In 1999, Entertainment Weekly ran an article asking, “Is the sitcom dead?” At the time, the answer seemed simple enough: If it wasn’t dead already, it was certainly dying. A fading “Friends,” “Frasier,” and “Everyone Loves Raymond” were the only highly-rated sitcoms that remained on the network television schedule, and conventional and largely unfunny sitcoms like “King of Queens,” “The Drew Carrey Show,” and “Dharma and Greg” typified most of the rest of networks’ comedy schedule.
But there were two marginally rated and spectacular shows lurking in the background of the television schedule that year that would help usher in the modern sitcom: Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” and “Newsradio.” “Sports Night” was a single camera comedy with elements of drama that introduced us to the Walk and Talk. It also had no laugh track, which was almost unheard of at the time for a show purporting to be a comedy. Meanwhile, “Newsradio” mixed smart dialogue and pop-culture references into absurd storylines, the predominant formula of today’s best sitcoms.
Now, thanks to “Sports Night” and “Newsradio,” and the half a dozen other more and less successful shows that followed in their footsteps — including “The Office” which would incorporate a naturalistic style similar to that of “Sports Night” — we’re now looking at maybe the creative peak of sitcoms. Look at your network schedules. Shows like “Three and a Half Men” and “Mike & Molly” still exist, and they do fetch high ratings. But they’re now in the minority.
What’s changed? Consider this: The second season of “Arrested Development” averaged around 6 million viewers a week. That’s one and a half million more viewers than “Community,” which has just been renewed for a third season (“Firefly,” when it was cancelled, averaged the exact same number of viewers as “Community” and 1.5 million more than “Chuck” Ouch). It’s a million more viewers than “Parks and Recreation.” It’s as many viewers as “30 Rock” has, which will be entering its sixth season.
Shows like “Sports Night,” “Newsradio,” “Arrested Development,” and even “Scrubs” may have been ahead of their time, but the audiences for shows like that haven’t grown significantly. We’re a more fractured culture now, and with networks competing with the likes of “Jersey Shore” (and getting their asses kicked), smaller more passionate audiences are finally appreciated on the networks. Or at least tolerated. That’s given rise, in recent years, to smaller more sophisticated comedies like “Community” and “Modern Family” and “Parks and Recreation.” Now, instead of two or three great sitcoms on the air (as there were in 2005, when the three best were “Arrested Development,” “Scrubs,” and then … “My Name is Earl”) there are seven or eight great sitcoms airing each week. And the one thing they all have in common, with the exception of “How I Met Your Mother,” is the absence of a laugh track (thanks “Sports Night”). The other? Pop-culture references, dialogue-intensive scripts, and absurd situations. Thanks, “Newsradio.”
And with that, I give you literally the 10 Best Comedy Episodes of the 2010-2011 Television Season.
“Say Cheese,” Raising Hope: When Sabrina visits Jimmy at home for the first time, she comes across a photo album that makes Jimmy realize he doesn’t have any family photos that include Hope. Although past family photo shoots have been filled with chaos and stress, Jimmy decides to organize a family photo shoot.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Cougar Town: Jules isn’t happy when her father pays a visit. Travis gets a surprise at Halloween, and Bobby campaigns to be Stan’s guardian should something happen to Ellie and Andy.
“Dave of the Dead,” Happy Endings: A horror movie gets the gang to thinking about the coming “zombie apocalypse.” Dave fears he’s a little zombie-like in his complacency at his boring job, and shocks everyone when he announces he’s quitting to follow his dream and open a restaurant. Max and super-competitive Jane square off on some silly challenges to see who could survive if the zombies took over. Meanwhile, Penny dates a hipster named Toby and finds it exhausting to keep up with his too cool friends.
“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” Community: Pierce pretends to be dying so that he can bequeath a series of cryptic and sometimes mean-spirited gifts to his study partners, and Abed decides to shoot a documentary film of the situation.
“Bad News,” How I Met Your Mother: Marshall suspects that he is the reason Lily can’t get pregnant after meeting a fertility doctor who also happens to be Barney’s doppelganger. Meanwhile, Robin’s embarrassing past is revealed at work by her former co-anchor.
“Flu Season,” Parks and Recreation: Leslie gets the flu right before an important fund-raising pitch for the Harvest Festival, Chris tries frantically to avoid catching the bug, and Ron hires Andy to replace April while she is out.
“TGS Hates Women,” 30 Rock: Liz believes that her new female guest writer perpetuates negative female stereotypes and is bad for women, while Jack discovers that he has his hands full trying to get rid of the heir to the Kabletown empire.
“Epidemiology,” Community: The study group is left to fend for themselves by Dean Pelton during a rabies outbreak due to tainted food at Greendale’s Halloween party.
“The Fight,” Parks and Recreation: The parks department employees become very intoxicated during a bar outing, where Leslie and Ann have their first major fight. Meanwhile, Chris tells Tom he must sell his shares in the bar due to a conflict with his government job.
“Ron and Tammy II,” Parks and Recreation: After Ron breaks up with Tom’s ex-wife, he decides to get back together with his Tammy, much to everyone’s horror. Meanwhile, Leslie and Ben try to get the local police to donate their services to the upcoming Harvest Festival.