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The Best Workplace Sitcoms

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“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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.

TV’s Delightful Dolts

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One of the smartest things the TV sitcom ever did was introduce us to a few idiots. They say and do all the dumb stuff we do, yet we get to laugh at them. Here are some of TV’s more glorious dimwits.



Long before “Lost,” there was this crazy TV island where a group of castaways contended with all manner of strange twists and turns. “Gilligan’s Island” was strictly played for laughs, though. At the heart of it was Gilligan, a naive numbskull played by Bob Denver.

Professor: Listen, Gilligan, how far down was she? How many feet?

Gilligan: Professor, in navy circles, we don’t say feet. We say fathoms.

Professor: All right. How many fathoms?

Gilligan: Oh, I don’t know, about 15 feet.



Matt Leblanc rode the stupid train all the way to the bank with his portrayal of Joe Tribbiani on “Friends.”

Joey: If he doesn’t like you, then this is all just a moo point.

Rachel: Huh. A moo point?

Joey: Yeah, it’s like a cow’s opinion, you know, it just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.



America LOVED Max Baer Jr. as Jethro on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” So much so that he had a tough time finding non-Jethro roles later in his career.

Cousin Pearl: Jethro, tell your Uncle Jed why there ain’t no snow in California.

Jethro: Don’t look at me, I didn’t take it!



Even with the screechy accent and all the jokes playing off her lack of intelligence, Edith came off as a real person with a heart and soul, thanks to Jean Stapleton. “All in the Family” wouldn’t have been nearly as good without her.



How’s this for high-concept TV? Take the Frankenstein monster and turn him into a henpecked husband with Dracula for a father-in-law! “The Munsters” did just that, with a miraculous physical performance by Fred Gwynne.

Grandpa: Hmm, what smells so good?

Herman: I cut myself shaving.



Part of the strength of “The Office” is its strong group of secondary players. One of them, Brian Baumgartner’s Kevin Malone, is a complete boob. Kevin would get a huge laugh out of that description.

Kevin: I don’t like getting advice from more than one person at a time. I’m a textbook overthinker.



Gracie Allen’s genius as a writer and performer was masked by her stage and screen persona as the loony half of “Burns and Allen.” Yet a close examination of the jokes often showed a real edge to spacey Gracie.

George: Gracie, would you like a doctor?

Gracie: One at a time, kiddo, I’m not through with YOU yet.



John Travolta’s breakout role on “Welcome Back, Kotter” was hugely popular and absolutely moronic. It was the walk, the talk and the swagger that made it work, not the dialogue.

Vinnie: Up your nose with a rubber hose!



Not only is Homer one of the best idiots in TV history; he’s one of the best characters in TV history. Voiced by Dan Castellaneta, Homer of “The Simpsons” is a juggernaut of laughs.

Homer: Maybe, just once, someone will call me “sir” without adding, “You’re making a scene!”

Homer: Son, if you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet! They’re about to announce the lottery numbers.



Overshadowed by Michael J. Fox as her older brother on “Family Ties,” Justine Bateman still got plenty of good lines as Mallory.

Mallory: The light bulb is out in my bedroom! What are we going to do?



“Cheers,” one of the best sitcoms to come down the pike, gave us a trio of intellect-challenged characters to love. Ted Danson’s Sam Malone was the star of the show, of course. Woody Harrelson’s Woody Boyd also was a classic character. But I think I’ll focus here on Ernie “Coach” Pantusso, played by the late Nicholas Colasanto. Here’s to you, Coach.

Bar crowd: Let’s hang him in effigy.

Coach: The hell with that; let’s hang him right here in Boston!



Not everyone’s cup of tea, Gomer had a crazy voice and enough catchphrases for a squadron of Steve Urkels. But he scored Jim Nabors two sitcoms: “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle – USMC. Sur-prise, sur-prise!



Before he was encouraging people to eat worms on “Fear Factor,” actor Joe Rogan was a very cool dolt on “NewsRadio.”

Joe: Look, I don’t care what you say about me, but making fun of alien technology is just stupid.



Like everything else about “The Bob Newhart Show,” Bill Daily’s Howard Borden was all about the soft sell. Daily played Bob and Emily’s idiot neighbor, an airline pilot.

Howard: I was, uh, just decorating my Christmas tree and I was wondering, is there a trick to stringing cranberry sauce?



Speaking of the great Bob Newhart, his “Newhart” sitcom in the 1980s hit a stupidity trifecta with Larry, Darryl and Darryl. The brothers were led by a terrific actor, William Sanderson.

Larry: Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl and my other brother Darryl.



Sweet and stupid, that was Georgette, who married pompous and stupid anchorman Ted Baxter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Actress Georgia Engel always left the viewers with just a hint that Georgette might have more marbles than they realized.

Georgette: I really miss Phyllis. I never knew her very well. Maybe that helps.



On “Malcolm in the Middle,” brother Reese (Justin Berfield) provided brainy Malcolm with a fierce, thick-headed adversary.

Reese: A shortcut doesn’t mean it’s a shorter way. It means it’s a different way.



I maintain that Tony Danza has always been underrated as an actor. In “Taxi,” he was supremely consistent as Tony Banta, a cabbie who dreamed of a successful boxing career.

Doctor: Tony, has any doctor ever advised you to quit boxing?

Tony: Yeah, I suppose.

Doctor: You suppose?

Tony: I mean a lot of guys have yelled at me to get out of the ring. Some of them might have been doctors.



Merely the best. Art Carney captured a bit of magic with sewer worker Ed Norton, Ralph’s neighbor on “The Honeymooners.” Norton was poetry in motion, all flailing arms and shifting slouch hat. And that voice!

Norton: First, you address the ball. Hello, ball.

Okay folks, who else should be on the list?