The Fox network debuted in 1986 as a scrappy alternative to what were at the time three monolithic broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). To catch people’s attention, it broadcast envelope-pushing comedies that were often as crude as they were funny. In the more than two decades since, Fox has grown into quite the monolith itself, and its envelope-pushing ways have mostly faded. Still, the network has aired some incredible, groundbreaking comedy throughout its history; here are my picks for the best Fox comedies -- excluding animated shows (like The Simpsons, Futurama and The Critic) -- in chronological order.
Fox’s first prime-time series, Married ... With Children is also probably its most well-known, and was infamous in its day for its vulgarity and offensiveness. The sitcom about a boorish suburban dad, his shrill wife, their dim-bulb daughter and horndog son got progressively more absurd and desperate and less funny over the course of its landmark 11-season run, but its unabashedly cynical take on family life and suburban ennui can still be bracingly funny even after all these years.
'The Tracey Ullman Show' (1987-1990)
Fox’s second prime-time series has an indelible place in pop-culture history as the launching pad of The Simpsons, whose characters starred in short animated segments that bookended commercials on this sketch-comedy show. But it’s also notable as a showcase for its title star, a British comic performer whose versatility as an impressionist and chameleon-like ability to mimic various accents have been on display in numerous cable specials and a handful of subsequent series. The show proved that Fox had an eye for untapped talent and an ability to nurture unique personalities to success.
Another sketch-comedy show headed by an underground comic performer, In Living Color became a pop-culture sensation and potential rival for Saturday Night Live. Created by and starring Keenen Ivory Wayans, In Living Color took a more urban approach to the sketch-comedy genre, and provided a showcase for a number of talented minority performers during its five-season run. Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, Jim Carrey, Alexandra Wentworth and Wayans siblings Damon, Marlon, Shawn and Kim all got their start as ensemble players on the show. It eventually burned out due to network tinkering, but not before offering up such unforgettably hilarious characters as Fire Marshal Bill, Homey the Clown and the Men on Film.
Unlike The Tracey Ullman Show or In Living Color, this sketch-comedy show never quite caught on with a wide audience, but it has a dedicated cult following and served as a launching pad for cast members Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, Bob Odenkirk and Stiller himself. Its offbeat sense of humor and skewering of pop culture has cultivated an enduring audience of fans who discovered the show on DVD.
Its period setting and regular depiction of recreational marijuana use aside, That '70s Show was really an old-fashioned family sitcom, but it did the genre right, creating real, well-rounded characters and following them through big, important life changes. Stars like Topher Grace and Laura Prepon kept the show grounded in identifiable emotion, regardless of the time period, while Ashton Kutcher and Wilmer Valderrama provided goofier counterpoints.
This short-lived comedy about college students was producer Judd Apatow’s follow-up to the beloved (and equally short-lived) Freaks & Geeks, and sometimes it doesn’t get its due thanks to living in the other show’s shadow. Undeclared was sillier and lighter than Freaks, but still very honest and real about the awkwardness of young adulthood and the pitfalls of freshman year of college. Were Apatow to start the series now, with his lucrative movie career, it would no doubt be a huge success.
The late Bernie Mac took an element from his own life -- raising his sister’s kids when she went into rehab -- for the premise of this show. His blunt, no-holds-barred take on sudden parenthood was hilarious and heartfelt, and struck a careful balance between traditional family values and the edgier tendencies of Mac’s stand-up routine. Mac’s habit of addressing the audience connected the show to his stand-up roots, and lent it just the right amount of off-kilter charm amid the family bonding.
Perhaps the most obsessed-over cult TV show of the last decade, Arrested Development struggled continually in the ratings over its three seasons but developed a rabid fan base that still dissects every reference, in-joke and background element that the intricately constructed show ever put forth. Sometimes the humor was a little more cerebral than gut-busting, but the performances were always pitch-perfect, and the show about the vain, dysfunctional Bluth family was groundbreaking in a way that Fox has rarely been before or since.