The good thing about having a website is that I can choose any topic I wish to write about. I was discussing TV comedies recently and it spurred me to come up with my ten favourite shows of all time. I quickly discovered that nearly all of the series I chose were dominated by one, sometimes two or three, outstanding personalities. Of course, good writing was essential in most instances (but not all). As far as I am aware, very little writing goes into my all-time favourite program at all, but more of that later. After much consideration I have arrived at what I consider to be the funniest shows ever to appear on television. Young readers of this site (assuming there are any) will probably disagree with nearly all my selections and I apologise for that. I am now 70 years old and have been watching TV since the late 1950s. My choices range over several decades and are determined entirely by my personal preference. There is no intellect involved, no assessment of directorial quality or even universal popularity. This is a list of programs that have appealed to me down the decades. Nothing more. Here is part 1.
20 MORK AND MINDY (1978-82) 5 SEASONS
Mork and Mindy lasted for 5 seasons and 94 episodes before Robin Williams moved on to bigger things. He carried the show playing an alien named Mork (from Ork), although for 20 episodes the unique humour of Jonathan Winters gave him a run for his money. Williams admitted that he started snorting cocaine during the series because he did not know what to say in between takes to all the set people and visiting celebrities. It would become a life-long addiction and a contributing factor in his suicide at 63 in 2014.
19 HAPPY DAYS (1974-84) 11 SEASONS
I must say that I am surprised Happy Days carried on for eleven seasons and 255 episodes. Undoubtedly, the presence of Henry Winkler in every one of them was the reason for the show’s longevity. As the Fonz he became a national (and international) icon to teenagers. He was just so cool! Sadly for Winkler, he became so identified as Fonzie that he was unable to get much work as an actor outside the series. Ron Howard went on to be a top director, Tom Bosley passed away in 2010 and Erin Moran (Joanie Cunningham) died in 2017 at 56.
18 THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (1955-9) 4 SEASONS
Silvers and Gosfield
This highly popular series of the fifties was called simply Bilko in my hometown in Western Australia. It had two stars, the fast-talking, scheming con-man Sgt. Bilko, played by Phil Silvers, and the bumbling Colonel Hall, beautifully played by Paul Ford. Unbelievably, neither man got the bulk of the fan mail. That went to the unlikely Maurice Gosfield, a real-life slob who portrayed the company slob Private Doberman! His popularity with the fans was not matched on the set, however. He became big-headed and argumentative. Silvers and he loathed one another. ‘Dobie thought of himself as Cary Grant playing a short, plump man’, wrote Phil in his autobiography. In 1957 the Bachelor and Bachelorettes Society of America voted Gosfield ‘TV Bachelor of the Year’, which goes to show how stupid they were. He died from a massive heart attack in 1964 aged 51. Silvers lived until 1985.
17 THE ODD COUPLE (1970-5) 5 SEASONS
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were ideally cast as the fusspot Felix Unger (Tony) and the slovenly sports writer Oscar Madison (Jack). ABC insisted that the opening credits mention that Felix and Oscar were ‘two divorced men’, concerned that viewers might otherwise get the wrong impression that they were homosexuals living together. In real-life Randall was an aficionado of opera and classical music, while Klugman was an avid horse-racing fan – just as their ‘Odd Couple’ characters were. The series was based on the original Neil Simon play and the writing (not by Simon, incidentally) was first class.
16 HOME IMPROVEMENT (1991-99) 8 SEASONS
Debbe Dunning as Heidi
Tim Allen and Patricia Richardson played Tim and Jill Taylor for all 203 episodes over 8 seasons. Reportedly, they were offered a further $50 million and $25 million respectively to do a ninth season, but Tim wanted to move on. According to his co-star Richard Karn (he played Al), Allen instantly regretted his decision but it was too late. Jonathan Taylor-Thomas played the Taylor’s son Randy and was a heart-throb for a lot of teenage girls around the globe, but he became disillusioned with show business and left the series in 1998. He even refused to participate in the finale episode a year later which disappointed Allen considerably. Tim’s voice has attained a kind of immortality through Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story films. And the there was Debbe Dunning as Heidi…
15 BATMAN (1966-8) 3 SEASONS
The TV version of Batman was one of those series that polarised viewers. They either loved it or hated it. No middle of the road. I watched it religiously because Adam West (Batman) played the caped hero so brilliantly in dead-pan. Fans (like me) marvelled at his ability to utter such goofy lines, yet keep a straight face while doing so. And Burt Ward as Robin was someone we just loved to hate. ‘Holy agility, Batman’, was just one of the 352 times he said the word ‘Holy’ in the series! Before it went to air this series received the lowest test scores from audiences in the history of the ABC. It folded after just three seasons ABC waited to see if another network would pick it up, but there were no takers, so the expensive Bat Cave set was bulldozed. Two weeks later NBC offered to pick up the series but changed their minds when faced with rebuilding the set. Pity.
14 FAMILY TIES (1982-9) 7 SEASONS
Tracy Pollan and Michael J Fox
In my opinion this series succeeded for 171 episodes over 7 seasons because Michael J. Fox was quite brilliant. No other reason. The guy has always possessed wonderful timing, never more beautifully demonstrated than in episode after episode of Family Ties. As Alex Keaton he was given a girlfriend (Ellen) part-way through the series, a pretty actress named Tracy Pollan whom Fox would later marry for real. The series was supposed to be a starring vehicle for the parents, Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross, but before long Fox emerged as the real star of the show, much like Henry Winkler stole Happy Days from Anson Williams (Potsie) and Ron Howard (Richie).
13 GET SMART (1965-70) 5 SEASONS
The Get Smart series was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. They wanted a spy series that was a cross between James Bond and The Pink Panther – a kind of 007-Inspector Clouseau type of secret agent. Don Adams was chosen to star because he was already under contract. In 2008 Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway starred in an insipid remake that was minus one vital ingredient – Don Adams. He was born to play Maxwell Smart and made up for the lame ideas (like the ‘Cone of Silence’, for instance) that detracted from his delightful performances. By the way, ‘99’ did not have a real name and CONTROL and KAOS were not acronyms for anything at all.
12 DAD’S ARMY (1968-77) 9 SEASONS
Once again we have a series (British this time) that was carried along by one man. The superb Arthur Lowe portrayed the pompous, stuffed shirt Captain Mainwaring in all 80 episodes (yes, just 80 in 9 years), and became one of Britain’s most beloved comedians along the way. Clive Dunn was also very good as the doddering Lance Corporal Jones, although he was just 47 years old when filming started in 1968. Interestingly, the theme song, ‘Who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler…’ was supposed to be sung by popular WW2 entertainers Flanagan and Allen but Allen was desperately ill so Bud Flanagan sang it alone. Ironically, Bud died shortly after recording it and Chesney Allen lived another 14 years. When Clive Dunn passed away in 2012 it left just Ian Lavender (Pike) alive of the original series cast.
11 WELCOME BACK, KOTTER (1975-9) 4 SEASONS
This series was originally to be named Kotter, but songwriter John Sebastian (of The Lovin’ Spoonful) was unable to find enough rhymes for ‘Kotter’, so he wrote ‘Welcome Back’ instead. The series name was changed, ‘Welcome Back’ became a number one hit and Gabe Kaplan (Kotter) suddenly found himself an ‘also-ran’ in his own series. The four main students (the Sweathogs) were much older than the characters they portrayed: All were in their twenties when the series ended, the oldest, Ron Palillo (Horshack) was 29! Even John Travolta (Vinnie Barbarino) was 24. Marcia Strassman played Kotter’s wife Julie. She hated the role and she disliked working with Kaplan. In fact, a rift developed on the set with two Sweathogs supporting Kaplan and Horshack favouring Strassman. Travolta stayed friendly with both of them. He was well and truly the star of the show and would go on to far greater things.
Part Two (10-1) will be posted in two day’s time.