CBS via Getty Images; Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images; Mitchell Haaseth/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
Like soap operas and game shows, the sitcom has been around since the black-and-white, rabbit-eared birth of television. The best of the genre tends to center around bickering families or dysfunctional workplaces. More often than not, they’re disposable, half-hour bursts of creaky set-ups followed by predictable punchlines. But every once in a while, a show will tap into something hilarious and true. That’s when sitcoms become more than run-of-the-mill time-killers; they become art.
The shows on this list, from I Love Lucy (launching in 1951) to Curb Your Enthusiasm (still in production!), all defined, redefined, revolutionized and maybe even transcended the art of the sitcom. Now, in the age of streaming, you don’t have to spin the TV dial and hope to catch something in syndication late at night. These series are available online to stream whenever you want — a treasure trove if ever there was one.
But let’s name names: From 1950 to now, which TV sitcoms were the best of the best? Check out a highly subjective (but deeply pondered) list of the best TV sitcoms of all time, ranked from number 25 all the way to number 1. Cue the IRL laugh track.
25: Everybody Loves Raymond (1996–2005)
Foghorn-voiced comic Ray Romano shaped his stand-up routine about being a clueless suburban husband, put-upon dad, and smothered son of annoyingly intrusive parents into one of the most dependably funny half hours of the 1990s — a decade that would go down as the sitcom’s second Golden Age. Ostensibly the star, Romano was more often than not the foil for his usually right wife (Patricia Heaton), his dim brother constantly vying for his parents’ favor (Brad Garrett), and of course his wonderfully suffocating mother and father (perfectly played by Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle).
Where to stream it: Everybody Loves Raymond, on Peacock
24: The Jeffersons (1975–1988)
One of the many hit spin-offs from the Norman Lear hit factory of All in the Family, this groundbreaking CBS series about an upwardly mobile African-American family presented a new kind of Black experience on the small screen years before The Cosby Show came along. As the short (and short-fused) Manhattan dry cleaner George Jefferson, Sherman Hemsley is a coil of insecurity hiding beneath his blustery arrogance. Whether getting put in his place by his beloved wife Weezy (Isabel Sanford), his insubordinate housekeeper (Marla Gibbs) or his “honky” and “Oreo” neighbors, George is the classic little man who (hilariously) roars at the world in order to justify his place in it.
Where to stream it: The Jeffersons, on Starz
DON’T MISS THIS: Norman Lear's Greatest Hits
23: The Odd Couple (1970–1975)
Adapted from Neil Simon’s classic play starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney, and later, an equally fantastic movie with Matthau and Jack Lemmon, ABC’s mismatched-roommate comedy scored big laughs thanks to Tony Randall’s persnickety neat freak Felix Unger, and Jack Klugman’s rumpled, walking pigsty Oscar Madison. Here’s a case where opposites definitely don’t attract. But deep down, beneath their snob-vs-slob veneers, these divorced men find a sort of reluctant harmony and understanding that they never achieved with their long-gone wives. That is, when they’re not driving each other crazy.
22: Will & Grace (1998–2006; 2017–2020)
Eric McCormack is Will, a well-dressed lawyer; Debra Messing is Grace, a slightly daffy interior director. He’s gay, she’s straight, and they’re best friends. Adding spice to the mix are Megan Mullally as the loaded (in both senses of the word) Karen, and Sean Hayes as the flamboyantly loud and proud Jack. This NBC comedy felt revolutionary when it debuted in 1998, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it played an important role in the push toward gay rights in America, including the legalization of gay marriage. Beyond that, though, the show was (and remains) a riot with zingers worthy of Noel Coward.
Where to stream it: Will & Grace, on Hulu
Join today and save 25% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
21: Black-ish (2014–Present)
One of the biggest complaints you can level against the network sitcom is that it has always been a bit of a whites-only club. That finally began to change during the Obama years, thanks in part to the success of this Kenya Barris creation — a weekly family comedy that almost always hits the bull's-eye of humor and topicality. Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross are both aces, heading up the show’s cast as a successful and happily married husband and wife who worry that their family isn’t “Black enough” for our complex moment in history. That probably makes the series sound heavier than it is, but its resonance is in how deftly it balances its timeliness with more traditional screwball silliness.
Where to stream it: Black-ish, on Hulu
DON’T MISS THIS: The Top 10 Best Netflix Original Sitcoms, Ranked
20: Sex and the City (1998–2004)
TV critics and pop-culture pundits always point to The Sopranos as the show that turned HBO into an original programming powerhouse, but Carrie Bradshaw & Co. deserve just as much of the credit. As a serial-dating Manhattan sex columnist, Sarah Jessica Parker turns the usual sitcom dating games into urban anthropology along with her three brunching besties: the prim Charlotte (Kristin Davis), the uptight Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and the sex-hungry man-eater Samantha (Kim Cattrall). Sex and the City may come off as a tad dated in 2021, but at the turn of the millennium every episode felt like a taboo shot of truth.
Where to stream it: Sex and the City, on HBO Max
19: Veep (2012–2019)
If you’re one of the stars of the best sitcom of the ’90s, what can you possibly do for an encore? Well, if you were Julia Louis-Dreyfus, you followed up Seinfeld with this profane peek behind the curtain of American power. As the holder of the most thankless job in politics, Louis-Dreyfus plays VP Selina Meyer, a woman who masks her own sense of impotence with withering, elaborately inventive insults that she fires off at her staff and rivals like she’s holding a howitzer. Created by Armando Iannucci, this D.C. comedy is the kind of satire that stings and leaves a welt.
Where to stream it: Veep, on HBO Max
18: 30 Rock (2006–2013)
Speaking of encores, former Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey spoofed late-night variety shows, the self-absorbed eccentrics who work on them, and the surreal idiocy of network politics in this rat-a-tat series that somehow packed in more gags between commercial breaks than most shows did in an entire season. As Liz Lemon, Fey beautifully mixed antisocial awkwardness with surreal slapstick. Orbiting around her deadpan wit were the note-perfect Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski and Alec Baldwin, all of whom took the same merry-prankster joy in biting the NBC hand that fed them.
17: Modern Family (2009–2020)
Although it has been gone only a year, it’s hard not to miss Modern Family — one of the most precise and well-engineered joke-delivery systems of the 2000s. Created by sitcom legends Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, this mosaic of three comically unique families who are connected by blood (even though some members would rather not be) featured a sprawling ensemble cast that was like a television Murderer’s Row. Headed by Ed O’Neill as the cranky paterfamilias with a Latin bombshell trophy wife (Sofia Vergara), Modern Family was the rare sitcom that came out of the gate fully formed. Somehow it managed to only get sharper and sharper over time.
Where to stream it: Modern Family, on Hulu
16: The Office (2005–2013)
When the American version of Ricky Gervais’ beloved 2001–2003 Brit-com debuted back in 2005, it had massive shoes to fill. But rather than try to Xerox the U.K. version, Steve Carell & Co. turned the show’s premise into something different … and ultimately just as funny. The character types at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company are all familiar: the clueless boss (Carell), the will-they-or-won’t-they office romantics (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer), the resident cubicle wacko (Rainn Wilson). But with the cast’s straight-faced spin, they yielded weekly magic.
Where to stream it: The Office, on Peacock
15: Friends (1994–2004)
Yes, Friends was impossible to avoid in the 1990s. And it probably went on a season or two too long. But in the 17 years since it went off the air, the show has not only attracted new legions of fans who weren’t even born during its first run, it somehow seems to have aged like a fine Bordeaux. Why? Well, there isn’t a weak link in the show’s cast — Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow and David Schwimmer — and, more importantly, the actors spark off one another with the crack comic timing of, well, real-life friends.
Where to stream it: Friends, on HBO Max
DON’T MISS THIS: Quiz: How Well Do You Really Know These Friends?
14: The Golden Girls (1985–1992)
Here’s a show that never should have worked. At least, according to the network ratings experts and demographic gurus of the 1980s. A comedy full of saucy double entendres served up by four older women living under the same pastel-hued roof in Miami. But with a Hall of Fame cast that included Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, these women not only proved that age was just a number, but also showed the experts that there was an underserved audience that was hungry for this kind of comedy. Actually, starving for it. Thank you for being a friend, gals.
Where to stream it: The Golden Girls, on Hulu
13: The Bob Newhart Show (1972–1978)
Television comedies usually hit you over the head with a gag or shout their punchlines to the cheap seats in the back. The buttoned-up Newhart did neither of these things, which is why this whip smart (but still silly) sitcom sometimes felt like it was being filmed on a completely different planet. As a dry, bemused Chicago shrink with a roster of oddball patients, Newhart seemed like an alien visitor in an insane world that he hadn’t quite figured out yet. Outside of the office, there was wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), who was as cool and composed as he was quietly neurotic.
Where to stream it: The Bob Newhart Show, on Hulu
12: Arrested Development (2003–2006; 2013–2019)
Like Will & Grace, you’ll want to skip the comeback seasons. The original run is where you should really begin and end. Here is sidesplitting proof that, yes, the rich are different from you and me. In fact, they’re so delightfully oblivious to anyone who isn’t looking back from the mirror that their cluelessness is hilarious. For the newcomer, the surreal saga of the hapless, helpless Bluth family is a show that’s so dense and layered and self-referential that you will want to watch it beginning with Episode 1 … and then you won’t want to stop, thanks to a cast that knows that they’re in a once-in-a-lifetime project and has a blast with it, especially Jessica Walter’s spoiled matriarch, Lucille.
11: Frasier (1993–2004)
Arguably the best TV spin-off ever, this Swiss-precise spawn of Cheers follows snooty psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) and the daily barrage of trials that come his way at work (he’s a radio shrink) and at home, where he swaps high-brows jousts with his equally effete brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and his blue-collar dad (John Mahoney). On paper, a show like Frasier could easily come across as condescending and insufferable, but when filtered through its terrific ensemble, it’s pure snippy joy.
10: Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–Present)
Here is the greatest cringe comedy of … well, ever. Seinfeld cocreator Larry David moved in front of the camera for this HBO masterpiece to play an (only slightly) exaggerated version of himself interacting awkwardly with friends and total strangers who dare to make him observe the rules of civilized society. Niceties have no place in his universe. The character of George on Seinfeld was based on David, and Curb allows you to see that his obnoxiousness wasn’t fiction. Oddly enough, David somehow pulls off the tricky balancing act of making you hate him and love him at the same time because he’s true to himself.
Where to stream it: Curb Your Enthusiasm, on HBO Max
9: M*A*S*H (1972–1983)
Adapted from Robert Altman’s 1970 movie, which turned the Korean War into a stand-in for Vietnam and painted a pair of merry prankster Army surgeons as the last sane men in a world gone mad, the small-screen M*A*S*H kept the same message for a different medium. Over time, the show evolved (not just the revolving-door cast, but also the tone, which became more heavy and dramatic), but the series never shied away from going for the funny bone and the heart, depending on what the occasion called for. Alan Alda led the cast through 11 seasons like a benevolent general, and the finale remains a television gold standard to this day.
Where to stream it: M*A*S*H, on Hulu
8: The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966)
Created by Carl Reiner and based on his experiences writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, this is the moment when the sitcom really came of age and showed that sometimes you could get even bigger laughs by being subtle. Also, that they could be set in a workplace. Dick Van Dyke is Rob Petrie, a TV comedy writer (how meta!) who paces his office trying to be funny with his cowriters (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie) and then goes home and is unintentionally hilarious with his wife (Mary Tyler Moore). There were certainly funny sitcoms before this one, but none this sure and sophisticated.
Where to stream it: The Dick Van Dyke Show, on Hulu
7: I Love Lucy (1951–1957)
Lucille Ball remains the alpha and omega of slapstick TV comediennes. Even in black and white, her red hair always seems to be on fire. The premise of the show couldn’t be simpler: Latin bandleader Ricky Ricardo (Ball’s real-life husband, Desi Arnaz) has to keep bailing his zany, flibbertigibbet wife Lucy out of trouble. Will she ever learn her lesson? Of course not. Whether she’s struggling to keep pace with a conveyer belt or stomping grapes, Lucy is the ever-moving eye of a comedy hurricane. It’s impossible not to love Lucy. Or, frankly, their buttinsky next-door neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz.
6: The Honeymooners (1955–1956)
Considering the size of the shadow it casts on television history, it’s shocking to discover that The Honeymooners ran only for one season. It’s like a quarterback winning the Super Bowl in his rookie season, then retiring. Anchored by Jackie Gleason, it was a reassuring blue-collar show that revealed to us every week that, yes, Gleason’s bus driver Ralph Kramden and his wife, Audrey Meadows’ Alice, didn’t have much, but they were in love. The same goes for their neighbors Ed Norton (Art Carney) and Trixie (Joyce Randolph). For them, each punchline felt like payday. And The Honeymooners showed us all that only laughter and love will get you through hard times.
Where to stream it: The Honeymooners, on Amazon Prime Video
5: The Larry Sanders Show (1992–1998)
Back in the ’90s, when the biggest story in entertainment was the Leno-Letterman-Arsenio late-night wars, Garry Shandling held a funhouse mirror up to the backstage drama with The Larry Sanders Show. Brilliant and petty and insider, this HBO show skewered Hollywood egos without mercy. As the always-insecure talk show host of the title, Shandling has almost Zen self-awareness, a taste for his own jugular. And the show’s supporting cast is perfection, especially Jeffrey Tambor as Larry’s clueless sidekick Hank and Rip Torn as his scotch-loving producer and guard dog, Artie. This show started great and ended great and was never anything other than great in between. In fact, whenever I’m asked who my favorite TV character of all time is, the answer’s right on the tip of my tongue: Artie.
Where to stream it: The Larry Sanders Show, on HBO Max
4: Seinfeld (1989–1998)
How could a “show about nothing” find so much to make small talk about: the contest, yadda yadda, the Soup Nazi … the list goes on. No one will ever mistake Jerry Seinfeld for a great TV actor, but he is one of the medium’s great straight men (who would have thought that the famous stand-up that the show’s named after would be the straight man?), trying not to crack up while Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander) and hipster doofus Kramer (Michael Richards) storm in and out of his apartment without notice or so much as a knock. Seinfeld is, hands down, the greatest sitcom of the ’90s, and while Jerry’s stone-washed jeans have certainly aged, this classic has not.
Where to stream it: Seinfeld, on Netflix (beginning Oct. 1)
3: Cheers (1982–1993)
How many jokes begin with the set-up: A guy walks into a bar? I have no clue, but it’s certainly as many as 11 seasons’ worth of Cheers episodes, each of which seems to begin with a new way to take that premise and bend it into something unexpected and brilliant. Set in a Boston bar run by former Red Sox pitcher and womanizer Sam Malone (Ted Danson), the run of the show can be broken into two halves: The first featuring the romantic tension between Sam and haughty grad student-turned-waitress Diane (Shelley Long); the second featuring the sexual tension between Sam and hilarious trainwreck Rebecca (Kirstie Alley). The fact that it’s hard to pick which is better says a lot about how exquisite this show is — and how incredible its supporting cast (George Wendt, John Ratzenberger, Rhea Perlman, Nicholas Colasanto, Woody Harrelson, Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth) is.
2: The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977)
Who can turn the world on with a smile? Mary, Lou, Ted, Murray, Rhoda, Phyllis and Sue Ann, that’s who. Here it is, the greatest collection of three-dimensional characters (and character actors) in TV history. The writing is top-notch. The jokes are perfection. The timing is impeccable. But what makes The Mary Tyler Moore Show better than the sum of its parts is that it showed us a single woman living her life on her own terms. Moore, who cut her sitcom chops on The Dick Van Dyke Show, is an associate producer at a small-time Minneapolis TV station populated by a gruff boss (Ed Asner’s Lou), a boob anchor (Ted Knight’s Ted), a sarcastic writer (Gavin MacLeod’s Murray), and a randy happy homemaker (Betty White’s Sue Ann). Along with her neighbors Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman), Mary showed us a 1970s woman who, despite everything stacked against her, was going to make it after all.
Where to stream it: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, on Hulu
1: All in the Family (1971–1979)
Every Saturday night between 1971 and 1979, millions of Americans turned to CBS to see what was going to come out of Archie Bunker’s mouth this time. Some of them would agree with his outer-borough bigotry, but most would recognize it for what it was: the most brilliant TV satire of all time. Created by Norman Lear, All in the Family reinvented what a TV show could say and be about. It pushed the envelope and turned a modest 30-minute formula into something revolutionary, airing out our fractured nation’s divisions and wounds. That may sound heavy, but thanks to Carroll O’Connor’s Archie, Jean Stapleton’s Edith, Rob Reiner’s Meathead, and Sally Struthers’ Gloria, All in the Family and its complicated protagonist delivered bitter medicine that went down like sugar.
Where to stream it: All in the Family, on Amazon Prime Video
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.