“The Office” sauntered into TV history last night, leaving longtime viewers wondering when another great workplace sitcom will come along. Actually, one is already going strong (I’m talking to you, “Parks and Recreation”) on the same network. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit the very best workplace sitcoms of all time.
The halls of NBC aren’t your typical workplace, but who cares? The office antics of Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy and Tracy Jordan are as hilarious as anything TV has ever seen. Blerg.
In one of the all-time best bits of casting, Dabney Coleman played the vain, sexist, sarcastic, needy host of a daytime TV show in upstate New York. “Buffalo Bill” was filled with razor-sharp writing and excellent performances by Joanna Cassidy, Geena Davis, John Fiedler and others. Can you imagine a scene between Coleman’s Bill Bittinger and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy?
I almost left M*A*S*H off the List, since the workplace here is an Army hospital. Still, the 4077th’s ever-changing personnel and aura of difficult, noble work is a good fit. Great banter by people thrown together in a confined, insane situation.
“NewsRadio” had a classic workplace structure, masterfully executed. You had the endearingly odd Everyman (Dave Foley), the eccentric executive (Stephen Root), the egotistical talent (Phil Hartman), the nutjob (Andy Dick) and the dumb guy (Joe Rogan). There were no wasted moments on this show.
Rarely has the small screen seen as brilliant a bumbler as Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese. He presided over a wonderfully sketchy inn and restaurant in Britain, where pratfalls were common and visits by German tourists invariably led to inadvertent comments about Adolph Hitler.
So many excellent characters populate the American version of “The Office,” including plucky Pam, dorky Dwight, ice queen Angela and always-joking Jim. But by far the most amazing thing about the show was Steve Carell’s carefully modulated performance as man-child boss Michael Scott. It didn’t happen all at once – the audience got to see Carell find exactly the right combination of stupidity and humanity during the first season. It remains a marvel.
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW
My fear is that with each passing year, this show becomes more of a museum piece. The pace, the look, the social themes, all seem antiquated now. Take my word for it, though, the crew at WJM pioneered the TV idea of an office being like a family.
THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW
Where Mary Tyler Moore’s comedy flowed from sincerity, “Larry Sanders” emerged from a sublime sense of insincerity. Garry Shandling took his own observations about show business, mixed them with memories of Johnny Carson, and created one of the best shows ever. Plus, how could you go wrong with stellar support from Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor? Hey now!
Each character in “Barney Miller” was a tiny gem of comedy craft. What a great ensemble, from Hal Linden and Ron Glass, to Jack Soo and Abe Vigoda. There was real affection in the writing and the acting, plus a healthy dose of absurdity.
One thing tends to be forgotten when people recall the success of “Murphy Brown.” It was very funny. True, it had a progressive edge to it, with a galvanizing main performance by Candice Bergen. But it wouldn’t have lasted a full season without its sharp wit and genuine character development.
WKRP IN CINCINNATI
Here’s a great example of a sitcom that started as a collection of stereotypes and gradually gelled into something special. The cast, playing employees at an Ohio radio station, beautifully blended and contrasted their many quirks. I particularly loved Howard Hesseman as Dr. Johnny Fever.
PARKS AND RECREATION
Amy Poehler had a similar challenge in “Parks and Recreation” to what Steve Carell faced in “The Office.” How do you play a sitcom’s central character as an eccentric, rather than an Everywoman? But she’s done it, and done it very well. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is the best workplace comedy ever set in an Indiana municipal government building.
“Cheers” is another great sitcom that you don’t automatically think of as a workplace sitcom. My argument would be that the best interplay on the show stemmed from Sam Malone’s intermingling of business, pleasure and friendship.
“Wings” was treated almost like a second-tier sitcom, but I defy anyone to watch a few episodes and not laugh. It was about a collection of odd characters working at a tiny airport on Cape Cod. Dynamite cast, too, including Tim Daly, Steven Weber, Crystal Bernard, Thomas Hayden Church and Tony Shalhoub.
There was an incredible creative spirit at work within the confines of the Sunshine Cab Co. Here were truly original characters (Louie DePalma, Latka Gravas, Rev. Jim Ignatowski, etc.) brought to life by expert actors, terrific writers and gifted director James Burrows. Beyond that, “Taxi” was soulful. It followed Alex Reiger and his fellow cabbies as they sorted out the territory that exists in-between our dreams and our actual daily lives. When you can laugh at that, you’re golden.
THE OFFICE (U.K. VERSION)
Even though it yielded a great American remake, the British version of “The Office,” to my mind, was the best workplace sitcom ever filmed. Not only did it have a singularly brilliant central character (Ricky Gervais’ David Brent), it also NEVER pulled its punches. “The Office” is riotously funny, excruciatingly painful and deeply touching.
There you go, workers of the world. Be sure to add a few favorites of your own.