If television shows are great (and they are!), then logically, the only thing better should be television shows within other television shows. Whether it’s shows that characters appeared on, or shows that characters regularly watched, the best are ranked here, with their prominence in the show counting alongside their premise. Shows where the fake television show is essential and part of the day-to-day will rank higher than shows that appear in only one or a few episodes. Notably, I leaned against taking programs that were just straight fictional versions of the news, so apologies to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Newsroom.
1. Show: 30 Rock. Show-within-a-Show: TGS with Tracy Jordan.
Liz Lemon’s struggling Friday night variety show was changed forever when executive Jack Donaghy forced her to add troubled silver screen star Tracy Jordan to combat flagging ratings, even though Jordan didn’t hold much appeal to the mostly female audience of The Girlie Show. TGS only got on air to begin with after the network believed it needed a quick female-friendly response to the scandal which followed its airing of controversial program Bitch Hunter. Memorable TGS sketches include “Gaybraham Lincoln,” “Barack A-Llama,” “Who Wants to Eat a Dictionary?” and “Black Lance Ito,” among many others. While 30 Rock revolved around TGS, several other fake NBC television shows made appearances, including MILF Island, Gold Case and Queen of Jordan.
2. Show: The Simpsons. Show-within-a-Show: The Itchy and Scratchy Show.
featured many, many fake television shows over its run, including one-timers like Night Boat, When Animals Attack Magicians and recurring shows like Eye on Springfield. The best and most enduring of these is The Itchy and Scratchy Show, even more so than The Krusty the Klown Show on which it appears. Itchy and Scratchy are a demented, ultra-violent Tom and Jerry, and classic Simpsons episodes see the kids write for Itchy and Scratchy and the whole family go to amusement park Itchy and Scratchy Land. There are too many classic Itchy and Scratchy episodes to count, but my favorite may be the one featuring Quentin Tarantino talking about how “violence is everywhere in our society; you know, it’s like even in breakfast cereals, man” before Itchy chops his head off.
3. Show: Seinfeld. Show-within-a-Show: Jerry.
Meta before meta was cool, comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s character, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, was given the opportunity to create his own show. He pitches it to NBC executives as a show about nothing, and it eventually becomes Jerry. Jerry stars actors portraying Seinfeld characters George, Jerry and Elaine, including a before-he-was-famous Jeremy Piven as George. The show airs once and then fails, but is later shown to a couple of Japanese television executives. Jerry offers a confusing lesson about the American legal system to the Japanese, as someone responsible for causing an auto accident with Jerry is required in court to become Jerry’s butler when he can’t afford to pay for damages. The strange judicial outcome also leads to the show’s most memorable line, the poorly acted and overdramatic, “Because he’s my butler.”
4. Show: The Larry Sanders Show. Show-within-a-Show: The Larry Sanders Show.
The Larry Sanders Show belongs to a select class of show on this list in which the show and the fictional show share the same name. Garry Shandling starred as fictional late night host Larry Sanders in this breakthrough ahead-of-its-time HBO comedy. Sanders created the show instead of taking up an offer to host an actual late night show, which he had experience with as a regular guest host of The Tonight Show in the late ‘80s. Real guests appeared as exaggerated versions of themselves on the show. Rip Torn plays his producer and a pre-Arrested Development Jeffrey Tambor played his sidekick. Video cameras cleverly recorded the show within the show to make it stand apart from the behind-the-scenes shots visually.
5. Show: Community. Show-within-a-Show: Inspector Spacetime.
Community features several fictional properties, including movie series Kickpuncher and the brilliant British Cougarton Abbey. The most frequently appearing fake show is the Doctor Who parody Inspector Spacetime. Troy and Abed were diehard fans, and the show’s most prominent appearance was in the third episode of the Dan Harmon-free fourth season, “Conventions of Space and Time,” where the gang ventures off to an Inspector Spacetime convention. The best fictional show in Community is actually even fictional within Community, the invented morning show Troy and Abed in the Morning, which featured in many a Community post-credit sequence.