25 Greatest American TV Sitcoms
Many American sitcoms are loved throughout the world
People have enjoyed American TV situation comedies or sitcoms since the 1950s, and this list suggests 25 of the greatest ever. The shows are judged on popularity - particularly as that relates to the number of years on TV - as well as Nielsen ratings, awards and honors. A little subjectivity may be involved as well.
Please note this compilation doesn’t include comedy series as seen on premium channels such as HBO, Showtime or Starz, and it also doesn’t include British sitcoms, because all of these shows should appear on separate lists.
Moreover, many of these high-ranking sitcoms weren’t popular during their first season or two. Then they caught fire and became some of the best comedy TV series ever.
Now let’s begin the countdown!
25. Happy Days (1974 to 1984) 255 episodes
Nostalgia for the 1950s and early 1960s became popular during the 1970s. Then, after the great success of the movie, American Graffiti (1973), creator Gary Marshall and ABC decided to launch Happy Days, a sitcom whose theme springs from those relatively happy times. In this sitcom, Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) plays an average teenage boy trying to cope with the troubles of adolescence in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Arthur Fonzarelli “Fonzie” (Henry Winkler) plays a tough biker guy who’s older and decidedly cool and watches out for Cunningham; and Warren “Potsie” Weber (Anson Williams), an aspiring singer, plays Cunningham’s best friend. A moderate hit at first, Happy Days soon became the number one show on TV from 1976 to 1977.
Little known fact: Since the early 1990s, Fonzie’s famous leather jacket has been shown in the National Museum of American History.
24. Sanford and Son (1972 to 1977) 136 episodes
Known as the forerunner of many African American sitcoms, Sanford and Son is a comedy series about a father and son team of junk dealers living in the Watts district of Los Angeles. Using racial humor, edgy patter, running gags and catchphrases, Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his son Lamont Sanford (Demond Wilson) try to eek out a living by selling junk in a poor neighborhood. Fred Sanford keeps the laughs going by getting involved in dodgy money-making schemes, or he breaks the law in minor ways, and invariably Lamont must bail him out of trouble. But the sparks really fly when Fred Sanford tangles with Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page) a bible-thumping do-gooder; Fred calls her “King Kong,” and then she fires back, “You old fish-eyed fool!”
Little known fact: As one of the running gags on the show, Fred Sanford often faked a heart attack while staggering and groaning, “It’s the big one, Elizabeth!” (Elizabeth was his deceased wife on the TV show). So, while filming a TV show in 1991, when Redd Foxx collapsed, people thought he was up to his old shtick. No, Foxx died of a heart attack while on the set!
23. Leave It to Beaver (1957 to 1963) 234 episodes
Billed as a children’s TV series told from the point of view of kids, Leave It to Beaver stars Jerry Mathers as Theodore “the Beaver” Cleaver, an inquisitive, innocent boy, at times compared to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. The Beaver can’t seem to avoid trouble, even though he’s basically a good kid and always obeys his parents, though he may lie to them occasionally; and when Beaver’s father, Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) scolds his son, he gives him the best advice any father could give. Although the show never scored high in the Nielsen ratings or won Emmy awards, Time magazine in 2007 placed it on its list of the “All-Time 100 TV Shows.”
Little known fact: Tony Dow, who played the Beaver’s older brother, said this about the shows humor: "If any line got too much of a laugh, they'd take it out. They didn't want a big laugh; they wanted chuckles."
22. Family Ties (1982 to 1989) 176 episodes
This sitcom seems to owe its existence to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The gist of the plot is the relationship between parents Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) and Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter) and their son Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox). The parents are former hippies and cultural liberals of the 1960s and ‘70s, while Alex is a conservative Republican who wants to be rich. Over the seasons, the other three children – Mallory, Jennifer and Andy - also tend to follow Alex’s adherence to Reaganomics. The parents on the show were supposed to be the stars, but the popularity of Michael J. Fox’s character made him the show’s primary focus. Family Ties won many awards, mainly for the acting of Michael J. Fox, who was becoming a super star.
Little known fact: Originally, Mathew Broderick, another rising star, was offered the part of Alex Keaton, but he turned it down.
21. Three’s Company (1977 to 1984) 172 episodes
Based on the British TV series Man about the House, this sitcom is about three young, single roommates – two women and a man – who have a platonic relationship while living in a multi-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, California - though the landlords wonder if something scandalous is going on. The man in the apartment is Jack Tripper (John Ritter) who, in order to avoid getting evicted, often passes himself off as a gay man, which satisfies the landlords, the Ropers, a married couple. After the Ropers leave the show to make a spin-off sitcom, Don Knotts portrays the new building manager, adding his wide-eyed jitters to the show. Three’s Company ranked in, or near, the top 10 for Nielsen ratings in its first seven seasons.
Little known fact: Three’s Company went through a protracted developmental process; three pilots were shot, a rarity in American TV, and different writers did their best to Americanize a show that was based on a British sitcom.
20. Bewitched (1964 to 1972) 254 episodes
Bewitched, a fantasy series about a witch named Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) who, after marrying a mortal man, Darrin Stephens (Dick York and later, Dick Sargent), must keep her witchcraft a secret to all except Darrin, or risk exposure, which she risks multiple times, of course, for marvelous comedic effect. In the early years, the show featured allegorical plots, showing supernatural characters in metaphorical situations, as such would relate to the life of a young married couple. And, through the seasons, the show featured some of the best comedic talent: Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur; Agnes Moorehead as Endora; Alice Ghostley as Esmeralda; and Maurice Evans as Samantha’s father. Moreover, like many sitcoms on this list, Bewitched has been seen in syndication over the decades.
Little known fact: Ratings for Bewitched had been sagging, so when it aired in 1972 opposite All in the Family, the number-one-rated show, Samantha, after riding her broom for years at the intro, swooped from the sky for good at the end of the season.
19. That ‘70s Show (1998 to 2006) 200 episodes
That ‘70s Show is about the high school experiences of six friends in Point Place, Wisconsin during the party-hardy days from 1976 to 1979. Now the Vietnam War was finally over and better days seemingly lay ahead. Featuring an ensemble cast of teenagers and adults, the show depicts the familial entanglements of its various characters, while events of the ’70s – the 1973 Oil Crisis, the presidency of Richard Nixon, the sexual revolution, streaking, Stars Wars and disco – affect the characters in various ways. Perhaps the funniest part of the show is when the characters engage in a pot party known as The Circle. Though nothing is actually passed around or smoked - only mist swirls about them - the kids make silly remarks and tease each other, while laughing almost constantly.
Little known fact: The cast members sing the theme song, “In the Street,” while riding in a Vista Cruiser during the introduction. Written by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, every time the song was played Chilton said he received $70 in royalties, an ironic amount given the show’s title.
18. The Andy Griffith Show (1960 to 1968) 249 episodes
This show stars Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina, a small town that’s supposed to be a contemporary place in the 1960s but seems more like the 1930s; the episodes don’t include African-Americans, much less racism, hippies, drugs, anti-war demonstrations or the Viet Nam War. It’s an idealized place seldom visited by violence or major crime, which is why Sheriff Taylor can get by without carrying a gun. The show also features Barney Fife (Don Knotts), Opie (Ron Howard), Bee Taylor (Frances Bavier) and Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors). The series never placed lower than number seven in the Nielsen ratings and left the air only because Andy Griffith gradually exited the show, which then became Mayberry R.F.D., starring Ken Berry.
Little known fact: Regarding merchandising and pop culture, particularly in the South, the show has spawned comic books, board games and bobblehead dolls, and in 2003 the band Rascal Flats released “Mayberry,” a song paying homage to the sleepy little town.
17. The Beverly Hillbillies (1962 to 1971) 274 episodes
This rags-to-riches comedy is about Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), whose swampy land in the Ozarks turns out to be located over a lake of oil. Now a millionaire, Jed moves his family of four and their simple country ways to Beverly Hills, where they try to fit in with high society, always failing to do so. But every time they try to leave Mr. Drysdale, the manager of the bank holding Jed’s millions, will beg, borrow or steal to keep the Clampetts from leaving Beverly Hills. Mostly slammed by the critics, the show quickly became one of the top 20 rated shows on TV and stayed there for eight straight seasons. Even though the show continued doing well in the ratings, it was cancelled after season nine; in fact, all rural-oriented sitcoms on CBS were axed as well.
Little known fact: “The Giant Jackrabbit,” an episode on season two of the show, became the most watched episode of a 30-minute sitcom in the history of American TV.
16. Married . . . with Children (1987 to 1997) 259 episodes
The longest running live-action sitcom on Fox, Married . . . with Children deals with the vicissitudes of modern urban life in Chicago. Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) is a women’s shoe salesman who doesn’t get much respect from his wife, daughter and son. Kelly Bundy (Christina Applegate) plays Al’s ditzy blonde daughter, who steals money from Al when she wants something expensive. The Bundys also have a smartalecky dog named Buck that insults the family (voiced by Cheech Marin). The show deals with edgy, adult themes that sometimes cause controversy, leading to boycotts and advertisers dropping the show. Perhaps because of this, Married . . . with Children has been an international success; in fact, numerous countries have done remakes of the show: Armenia, Argentina, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Israel and Russia, among others.
Little known fact: One episode of the show was banned. Entitled “I’ll See You in Court,” it can be seen on DVD and clips of it can be viewed on YouTube.
15. Friends (1994 to 2004) 236 episodes
This series is about six friends living in Manhattan, New York City. Generally single and in their 20s or 30s, these young men and women are played by an ensemble cast starring Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer. Friends depicts the romantic relationships, friendships, careers and intermittent marriages of the six characters. Lasting for 10 seasons, the show was a big hit, always ranking in the top ten of Nielsen ratings. It was also nominated for 62 Primetime Emmy Awards, and won six, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2002. The series finale was viewed by more than 50 million Americans and became one of the most popular finales ever seen on American TV.
Little known fact: Before writing the series one-hour finale, the writers watched the finales of other sitcoms and decided that the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the crème de la crème of sitcom finales.
14. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970 to 1977) 168 episodes
This sitcom was about a single woman, Mary Richards (Moore), trying to succeed in the male-dominated world of broadcast news in Minneapolis. The show depicts the second-wave of feminism, which lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s, as women stopped being housewives and joined the workforce. It also deals with numerous controversial issues such as equal pay for women, prostitution, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, marital infidelity, adoption, humor in death and drug addiction (Mary Richards develops an addiction to sleeping pills but overcomes it). The show did very well with awards, winning 29 Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series from 1975 to 1977. And, in 2013, the Writers Guild of America listed it number six on its list of the “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time.”
Little known fact: During the sixth season, Betty Ford appears in a cameo, the first time a First Lady appeared on an American TV sitcom.
13. Will & Grace (1998 to 2006 and 2017 to present) 222 episodes
This show is about four middle-aged friends living in New York City: Will Truman (Eric McCormack), Grace Adler (Debra Messing), Karen Walker (Megan Mullally) and Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes). Will Truman is a straight-talking and-acting gay man who’s reluctant to admit he’s gay, while Jack McFarland is openly gay, perhaps to a stereotypical extent. Grace Adler, an interior decorator, is a straight Jewish woman who loves food, while Karen Walker is Grace’s assistant. The show has been praised as a vehicle for helping people understand the LGBT community. And it has been nominated for 83 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning 18.
Little known fact: Will & Grace is the first American TV series starring openly gay male characters, which opened the gate for other gay-oriented TV shows from the late 1990s onward.
12. The Cosby Show (1984 to 1992) 201 episodes
The Huxtables, an upper middle-class African-America family residing in Brooklyn, New York, star in this breakaway sitcom. Starring Bill Cosby, who appeared in two unsuccessful sitcoms in the 1970s, finally found a winner with The Cosby Show, almost certainly the greatest sitcom of the 1980s. TV Guide also crowned Cosby’s portrayal of Dr. Cliff Huxtable as the “Greatest Television Dad.” The show also acted as a spring board for TV sitcoms starring African Americans, shows such as In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World (a spin-off of The Cosby Show). Notably, All in the Family and The Cosby Show are the only sitcoms rated number one in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons.
Little known fact: The series finale aired in April 1992, during the infamous “Rodney King” riots in Los Angles. At the time, Bill Cosby was quoted as pleading for peace.
11. South Park (1997 to present) 297 episodes
Appearing on the Comedy Central network, this show is an adult animated cartoon that satirizes just about everything in a dark, graphic, raunchy, bawdy, profane way. Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the show depicts the lives of four elementary school kids – Stan Marsh, Eric Cartman, Kyle Broflovsky and Kenny McCormick - in the town of South Park, a place where the adults are dim-witted, naive and ignorant, while the children have intelligence and wisdom. But Eric Cartman can be whomever he wants for his own self interest; in fact, he’s often the show’s offensive, amoral antagonist, so everyone seems to hate him. The show has always been a huge ratings success on Comedy Central. And TV Guide in 2013 picked South Park as the tenth Greatest TV Cartoon of All time.
Little known fact: Episodes of South Park can be produced in a matter of days - rather than the months needed for hand-drawn animation - using software such as Autodesk Maya. So, episodes can deal with current events only days old.
10. Cheers (1982 to 1993) 275 episodes
Cheers is the name of a bar “where everybody knows your name,” as the sitcom’s catchphrase goes. Located in Boston, Massachusetts, the bar is owned by Sam Malone (Ted Danson), who also tends bar there. Malone used to pitch for the Boston Red Sox until he developed a drinking problem. Considered a Don Juan, perhaps even a sex addict, Malone hits on all the hot ladies who frequent the bar, though he never attaches permanently to any of them. The show features an ensemble cast, including Shelly Long, George Wendt, Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer and Kristie Alley. Ranked nearly last during its first season, Cheers soon took off, eventually becoming the number one ranked show, and then became one of the greatest series of all time, winning a stunning 28 Primetime Emmy Awards.
Little known fact: Originally the part of Sam Malone was supposed to be that of a retired player from the NFL, with Fred Dryer, a former defensive lineman, portraying Sam Malone; but when Ted Danson was picked instead, Sam Malone became a former MLB pitcher, which seemed more believable.
9. Two and a Half Men (2003 to 2015) 262 episodes
The show is about two men and a boy who live in a beach house in Malibu. The men cavort with pretty young hotties, while the kid makes naïve comments filled with double entendre jokes. Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) and his brother Alan (Jon Cryer) try to maintain a promiscuous lifestyle while providing a good home for Alan’s son (Angus T. Jones). Charlie Sheen left the show in February 2011, while having a dispute with the executives of the series. Then Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher), characterized as a billionaire software wizard, replaces Charlie Sheen’s character. Schmidt then buys the beachfront house and lets Alan and his son continue to live there. Notably, numerous guest stars appeared on the show – Elvis Costello, Hillary Duff, Megan Fox, Mila Kunis, Brad Paisley and many others.
Little known fact: Angus T. Jones, who left the show in 2013, joined the Seven-day Adventist Church, and in an interview said the show is “filth that contradicted his moral values.” He also begged fans to stop watching it and, after announcing his permanent departure from the show, said he had been “a paid hypocrite.” But he appeared in a cameo for the show’s finale.
8. The Big Bang Theory (2007 to 2019) 271 episodes
This show features a cast of geeks, dweebs, dorks and other generally brainy, socially awkward folks, many of whom having an avid interest in science, video games, comic books, and sci-fi and fantasy TV shows and movies. Among the stars of this sitcom - Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Penny (Kaley Cuoco) – Sheldon Cooper seems the quintessential geek: his IQ is 187; he earned a PhD at 16 and he’s a theoretical physicist. He’s also clueless in social situations and has anal retentive tendencies. The show has ranked in the top 10 since season five, becoming number one in 2018. It’s also been nominated for 216 awards, winning 56, including seven Emmy Awards. And, appropriately, a number of scientists have appeared on the show: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, George Smoot and Brian Green.
Little known fact: A plagiarized version of The Big Bang Theory was discovered by creator Chuck Lorre. Airing in Belarus, Lorre thought they had little chance of forcing it off the air. But when the actors on the show discovered their sitcom was a word-for-word copy, they quit, and the show was cancelled.
7. Family Guy (1999 to present) 321 episodes
This animated sitcom is about the Griffin family - two adults, three children and a dog named Brian. The show uses metafictional cutaway gags and mercilessly skewers American culture. Nothing is sacred on this satire. Created by Seth McFarland, who began working on the show in college, Family Guy has attained cult status, having sold millions in DVD sales. In 2009, Family Guy was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. Not since the Flintstones in 1961 has an animated series been nominated for the award. The show has also spawned numerous tie-ins, including Family Guy: Live in Las Vegas and Laugh it Up Fuzzball: the Family Guy Trilogy. And, in 2013, TV Guide picked the show as the ninth greatest TV cartoon of all time.
Little known fact: Since Family Guy is produced using hand-drawn animation, it takes about 10 months to produce an episode; therefore, they rarely mention current events.
6. M*A*S*H (1972 to 1983) 256 episodes
Based on a novel by Richard Hooker and at least somewhat influenced by M*A*S*H the movie, released in 1970, this series is a comedy-drama or dramedy (but generally considered a sitcom) that takes place in South Korea during the Korean War (1950-53). Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda) plays a captain and chief surgeon, one among three surgeons, who try to maintain good morale as they operate on badly wounded soldiers. At least partially filmed during the waning years of the Vietnam War, the characters refer obliquely to it, as well as the Cold War, without taking a definite stand pro or con. Generally a hit in the Nielsen ratings, the show also garnered many awards and honors. It was nominated for 100 Emmy Awards, winning 14. And in 1975 it won a Peabody Award because of the show’s profound treatment of wartime characters.
Little known fact: The series creators, Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, wanted to produce the show without a laugh track, but CBS disagreed. Then a compromise was reached, allowing the laugh track, but not during scenes in which surgeons are operating on soldiers.
5. Seinfeld (1989 to 1998) 180 episodes
Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO), Seinfeld is often described as a “show about nothing,” simply dealing with the craziness of daily life. Jerry Seinfeld plays himself in this sitcom, as he pals around with his three best friends, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). Critically acclaimed and highly influential, Seinfeld ranks as one of the best TV shows ever. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America selected Seinfeld as the number two Best Written TV Series of All Time (second to The Sopranos). And who can forget these episodes: “The Chinese Restaurant,” “The Parking Garage,” and “The Contest.” Moreover, the sitcom may have used more catchphrases than any other show, notably: “Yadda, yadda, yadda,” “re-gifter” and “double-dipping,” among others.
Little known fact: The success of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on HBO’s sitcom Veep finally broke the so-called Seinfeld Curse, which occurred after the ending of Seinfeld, when Louis-Dreyfus, Alexander and Richards tried unsuccessfully to star in their own sitcoms.
4. 30 Rock (2006 to 2013) 138 episodes
Billed as a farcical, satirical sitcom with surreal elements, 30 Rock is about the people working on a sketch comedy show similar to Saturday Night Live in New York City. Created by Tina Fey and starring Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski and many other stars of comedy, the show pokes fun at the corporate side of NBC, which produces this fictional show. 30 Rock makes great use of cutaways - sudden jumps to other scenes dealing with character quirks - and it occasionally uses elaborate sets depicting scenes that only last a few seconds. Even though the show didn’t score high ratings, it won 16 Primetime Emmy Awards, and in 2013 was recognized as one of the best-written TV series of all time by The Writers Guild of America West.
Little known fact: 30 Rock debuted during the 2006 to 2007 season, as did the comedy-drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, both shows dealing with the business side of an SNL-like TV show, but Studio 60 was cancelled after only one season.
3. I Love Lucy (1951 to 1957) 180 episodes
Few people on the planet haven’t heard of I Love Lucy, one of the forerunners of all TV sitcoms and the first using an ensemble cast; it was also the first scripted program filmed before a live TV audience. The show stars Lucille Ball, who plays Lucy Ricardo, a housewife who continually tries to wriggle her way into show business, in spite of the flack from her husband, bandleader Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), who wants her to stay at home and behave herself, which she never does, of course. This surpassingly good TV show has never gone out of style and is still watched by millions, perhaps billions – and in multiple languages. In 2012, it was crowned the “Best TV Show of All Time” according to ABC News and People magazine.
Little known fact: Executives at CBS were reluctant to cast Desi Arnaz as Lucy’s husband, since he was a Cuban bandleader, until the duo created a vaudeville act and performed it at the Ritz Theatre in Newburgh. The act featured Arnaz’s Latin orchestra, which helped Arnaz get the part in the sitcom.
2. All in the Family (1971 to 1979) 205 episodes
This show is about a working class family in Queens, New York. Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) rules the roost by demanding that his wife, daughter and son-in-law act the way white people are supposed to act. Based on the British series, Till Death Do Us Part, the show is a groundbreaker for dealing with controversial issues such as racism, homosexuality, abortion, the Viet Nam War and women’s liberation. Bunker often squares off with son-in-law Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner); it’s a clash of the Greatest Generation versus the Baby Boomers, Bunker’s tirades filled with racial and ethnic slurs and hilarious malapropisms. But Bunker is basically just a good guy trying to cope with the changing times. Notably, all four main characters on the show won Primetime Emmy Awards, and Bravo picked Archie Bunker as the greatest TV character ever.
Little known fact: The show’s creator Norman Lear wanted Mickey Rooney to play the part of Archie Bunker, but Rooney declined because he thought the show was too controversial and would certainly fail.
1. The Simpsons (1989 to present) 653 episodes
This animated sitcom is about a dysfunctional family of five, starring Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) a as a clownish, roly-poly, bumbling man, who possesses just about every bad trait a father can have, especially his lust for junk food. Of course, just about everyone and everything is satirized on the show, one of the hallmarks of the series; and the show can be graphically violent, particularly as shown on The Itchy and Scratchy Show, an incredibly violent recurring cartoon the Simpson kids like to watch. Perhaps needless to point out, The Simpsons is the longest running scripted series in American TV; in fact, it’s the longest running sitcom in the world. And it has won 31 Primetime Emmy Awards and 30 Annie Awards, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Little known fact: The Simpsons has been banned in China (2006) and Venezuela (2008) and was nearly banned in Russia, “for propaganda of various vices,” but a court dismissed the case.
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© 2019 Kelley Marks