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The 8 Best Comedy Pilots of All Time

By Daniel Carlson | Seriously Random Lists | June 13, 2013 | Comments ()


arrested-development-pilot (2).jpg

(Check out the drama list here.)

Most sitcoms grow into themselves over a few episodes. This is normal, and not a bad thing at all, but it means that those comedies who come to life fully formed are that much more special. Additionally, the stakes are usually lower on comedies than dramas, especially in the pilots. ("Discovering your fiance's corpse and finding out your dad is a spy" isn't quite the same as "Getting a new roommate.") Yet a good comedy pilot can still find meaning and humor in the little things, and it can serve as a hint of what's to come. The comedies below all managed to debut as their true selves, and though they'd grow over time (as all series do), their pilot episodes are still fantastic summations of what the series wanted to be.

"Arrested Development"
Probably the best pilot in modern comedy history. It's breezy, quick, and hilarious, showcasing the momentum and tone that would serve as the series' hallmarks. It's the entire series' ethos summed up in a blistering half hour. The DVDs offer an extended cut, and though it's enjoyable, it's not necessary.


"The Cosby Show"
There's a reason "The Cosby Show" dominated the 1980s: It was really, really good. Bill Cosby's one of the best stand-up comics in history -- Himself, which is more a one-man show than a traditional comedy set, is deceptively brilliant -- and he uses that worldview to perfect effect in this sitcom. What's notable about the pilot is that some of the details of the show are still in flux (Sondra is absent, Cliff's name is given as Clifford, not Healthcliff), but the tone is dead-on. Cosby's money lesson with Theo became a series highlight that was referenced in the finale, and it included the classic line, "I brought you into this world; I can take you out."


"The Office" (U.K.)
The first episode of the original version of "The Office" is responsible for almost every great comedy currently airing. The mockumentary style, the shoestring aesthetic, the staggeringly awkward humor: It's all there, in cringing detail. Ricky Gervais's David Brent is a fantastic comic character, empathetic and repulsive all at once, and the pilot episode -- in which David deals with downsizing issues while trying to show off for the temp -- is so good that Greg Daniels, writer/producer of the U.S. version, imported it almost verbatim when launching the American spinoff.


"The Dick Van Dyke Show"
Another low-stakes pilot (Rob wants his wife to hire a babysitter for their sick kid so they can go to a party; that's seriously it) that nevertheless succeeds on the strength of its characters and writing. Dick Van Dyke is the kind of smooth they don't make anymore, even when he's a neurotic mess, and he and Mary Tyler Moore have fantastic chemistry. The episode set the framework for one of the most dependable and witty sitcoms ever made.


"Mary Tyler Moore"
A rock-solid half-hour of comedy, and the kickoff to one of the best shows of the 1970s. Mary Tyler Moore hits the right balance between strength and insecurity, and she's likable in every scene. The pilot also features the "I hate spunk!" exchange with Mary and Lou Grant, a classic from the moment it aired.


"Frasier"
Liking "Frasier" can feel like admitting to having a rash, given the current renaissance in quickly edited mockumentaries. But the debut episode, which finds Kelsey Grammer's Frasier Crane relocating from Boston to Seattle to start a new job and care for his aging father, is proof that you can still go great things with multiple cameras, quick wit, and a love of farce. "Frasier" falls squarely in the set-em-up-knock-em-down school of sitcoms, though the predictability of some (or many) of the jokes does nothing to lessen their charm. This episode won James Burrows an Emmy and a DGA Award, and it also earned Grammer the first of four Emmys he'd capture during the series's 11-season run.


"Taxi"
Speaking of James Burrows: He directed almost every episode of the first four seasons of "Taxi," a surprisingly dark and nimble workplace sitcom that manages to somehow feel hopeful and light even when focusing on the more depressing aspects of the dead-end careers of its core group of characters. He won a pair of Emmys for his work, too. The first episode finds the cast and story already in place, which is a change from the sitcom standard of introducing a new character into an established group as a way to generate friction (and allow characters to offer exposition dumps on the audience in the guise of describing themselves to the newcomer). It's funny yet prickly, and grungy around the corners. (Click the image to watch the pilot at CBS.com.)

taxi-snip (2).jpg


"Cheers"
The kickoff episode to the biggest sitcom of the 1980s (sharing the crown with "Cosby") is deceptively great. The major characters are all introduced with just the right mix of broad humor and real personality, and the jokes and chemistry are spot-on. It's a pretty simple story, too, and doesn't do much more than set up Diane as the bar's newest employee. What makes it work, and what keeps it from feeling dated even 30 years after its debut, is the confidence and grace with which co-creators Glen and Les Charles and director (you guessed it) James Burrows work through each comedic and dramatic beat. There's almost no faltering here, and the show almost feels daring in the way it takes so much time to set up its universe. But once the setting up is done, you don't really want to leave. (Hard to find video of this one, but it's available for streaming via Amazon Prime.)



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Mrs. Julien

    "And the words "magnificent pagan beast" have never left your mind."

    What? You can't quote the Cheers pilot?

  • e jerry powell

    In terms of pure farce, I certainly found Grammer's nuanced turn as Frasier over the course of twenty-two years more readily palatable than Lithgow's more traditionally manic, less refined approach on Third Rock from the Sun.

  • John W

    What each one of those shows share is great cast + great characters + great writing = great shows.

  • Scottieboy

    "Liking “Frasier” can feel like admitting to having a rash, given the current renaissance in quickly edited mockumentaries."

    Seriously? People dislike Frasier? I don't understand humans any more.

  • kazoshay

    Get a Life - Terror on the Hell Loop 2000 is an often overlooked classic.

  • Artemis

    I would add 30 Rock to this list. It nails the three things that comedy pilots have to: (1) establishing the main characters (by the end of the first scene you know exactly who Liz Lemon is, and that she's glorious), (2) setting up the premise of the show, and (3) being hilarious.

  • Gauephat

    I'd argue for "The Thick of It." It slips into its shell the quickest, and is really hilarious in its first 30.

  • I'd like to submit Better Off Ted for your consideration. I'm not sure I'd ever laughed so hard...

  • I just unintentionally up voted myself. I didn't know you could that. Stupid touch screen.

  • foolsage

    That was such a wonderful, witty show.

  • It really was. I don't think there was a bad episode.

  • Hoah

    When Charlie got Cancer?

  • Julia

    I'd include Freaks and Geeks. The pilot was a great one-off episode that also set the tone for the rest of the series.

  • Jifaner

    Frasier, Cosby Show and Cheers. 3 all time favorites! I also loved the UK Office, never got into the US version.

  • Gavin Smith

    I say 30 Rock belongs here. 5 inches, but its thick. Hilarious.

  • Lord Otter-Blotter

    Hooray for Frasier; I'm always glad to see someone say they like it, and you really nailed it too. The show is extremely formulaic at times, but the formula is executed so well that it's hard to really fault it for that. I don't know if I share your great esteem for the pilot, though.

  • Christine Dix

    Arrested Development is the finest 53 episodes of television and the pilot won Emmys. Name another TV series that has done that?
    Also Fraser doesn't really count to me-they already had the main character for years.....

  • Love this list. I would only add The Kids in the Hall, but its not a sitcom and it wasn't network so it probably doesn't make it on technicality.

  • dizzylucy

    I was just saying the other day how solid Arrested Development's pilot really is. Don't remember a lot of the pilots of many of those shows except Cheers.

    I'm going to throw Don't Trust the B-in Apt 23 out there too - I wasn't expecting it to be very good, but I laughed quite a bit at that one and it really established all the characters very well.

  • Trolley_Boner

    Good List, but I'd like to see a list of best pilots that weren't picked up.

  • andrew

    Good list. I would have also included:
    Archer
    Futurama
    Party Down
    Pushing Daisies

  • llp

    Pushing Daisies had an excellent pilot, but it is not a sitcom.

  • AudioSuede

    I was going to say Louie, but then I remembered that it didn't hit its stride until the second episode. The helicopter ending to the date sequence was really out of character and bizarre. Comedy pilots, in general, have a really hard time, for some reason. So rarely does a comedy show end up looking anything like its pilot. I mean, look at 30 Rock. That pilot was AWFUL. But it transformed completely in a very short amount of time.

    Thinking of this, here's a list of shows that I think might have also deserved a spot:

    Stella
    Monty Python's Flying Circus
    Weeds
    The Boondocks
    It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
    Flight of the Conchords
    The Kids In the Hall

    And most of those only warrant mention because they were actually decent, which, again, is very rare for a comedy pilot. A good list you have.

  • AudioSuede

    Oh, and also The League.

    I'll stop.

  • randomhookup

    I would be curious about pilots for successful shows that ended up getting changed a lot when they went into full production (like "Happy Endings" losing Damon Wayans, Jr.)

  • Lord Otter-Blotter

    New Girl, you mean.

  • Gary

    You forgot Whitney...

  • PerpetualIntern

    Well played.

  • bbmcrae

    Mary Tyler Moore in a white sweater and short skirt. I will be distracted all morning.

  • Brian Stevenson

    Why the hell is "The Golden Girls" pilot not here?

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  • Great list, even if I haven't seen all of them. Just wanted to point out to anyone who's interested: Arrested Development, Frasier and The Cosby Show are all on Netflix. I think I've found something to watch this summer.

  • Stinky Pete

    As of a couple of weeks ago, so were all 270 episodes of Cheers.

  • mairimba

    I had Cheers on my queue to watch during the summer. :(

  • Erikest

    The live action Tick...Patrick Warburton as the Tick, perfect. Java devil, you are now my bitch

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • fribbley

    Has there ever been a more perfect casting than Warburton as The Tick?

  • Green Lantern

    Warburton as Brock Samson.

  • Lord Otter-Blotter

    I personally prefer Townsend Coleman, but Warburton did probably as well as any real person could.

  • fribbley

    Voicewise, yes. Warburton had the look and a 2nd-best voice.

  • Lazy-Assed Magician

    Cheers is on Netflix in its entirety! Very much worth a watch.

  • kirbyjay

    Dick Van Dyke is on my short list of fave sitcoms ever, but the pilot was one of my least favorite. Laura was kind of bitchy and the whole look and style of the show is different than all of the future episodes.
    That 70's Show had a good pilot with The Circle, a dream sequence, the hustle, Todd Runderman, stealing beer, Kelso "breaking up" with Jackie, and Donna and Eric's first kiss.

  • BWeaves

    I used to watch Happy Days when I was in high school, but somehow I missed the pilot. I still have NEVER seen it. However, I have seen the Love American Style episode that started it all. I don't think it qualifies as the pilot, though.

  • Jezzer

    "WKRP in Cincinnati." Johnny Fever's triumphant, "Booger, booger, BOOGER!" at the end still makes me giggle.

  • Mrs. Julien

    "Alright you three, UP AGAINST THE WALL!"

  • sean

    WTF voted this down? I still laugh upon catching reruns of WKRP when they appear when I am channel surfing while drunk at 4am.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Just think what we can do with textures!

  • Barry Shitpeas

    I would agree with most of these, with the exception of the Cosby Show. I was a big fan of Cosby when it aired, and I remember being pretty disappointed that a lot of it was just recycled standup bits.

    Futurama's pilot is one of my favourites, and the first Seinfeld to air, while not the actual pilot, is also pretty great.

  • kushiro -

    Huh. I had forgotten that I was Barry Shitpeas for a while.

    I agree with Barry Shitpeas.

  • Lord Otter-Blotter

    Very few shows are as good right off the bat as Futurama. It's always weird to hear the Professy's old voice, and that "but I am already in my pajamas..." catch-phrase.

  • John W

    Great list, although I'm not familiar with the original version of The Office.

  • BWeaves

    Get thee to Netflix.

  • thaneofmemphis

    Cheers has maybe the single best character introduction in TV history:

    Phone rings. Coach answers.

    Coach: "Cheers... Is there an Ernie Pantuzo here?"

    Sam: "That's you, Coach."

    Coach: "Speaking."

  • Mrs. Julien

    "And the phrase 'magnificent pagan beast' has never left your mind"

  • Threenineteen

    I would like to submit the pilot for MASH. It's the one where they raffle off a nurse to get money to pay for college tuition for one of the Korean villagers. Everyone has seen it, but no one knows it's the pilot because it's just like the rest of the season. You can't tell it's a pilot.

  • BWeaves

    That's probably because the movie served as the pilot.

  • ElTigre

    Why the pilot of Community isn't on here is perplexing. Heck, as far as first seasons go, only Arrested Development was better in its consistency of hilarity. I cant see very many missteps or hiccups that are so common with other comedies, most especially in the mockumetaries so popular with the kids these days. (See: The Office (US) and Parks and Rec)

  • Ender

    I didn't love Community immediately, it took a few episodes to really get into it, but when I've gone back I've been amazed at how many of my favourite moments are in those first couple of episodes.

  • dizzylucy

    Agree - my Community love didn't kick in until the Halloween episode, when Pierce had his drug induced freak out. Dressed as the Beastmaster, of course.

  • IngridToday

    The pilot was a standard comedy. Arrogant guy down on his luck tries to win over a girl, side character introduced to populate the world.

    The second episode dove right into Community's hilarious absurdity with the introduction of Senior Chang and ending with Jeff and Pierce's non-nonsensical theatrical Spanish presentation.
    I was sold after that.

  • AudioSuede

    Gotta agree with Ender. I love Community to death, but the pilot was kinda dull. Same goes for Parks and Rec, which I now think is the second funniest show on TV, behind Louie.

  • Green_Eggs_and_Hamster

    Definitely agree on Parks. That show took an entire season to really find it's voice. And that was with Louis C.K. It has turned into one of the best shows on TV, but that first season was very Meh.

  • mc

    Splitsider did a very similar list about a year ago: http://splitsider.com/2011/08/...

    There's a lot of crossover with this list (Cheers, Mary Tyler Moore, UK Office, Arrested Development). They also included How I Met Your Mother, which pulls the classic bait and switch, and then sets the tone for the whole (very drawn out) series. Great pilot.

  • annoyed

    No Spaced?
    No IT Crowd?
    No Archer?

  • BWeaves

    I just started renting Archer, and was hooked within seconds. But the best part about the pilot episode of Archer is on the DVD. Apparently they "screen tested" a different "actor" for the part of Archer, but he tested too old. They have the whole other pilot on the DVD as an extra.

    SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

    It's actually the exact same pilot episode, except they've replaced Archer with a velociraptor. It makes the sex scenes sort of awkward, but it's still very funny.

  • The pilot of "Spaced" is one of the best episodes of any comedy ever. EVER.

  • cicatricella

    agreed

  • lowercase_ryan

    AHAHAHA you can upvote yourself!! this is how you fuck a hole in the space-time continuum.

  • Ender

    Isn't it more like masturbation?

  • lowercase_ryan

    that explains the sudden onset blindness I experienced this afternoon

  • Tinkerville

    Great choices. I'd also include Newsradio and Party Down. The Newsradio pilot especially never gets old no matter how many times I watch it. "Looks like you've got a walking, talking moot point!"

  • Green Lantern

    I'm with you on "Party Down". After watching the pilot, I practically shotgunned the rest of the series like it was cocaine and I was a blow monkey.

  • I wish the Newsradio pilot hadn't been so good; Dave Foley would be able to go back to Canada without getting arrested now.

  • mswas

    TOTALLY agree on NewsRadio. I vividly remember watching the pilot with MrWas, and we knew it was a hit, for us at least. That show does not get enough love.

  • lowercase_ryan

    It never ceases to amaze me the levels of the jokes in Arrested Development, even in the pilot. Watching the whole series and then re-watching it, it's mind blowing really. Best comedy writing ever.

  • dizzylucy

    Agreed - I remember seeing the pilot, thinking it was good. Once I got further into the show and then rewatched the pilot, I was amazed at how GREAT it was, and so densely packed with jokes. True for the whole show - I've seen Seasons 1-3 probably at least 15-20 times, and I still catch new things.
    The pilot also really introduced the characters so well, especially for a half hour sitcom with a fairly large cast. It was pretty clear who they all were right from the start, along with the family dynamics.
    I agree with zeke, I don't think we're ever going to see anything top it in that regard.

  • And, I'd hazard, never to be bettered. For a show written with such complexity and craft it's a wonder that it didn't immediately disappear up its own immaculate backside. If I was that good at ANYTHING I'd last about 10 seconds before being swallowed up by my own ego.

  • lowercase_ryan

    ding ding, comment of the week right there

  • space_oddity

    Just in the last few years, for me it was the pilot for The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret where, when it ends you're like WTF I HAVE TO SEE WHERE THIS GOES.

  • Allen

    I'm surprised Pajiba doesn't give much love to Todd Margaret. It's fantastic and there hasn't been a single article about it.

  • andrew

    And then it went nowhere.
    So much unfulfilled promise on that show. I watched the entire first season, holding out, hoping for better.

  • bbmcrae

    Agreed. It got tedious and pointless fast, and somehow it did that while featuring David Cross and Will Arnett.

  • dammitdamian

    I wasn't a fan of it initially, but David Cross appeared on WTF with Marc Maron and described the show episodes as chapters of a much larger piece, and that together you would see the much larger picture and joke. I went back and devoured Season one and loved it. I still have not made the attempt to check out season two, but it's near the top of my queue.

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