Monday, September 7, 2009

Best of the 2000s: TV Comedies

The 2000s are coming to an end. Well, most people think that. There are those who say the decade ends after 2010 since there was no year 0, but does anyone consider 1990 part of the 1980s? No.

So in terms of pop culture, a decade that brought the world the presidency of Incurious George, Facebook and the rise-fall-rise(?) of Britney Spears is near its completion. This means endless "Best of the Oughts" series in every newspaper, website or VH1 program you could ever want to see.

Well, I'm about to beat them to the punch.

Yes, I have calculated my best-of lists and over the next few months I will unveil them, covering movies, television, music and more. Let's start with the best television comedies from 2000-through 2009.

Too early? Perhaps. But this first list has very little chance of changing the rest of the year. No new comedy can come out that will supplant the following 10. My only steadfast rule is the show must have more than one season. So, without further rambling, I present to you ...

Top 10 TV Comedies of the Decade

10. The Colbert Report: Former Daily Show correspondent Stephen Colbert nails this sly, hilarious send-up of uber-conservative talk shows like Bill O'Reilly's. He plays the role so perfectly that many Republicans actually thought (and might still think) he's one of them, which explains why he was invited to host the White House Correspondents Dinner three years ago. It's satire in its purest, most cutting-edge form.

9. Late Night with Conan O'Brien: On the strength of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's visit to the Star Wars premier, this absurdist late, late night talk show makes the list. There were no limits to how absurd and random this show could get, from the Masturbating Bear to the Jewish Turtle Riding the Mechanical Bull to the Walker Texas Ranger lever. It had the comedy of a couple of college kids high on pot and Fritos thinking up non sequiturs in a dorm lounge. More than once this show made me laugh so much I lost my breath and cried.

8. Curb Your Enthusiasm: Seinfeld on steroids. All the awkward social faux-pas of your normal British comedy with the "what's the deal?" vibe of Seinfeld, Larry David's show is the funniest HBO has ever had. The true achievement is you're not thinking "damn, this is a Seinfeld rip-off." Curb takes what made Seinfeld the show of the 1990s and takes it to new, more profane and obscene levels. Susie Essman is the true star. No one cusses with as much ferocity, and elicits as many laughs in the process, as she can.

7. Real Time with Bill Maher: Imagine if the participants on Meet the Press could drop F-bombs and say what they truly felt? Throw in a comedian who has never been afraid to push boundaries and, like magic, you have the best political talk show in America. Bill Maher cuts to the bone and in a time of madness and idiocy in D.C., he makes me laugh and even open my eyes a bit. Thank goodness, because he certainly helped me get through the Bush years and even under Obama, he has not lost anything on his fastball.

6. South Park: This show never seems to go away. I remember when it was the brash, disgusting new kid on the block in the late '90s. Now it's sort of a grandfather, setting the stage for similar cartoons that followed. It hits and misses, but when it hits, it hits hard. The Scientology episode, the Woodland Creatures episode, the "They're takin' our jobs!" episode highlight a consistent run for this lovable bunch of allegorical cardboard cartoons.

5. The Office (American): I never thought this show could succeed the way it has, giving the huge shadow it's British forebearer casts over it. The Office proved me wrong because it brilliantly Americanized what made the English version so good. They hit a home run on the Jim-Pam dynamic. They scored one of the funniest characters of the decade in Dwight Schrute. They don't waste any characters. And, while often hilarious and quotable, it always has a heart, which puts it a step above most.

4. 30 Rock: The funniest scripted show on television right now without a doubt. The jokes come firing at you like machine gun bullets and it can be a challenge to get them all, but the reward is great. Jack Donaghy. Liz Lemon. Kenneth Parcell. Tracy Jordan. Jenna Maroney. The main characters all have something to offer and some of the best lines I've ever heard have come from them, especially Jordan and Donaghy. The laughs come from the shortest, most benign asides. They come from background noises, like the radio station announcing a tornado in Detroit by saying it put out three fires. If I can re-watch an episode and still laugh like I did the first time, I know I have a keeper. This is one of those shows.

3. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: What would we do without Jon Stewart? I shutter to think of an American media landscape without him. While so-called journalists swallowed everything D.C. fed them the past several years, debasing their craft to horrifying levels, Stewart cuts through with the truth. And in most cases, the truth is funnier than fiction. No one is better at pointing out hypocrisy, be it our own as a people or from politicians and media. The fact this show does it four days a week and the fact that it elevates our national discussion on issues makes the Daily Show one of the more important and trend-setting programs of the decade. And it's a potent farm for comedic talent, from Colbert to Steve Carell, Rob Corddry and Ed Helms.

2. The Office (British): Many of the scenes in this show were so painfully awkward to watch, I laughed in self-defense. The important thing is I laughed. The laughs came often for a show that perfectly dissected Western Civilization's dissatisfaction with the modern workplace, but this was more than just a comedy. The romance between Tim and Dawn is one of the best, most tightly written ones I've ever seen. I rate this Office better than its American counterpart because it's unflinchingly realistic. It never betrays the fact that its a mockumentary and that the people in it are, at the end of the day, ordinary. The American version veers into absurdity and while it's funny, it's not realistic. Gareth could be a real person. Dwight could not. Michael Scott can get annoying at times and unrealistically stupid and foolish. David Brent, on the other hand, is one of the best characters in television history.

That's why this show is No. 2. Ricky Gervais is so freaking perfect in this role I'm still amazed by it, and the show ended a few years ago. He doesn't make you hate the character, which is a no-no for comedy. Ultimately, he makes you feel pity for him. He's so desperate to be liked that he'll do almost anything. We've all met people like that, though they rarely sail into Brent territory. As good as Carell is, Gervais' performance is the gold standard. It's up there with Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, George Costanza or Archie Bunker in my mind. He was that perfect.

1. Family Guy: Little characterization. The plot never matters. You'll never cry or feel for the characters. All you'll do is laugh your ass off for 22 minutes. A comedy, above all, is supposed to make you laugh. It doesn't matter how. Family Guy has made me laugh more than any show I have ever seen and nothing comes within 500,000 miles of it. Nothing.

This show will go anywhere. It will cross the line, draw a new line and then cross that one, too. It's absurd. It's biting. It's smart. It's sophomoric. It's been described as the Simpsons on acid -- which is fair. Stewie Griffin is a wholly original character, one of the best cartoon characters of all time. Brian is great. He's a dog, but he's the one you relate to most. Chris has his moments. Meg is the punching bag. Lois is Marge Simpson with an edge. And Peter Griffin is dumb and fat. They're all great, but it's the secondary characters that separate this show from the pack. Quagmire. Adam West. Cleveland. Dr. Hartman. Tom Tucker. Carter Pewterschmidt. The list goes on.

This show will do anything -- ANYTHING -- to get a laugh. And you have to respect that. While it will never gets emotional like The Office or enlightened like the Daily Show, it gets me laughing like nothing ever has. It's provided me an endless array of quotes I use way, way too often. And the biggest reason it's numero uno on this list? I can watch an episode for the 10th time and crack up throughout the episode. It never, ever fails. Case closed.

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