Ranking the top 10 sitcom episodes

of all time

by Brandon Davis, Classics Host

Earlier this summer, ABC and Jimmy Kimmel treated us to an evening of presentations of two classic sitcoms taped before a live studio audience. Legendary television pioneer Norman Lear allowed a script from two of his most popular shows, All in the Family and The Jeffersons, to be recreated with brand new casts for one night only. The landscape of TV has changed greatly in the decades since Lear ruled our living rooms. Yet, the lost art of the situation comedy was once again brought to life that evening.

1. "Chuckles Bites the Dust" 

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Season 6

Arguably the greatest sitcom episode ever, the funeral of Chuckles the Clown provided a perfect showcase for the fantastic ensemble cast. Each cast member gets their moment to shine in this one. Yet, it’s Moore herself who steals the show in the episode’s hilarious climax. The script, crafted by David Lloyd, tackles the sensitive subject of death with utter hilarity and humanity. 

2. “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”

I Love Lucy, Season 1

Lucille Ball’s comedic genius is on display throughout the entire run of I Love Lucy, but this season one episode is her tour-de-force. The masterful way she slowly gets sloshed by having to repeatedly rehearse a commercial for a health tonic is beautifully written and performed. This episode also reminds us what an incredibly skilled straight man Desi Arnaz was. His reactions during the episode’s climax are just as hilarious as Ball’s slapstick.

3. “Archie is Branded”

All in the Family, Season 3

Certain episodes of Norman Lear’s flagship show, to this day, still feel absolutely electric. This one best displays what All in the Family was at its best: biting satire that was absolutely hilarious. The sight of seeing a swastika on the Bunkers’ front door is terrifying; yet, Vincent Bogart’s script is truthful and always funny at its core. And, the ending to this episode is still jolting (no spoilers).

4. “Diane’s Perfect Date,” Cheers, Season 1

In many ways, Cheers remains the epitome of a sitcom is at its best. It had relatable characters, a perfect setting and exquisite writing throughout its 11-year run. To me, the first season is about as perfect as it gets. This episode, penned by David Lloyd, has an excellent premise of Sam and Diane deciding they could set each other up on the perfect blind date. Sam, at the last minute, sets Diane up with an ex-con who dreams his hands are claws. Shelley Long proves why she is the MVP of the early Cheers seasons. The result is a master class of sitcom execution and performance from beginning to end.

5. “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth” 

The Dick Van Dyke Show, Season 5

It’s hard to pick one episode out of a sea of classics, but the opener to the show’s final season is hard to top. Laura Petrie revealing that Alan Brady is bald on national television is a genius concept and provides one of the funniest episodes of the Van Dyke Show’s legendary run. The performances by Mary Tyler Moore, Carl Reiner and his many hairpieces are among the episode’s highlights.

6. “Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey”

Taxi, Season 2

Taxi introduces us to a series of unforgettable characters. Played by Christopher Lloyd, Reverend Jim Ignatowski is one of the most memorable. This episode, in which he attempts to earn his cabbie’s permit, is a piece of comedy gold. The entire ensemble’s reactions to his constant question of “What does a yellow light mean?” has a comedic crescendo that has rarely been matched.

7. “The Angry Family”

Everybody Loves Raymond, Season 6

This episode encapsulates everything great about Raymond’s nine-year run. It’s a slice of life that’s hilarious and scarily relatable to many of us. Michael Barone writes a story for his class about a family that constantly yells at each other. The ensuing fallout gives each member of the cast a chance to shine in their counseling session. It’s truthful and hysterical: Raymond at its best.

Sitcoms ruled the airwaves for nearly five decades of TV history. While it’s true there are still some popular comedies today, they’re mostly filmed, single-camera mockumentaries or generic comedies pumped up by laugh tracks. We are currently in a second golden age of television almost fully due to high quality dramas that are close to cinematic experiences (Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, This Is Us, etc.).  The art of the sitcom has somewhat disappeared, especially those done in front of a live audience. 

The sitcom, in its best form, provided audiences with well-crafted, one-act plays each and every week. This idea was only made better due to the addition of the live studio audiences that were hallmarks of many of these shows.

 

Listed below is a ranking of 10 of my personal favorite sitcom episodes from many eras of television. I will be releasing another set of ten episodes over the next couple months. These picks are by no means a comprehensive list of the all-time greatest sitcom episodes, and I know I have left several favorite shows off my list. It’s merely some personal favorites. I hope it inspires discovery for newcomers and rediscovery for those who need to revisit these shows.

8. “Theo’s Holiday”

The Cosby Show, Season 2

I know this may be a controversial pick for some. While Cosby the man has lost any respect he may have had, one can’t deny the impact the show had on both television and American culture. This episode involving Theo wanting to live in the “real world” provides the best example of Cliff and Claire Huxtable’s hilarious and creative style of parenting. Each member of the cast gets a chance to shine as they play a variety of different characters. This is the family sitcom at its finest.

9. “Ski Lodge”

Frasier, Season 5

I love farce, and this episode is a beautiful example of the artform at its best. Frasier’s brand of highbrow comedy provides a perfect complement to the zany plot of mistaken identities, slamming doors and love triangles. The episode is crafted like a small one-act play with capable, funny actors giving it all they have. The entire cast proves why they’re one of television’s all-time great ensembles.

9. “Ski Lodge”

Frasier, Season 5

I love farce, and this episode is a beautiful example of the artform at its best. Frasier’s brand of highbrow comedy provides a perfect complement to the zany plot of mistaken identities, slamming doors and love triangles. The episode is crafted like a small one-act play with capable, funny actors giving it all they have. The entire cast proves why they’re one of television’s all-time great ensembles.

10. “The Last Newhart”

Newhart, Season 8

This episode is the only series finale to make my list. The finale to Bob Newhart’s second series created one of the most memorable and surprising moments in television history. As it turns out, the entire run of Newhart was a dream on The Bob Newhart Show.  The surprise is perfectly executed and lampoons famous “it was a dream” twists from such dramas as Dallas and St. Elsewhere. Part of the joy is hearing the reactions of the live audience realizing what’s happening in the moment: the rare moment in TV history when a surprise twist fully paid off.

Brandon Davis

Brandon enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the founding members of The Front Row all the way back when it was just a mere blog. His intense love of classic cinema and film history made him the obvious choice to be named the official film historian of The Front Row. Check out his Classics podcast.

@bcdavis7

© 2016 by The Front Row Movie Reviews. all rights reserved.

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