The 1990s were a wonderful time for TV comedies, with sitcoms thriving thanks to NBC’s Must See TV lineup and ABC’s dedication to working-class narratives. Sketch comedies flourished on cable and in late night, and networks even found room to experiment. Here are my picks for the 10 best TV comedies of the ’90s (in chronological order).
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Stand-up comic Roseanne Barr shook up the sitcom world with this show based on her act, the chronicle of a resolutely blue-collar family with real problems and real, complex family love. As years went on, the show strayed from its roots, but its family dynamic kept it grounded and entertaining.
'Mystery Science Theater 3000' (Comedy Central, 1989-1996; Sci Fi, 1997-1999)
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It’s such a simple idea: Three guys (well, one guy and two robots) make fun of bad movies. Yet the creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000 did it with such wit and creativity that they managed to grow their show from local Minneapolis TV to national cable on two different networks, all on the simple premise of saying really funny stuff about really horrible movies.
This is the behemoth: Widely cited as the best sitcom of all time, the little show about nothing became a cultural touchstone, spawning catch phrases and iconic characters and sending its stars into mega-fame. It’s easy to forget, then, how quirky and clever and downright nasty it could be at times. Seinfeld’s four neurotic, self-centered New Yorkers were the least lovable beloved sitcom characters ever created.
'The Kids in the Hall' (HBO, 1989-1992; CBS, 1992-1994)
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There was a lot of good sketch comedy
on TV in the ’90s (The State
, The Ben Stiller Show
, In Living Color
, Mr. Show
), but none quite as good as the show from this Canadian troupe. Combining Monty Python’s love of absurdity and penchant for cross-dressing with an edgier, modern sensibility influenced by Saturday Night Live
, the Kids delivered a hilarious mix of surrealism and social commentary, creating indelible characters along the way and making themselves into a comedy institution.
'Get a Life' (Fox, 1990-1992)Chris Elliott’s bizarre show, a sort of alternate-universe version of the family sitcom, was clearly never meant to survive. But its unabashed weirdness, in a show ostensibly about a 30-year-old paperboy living with his parents, was bracing and shockingly funny, a testament to the still-young Fox’s willingness to take a chance on personal vision. Elliott’s never done anything as impressive since, but he influenced an entire generation of alt-comedians.
Following up a show as beloved as Cheers seems like a futile endeavor, but Kelsey Grammer did just that with this spin-off featuring his pompous psychiatrist character Frasier Crane. Frasier moved to Seattle, got his own radio show and introduced the world to a wonderful supporting cast, including his even-fussier brother Niles and his salt-of-the-earth dad. In its explorations of familial relationships, unrequited love and growing older with grace, Frasier might have even been, at times, (dare I say?) better than Cheers.
'Grace Under Fire' (ABC, 1993-1998)
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Roseanne proved that sassy blue-collar mamas could be ratings gold, and some might say that comedian Brett Butler just rode that show’s coattails. But Grace Under Fire had a life all its own, a little grittier and less cuddly, sure, but also more willing to face harsh truths. Butler’s backstage ego games eventually destroyed the show, but for a while it was clearly Roseanne’s worthy successor.
The unassuming romantic lives of six fairly spoiled New Yorkers became front-page news for much of the ’90s, thanks to this gimmick-free show that succeeded on old-fashioned values of character and storytelling. Whether you wanted Ross and Rachel to get together or just shut up about it, you probably got sucked in to their lives (and were entertained along the way) just the same.
Cybill Shepherd was perfect as the semi-washed-up actress who still knew how to live it up, and this show had one of the greatest supporting casts on TV, highlighted by Christine Baranski as Cybill’s boozy best friend. The show’s dedication to depicting the romantic lives of older women was ahead of its time, and its female-dominated ensemble was refreshing. Although Shepherd and Baranski reportedly clashed often, their chemistry was electric, and CBS canceled the show far too soon.
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This offbeat, extraordinarily funny show tends to get overshadowed by the tragic death of co-star Phil Hartman, but before he died Hartman hit a career high as a blowhard newscaster at a New York City radio station. Dave Foley, Maura Tierney, Joe Rogan and Andy Dick did some of their best work as members of this crackerjack ensemble, on a show never afraid to push comedic boundaries.