Last-Laugh Tracks: The 40 Best Cult TV Comedies Ever – Rolling Stone
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Last-Laugh Tracks: The 40 Best Cult TV Comedies Ever

From British-slacker sitcoms to brilliant sketch shows , we rank the best of TV’s fan-beloved comedies


Augusta Quirk/IFC

It’s not hard to put together a canon of great TV comedies: Everybody would agree that popular phenomenons like I Love Lucy, Cheers, and Seinfeld would make the cut. But what about the obscurities, the oddities and the out-there experiments that pushed the boundaries of TV comedy and broke their own molds in the process? You know, the ones that were both gut-bustingly hilarious and so weird or wild that they only lasted a few seasons, or in some cases, a handful of episodes? Or the shows that are still flying their freak flags high, but aren’t exactly going to be showing up in the Nielsen Top 10 rankings?

There are plenty of forgotten gems and current niche fan-favorite comedies that deserve some love as well, so we’ve decided to give them their own pantheon. We’ve gathered the 40 best cult TV comedies — the goofy, the grotesque, and the great big middle fingers to propriety, decorum and good taste — and ranked them in terms of their influence, their staying power and their out-and-out ability to crack us up. You may not have heard of some of these, but trust their fans (and us): They’re all worth a look and a laugh.

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40. ‘Broad City’

The comparisons continue to roll in – it's 2 Broke Girls, only not terrible, or Girls, minus the navel gazing – but don't be fooled; Comedy Central's stony sensation stands alone. Credit the chemistry of thoroughly blunted BFFs Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, who created and star, and the kick-ass supporting cast (Hannibal Buress' deadpan dentist, John Gemberling's couch-contaminating unofficial roommate), though what makes this show truly unique is its portrayal of millennial life in the Big City, a daily dog-paddle where .GIFs and good weed are your only salvation. Toke up, you're gonna need it.– JAMES MONTGOMERY

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39. ‘The Andy Dick Show’

It doesn't exactly have the biggest "cult" around, but this sketch-comedy series definitely a few fans still queuing up pixelly YouTube clips of this vulgar, slept-on caffeine fit. The Andy Dick Show will probably will never be released on DVD due to very specific content about a very specific time period — 2001 and 2002— and its jokes about Corky RomanoMTV's Fear, and infomercial star Matthew Lesko. But anyone old enough to remember when Vitamin C was putting out albums shouldn't have ignored this screeching, contorting satire written, directed, and starring Dick. It's a painfully funny evisceration of the last days of corporations marketing things to teens while the internet was taking shape.—CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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38. ‘Upright Citizens Brigade’

Before UCB became known as one of the nation's premier improvisation schools, before Saturday Night Live scooped up Amy Poehler and Parks and Recreation made her a star, before Matt Walsh became a go-to  Vice-Presidential whipping boy in Veep — there was this demented Comedy Central show. Playing an underground terrorist organization dedicated to wreaking havoc, the Upright Citizens Brigade's core quartet — Poehler, Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts — would essentially be monitoring loose sketches featuring the foursome playing girl scouts, cyborgs, Jesus and an infant who keeps saying "Shut up" in a robotic monotone. Each episode would end with improvised interactions with people on the street, an extension of the Chicago-based group's stage shows; for three seasons, you almost felt like you were at those early gigs, watching four comedians hone their craft and find their comedic voices.—DAVID FEAR

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37. ‘Sledgehammer’

It's probably not smart for a show to end Season One by killing its main characters in a nuclear blast, but Sledge Hammer! was always pretty stupid, and proudly so. A Reagan-era spoof of slick cop shows — including Miami Vice, which aired in the same timeslot and whipped it in the ratings — this straight-faced satire starred David Rasche as a dimwitted Dirty Harry-like vigilante cop more in love with his Magnum than any woman. Creator Alan Spencer grew up a devotee of Get Smart: "I thought all sitcoms had guns," he once said. For two sublimely silly seasons, Sledge Hammer! recaptured that Sixties classic's inspired idiocy.—TIM GRIERSON

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36. ‘The Red Green Show’

It was meant to be a send-up of those handyman shows you would see on those UHF channels way down the dial, but comedian Steve Smith's long-running show about rural, folksy handyman Red Green (a character he invented on his sketch show Smith & Smith) evolved into something that was less  vignette-driven and more character-based. Every week, Green would demonstrate how to customize household objects into cockamamie inventions — a rotating TV aerial that helped you ice skate easier, earmuffs made from cottage-cheese containers. The meat of the series, however, ended up being Smith's DIY host jawing with his nephew Harold, his best friend Humphrey, the klutzy outdoorsman Bill and anybody else who'd drop by Possum Lodge. U.S. viewers eventually discovered this popular Canadian show on local PBS stations, and to this day, the mere mention of the phrase "duct tape" will cause TRGS fanatics to crack up on both sides of the border.—DAVID FEAR

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35. ‘Not Necessarily the News’

Topical comedy shows aren't meant to last, and looking up old episodes of HBO's monthly satire, which ran in various configurations from 1982 to 1990, can be an exercise in expiration dates. But though it's often cited as a forerunner to The Daily Show — or, more recently, John Oliver's new HBO half-hour, Last Week Tonight — the bits of NNTN are the loopy parodies that transcend their proximate inspirations: It doesn't hurt to know that Star Trek: The Beat Generation ("Permission to beam up Lawrence Ferlinghetti") dates from the year the sci-fi franchise's The Next Generation launched, but it's also not necessary to understand the gag. Of all TV's fake anchors, Stuart Pankin may come closest to nailing the passive-aggressive faux gravitas of the small-time newsman, and Rich Hall's Sniglets are truly timeless — or rather, orosuctuous.—SAM ADAMS

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34. ‘The Dana Carvey Show’

Thanks to his numerous impersonations and catchphrase-sprouting characters, Dana Carvey was a bona fide Saturday Night Live superstar. So ABC figured that, if they signed Carvey up to do his own sketch show for them, the network would basically be getting a primetime SNL. What they recieved instead was a subversive, batshit-crazy variety hour that kicked off the first episode with Carvey's Bill Clinton having real animals suckle his fake presidential teats. (So much for safe Church Lady skits!) It only got worse: Every show featured a corporate sponsor that would then be mercilessly mocked; the week that Mountain Dew hosted, an entire sketch was dedictaed to the fact that it looked like urine. It was cancelled after seven episodes, though it's now seen as a future talent incubator: Steven Carell and Steven Colbert were supporting players, the head writer was Louis C.K. and producer Robert Smigel first ran his popular TV Funhouse animated shorts here.—DAVID FEAR

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33. ‘The Newsroom’

Long before Aaron Sorkin borrowed the title for his HBO hate-watch dramedy, Canada's Ken Finkleman used it for this scathing satire on the off-hours banality and behind-the-scenes bad behavior of broadcast news. Finkleman's George Findlay is a TV producer and self-absorbed prick who tries to bed every woman he meets, weasel his way out of responsiblity with off-color doubletalk and would rather focus on his lunch than breaking a story; as the series went on, the writer-director-star's idol worship of Fellini would also push the character into being a symbol of middle-aged masculinity on the decline. (The Italian filmmaker's influence would be even more pronounced in Finkleman's follow-up series, More Tears.) Other characters, including the world's stupidest anchorman and a segment producer who's the sole voice of sanity, also brought the funny, but it's Finkleman's show from start to finish — a series that many still consider to be the smartest, best-written sitcom ever to come out of Canadian TV.—DAVID FEAR 

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32. ‘Stella’

You helped create cult-comedy classics on screens both small (The State) and big (Wet Hot American Summer). What do you do for an encore? If you're Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black, and David Wain, you take your genuinely bizarre suit-clad stage show called Stella and bring it to Comedy Central. A hybrid of stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy, Stella was always gonna be a tough sell, but the completely unpredictable storylines and the interplay between the three stars – imagine the Three Stooges if they were all on the spectrum –  made for seriously addictive viewing.—SEAN T. COLLINS

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31. ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’

Sure, they did it out loud in front of a big screen (or at least their silhouettes did) back then while we do it now by livetweeting the latest episode of Scandal. But in a twist stranger than any of the countless B-movies they watched, MST3K – in which a human and two robots watched bad movies and made fun of them the whole time — basically became our culture. Not bad for a show that started out on a local Minneapolis TV station, though keeping the microscopically low budget and cosplayers-at-a-comic-con aesthetic was a brilliant move; the low-rent feel is part of the charm. The later schism between hosts Joel Hogdson and Mike Nelson has caused almost as much intra-nerd strife as Kirk/Picard or Edward/Jacob — still, we've all put our faith in Blast Hardcheese.—SEAN T. COLLINS

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30. ‘Police Squad!’

In a sense, the gag-driven humor of the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker trinity behind Airplane! was better suited for the small screen, where the brief length of a 20-minute episode made integrating jokes into an overarching story less onerous. The ratings for Police Squad! (Z-A-Z sure did like their exclamation points) might not have supported that theory, but the six episodes they made before it was abruptly cancelled made a strong case for less being more. The goofball density of their cop-show parody extended to the credits: Each show began with a narrator announcing the episode's title, which invariably differed from the one on screen, and ended with a simulated freeze-fame which the actors inevitably failed to hold. Leslie Nielsen's Lieutenant Frank Drebin eventually crossed over to the multiplex with The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, whose subtitle served less to alert the show's tiny handful of fans than to say, "See? We told you this would work."—SAM ADAMS

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29. ‘The Mighty Boosh’

Named after co-creator Michael Fielding's puffy glam-rock hairdo, this absurdist sitcom followed the misadventures of Vince Noir and Howard Moon, two zookeepers with a knack for attracting boxing kangaroos, Island of Dr. Moreau-like mutants and the Grim Reaper (actually, he's one of several reapers that hang out in a poolhall in limbo). Somehow, once the duo left the "zooniverse" and moved in to an apartment with the zoo's concession stand operator Naboo and their favorite gorilla Bollo, things got even weirder. Over three seasons, the Freddie Mercury-lookalike Fielding and his partner, Julian Barratt, managed to channel the spirit of former  British goofballs —Monty Python, the Goodies, the Goon Show — while somehow making something sui generis. Long live the Boosh.—DAVID FEAR

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28. ‘Twitch City’

Although David Cronenberg wasn't involved in this short-lived Canadian show about a TV-addicted shut-in played by Don McKellar, the Torontonian auteur's stamp is all over it; imagine Videodrome remade as a half-hour comedy. Although McKellar conceived it as an "anti-sitcom," it's more like an art-house abstraction of the form: Each of the early episodes revolves around a variation on the same plot, the monotony broken by intruding episodes of a daytime talk show hosted by The Kids in the Hall's Bruce McCulloch. (Fellow Kid Mark McKinney later took over the character, without explanation.) In its second and final season, the show, which also starred Deadwood's Molly Parker and Battlestar Galactica's Callum Keith Rennie, grew increasingly self-aware — culminating in "The Planet of the Cats," an episode-length fantasy in which cats rule the planet while humans wear collars and crunch kibble.—SAM ADAMS

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27. ‘Da Ali G Show’

He was conceived as a caricature of a blunt-smoking, patois-speaking British b-boy with a bad grasp of things like history, names and facts. But Sacha Baron Cohen's comic creation Ali G soon became something completely different: a gonzo journalist that managed to confuse, bewilder and piss off politicians, world leaders, business magnates, authors and activists. Originally parlaying this conceit into a show on Britain's Channel Four, Cohen eventually took Ali and his other characters — a socially backward foreigner named Borat and a flamboyantly gay fashion correspondant named Bruno — over to HBO, where he would ambush John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump and Noam Chomsky with his guerilla tactics. The sense that he might get a subject or the people he'd encounter on the street to say something awful gave each encounter a certain car-wreck fascination — the sequence where Borat gets an entire bar to sing "Throw the Jew Down the Well" is both hilarious and horrifying —  and though his alter egos would eventually become too recognizable to pull the hoax off, that brief two-season run over here managed to score some truly brilliant coups.—DAVID FEAR

Gary Shandling

IT'S GARRY SHANDLING SHOW, (front): Scott Nemes, (back, l to r): Paul Willson, Molly Cheek, Michael Tucci, Garry Shandling, Bernadette Birkett, Barbara Cason, (Season 1), 1986-90, © Our Production Company / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Everett Collection

26. ‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’

Before he'd mount a pitch-perfect deconstruction of late-night talk shows with The Larry Sanders Show, stand-up comic Garry Shandling would mount this metasitcom about a character named "Garry Shandling" who not only stars in his own TV show — he's also an observer and audience co-conspirator regarding the very show he's starring in. Shandling would address viewers about the fictional situations at hand, introduce chaarcters as they showed up and break up scenes so he could ask us out there in TV Land what we thought about the episode-in-progress. The apartment was designed to be an exact replica of Shandling's place in Sherman Oaks, California; the theme was called "This Is the Theme to Garry's Show." Part Pirandello play and part showbiz put-on, it managed to sustain this level of through-the-looking-glass comedy on Showtime and, later, Fox for a full four seasons.—DAVID FEAR

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25. ‘Spaced’

Stories of geeked-out slackers squandering their mid-20s are common as dirt, but it should be no surprise that Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright (the trio behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) began their careers with one of the sharpest. Wright packs the episodes with pop-culture references, later explained on the DVDs' "Homage-o-Meter," and Pegg and Frost cement the buddy-boy chemistry that's seen them through all their subsequent collaborations. But what really lifts Spaced out of the mix is the character of Daisy, played by co-creator Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson), a slovenly would-be writer whose likeness has been absent from the Wright/Pegg/Frost trio's big-screen forays. The show loses something in its second series when Daisy cleans up her act and becomes a more successful striver, but before then she's the kind of hilarious human mess the small screen wouldn't see again until Hannah Horvath came on the scene.—SAM ADAMS

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24. ‘Party Down’

Had it debuted in 2014, Party Down would have been a hit. After all, it's the kind of show tailor-made for binge viewing; an acerbic ensemble comedy that also aches with a sublime sadness. Instead, stowed away on Starz, it vanished after two seasons, and though almost everyone involved – Adam Scott, Lizzie Caplan, co-creator Rob Thomas – went on to bigger things, those in the know still mourn the loss, and not just for the jokes. Centered on an L.A. catering company staffed with also-rans, Party Down nailed the reality of Hollywood, a town where dreams die on a daily basis. Like Martin Starr's "hard sci-fi" loving Roman DeBeers opined: "Fantasy is bullshit."—JAMES MONTGOMERY

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23. ‘The Thick of It’

Any discussion of this British political satire's greatness must begin with Peter Capaldi's performance as the volcanic U.K. spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, whose brimstone-laced tirades strike fear into the most stalwart of M.P.s. The underlying gag of Armando Iannucci's caustic satire, which used the same improv-friendly techniques he'd later employ in the movie  In the Loop and his HBO show Veep, is that nothing the show's characters — not the Parliamentary officials or department heads or scheming low-level functionaries — makes a bit of a difference, which only increases the hostility that pervades every interaction. (As has been said of academia, bureaucratic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so small.) The show's characters were either scheming or stupid or, most often, both, which made them almost deserving of the scorching profanity Malcolm periodically heaved their way. ("Today, you have laid your first big fat egg of solid fuck" is one of the kinder ones.) Even now, nearly 10 years after its start and two after Iannucci shut DoSAC's doors for good, nothing has come along to rival Tucker's firehose spew.—SAM ADAMS

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22. ‘Wonder Showzen’

Start with dash of Sid and Marty Krofft. Add a drop of Liquid Television, and some Ketamine for good measure. Smoke 100 bongloads. Repeat. That's one way to make sense of Wonder Showzen, the daring, druggy, decidedly dark parody of PBS kids' programming that inexplicably aired for two seasons on MTV2. Using profane puppets and caffeinated children, Vernon Chatman and John Lee's show explored subjects like race, sex and religion, though sometimes (like the infamous "Patience" episode), it seemed as if Showzen existed mainly to fuck with us. But unlike, say, Teen Mom, at least they were upfront about it.—JAMES MONTGOMERY

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21. ‘Sports Night’

On the surface, it looked like any workplace sitcom you'd find floating around a network's primetime lineup: A Sports Center-like news show that was beset by your usual interoffice romances, behind-the-scenes dysfunction and standard talent-versus-executives bickering. But once you watched a few episodes, you could tell that something else was going — that eloquent, twisty dialogue delivered at a screwball pace and the odd moments of poignancy that popped up even while the jokes were flying fast and furious at you. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's first foray into TV comedy stumbled along for two seasons before ABC pulled the plug, but you could already tell something special had been concocted: A lightning-quick, smart look at a group of people struggling with existential crises, emotional issues and each other, all in the name of a common cause. He'd go on to refine this modus operandi successfully (The West Wing) and with hit-and-miss results (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Newsroom), but this is where the Sorkin Touch really begins, and you could argue that's he never done it better than he does here.—DAVID FEAR