The 20 Best Sitcoms of the 1980s

Comedy Lists sitcoms
The 20 Best Sitcoms of the 1980s

The sitcom dominated TV in the ‘70s, but in the 1980s faced tough competition for critics’ attention from groundbreaking dramas like Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, and St. Elsewhere. It was still a fantastic era for sitcoms, but the best comedies of the ‘80s capitalized on the strides made by the best sitcoms of the ‘70s instead of making their own; you couldn’t get to Cheers, Night Court, or Newhart without The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Barney Miller, or, uh, The Bob Newhart Show. It was also the decade where the family sitcom came roaring back to popularity, both in traditional family units and ersatz combinations, eventually resulting in the late decade launch of ABC’s influential TGIF block—whose direct influence can be felt in every kid-targeting Disney Channel and Nickelodeon sitcom since.

It was also the decade of The Cosby Show. It’d be impossible to write about the sitcom in the 1980s without mentioning Bill Cosby, so let’s just rip that band-aid off right now. He’s a monster and it’s impossible to watch and enjoy his work today, especially the family-minded The Cosby Show, where he mugged his way through an impression of a perfect father. Still, its cultural impact at the time is almost unparalleled in TV history, and its massive success from 1984 on is credited with saving both NBC as a network and the very genre of the sitcom at a time when there were few hit comedies on TV. We can’t recommend anybody watching the show today, knowing what we know about the man behind it, but we also can’t ignore its importance at the time and to TV history. Consider this paragraph to be that acknowledgement; The Cosby Show isn’t on this list, because there’s no reason for anybody to ever watch it again.

We don’t necessarily recommend all of the shows below to today’s audiences—if you don’t have nostalgia for, say, number 20 on this list, you’ll probably turn it off within a few minutes—but some of the comedies below are as funny now as they were 40 years ago. And on a quick logistical note, a couple of shows that debuted late in the decade but whose bulk aired in the ‘90s are ranked a little bit lower than they would be if we were considering their full histories, and not just the 1980s; I’m talking about Roseanne and Murphy Brown, two shows that made an instant impact upon the culture when they started in 1988, earning their spots on this list, but that, again, largely ran in the 1990s. Arbitrary? Sure, but then this whole damn list is.

Okay. Let’s dig in and remember the best sitcoms of the 1980s.

20. The Facts of Lifethe_facts_of_life_poster.jpg
Years: 1979-1988
Creators: Dick Clair, Jenna McMahon
Stars: Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn, Nancy McKeon, Cloris Leachman
Networks: NBC

If you ever want to know what a typical ‘80s sitcom was like, one that isn’t remembered as either a legitimate classic or a nostalgic TGIF-style kids show, check out any one of The Facts of Life’s 201 episodes. Initially set in an all-girls boarding school, this long-running Diff’rent Strokes spinoff was textbook network cheese, with the occasional “very special episode” that would (very lightly) address serious issues like abortion. Its popularity rested heavily on the charisma and chemistry of its four teenage stars, with experienced vets like Charlotte Rae (as her Diff’rent Strokes character Mrs. Garrett) and, later, Cloris Leachman helping to guide the ship. A pre-fame George Clooney was even a regular for one single season late in its run. I was personally a huge fan of this show, which is probably the only reason it made this list.—Garrett Martin


19. Mork & Mindymork-mindy-tv.jpgYears: 1978-1982
Creators: Garry Marshall, Dale McRaven, Joe Glauberg
Stars: Robin Williams, Pam Dawber, Conrad Janis, Jonathan Winters
Networks: ABC

The world was introduced to Robin Williams playing the Mork from the planet Ork on an episode of Happy Days. His talent was so apparent that ABC gave him his own show. His comedy was already alien, and the mile-a-minute slapstick of that first season felt completely original. Things went largely downhill from there with the introduction of Jonathan Winters as Mork and Mindy’s “baby” in Season 4, but even bad Mork & Mindy was better than most sitcoms of its era. —Josh Jackson


18. Diff’rent Strokesdiffrent-strokes.jpgYears: 1978-1986
Creators: Jeff Harris, Bernie Kukoff
Stars: Todd Bridges, Gary Coleman, Dana Plato, Conrad Bain, Charlotte Rae
Network: CBS

Two Black boys from Harlem are adopted by a rich, white businessman on Park Avenue, and hilarity ensues. Diff’rent Strokes was as defined by the way it tackled difficult American issues as it was by Gary Coleman’s endearing catch phrase, “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” Drugs, sexual abuse and racism were faced head-on, even as the effects of child stardom on its three leading kids were swept under the rug (when Dana Plato became pregnant, her character went to study in Paris). Charlotte Rae’s character of housekeeper Edna Garrett was given her own spin-off, which became another long-running series, The Facts of Life. —Josh Jackson


17. Married…with Children40-90-of-the-90s-Married-with-Children.jpgYears: 1987-1997
Creators: Michael G. Moye, Ron Leavitt
Stars: Ed O’Neill, Katey Sagal, Christina Applegate
Network: Fox

Each era has its “low-brow classic” show, and for the late ’80s and most of the ’90s, that show was Married…with Children. Unlike Ed O’Neil’s current stint on Modern Family, there’s really no wit or morals to be had here, just a crass commentary on the state of the lower-class American family in the early ’90s. Al Bundy is a simple man, and he has few redeeming characteristics: He’s cheap, he’s a loser, he’s a depressed would-be philanderer, but damn if people couldn’t identify with the sad sack and his quest to simply put meals on the table with enough money left over for beer. It’s the kind of show that received heaping amounts of scorn from the literati for its entire run but is remembered today with fondness by just about anyone who wanted to kill a half hour on a Sunday night with a few harmless laughs.—Jim Vorel


16. Sledge Hammer!sledge_hammer_tv.jpg
Years: 1986-1988
Creators: Alan Spencer
Stars: David Rasche, Anne-Marie Martin, Harrison Page
Network: ABC

A parody of high-octane action films, Reagan era conservatism and Dirty Harry-style rogue cop movies, Sledge Hammer is a perfect artifact of the 1980s. It elevates tough guy posturing and police sadism to absurd heights, with Inspector Hammer using oversized weapons and preferring violence to arresting suspects. Its first season infamously ended with Hammer accidentally nuking San Francisco. This show was huge with my friends at school at the time, but it was up against Miami Vice and Dallas and, later, The Cosby Show, so it didn’t stand a chance in the ratings. The fact that we even got two seasons was good enough for us, and now it’ll live on forever on DVD, thankfully with the laugh track removed.—Garrett Martin


15. Family Tiesfamily-ties.jpgYears: 1982-1989
Creator: Gary David Goldberg
Stars: Meredith Baxter, Michael Gross, Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman, Tina Yothers
Network: NBC

An early hit and one of the four shows that helped define the original Must See TV block, Family Ties started off strong before gradually fading away into sitcom irrelevance. The clash between liberal parents and conservative children during the Reagan Revolution was a smart, timely hook for a comedy, but as it grew more interested in its teen characters’ romantic relationships and added an additional child it lost a bit of its intelligence. It’s still an all-time classic, though, with an amazing cast and valuable insight into the time period. It’s also the show that made Michael J. Fox a star.—Garrett Martin


14. Murphy Brownbest-sitcoms-murphy-brown.jpgYears: 1988-1998, 2018
Creator: Diane English
Stars: Candice Bergen, Charles Kimbrough, Robert Pastorelli, Joe Regalbuto, Lily Tomlin
Network: CBS

How many television shows actually become part of the national conversation? That’s exactly what happened on May 19,1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle called out Murphy Brown (Bergen) for being a single mom. Today it’s hard to even imagine the scandal the show caused by allowing its title character to have a baby out of wedlock. But Murphy Brown was also much more than its most well-known zeitgeist moment. As a newswoman with a penchant for firing her secretaries, Brown was her generation’s Mary Richards. Surrounded by her naïve and nervous executive producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), best friend Frank (Joe Regalbuto), stuffy newsman Jim (Charles Kimbrough) and way-too-cheery Corky (Faith Ford), the series was consistently topical and political, but most importantly, it always made us laugh. —Amy Amatangelo


13. Roseanneroseanne.jpgYears: 1988-1997
Creators: Matt Williams, Roseanne Barr, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner
Stars: Roseanne, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Michael Fishman, Lecy Goranson, Natalie West, Sarah Chalke, Emma Kenney
Network: ABC

Before she permanently nuked her reputation and career through her unhinged social media, Roseanne (formerly Barr, formerly Arnold) was the star of the best ‘80s and ‘90s sitcom about working class America. The blue collar milieu wasn’t laid on too thick, but was always present within the show, at a time when the disparity between the haves and have-nots grew exponentially. Much of the show’s success can be credited to John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, two world class actors who are as adept at comedy as they are drama—a skill that’s vital for a sitcom that regularly turned melodramatic. A testament to how strong the show’s cast and concept was: when it was revived 20 years after its initial cancellation, it became one of the most popular shows on TV again, and has continued on for multiple seasons after the firing of its former star.—Garrett Martin


12. WKRP in Cincinnatiwkrp.jpgYears: 1978-1982
Creator: Hugh Wilson
Stars: Gary Sandy, Gordon Jump, Loni Anderson, Richard Sanders, Frank Bonner, Jan Smithers, Tim Reid, Howard Hesseman
Network: CBS

WKRP in Cincinnati might have the most classic sitcom characters of any MTM show. It’s a murderer’s row of outsized comic archetypes that are grounded just enough in the typical MTM style. There’s manic DJ Dr. Johnny Fever, tacky salesman Herb Tarlek, news nebbish Les Nessman, the smooth late night DJ Venus Flytrap, and naïve manchild Arthur Carlson, each one clearly and directly inspiring characters on later sitcoms. Add in perhaps the only good role ever written for Loni Anderson and it’s a great mix of characters and personalities, with storylines that focus on their personal relationships and on the weird role radio stations play in their communities. The only knock against WKRP is that it’s a little bit more of a cartoon than MTM’s other greatest shows, in part because the straightmen who are the nominal leads are nowhere near as charismatic or interesting as the more absurd characters like Dr. Johnny Fever, Arthur Carlson or Les Nessman. Also music rights issues have made WKRP almost impossible to watch on DVD; Shout Factory put out the best DVD set yet in 2015, with most of the original music intact, but some notable ones still missing. —Garrett Martin


11. A Different Worldbest-sitcoms-different-world.jpgYears: 1987-1993
Creator: Bill Cosby
Stars: Lisa Bonet, Marisa Tomei, Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, Loretta Devine, Sinbad
Network: NBC

This Cosby Show spin-off had a rocky start, but after writing out Denise Huxtable and hiring Debbie Allen to oversee it before the second season, it turned into one of the most distinct sitcoms in TV history. Instead of focusing on one member of a beloved TV family in a new setting, it refocused on the setting itself, a historically Black college called Hillman that was a fictional stand-in for Howard University. Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison might’ve lead the ensemble as Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne, but it was a true ensemble, with a cast that reflected the diversity of Black life in the late ’80s and early ‘90s. It also often dealt with social issues that The Cosby Show and other sitcoms at the time shied away from, and usually without the schmaltz you’d expect from “very special” sitcom episodes. —Garrett Martin


10. The Wonder Years41-90-of-the-90s-The-Wonder-Years.jpgYears: 1988-1993
Creators: Neal Marlens, Carol Black
Stars: Fred Savage, Dan Lauria, Alley Mills, Danica McKellar, Olivia d’Abo, Jason Hervey
Network: ABC

The Wonder Years was set in a perfectly evoked 1960s, but just hearing Joe Cocker’s take on “With a Little Help From My Friends” immediately makes me think of watching the show with my family in my childhood living room. The show featured some of the best-developed characters of any sitcom, especially owing to the trademark narration by Daniel Stern, which examined all the events with the knowledge of age. An episode like “My Father’s Office” is still a beautiful thing and such an identifiable nugget of childhood—the realization that one’s father is just a man and a worker bee, rather than a patriarch in all aspects of his life. The Wonder Years was filled with those kinds of revelations.—Jim Vorel


9. It’s Garry Shandling’s Showits_garry_shandlings_show.jpg
Years: 1986-1990
Creator: Garry Shandling, Alan Zweibel
Stars: Garry Shandling, Molly Cheek, Scott Nemes, Michael Tucci, Jessica Harper, Bernadette Birkett, Paul Willson, Barbara Cason
Network: Showtime; Fox

Well before he broke down the artifice of the late-night TV talk show with The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling created the ultimate meta-sitcom with his titular Showtime series. All the beats of a typical half-hour comedy—funny start, introduction of conflict, third-act resolution—were there, but they dared to emphasize all the elements that most shows try to hide. Characters addressed and interacted with the live studio audience. They mocked the flimsiness of the sets. And they weren’t cagey about the fact that bringing folks like Tom Petty, Chevy Chase, and Vanna White on certain episodes were pure attention-getting devices. It’s so much better to be in on the joke than simply to get the joke. Robert Ham


8. The Young Onesbest-sitcoms-young-ones.jpgYears: 1982-1984
Creators: Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Lise Mayer
Stars: Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Christopher Ryan, Alexei Sayle
Network: BBC Two

This classic British sitcom was essentially a sketch show in a sitcom format. It had regular characters and thinly drafted plots, but would constantly take weird detours and make absurd asides, often involving puppets and bands like Motorhead and Madness. It’s an anarchic anti-sitcom that brought the British alternative comedy scene to the BBC, influenced sketch comedy on both sides of the pond, and foreshadowed the smart, self-aware, genre-expanding American sitcoms of the late 1980s and 1990s. (RIP Rik Mayall.) —Garrett Martin


7. Only Fools and Horsesonly-fools-and-horses.jpgYears: 1981-1991
Creator: John Sullivan
Stars: David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Tessa Peake-Jones, Gwyneth Strong
Network: BBC One

Following the attempts of a pair of South London brothers living with their grandfather, scheming to get rich, Only Fools and Horses dominated British TV in the 1980s, watched by up to a third of the U.K.’s total population. Del Boy Trotter has the ambition to make it selling goods on the black market, but not the wisdom to match it. After the death of his mother, he raised his much younger brother Rodney, an easily manipulated sidekick. In 2007, the show was voted Britain’s Best Sitcom.—Josh Jackson


6. The Jeffersonsbest-sitcoms-jeffersons.jpgYears: 1975-1985
Creator: Norman Lear, Don Nicholl, Michael Ross, Bernie West
Stars: Isabel Sanford, Sherman Hemsley, Maria Gibbs, Roxie Roker
Networks: CBS

Norman Lear created a run of hit shows in the 1970s, beginning with All in the Family, Sanford and Son (and its British predecessor Steptoe and Son), The Jeffersons, Maude, One Day at a Time and Good Times. It could be argued that no one had a bigger audience for interracial dialogue than Lear. The Jeffersons was his longest running series, lasting well into the ’80s, and in it, he gave the world an affluent African American family dealing with new surroundings. George Jefferson might not have been a model for race relations (referring to Louise’s interracial couple friends as “zebras”), but as with Archie Bunker, bigotry in the show was revealed for what it was. —Josh Jackson


5. The Golden Girlsgolden-girls.jpgYears: 1985-1992
Creator: Susan Harris
Stars: Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty
Network: NBC

If you were born in the 1990s, you probably missed out on this gem of a comedy. Now all seven seasons are available finally on a streaming platform. The story of four senior citizens—the sarcastic Dorothy (Bea Arthur), her take-no-prisoners mom Sophia (Estelle Getty), the flirtatious Blanche (Rue McClanahan) and the daffy Rose (Betty White)—resonates to this day because it’s an honest story about friendship and building a family out of your community. And the show was surprisingly progressive, tackling topics including gay marriage, teen pregnancy and the AIDS epidemic. But mostly it was hilarious. Once you’ve watched, you’ll thank these four amazing women for being your friend. —Amy Amatangelo


4. Night Courtnight-court.jpgYears: 1984-1992
Creator: Reinhold Weege
Stars: Harry Anderson, John Larroquette, Richard Moll, Selma Diamond, Markie Post, Marsha Warfield
Networks: NBC

Sometimes being funny is enough. That’s a sitcom’s job, after all. Night Court was reliably hilarious for nine seasons, most of which aired in the ‘80s; in retrospect, it’s a surprisingly long run for a show that regularly bounced around NBC’s schedule. Harry Anderson, Markie Post, Richard Moll, Charles Robinson, Marsha Warfield and especially John Larroquette as cartoonishly oversexed assistant District Attorney Dan Fielding made up one of the classic sitcom casts. I’m sure some of Night Court has aged terribly—you were never supposed to admire Dan Fielding and his philandering, but his insistent sexual harassment of basically every woman to ever enter the court is utterly out of step with the times now—but at heart it was a timelessly silly comedy dressed up with ‘80s-era network-appropriate raunch. Somehow the show was both goofy and gritty, with its depressing, dead-end setting contrasting nicely with its tone.—Garrett Martin


3. Taxibest-sitcoms-taxi.jpgYears: 1978-1983
Creators: James L. Brooks
Stars: Judd Hirsch, Jeff Conaway, Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, Randall Carver, Andy Kaufman, Christopher Lloyd, Carol Kane
Network: Comedy Central

Let’s just pause for a minute and remember that somebody once convinced a network to put Andy Kaufman on the air. I just wish it had been live TV. Like M*A*S*H, Taxi often tackled serious social issues like drug and gambling addiction, but did it with a wonderfully strange cast of characters from the alien-like Latka (Kaufman) and his wife Simka (Carol Kane) and drugged-out hippie Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd) to the down-on-their-luck trio of Bobby, Tony and Elaine (Jeff Conaway, Tony Danza and Marilu Henner) to misanthrope boss Louie (Danny DeVito). And then there was Judd Hirsch’s Alex, the cynical everyman entry for the rest of us. —Josh Jackson


2. Newhartnewhart.jpgYears: 1982-1990
Creators: Barry Kemp, Sheldon Bull
Stars: Bob Newhart, Mary Frann, Jennifer Holmes, Julia Duffy, Tom Poston, William Sanderson, Peter Scolari
Network: CBS

Bob Newhart had the best second act in sitcom history. Newhart ran for most of the 1980s, longer than The Bob Newhart Show did, and despite resting heavily on Newhart’s patented brand of deadpan exasperation, the two shows had strong enough settings and casts to stand out from each other. Newhart featured career work from Tom Poston, Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari, and its remote Vermont setting lead to the creation of three of the most memorable breakout sitcom characters of the 1980s: Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl. Newhart was a smart, confident, hilarious show, and people still talk about the ingenious twist in its final episode 26 years later. —Garrett Martin


1. Cheers20-90-of-the-90s-Cheers.jpgYears: 1982-1992
Creator: Glen and Les Charles, James Burrows
Stars: Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Nicholas Colasanto, Rhea Perlman, George Wendt, John Ratzenberger, Kelsey Grammer, Woody Harrelson, Kirstie Alley, Bebe Neuwirth
Network: NBC

Seinfeld might have recast the sitcom in its image, but Cheers perfected the form, running through 11 seasons without ever running out of charm or laughs. Cheers is rightly lauded as one of the deepest and best sitcom casts ever, but its writing might be unparalleled. Never bound by genre convention, and often willing to experiment with its storytelling rhythms, Cheers never grew old despite rarely leaving the bar for over a decade.—Garrett Martin

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin