(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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)