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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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

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20. ‘TV Funhouse’

The second, and final, television show to list generation-defining sketch writer Robert Smigel (Saturday Night Live) as executive producer, TV Funhouse was an eight-episode spiral into the darkest recesses of his brain. On this not-for-kids kids' show, a cat puppet gives birth to live Boston terriers, a lizard goes to "Sames" restaurant and orders his own tail, and Fetal Scooby-Doo solves a mystery. Less anarchic than Wonder Shozen, its creators often talk about what a difficult show it was to make, especially dealing with animals. "[Comedy writer] Tommy Blacha always re-tells the story, but he makes it cleaner," said writer Dino Stamatopoulos about a working with a duck. "He says it shit all over my face, but it actually shit in my mouth…I put a plastic bag over my head to do the rest of the scene — like lightning was going to strike twice — and the director said, 'Um, I can hear some crinkling?' And I was so indignant, I was like, 'Good! I'm glad you can hear the crinkling! You're going to hear it the whole fucking shot, you dick!'"—CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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19. ‘The State’

For viewers of a certain age, MTV's in-house sketch show was as vital a part of '90s alternative culture as Smashing Pumpkins b-sides and floral-print dresses with Doc Martens. Airing for 28 glorious episodes on the music channel before an ill-fated, one-time-only special on CBS caused its collapse, The State took its sprawling future-famous cast and parodied its own network's spin on youth culture to perfection. It also tweaked its own sketch-comedy form, screwing around with the very idea of the recurring characters that were the comparatively stodgy Saturday Night Live's stock in trade. Music rights tied up a DVD release for a decade, but a full soundtrack re-design has now enabled viewers everywhere to dip their balls in it at their leisure.—SEAN T. COLLINS

18. ‘Ren and Stimpy’

Happy happy joy joy! It’s probably the most lovingly animated show of all time, every frame bursting with in-jokes and detail, and maybe the only pre-Spongebob Squarepants cartoon that’s hilarious with the sound off. Pairing a highstrung chihuahua with a dimbulb optimist cat, the self-consciously retro riff on Fifties kids’ entertainment sent its animal duo down wormholes of “space madness” and, courtesy of a happy helmet, into conniption fits of bliss. The fact that John Kricfalusi’s insane attention to the art of cartooning was used for hairballs, boogers and Cronenberg-ian body horror (at least before he was fired by Nickelodeon after the first two seasons) is all the better.—CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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17. ‘Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’

Garish colors, spastic editing, warped VHS nightmares, a supporting cast confrontationally odd non-actors and their terrifying hand-puppets: Not since five Englishmen hooked up with American animator Terry Gilliam to form Monty Python has a sketch-comedy outfit been this visually distinctive and innovative. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's public-access-influenced flagship show – they've since produced vehicles for unclassifiable comic talents John C. Reilly, Eric Andre, Andy Daly, and Brett Gelman – is a love-it-or-hate-it savaging of mass culture. But it's often so surreal, or so disgusting, you might not even notice the knives are out. Quietly the most influential comedy of the past few years? Abso…lutely.—SEAN T. COLLINS

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16. ‘Portlandia’

Go ahead: Dismiss Portlandia as the sketch-show equivalent of Stuff White People Like. But this affectionate lampooning of hipster preciousness cuts deeper, as stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein mine the comedy of good intentions. Whether it's obsessing over organic restaurant chicken — "Is that USDA organic? Or Oregon organic?" — or making sure the Trail Blazer cheerleaders are properly empowered, Portlandia finds its sweet spot where liberal idealism butts up against douchey self-satisfaction. In an era when we're tripping over ourselves to prove how enlightened we are, Portlandia is there to catch us when we fall on our progressive faces.—TIM GRIERSON

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15. ‘Fishing With John’

All the droll oddballness of Eighties Downtown New York — without the town itself. In the six brilliantly warped episodes of this 1991 series (originally filmed for Japanese TV), art-jazz fixture and indie-flick staple John Lurie takes alt-culture icons on a fishing boat for a show more about existentialism than, say, fishing. Tom Waits puts a fish in his pants in Jamaica, Dennis Hopper talks about getting kicked out of Cole Porter's house in Thailand, and Jim Jarmusch tells apocryphal dolphin tales in Montauk. "It was not such an easy sell. HBO wouldn't even look at it," Lurie said back in 1998. "It is a show about nothing."—CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

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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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