The sitcom is like Keith Richards, it will never die. Even as generations change, the format is same. Take a show from 2020 and compare it a show from 1955. One is in color and the other in black & white, besides that, the underlying conflict and how the characters interact to solve the storyline, are basically the same.
We grew up with these shows, we watched with our parents and our kids. These shows defined our culture, they caused arguments and conversations at the water cooler. We looked at the fashions and repeated the dialogue. The hair styles look silly, but so did ours. We look back on them and wonder where the time went and how we got old. Those characters on the screen always stay the same age.
Sitcoms sort of portrayed life in the average American family. Some shows were centered about a work world, others focused on the family. A few combined them. Usually, it was about a man, wife and children, and the chaos that results. With the rising influence of teenagers, shows shifted to focus on the kids and often the parents took a backseat and lost whatever marbles they had.
These are what I consider the best, not necessarily what was popular.
I picked five of the best. You might disagree because there were some iconic and still popular shows not on my list. I picked these for a reason and they might represent similar type shows.
I Love Lucy The best, or maybe the most influential sitcom in history. Groundbreaking and consistently good. Desi was supposed to have invented the three-camera system of shooting, and he insisted the shows be filmed for higher quality. Both great decisions.
Leave It to Beaver There were tons of very traditional family sitcoms where the kids were really the stars. The cast here was very good, but it was the writing. In six seasons there was only a clinker or two, the situations were believable and clever. The show was never cute or took short-cuts for laughs. The best show of its kid.
The Honeymooners Jackie Gleason obviously knew what he was doing. The Honeymooners influenced many shows that followed, including The Flintstones. Gleason was a taskmaster, but the quality was there.
Jack Benny Show Benny moved his show from radio to television and stayed there until 1962. The show was inventive and Benny did what he did best. His show set a high standard that others copied, but not as well. Benny broke the wall with the audience but never abused it. Benny hired great writers and even today, you marvel at the material. It’s still good.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis This might be an odd choice given the shows I didn’t pick. This was a hip show aimed at people who didn’t want their laughs handed to them. The show also broke the wall with the audience and did so effectively. There were oddball characters. This show was ahead of its time.
Others: Dennis the Menace, The Phil Silvers Show, Ozzie and Harriet, The Danny Thomas Show, The Donna Reed Show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Father Knows Best, Our Miss Brooks
There are nine shows on my list as the number of sitcoms grew.
The Andy Griffith Show One of the two best sitcoms of the decade. Ted Turner built his cable empire around reruns of this show. That’s mostly true. Created by Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard, they knew comedy, and they knew it started with writing. This show was consistently outstanding through five seasons, and only trailed off in the later seasons, and was still highly ranked when Griffith pulled the plug. The Andy-Barney episodes were by far the best.
The Dick Van Dyke Show The second “best” sitcom of the decade. A wonderful cast, but great writing, primarily by creator Carl Reiner. A show that was split between work and home, it was witty, stylish and very musical. This show had the vibe of the early 1960s, fun and sophisticated. Producers Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard again.
Beverly Hillbillies This show was a juggernaut through the decade, it made a fortune in syndication and launched sister shows Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.
Gilligan’s Island This was not a revolutionary show but it was much more successful after cancellation than during its initial run. We have memorized the three seasons to quite dialogue. One of the tricks of the writers was to have these characters in fantasy stories played out in locations off the island. LOST was all about stories from memory, fantasy and parallel universe stories. Sherwood Schwartz probably started it all.
That Girl Marlo Thomas began the trend of single career girls who didn’t need a man to be independent. She had a job and a serious boyfriend but it did not lead to marriage until the show’s end. Doris Day, Mary Tyler Moore and others rode this wave to great success.
Bewitched I put this show on the list because it made TV fantasy cool, like I Dream of Jeannie and other shows about other worldly characters. It wasn’t the first make believe show but it ushered in the 1960s pop culture and focused on a strong woman in the lead role.
My Three Sons Somehow this show stayed around for 12 seasons, as sons came and went. Its staying power is a mystery, it mixed a 1960s teenage hipness with a folksiness. It worked.
The Brady Bunch The first blended family on television. Wholesome kids and light-hearted episodes. We had the Bradys for decades.
Green Acres Was the best of the whip-smart rural shows. You might think this was a stupid show with the zany characters and the back to the farm premise. The writers and producers took the joke and sharpened it. Sister shows like the Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction got soft and predictable but Green Acres kept sharpening the blade.
Others: The Munsters, Get Smart, The Governor and J.J., Gomer Pyle, USMC, The Doris Day Show, The Patty Duke Show, Gidget, Petticoat Junction, My Favorite Martian, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, He & She, I Dream of Jeannie
I picked seven shows because there were more of them on TV than ever before. More of these shows are featured on oldies television channels. It’s hard to escape them.
All in the Family The most influential sitcom of the decade. Archie Bunker kicked open the door to all kinds of social topics. This was a family that argued and didn’t always make up. Norman Lear used this show to grow his television empire. Liberals and conservatives alike watched this show because it wrestled with different points of view, in a humorous and serious way.
Barney Miller Maybe the smartest show of the decade, it showed what television could be. Originally, the cast was built on a very diverse group, and the squad room was a melting pot of issues and topics. The show didn’t steer away from drama, and it got a bit preachy in the early 1980s, but it was comedy-based, and featured an army of character actors who showed up in the squad room as victims or criminals.
Mary Tyler Moore Show Like the Dick Van Dyke Show, MTM offered witty, sophisticated comedy, it was a character-driven show that avoided cheap laughs in favor of humor that came out of situations. Mary Richards was a single working girl in the big city, similar to Marlo Thomas. Originally, Mary was to be a divorcee, but that did not fly with the network. MTM build MTM Productions, a company that launched some of the best shows of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a powerhouse production company that nurtured some of the greatest talent in Hollywood.
Happy Days This show ushered in a huge nostalgia movement. The show had a huge breakout star, “Fonzie,” who became a cultural phenom. This show has more in common with the 1950s than just the initial setting. The characters playing to the audience was more like the 1950s, almost a vaudeville vibe. The first season was filmed on sets and locations, but it was switched to the live audience. Fonzie also switched from a windbreaker to a leather jacket. Happy Days launched Lavern & Shirley and Mork as spin-offs.
Sanford and Son The first show that really emphasized ethnic humor, in much the same vein as All in the Family. Bill Cosby and Dianne Carroll headlined their own shows, but they were very ethnic neutral. Fred and Lamont broke the mold.
One Day at a Time The reason I list this show was Ann Romano was a divorcee, something very different for television. The show ran a long time and had some edgy episode themes, but it was really about a single mom navigating the male work world and raising two very hip daughters.
M*A*S*H The show was a loose spin-off from the film. In the fourth year, after two cast members left, the show began to change, becoming a more sophisticated comedy-drama. The strength of the show was the writing, these were mini-plays each week.
Others: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Soap, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, Partridge Family, Maude, Chico and the Man, WKRP in Cincinnati, Taxi, Mork
I’ve increased the number 11, hopefully that covers most of what folks consider the best or more influential shows of the decade.
Cheers The life and times of a Boston bar owner and his collection of odd employees and customers. The long-running show spun off Fraiser, which became another long-running show.
Family Ties Michael J. Fox was the breakout star in this series about liberal parents and a very conservative son.
The Cosby Show Cosby made a fortune from this show, it portrayed an affluent African-American family. It was an updated version of Father Knows Best, although father did not often know best.
Night Court Municipal court shows were tried before but this one scored. A judge, who is a magician and Mel Torre fan, presides over a night court of odd employees and offenders. John Larraquette had been around for awhile but this show led to other television series and films. Harry Anderson was the perfect fit as Judge Stone.
Roseanne A blue-collar family who spend a lot of time insulting each other, but do mostly like each other.
Diff’rent Strokes Precocious kids, led by Gary Coleman. A mixed race family.
Murphy Brown A loud and demanding news anchor and her colleagues, where politics blending into the show. Very biting banter. She then became a single mother.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show This was the first of two very successful shows for Shandling. On this show, he plays a comedian who knows he is a character in a show, so he often talks to the audience. Shandling was an acquired taste.
Newhart This was Bob Newhart’s second very successful sitcom, once again surrounded by an assortment of odd characters, like the two Darryls.
The Golden Girls Four women in a Florida retirement community. What could be funnier?
Designing Women Maybe four women who work in an interior design firm in Atlanta with one male co-worker.
Others: Alf, The Facts of Life, Full House, Webster, Married….With Children, 227, Benson, Major Dad, Coach, Mr. Belvedere, Silver Spoons, Who’s the Boss
Expanded to 13. Not because the shows are better, there are more of them and more people will recognize them.
Will & Grace A show that ran for eight seasons then was rebooted successfully. A gay lawyer and his female best friend. An edgy show about well-to-do professional folks.
The Nanny Fran Drescher becomes the nanny for an upscale New Yorker. Their styles clash but wham-bam, they fall in love and get married.
Spin City Michael J. Fox as Mike Flaherty, the Deputy New York Mayor, who really runs the city. Fox was later replaced by an unfunny Charlie Sheen.
Martin Martin Lawrence hit the big-time with this show. He played a DJ and talk show host with an unpolished demeanor which sometimes got him into trouble. This show helped build the Fox Network, which was known for edgy, ethnic shows.
Seinfeld The show about nothing that made Jerry Seinfeld a fortune. Seinfeld was the least interesting character on the show, he was generally befuddled by Elaine, Kramer and George.
Mad About You Newlyweds Paul and Jamie contend with marriage, careers and life in the big city.
The Larry Sanders Show Shandling stars as a late-night talk show host and the craziness that surrounds putting the show on the air and his often troubled life. An HBO original series.
Home Improvement Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor was played by Tim Allen, who gained a big movie career from the show.
Fraiser Kelsey Grammer continued the character, relocated to Seattle as a radio personality giving help to callers. Surrounded by his father and brother, it was questionable about who needed the most help.
Everybody Loves Raymond Poor Raymond did not seem to get much love or respect from his family. But it gave Ray Romano a nice post-Raymond career, and it showed that Peter Boyle really could do comedy.
3rd Rock From the Sun Four extraterrestrials are sent to Earth on a research mission. They pose as an American family. A bit like the Coneheads. The series was developed by former SNL writers.
Friends The powerhouse show of the decade, launching everyone to television and film success. This was the hip generational show.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Will Smith made a huge splash as a street-smart young man who moves from inner city Philadelphia to sophisticated and posh environment of Bel-Air. For the first four seasons the show was in the top twenty and proved a big hit with younger demographics.
Others: Wings, Ellen, A Different World, Grace Under Fire, Dream On, Just Shoot Me, Empty Nest
After 2000, I rarely watched nightly television, except for films and documentaries, so I am a poor evaluator for scripted shows that followed. I’ll let some else take up the gauntlet.