Looking back at the 80s there are plenty of things that make us laugh now. But what were we laughing at back then? Here is a list of the top 10 sitcoms from the 80s that had us tuning in for our weekly guffaws.
10 – Perfect Strangers
Uptight perfectionist, Larry Appleton has his patience and his sanity stretched to their limits when a cousin he never knew existed shows up on his doorstep. The cousin, one Balki Bartokomous, claims to hail from the tiny island nation of Mypos, where he has left his life as a shepherd and his family behind to come to America. Balki moves in with Larry, and despite Larry’s best efforts to maintain his uptight demeanor he is slowly loosened up by his crazy cousin. Balki, played to perfection by Bronson Pinchot, has an infectious personality that just can’t be ignored, and his Dance of Joy even gets his stodgy cousin’s toes tapping. Perfect Strangers didn’t have much depth, but the polar opposite personality’s of Balki and Larry kept the laughs coming.
9 – Family Ties
Before Back to the Future came along, Canadian actor Michael J. Fox earned his stripes on TV. His character, Alex P. Keaton was a 50 year old in a teenager’s body. Money and politics were the number one and two loves in Alex’s life, and he chafed against the relaxed hippie attitude of his democrat parents. Justine Bateman played Mallory played Alex’s older, cooler sister. Many of the laughs of this 80s sitcom came from Alex exploiting Mallory’s stupidity, and Mallory, in turn, making fun of Alex’s young American nerd personality. Though most of the content was light and fluffy every now and again this show would surprise us with some depth of emotion as Alex learned some real life lessons.
8 – Diff’rent Strokes
Gary Coleman’s acting career peaked early with this sitcom about two black youths who are taken into the care of a white, millionaire family. Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout Willis? was Arnold’s (Coleman’s character) signature line and has truly become famous throughout pop culture, regularly quoted today in many situations. The show’s ideas were somewhat controversial at the time and broke barriers in a racially tense America. Though the show was popular, however, none of the actors have managed to find success since, and multiple cast members have since run afoul of the law, lending credence to the theory of the curse of Diff’rent Strokes.
7 – Too Close For Comfort
Never have two TV sitcom characters rubbed each other the wrong way more than Monroe and Mr. Rush. Monroe, played by Jm J. Bullock drives Mr. Rush, played by Ted Knight, to distraction. Though Monroe has no ill will in his body, his clumsiness and stupidity have him constantly coming up with new and amusing ways to accidentally irritate Mr. Rush. Mrs. Rush, and their two daughters, Jackie and Sara manage to play their roles convincingly, and occasionally contribute to the humor, but as the show progressed it became clear the audience wanted more Monroe and Mr. Rush, and the laughs kept coming all through the first half of the 80s.
6 – Growing Pains
Kirk Cameron looked to be headed to acting superstardom when he made his television debut as teen heartthrob, Michael Seaver on the 80s hit sitcom, Growing Pains. It never quite panned out that way for Cameron, who has since been relegated to the acting dustbin, along with several other teen stars named Corey. Still, during his run in the sun with the show, his rule-smashing character delivered plenty of laughs. Alan Thicke played Seaver patriarch, Dr. Jason Seaver, who was often at his wit’s end in dealing with his trouble-making son. Mother Maggie, played by Joanna Kerns plays referee between the two, but Mike’s antics leave her with little ammo to defend him. Michael had three siblings during the show, with nerdy sister Carol often his nemesis, and younger brother Ben trying to emulate him. A young Leonardo Dicaprio also made his acting debut on this show, and, unlike Kirk Cameron, has managed to launch a stellar acting career on the springboard of this little sitcom.
5 – Night Court
Part of NBC’s Thursday night must-see-TV lineup, Night Court had some of the most memorable TV characters of the 80s. Headed by Judge Harry Stone the actors were perfectly cast and their foibles as they conducted court in the middle of the night in Manhattan made for constant chuckles. Dan Laroquette stole the show with his sleazy lawyer character, Dan Fielding. A notorious womanizer, Fielding’s exploits and his whip-crack one liners had the audience in stitches. Richard Moll also elicited his share of laughs with his dumb-as-a-hammer portrayal of Bull, the court’s bailiff. So likable were the show’s characters that NBC had them occasionally guest on other shows in their stable. It really was a shame when they finally took this 80s gem off the air.
4 – Newhart
Though this was more of a comedy for the parents than the kids, Newhart’s sarcastic humor has helped it pass the test of time, and now, an adult myself, I find myself laughing at the lines that were going over my head when I was a kid. Bob Newhart played Dick Loudon, a writer, who has moved from New York City to a small, rural town in Vermont where he runs a small inn with his wife. Though I didn’t laugh much at this one as a kid, the one moment I waited for was the arrival of Larry, his brother Daryl, and his other brother, Daryl. They seemed to make an appearance, and the same statement every episode but for some reason it never got old. If you never liked Newhart much as kid, give it a try now. I guarantee you’ll find it funnier than you remember.
3 – The Cosby Show
Back when there were still comedians that could make people laugh without constant profanity, Bill Cosby ruled the roost of the standup comedy. Such was his success and respect within the world of comedy he decided to take his act to television, producing and starring in the 80s sitcom mega-hit, The Cosby Show. Playing Dr. Cliff Huxtable, he manages in a slow, bumbling, Cosby way to dispense advice and discipline in equal measure to his five children. Despite always seeming to be clueless, Cosby always seems to somehow come out ahead in these showdowns. In fact, the only time he is bested is when he takes on wife, Clair, played by Phylicia Rashad. The Cosby show brought families together with a subtle blend of humor that seemed to appeal to every age group. It can probably be considered Cosby’s best work. No mean feat in such a long and distinguished career.
2 – Three’s Company
Never has a television sitcom been as simultaneously enjoyable and hard to watch as this 80s gem. So many times I remember squirming with empathy, imagining myself in lead character, Jack Tripper’s shoes as he tried to extract himself from his latest mess. The premise of the show was simple, but brilliant, its very nature lending itself to seemingly endless comical situations. Jack Tripper, played expertly by the late John Ritter. When Jack is found asleep in the tub after a going away party for Janet and Chrissy’s roommate, the three manage to cook up a mutually beneficial scheme to have him live there. Jack is training to be a chef, but has no money, and neither of the girls know how to cook, so the solution works for all involved. One problem: the building landlord, Mr. Roper, who lives directly below them, will absolutely not allow a single guy to live with two single women in his apartment building. Simple solution: they tell the landlord that Jack is gay. Let the laughs begin. So many bizarre situations and silly misunderstandings kept this show fresh right until the end. The show got even better when the landlord Mr. Roper is replaced by Mr. Ferly, expertly portrayed by Don Knotts. Just the appearance of Ferly was enough to spur laughter, and his lines often had me in tears. So good was this show that it is only by the narrowest of margins it finished in second place in my list of top 10 80s sitcoms.
1 – Cheers
The number one sitcom of the 80s is much deserving of this coveted spot. Cheers is all about the characters. The entire show takes place in a bar in Boston, and despite what one would think would be a creatively constraining setting the casting director made all the right choices to get it to work. Sam, Norm, Cliff, Frasier, Carla, Coach and Diane all played their roles to perfection, and as the star of NBC’s must-see-TV Thursday, Cheers delivered the laughs week in and week out. The show went on for so long that actors inevitably left the show, but their replacements filled the void expertly. Many thought the show would suffer when Nicholas Colasanto who played the bumbling, forgetful Coach, died, but actor Wood Harrelson was fantastic in taking over, not as Coach, but the equally bumbling Woody. The truest tribute to the strength of the show is the number of its actors that have gone on to hugely successful acting careers. The stars of most 80s sitcoms seemed to gradually fade, perhaps because of marginal acting ability, or maybe because the actors had become typecast, but Cheers has solidly bucked that trend and boasts many alumni that have gone on to hugely successful television and film careers. As good as the other shows on this list are there can only be one choice for the best sitcom of the 80s. Cheers got it exactly right.