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


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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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14. ‘Community’

It's easy to feel like you're living in the darkest timeline when you follow the behind-the-scenes saga of one NBC's strangest primetime comedy series ever to involve monkeys, Dungeons & Dragons and Chevy Chase. Yes, there's been sparring with showrunner Dan Harmon and the network/production company suits, Harmon's firing and rehiring, a WTF season that's been disowned by virtually everybody and cast defections due to "creative differences" and burgeoning underground-rap careers. But somehow the off-camera drama dovetails perfectly with the on-screen comedy: After all, isn't the moral of this community-college metasitcom that you can be an unlikeable fuck-up with truly weird ideas and still make something worthwhile of your life? Our only reply is: Pop pop!—SEAN T. COLLINS

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13. ‘I’m Alan Partridge’

Comedian Steve Coogan's hapless, egomaniac broadcaster began life as a sportscaster on Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris' surrealist news spoof The Day Today, trafficking in ungainly metaphors like "The goalie has football pie all over his shirt." But the character really found himself as a host, first of the disastrous TV talk show Knowing Me, Knowing You, where he was most likely to offend or insult his guests when not indulging his twin fetishes for ABBA and Roger Moore. After that fictional endeavor cratered, Partridge had sunk about as low as he can go, working the 4 to 7 a.m. graveyard shift for radio Norwich and shilling for local business to make ends meet while living in a generic hotel. None of which stops Alan from acting like he's God's gift to the profession; it just stops anyone from agreeing with him. More than any successful cringe-driven comedy, I'm Alan Partridge walks the line between discomfort and repulsion; only Alan's failure to wield the power he thinks he has makes him tolerable.—SAM ADAMS 

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12. ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

So great it makes one of the most popular sitcoms of all time seem like a warm-up act, Larry David's series is cringe comedy taken to its deliriously discomfiting zenith. Without commercial breaks to cut the tension or a laugh track to dull the pain, this HBO show replaced Seinfeld's charismatic protagonist with a version of David himself, playing a prickly Los Angeles millionaire whose adherence to his own peculiar moral code puts him at odds with the rest of the breathing world. (After he buys a Prius, he decides hybrid drivers should exchange friendly waves as they pass, and gets mad at those who don't follow his made-up rule.) David relishes making himself the heavy: A running gag has Wanda Sykes periodically calling him out on his inadvertently racist behavior, and in one episode, he trades insults with a man in a wheelchair who attacks him for using a handicap stall. The show's improv-driven method shows in its raw-nerve humor, but unlike the shaggy-dog comedies of the Apatow school, there's an underlying structure in Curb that's as hard as bone.—SAM ADAMS

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11. ‘Fernwood 2Nite’

The Larry Sanders Show, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, The Eric Andre Show, Check It Out!, Between Two Ferns — it's impossible to imagine any of the great fake talk shows without the mother of them all. Created by comedy god Norman Lear as a summer spin-off for his soap-opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Fernwood starred the superbly smug Martin Mull and painfully clueless Fred Willard as Barth Gimble and Jerry Hubbard, the host and sidekick of an inexplicably star-studded late-night talk show in the small town of Fernwood, Ohio. You know that feeling you get when a live chat segment goes horribly awkward? They sure did.—SEAN T. COLLINS

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10. ‘Arrested Development’

Anticipating the rise of niche sitcoms like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development was never a ratings juggernaut. (It finished 120th in its first season.) But that lack of popularity only emboldened its writers, who slyly savaged the Bush administration, Orange County and Hollywood phoniness ("Marry me!"). This tale of a wealthy family rotting from the inside snagged six Emmys during its initial three-year run, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series. But its real legacy is its cast's continued ubiquity in film and on television: Bad Words, Archer, Superbad, Veep. And it's still impossible to hear "The Final Countdown" without laughing.—TIM GRIERSON

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9. ‘Strangers With Candy’

"Hi, I'm Jerri Blank, and I'm a 46-year-old high school freshman." For three seasons on Comedy Central from 1999-2000, that opening riff signaled the start of a half hour of sordid, twisted hilarity as Blank (Amy Sedaris) returned home to pick up where she left off after years on the run as a junkie prostitute. Over 30 episodes, Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello (with co-creator Mitch Rouse) spun after-school-special morality tales into politically incorrect half-hour spit-takes, lovingly laying their filthy little fingers on everything from disabilities ("Retardation: A Celebration") to STDs, racism, eating disorders, illiteracy ("Jerri, what does V-I-C-T-O-R-Y spell?"), teen pregnancy and sexual harassment. No detail was to small: the African-American principle was Onyx Blackman; the school's name was Flatpoint High. The show thrived on Sedaris' desire to get ugly and the cast's willingness to go there again and again. Future late-night king Colbert was especially inspired as the narcissistic, closeted social studies teacher Chuck Noblet, shepherding his students' impressionable young minds: "All right everybody, for tomorrow I want you to write a history poem on Hiroshima. But nothing too faggy."—CARYN GANZ

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8. ‘Get a Life’

Airing between 1990 and 1992 on the still-blossoming Fox network, Get a Life looked like your average Fifties two-camera sitcom. But this Chris Elliott series had the continuity of a restless night of sleep: Characters died and reappeared, a long relationship can flourish and perish in a day, a journey's montage includes walking through the Gulf of Mexico. (In his first professional writing job, Being John Malkovich's Charlie Kauffman penned an episode about time travel.) Connecting the dots between The Jerk and Billy Madison was Elliott's hapless manchild, Chris Peterson. "I think they were hoping, at the time, to change their image at Fox, and sort of be considered more respectable, or more like the other big three networks," Elliott told the Onion A/V Club. "I don’t know why they thought I was the guy to do that."—CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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7. ‘The Young Ones’

Britain's first generation to grow up in the shadow of Monty Python produced this lawless smash-up of proto-Portlandia subcultural criticism that satirized the punks, hippies and activists at Scumbag College with a loving hand. Growing from punkcentric movement of British "alternative comedy" (unlike punk, this time the Brits beat the U.S. to the punch!), every type of comedy was fair game — sitcom conventions, pure slapstick, absurdism, flashes of "subliminal messages" or just an excuse to get Motörhead to play in a living room.—CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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6. ‘Late Night With David Letterman’

With all due respect to Cheers, the 1980s' best comedy was this wonderfully ornery talk show starring a guy with goofy teeth. Riding the same anarchic wave that brought us Saturday Night Live, Late Night skewered the polished professionalism of late-night chat shows, replacing it with a smart-ass, what-me-worry? energy that felt thrown together, except it was too consistently hilarious to be accidental. Anybody working in comedy today acknowledges the debt owed to David Letterman, but this show's cultural imprint can be felt other ways: Years after Dave left NBC, a lot of us still accidentally call his CBS program Late Night out of habit.—TIM GRIERSON

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5. ‘The Office’

Ricky Gervais can spend the rest of his days being strident and unfunny on Twitter for all we care. He's still earned a place in atheist heaven with this masterfully mordant mockumentary series that put a spin on the old saw about the English and lives of quiet desperation. Forget six seasons and a movie: In 12 episodes and a Christmas special, Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant crafted the cringe comedy to rule them all, starring Gervais' almost unwatchably boorish and oblivious middle manager David Brent. Yes, both the American Office and Parks and Recreation wouldn't exist without it, but its legacy really rests in the final episodes, as perfect an ending as any comedy has ever had.

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4. ‘Freaks and Geeks’

You want influential? Nearly every single person of this short-lived, much-beloved series has gone on to greater projects since filming the series 18-episode run. Creator Judd Apatow, James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Martin Starr, writer/director Paul "Bridesmaids" Feig…the list goes on and on. What made the show so endearing comes across from the very moment it kicks with Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" playing over the credits – it was real. Brilliantly (and painfully), Freaks and Geeks truly captured what high school felt like for losers, outcasts, nerds and dweebs everywhere. It was hilarious and heartfelt in the best ways possible and, like many of the world's ahead-of-its-time inventions, it was gone much too soon.—SCOTT NEUMYER

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3. ‘The Ernie Kovacs Show’

He had a caterpillar mustache, an ever-present Cuban cigar in his mouth and a boundless enthusiasm for exploring the limits of what you could do with this new medium called television; he'd help pioneer the morning-show format and bent the comic variety-show template to accomodate his bold, brainy, bugged-out ideas. If Milton Berle was TV comedy's first genuine star, Ernie Kovacs was its first real pioneer, the guy who'd use technological tricks like green screens and fourth-wall-breaking gags to beam the first wave of conceptual humor into living rooms. Though he'd spread his work out over a number of networks and time slots during the Fifties and Sixties, Kovacs commanded his biggest audience during this primetime summer-replacement slot from July through September 1956 for NBC — people who expected to see Sid Caesar's silliness instead got their head scrambled by a trio of classical musicians performing in gorilla masks and Kovacs playing a Coke-bottle glasses-wearing, cocktail-sipping poet named Percy Dovetonsils. This is ground zero for modern(ist) TV comedy, and no less a superfan than David Letterman said "It's 60 years later, and we still haven't cuaght up" to what Kovacs achieved.—DAVID FEAR  

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2. ‘SCTV’

What better way to send up TV than to make up a show about a fake TV network? Giving the cast of Toronto's Second City stage show a bigger forum and a high-concept scenario to fool around with — welcome to Canada's chintziest small-town television station — this groundbreaking sketch series took on everything from commercials (our favorite: John Candy as an evil leprechaun pitching lunch meats) to gameshows, regional newscasts and movie-of-the-week specials. What started out as an opportunity to string together skits featuring quickly turned into an ambitious, one-of-a-kind show: an entire episode might be devoted to a lavish Godfather parody about networks going to the mattresses or veer off into a bizarre storyline involving a Russian satellite hijacking the airwaves. The cast's facility for celebrity impersonations were used to brilliantly ridiculous ends (ever wonder what Taxi Driver would have been like if Woody Allen or Gregory Peck had been cast as Travis Bickle?), and Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis' dimwitted Great White North hosts Bob and Doug McKenzie ended up becoming Canadian folk heroes. It's both an affectionate ribbing of the medium and an elaborate single joke taken to a whole other level of comic genius.—DAVID FEAR

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1. ‘Mr. Show.’

Years before millennials met Saul Goodman and Tobias Fünke, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were Generation X's most visionary snarkmasters, and the 30 episodes of their gleefully foul-mouthed HBO show remain, hands down, the greatest artifact of the so-called "alternative comedy" boom of the Nineties. Wielding cynicism in a way that makes The Daily Show look even-handed, they were to comedy what Frank Zappa was to rock — not a punk-rocker's spit in the face, but a middle finger ornately and patiently constructed. Sketches bent in on one another other, and everything lived on the edge of the fourth wall. (As early as the first episode, Cross broke character to whinge "I mean, fuck, HBO spent more money on Fraggle Rock. Look at this place.") Their targets were impossible to track — Megan's Law, instructional billiards videos, peanut butter and jelly in the same jar — revealing the entertainment complex as absurd, navigating the information age with fatigue, exposing Boomer dreams as hypocritical. The fact that the show, which ran from 1995 to 1998, still holds up is no accident. "One rule Bob and I had," Cross once said, "was to never mention real people in pop culture or politics. Don't make it an impression of a specific person, but create a character that represents them so it's never dated."—CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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