hold up, especially at a time when there’s so little good variety programs on TV. Our first introduction to this show came from when we’d accidentally left the TV tuned to PBS after some documentary or something and one of their pledge drives came on. Normally the stuff they do for that is boring so we don’t do much more than glance at it while we find something else, but the drive they were doing that day had a Carol Burnett box set for sale while they ran through some of the more notable sketches. None of them fell flat, which is a truly impressive feat for a variety show. Even Key and Peele have a sketch or two that doesn’t hit the marks quite right, but Carol Burnett and her cast and crew nailed it every time. They make buying DVDs from public programming make sense.
We don’t know if it’s wishful thinking, studio executives being out of touch with audiences, or something completely different, but there isn’t a whole lot of working class representation on TV, despite a hell of a lot of the TV watching audience being working class. That’s one of the reasons Roseanne has survived so long. People found a lot of similarities between their lives and those of the characters on the show, despite the key difference of them having Roseanne Barr yelling at them all the time. It’s also coming up for a revival in March on ABC, meaning there’s still a lot to identify with in the Conner family. Amazon Prime
The Wonder Years
Pretty much the whole reason you know who Fred Savage is is The Wonder Years. That or the opening and closing scenes of The Princess Bride, but that’s not what we’re talking about right now. There’s no denying The Wonder Years is powered almost entirely by nostalgia, but this is one of those rare cases where we don’t think that’s a detriment. Looking back on the extreme, awkward growing pains of elementary, middle, and high school is always a rich vein for comedy. There isn’t one person who got through all 12 years unscathed.
The Larry Sanders Show
Knowing whether or not you’re supposed to trust the characterizations on shows with celebrity guests is difficult. On the one hand, you know not everyone gets along as well as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon would have you believe. On the other, why would celebrities allow themselves to be shown as the divas they can be? No matter what the answer is, and whether or not the celebrities are in on the joke, The Larry Sanders Show is hilarious. No show has taken you behind the scenes of celebrity life like it. A lot of it relies on Garry Shandling’s personal style, but there’s plenty of help from his supporting cast to the point where it feels like if you took anyone out, the show just wouldn’t be the same. HBO