In our latest installment, the team talks about their favorite half hours of modern TV comedy.
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: “Top Banana” (S1E2, 2003)
Modern television comedy begins and ends with Mitchell Hurwitz’s groundbreaking Arrested Development, an anarchic, whip-crack satire about “a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.” And while the pilot was assuredly great, it was the series’s second episode where (a frustratingly small number of) viewers realized they had something truly special. After George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) has been incarcerated for embezzlement, Michael (Jason Bateman) struggles to keep the family company afloat, while his father continues to meddle from behind bars. “Top Banana” is Exhibit A for the show’s patented layered dialogue (with double- and triple- entendres: “He’s a flamer!”), which would expand week by week to not only call back to past jokes, but foreshadow future jokes. From magician brother Gob’s ill-fated attempt to deliver a letter for Michael (helpfully narrated, as always, by series producer Ron Howard), to Maeby’s terrible math skills, to Tobias’s hilariously awful commercial audition, the episode gleefully whirs along at a level of excellence unheard of for a show so new. The final kicker, with the immortal line “There’s always MONEY! IN! THE BANANA STAND!”, is just the icing on the cake. No touching!
FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS: “Yoko” (S1E4, 2007)
At a time that HBO was known more for hard-edged, adult comedies (and still is, to a degree), the delightful Flight of the Conchords floated in on a gentle breeze. Created by actor/musicians Bret McKenzie & Jemaine Clement (self-labled as “New Zealand’s fourth-most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo,”) FOTC charted their fictionalized struggles in New York City, as their incompetent manager Murray (Rhys Darby — forever synonymous with “Present!”) attempts to book them meaningful gigs. In “Yoko,” the first season’s standout episode, Bret’s sweet new girlfriend (played by Broadway star Sutton Foster) inadvertently drives a wedge between the bandmates: romantically hopeless Jemaine gets jealous, tagging along on their dates like a sad puppy, and Bret ultimately quits the band…not for the first, or last, time. The complete mundanity of the characters’ problems — compounded by their childlike naivete — is its own never-ending source of Kiwi joy, but the highlights of any Conchords episode are its songs. “Yoko” features three great ones, including the poppy (and awkwardly risque) “If You’re Into It,”and the showstopping anthem “Sello Tape.” FOTC’s first season was superior to its second because the stories were fit around their pre-existing back catalog, instead of the other way around. Like Murray would say, “Imagine that!”
COMMUNITY: “Remedial Chaos Theory” (S3E4, 2011)
Like I wrote in my Top 10 Episodes feature, “Remedial Chaos Theory” is Community’s undeniable high-water mark and gold standard, and to this day represents the show’s only Emmy nomination (for writing, a fact which is criminal in and of itself but is neither here nor there). It’s a shockingly complex episode that layers over a half-dozen alternate timelines of a single event in just 23 minutes, presenting the best- and worst-possible outcomes of Troy & Abed’s housewarming party. Not a single beat falls flat: the more certain gags are repeated (“Roxanne,” Jeff hitting his head on the fan, Eartha Kitt), the more they grow in power. Unlike “Modern Warfare” or many other series highlights, it requires foreknowledge of these characters, but that’s the episode’s strength: seeing how they react in nearly identical circumstances, depending on which one of them loses the dice roll and has to go get pizza. Different combinations yield surprising fruit, both on a comedic and dramatic level. With its fiery, world-changing climax, the result is a confident, almost muscular piece of writing, and a masterpiece of editing — I’ve never seen anything quite like it, nor do I ever expect to again. It was the single-best half hour of television in 2011. And this paragraph doesn’t remotely do it justice.
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA: “The Nightman Cometh” (S4E3, 2008)
When Charlie writes a musical and convinces his friends to star in it, things begin to go awry when everyone realizes that “The Nightman Cometh” is as ludicrous as its writer and all of the songs seem to unintentionally imply child molestation. The musical stars Dee as a princess who lives in a coffee shop, Dennis as a baby boy, Frank as a gate-keeping troll, and Mac as the titular “Nightman” – an evil cat-man with a love of karate. “Nightman” is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s usual combination of nonsense, bizarre comedy, and outsized egos placed on a community stage. Special credit goes to Danny Devito, who’s never afraid to poke fun at himself while playing Frank, and whose show-piece song contains the great line “you have to pay the troll toll to get into that boy’s soul” — which Frank constantly mispronounces as “boy’s hole,” to hilarious effect. Naturally, it’s an example of community theater at its worst, but Charlie can only see it as an earnest, misunderstood cry of love. It’s One from the Heart, from the gutter.
FUTURAMA: “Godfellas” (S3E20, 2002)
A Writers Guild of America award-winning episode, “Godfellas” is the perfect combination of Futurama’s blend of humor and heart. After Bender is accidentally launched into space while napping in a torpedo tube, he ponders what to do with an eternity of loneliness and (apparently of equal importance) “barely any swag.” When Bender’s body becomes inhabited by a race of tiny humanoids, he becomes their god and teaches them The One Commandment: “God needs booze.” Bender’s attempts at mercy eventually lead to catastrophe, and he floats through space alone before encountering a distant galaxy of cosmic intelligence, which may, also, be God. Here he learns that being God is difficult and requires a light touch, “Like safecracking…or insurance fraud.” The episode is filled with great visual gags – like a three-eyed pirate wearing two eye patches, and Bender’s altered version of the Pioneer Plaque – mixed with surprisingly thoughtful philosophy and an emotional punch as Fry searches the galaxy for his long-lost friend, Bender. It’s a very powerful episode so, naturally, Bender learns nothing (or so he thinks).
30 ROCK: “MILF Island” (S2E11, 2008)
30 Rock was always great at creating fictional programming. Bitch Hunter, The Rural Juror, and Tracy Jordan’s Thomas Jefferson movie were all genius, and Season 2’s reality show MILF Island is no exception. While Jack celebrates the finale of his incredibly popular, but undeniably low-brow reality show (“it has sex, lies, puberty, betrayal, relay races!”), he’s also nagged by a report in a New York business gossip column by a TGS writer that labels him a “class-A moron.” He gathers the writers into a sweltering room hoping to smoke out the source of the objectionable quote. Soon the room devolves into alliances, backstabbing, and mob mentality, mirroring the style of a reality show. But the truth is that Liz is the person responsible for the quote. How far will she go to protect her own reputation, even at the expense of her writing staff? “MILF Island” comes right in the sweet spot where 30 Rock finally found its footing, but hadn’t yet slipped into the complete inanity that sometimes marred later seasons. It’s also the only show to ever utter the excellent line “We no longer wanna hit that. GET OFF MILF ISLAND!”
The modern sitcom is an ugly malformed beast, devouring the minds of middle American simpletons who are desperately looking for a cheap laugh to relieve themselves of the burden of living every night before bed. If it isn’t already clear from the previous sentence, I absolutely abhor sitcoms. Laugh tracks induce vomiting and the constant showboating from sitcom stars who make millions of dollars on dimwitted trash makes me embarrassed to be an actor. I’m not saying there aren’t any good television comedies (there are, and my colleagues have picked some real gems for this piece), but the majority of what is on television plays for the lowest common denominator and I’m just not interested or amused. So this Pick 3 was always going to be a challenge for me, especially with the stipulation that our picks be post 2000. I cheated a little. Below you will find an all HBO line-up with one title that began in 98 but finished its run in 2004. And Rachel, the last one is just for you.
VEEP: “Crate” (S3E9, 2014)
I already covered the unbearably funny third season of Veep for the site earlier this year. “Crate” was the standout episode, with Selena and Gary’s bloody nose hysterical breakdown (in the bathroom of a homeless shelter) taking the cake for funniest scene in the show’s history. Yes, funnier than Selena walking through plate glass back in Season 2, and even funnier than her daughter Catherine’s sucker punch to a protester this very season. I’ll let my review and the clip above speak for the show – “Veep continues to surprise with every new episode, and the writing’s laser-sharp focus makes even the most absurd of situations deliriously funny. Season 3 has launched the show into the stratosphere. Veep is no longer that little show with a great central performance, but instead it carries one of the greatest comedic ensembles to ever grace the small screen.”
SEX AND THE CITY: “Splat!” (S6E19, 2004)
Say what you will about the show (its detractors are quite vocal), but Sex and the City was groundbreaking for its time, and its casually funny approach to sex is a quality still unmatched by many of the show’s imitators today. Sex sells in America, but it’s not something we actively talk about in the mainstream. This show changed all of that and challenged more conservative viewpoints (I can only imagine how steamy water cooler conversations were in its heyday). And though the show was a raunchy shallow blast early on, in later years it developed some poignant emotional gravitas. By the time it reached its sixth and last season Carrie Bradshaw and her girl pals were entering their 40’s, and life was getting ever more complicated. As the series wrapped up it was bracing its audience for the tearful goodbye, with a message that all good things must come to an end — a message that is brilliantly personified in “Splat!” when a former New York party girl can’t come to terms with the changing of time and meets a howl-inducing messy end.
GIRLS: “Beach House” (S3E7, 2014)
Girls is a polarizing show — there is no doubt about that. But the one quality that constantly keeps it on the must-watch list is that it is brutally honest about the “me” generation. All of the entitlement, privilege, narcissism, and self-loathing is present and accounted for. Show creator and star Lena Dunham exploits these qualities to humorous effect; sometimes it’s ugly and painful to watch, and sometimes it’s absolutely enraging. Dunham wants to push buttons and open up a larger discussion about feminism, art, and relationships (and for better or worse has managed to do just that). This past season’s episode “Beach House” was very meta in its approach, directly addressing many issues that some viewers tend to have a problem with in the show. The episode’s climactic fight is the definite highlight, but “Beach House” is almost self-contained enough to work as a short film – a strategy that has been winningly used several times before on the series. Whatever your take on the show, it would be impossible not to recognize that Dunham is a real talent who understands her generation all too well. Time will tell if Girls will join the pantheon of great HBO shows, but for three seasons it has stood as a curious and damningly insightful deviation.
BOJACK HORSEMAN: “BoJack Hates the Troops” (S1E2, 2014)
Netflix’s brilliant yet bleak animated series BoJack Horseman is, admittedly, not for everyone, but it really speaks to me through its bitter views on stardom, its sardonic sense of humor and its surprisingly deep and nuanced characters whose lives are rather powerfully laid out before us as the show progresses into its latter half. The first half of the series, however, is “setting the hook” more often than not, and lays the humor pretty thick. Episode two is a great example of this, as we’re past the expository setups of the pilot and now spending some time learning a bit more about our “hero”, depressed loner and washed-up actor BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett). We briefly delve into BoJack’s past, meeting his hardnosed father in a flashback who refers to screws as “fancy jew-nails” and refers to the Panama Canal as something a Democrat would do, finishing the thought with “you go around the Horn! The way God intended!”. The central plot of the episode focuses on an argument BoJack gets into with a Navy SEAL (who’s also a “regular” seal, voiced by Patton Oswalt) over a box of breakfast muffins and the media circus that ensues. With MSNBSea (har har) anchor Tom Jumbo-Gumbo (voiced by Keith Olbermann – no, seriously) leading the charge, BoJack finds himself overwhelmed and on the defensive, finally realizing he needs the help of others to deal with the problems he creates for himself, but not after making a lot of really hilarious, cogent points about the ridiculous nature of the modern media.
PARTY DOWN: “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” (S2E1, 2010)
Party Down was one of those unfortunate catch-22 shows that didn’t really have a fair shot of survival on Starz, but probably wouldn’t have gotten made on a bigger network. Starring Adam Scott, Lizzie Caplan, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally and Martin Starr, it was a show about aspiring actors working as caterers in and around the Los Angeles film scene and their various adventures. As a guy who bar-tended his way through film school, I was in the minority that thought this show was genius. The opener of Season Two, a backstage bash for ‘Jackal Onassis’ (Jimmi Simpson), a not-even-subtle version of Marilyn Manson, gives us a quick refresher and then dives into our main storyline: Jackal Onassis wants to be a regular guy for a night, and caterer Roman (Martin Starr) is more than happy to trade places with him. What ensues is actor Jimmi Simpson absolutely stealing the episode, gleefully happy to be called an “asshole” by unimpressed bar patrons, overly eager to involve himself in the banal gossip of his new co-workers, and titillated at the prospect of being fired. It’s the crown jewel of the series and an episode that could realistically be a launching point for the uninitiated into the glory that is Season Two of Party Down (while dodging the somewhat less-impressive first season).
SILICON VALLEY: “Articles of Incorporation” (S1E3, 2014)
Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley has, quite possibly, the greatest first season of a comedy series that I’ve ever seen. In the interest of space I’ll spare readers that full lecture (in this post, anyway), and instead expound upon their finest episode: “Articles of Incorporation”. By episode three, Silicon Valley’s overarching story is well under way, the characters are established and it’s time to have some fun. Programmer-genius Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and his programming team are hard at work on their Pied Piper compression engine, now funded by eccentric genius billionaire and Silicon Valley magnate, Peter Gregory (portrayed by Christopher Evan Welch in his brilliant final performance). Unfortunately for Richard the check made out to his Pied Piper company can’t be cashed, since he doesn’t actually own the rights to the name, so he sets out to negotiate with the name-holding irrigation company, run by a salty “good ol’ boy” (perfectly played by Casey Sanders) who could not be any farther from the Silicon Valley type and is immediately convinced the nervously stammering Richard has Asperger’s. Conversely, smooth-talking blowhard, shareholder, and wannabe board member Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) decides that a new name is in order and sets out on a hallucinogen-fueled vision quest to find it. All the while, constantly-arguing coders Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gillfoyle (Martin Starr) butt heads upon the realization that Gillfoyle is an illegal immigrant from Canada, whereas Dinesh struggled during his legal immigration due to his Indian heritage (“they asked me about Al Qaeda, like, fourteen times”). The icing on top of the episode is a fantastic non sequitur starring the aforementioned genius Peter Gregory who attempts to solve a factory’s budgetary woes through careful contemplation of the offerings of Burger King, much to the bewilderment of his subordinates. The end result is a near flawless thirty minutes of comedic television.
HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER: “Last Forever, Parts 1 & 2” (S9E23/24, 2004)
Lay down your pitchforks, Ladies and Gentlemen; this one was a lock from the beginning. Full of all the heart, comedy, and timey-wimey business that colored the show’s nine-year run, “Last Forever” was the ultimate ending for anyone who ever paid attention. HIMYM revolutionized the television sitcom, marrying the multi-camera format and the good ol’ laugh track to varying results, but it was the final episode that truly cemented its greatness, allowing creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas to go out on their own terms. We finally met the titular Mother – Tracy, it turns out – but lost her to cancer in the same hour, as had Ted a few years earlier. We learned, as anyone who bothered to watch all nine seasons, that Ted has been reminiscing so much about Robin because he longs to be with her once again. Perhaps it stands out so much for me because the previous season had been so terrible, a shamble of the show’s first eight; or maybe because I saw it coming from episode one — I was just getting the denouement I had been waiting on for nearly ten years. You can read more about it in my original recap here.
PARKS AND RECREATION: “London, Parts 1 & 2” (S6E1/2, 2003)
No other show on television has aged as gracefully as Parks and Recreation; still challenging itself creatively and growing leaps and bounds in terms of story, character development, and plot, Parks and Rec reached the pinnacle of its brilliance with its season six opener. Leslie (Amy Poehler) — feeling rather underappreciated by her undeserving constituents – faces impeachment from her dream job, so April (Aubrey Plaza) informs the despondent politico that she’s won an award for women in civil service. As the team heads across the pond, Ron (Nick Offerman) gives some of his best Swansonisms, Ben (Adam Scott) and Andy (Chris Pratt) attempt to raise money for their charity – also laying the groundwork to explain Pratt’s brief absence to attend to his budding film career – and Tom (Aziz Ansari) goes to battle with Henry Winkler. The quickie wedding at the opening leaves me on the ground in convulsions, watching Leslie go through her five stages of happiness; the final moments when April reads her poignant nomination letter to Leslie and Ron sets out on the adventure Leslie designed for him bring me to tears at every viewing. Sometimes, the best comedy is weighted with its dramatic moments. On an ensemble show – with several multifaceted and strong female characters – Poehler stands out, following in the footsteps of Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, proving that — though woefully underrepresented — women can still carry a show and be uproariously funny.
COUPLING: “Flushed” (S1E1, 2000)
Long before Steven Moffat was helming Doctor Who and winning Emmys with Benedict Cumberbatch, he created comedy gold with Coupling. Britain’s sexy answer to Friends (meets Sex and the City), Coupling debuted in 2000, bursting out of the gate with its frank and uncompromising, sexually honest premiere. The pilot’s title “Flushed” refers to “…this type of woman. The kind you can’t get rid of…a technical term. Unflushable.” It’s brimming with lines like that, the cynical utterings of serial daters and unlikeable commitment phones that, while relatable, could never survive on American television. Six friends bed hop, hook-up, break-up, make-up, and discuss it all over copious pints. After the first thirty minutes, you know you’ve tread this ground before, but this time, you’re keeled over on the floor, paralyzed with laughter. Jack Davenport and Sarah Alexander lead the cast, each comfortable with the lightening-quick, witty dialogue – the first episode centers around each booting their current loves for each other and all the landmines that complicate said arrangement. The intricate love hexagon that develops near the end of episode one will lead you to consume the subsequent twenty-seven episodes in one sitting.
THE VENTURE BROTHERS: “Past Tense” (S1E11, 2004)
The Venture Bros. is a loving parody and a devoted tribute to the tropes of animated adventure shows like Johnny Quest, offering enough weirdness to distort your memory of those series. Like a faithful recreation of a Van Gogh made only with grocery aisle condiments, there’s enough here to recognize the original even as the final product looks (and smells) like something totally unique. It’s difficult to find the perfect example of the show’s nuttiness, but Season 1’s “Past Tense” comes close. The first half of the episode establishes Dr. Venture’s relationship to a deceased friend and the other attendees at the funeral through a series of flashbacks told with the silly tone and laugh track of a multi-camera sitcom. Halfway through the profane recollections (told loudly during the funeral service), Dr. Venture, Brock, Pete White, and Baron Underbheit are kidnapped while pallbearing the coffin from the church. It’s up to Dr. Venture’s sons, Hank and Dean, to rescue them, and the two boys hatch a plan to save them with the help of the original Team Venture. Only now, the original team is composed of flabby and cranky (and gassy) senior citizens, compelled to assist by an oath taken decades ago. The episode packs in an insane amount of plot in twenty witty minutes, and establishes four new characters who continue to reappear in the show, now approaching its sixth season. And along the way, there are twisted references to Sean Connery’s James Bond, Heavy Metal magazine, and the A-Team, to name a few. The Venture Bros. is appointment viewing for weirdos, and if that sounds like a selling point to you, “Past Tense” is a fine introduction.
THE OFFICE: “Training” (S1E4, 2001)
With shows like Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine dominating awards shows, it’s easy to forget how significantly the BBC’s The Office changed television comedy. Single-camera sitcoms had been done before, but none had embraced the awkwardness afforded the format with such fervency. Without audience participation to speed pacing or break tension, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant found a playground of difficult situations and uncomfortable spaces in the monotony of the forty-hour corporate workweek. Relishing the opportunity to make viewers squirm, they took that setting and tossed in a grenade in the form of Regional Manager David Brent, an overweight narcissist still clinging to delusions of grandeur. While his antics elicited guffaws with every installment, the character was still grounded by pathos. Even as you were giggling, you found yourself shaking your head in pity. The best example of this during the show’s spectacular run might be Season 1’s “Training.” Recognizing an opportunity to project leadership when an outside consultant comes in for workplace sensitivity training, Brent disrupts the presentation with increasingly outlandish grasps for attention, culminating in a live acoustic set of songs from his old band, Foregone Conclusion. “Freelove Freeway” is the obvious favorite, an unintentionally homoerotic ballad for an unnamed lover, but it’s Brent’s repurposing of “Goodnight My Sweet Princess,” a tribute to the late Princess Diana, for a brokenhearted coworker that provides a perfect example of what makes the show great. It’s a completely preposterous scenario grounded by the understanding that real life is often a greater bummer than the workplace monotony it punctuates.
[Editor’s Note: Yes, the header image is from the American Office. Because it deserved a mention somewhere. Next time?]
NATHAN FOR YOU: “Gas Station / Caricature Artist” (S1E4, 2013)
If Nathan For You isn’t the funniest show on television, it is at least the most uncomfortable, a twisted mix of prank show and documentary where desperate small business owners are convinced to attempt bizarre moneymaking schemes of varying degrees of legality. In less careful hands, Nathan Fielder’s approach would lead to mere exploitation, with people upset and hurt after their experiences. But Fielder’s intent is always to leave his targets smiling, even after the revelation that the elaborate joke has been at their expense. Fielder achieves this aim on most (if not all) episodes through the unassuming nature of the character he plays, or rather the version he plays of himself. Confident but off-putting, awkward but seemingly knowledgeable, Fielder presents his ideas, and audiences watch with mouths agape as the owners agree with a hesitant handshake. Really, any episode could provide the perfect highlight, but for my money, Season 1’s “Gas Station / Caricature Artist” presents the best mix of horror and hilarity. Fielder convinces a gas station owner to offer an incredible rebate on gas, but in the fine print, notes that the only way to redeem the rebate is to turn in a form on the top of a mountain. Customers, as you can expect, are livid, but the episode turns when several of California’s weirder residents take Fielder up on another offer in the fine print – to shuttle them to the base of the mountain. Desperate to keep the scheme profitable, Fielder takes these customers through a series of riddles during an overnight campout, and he watches as the customers begin to drop out — but those who remain bond in an unusual way. As often happens in Fielder’s show, the best laughs are when the targets turn out to be more than anybody expected.