This might come as a shock, but 2020 was not a particularly funny year. All around, it was probably the least funny year I’ve ever had to live through—either this, or that year Jackie Mason’s Chicken Soup was on ABC for like two months. 2020 has been a downright tragedy, with multiple historic crises landing all at once, and although I hate reminding you of this ever-pressing and impossible to forget fact, it still needs to be said when I’m about to sell you on some comedy. Life wasn’t funny this year, which made it really hard for comedy to be funny, too. Of course that also means when comedy did do its job—when a joke was funny, or a sketch landed perfectly—it meant even more than usual. No comedian and no jokes could salvage this year, but at least these 20 shows made it marginally less intolerable for a half-hour or so at a time.
Here are the 20 funniest TV shows of 2020, a year that almost ended comedy for good.
It feels like a miracle that Miracle Workers got a second season on TBS, but the fact that it’s as funny and strange as creator Simon Rich’s first oddball take on the afterlife should have comedy fans praising the heavens. This time around, Miracle Workers: Dark Ages sets its hilarious cast in another setting well-worn by comedies with a British pedigree: The Middle Ages. Breakout Geraldine Viswanathan is a Shitshoveler—literally, it’s her last name—whose dad (Steve Buscemi) and local layabout prince (Daniel Radcliffe) are always getting her into something … when she’s not breaking the mold by trying to, say, read. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a good touchstone here, with everything from old-timey doctors to executions getting a light satirical jab. The humor is quick, witty, and understated, made even more unique by the brilliantly offbeat deliveries of its stars. If ever there was a show that felt like an Eddie Izzard stand-up routine turned into a series, it would be Miracle Workers, which continues to be one of the smartest, sweetest, and delightfully dumbest shows on TV. —Jacob Oller
Network: Adult Swim
This bitter parody of ‘80s and ‘90s sitcoms—particularly Miller-Boyett Productions’ raft of “TGIF” sitcoms for ABC—has the tonal qualities and absurd angles you’d expect from Tim and Eric. What ultimately sets Beef House apart from other sitcom parodies—and what elevates it in the process—is that inherent Tim and Eric-ness. Yes, it’s funny, and a smart deconstruction of the weird quirks and affectations that can build up over decades within a genre as prescribed as the sitcom. It’s also grotesque, though, and genuinely sinister at times. There are “jokes” that are so dry and repellent that you might not recognize them as jokes, and plot points and visuals that are as interested in testing your patience and nerves as they are in entertaining you. Although it’s rooted in the look and language of embarrassing old sitcoms, Tim and Eric’s artistic voice quickly steamrolls through it, leaving an intentional, carefully crafted wreck in its wake—one you’ll have a hard time looking away from.—Garrett Martin
Naturally, the Sherman’s Showcase “Black History Month Spectacular” airing in a month that is not, in fact, Black History Month is a joke that kind of writes itself. For example, there’s a big banner at the beginning of the special where “February” is crossed out in favor of “Summer.” Then a lot of what follows is a collection of all those things and names that public schools teach in February during Black History Month—even down to the typical mashed up regurgitation of all those points—combined with what the character Sherman McDaniels believes counts as Black History—Black vampires, The Last Dragon, New Jack City, and proper dap etiquette. There’s also the unexpected—at least, this soon—explanation of Dutch’s mysterious eyepatch, a bit that reinforces both Sherman’s narcissism (as do all of his independent productions, which are also featured here) and Dutch’s blind (no pun intended) dedication to the man.
However, while the joke of a “Black History Month Spectacular” in June obviously works, the special’s delayed scheduling ends up making a lot more sense than expected when it was first announced. First of all, there’s the fact that its airdate was June 19, or Juneteenth, the day that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. According to Riddle, that also wasn’t planned, even when they knew the special would air in June. On top of that, with the current racial climate and discussions in the States—and also on an international level—a “Black History Month Spectacular” becomes an impressively prescient piece of work (the musical number “Add Some Kente,” especially), a much-needed bit of levity, and just a coincidentally well-timed example of Black excellence.—LaToya Ferguson
Baroness von Sketch Show’s ability to be consistently relatable and witty and funny and poignant—and somehow always at the same time—is something that makes it enjoyable to watch now, but that’s also what will make it even more enjoyable to go back and revisit. That is certainly the case for this final season, especially once watched removed out of the strangely appropriate timing that is this pandemic. But even watching it now, as I said: It just kind of hits differently. In a good way though, kind of like Canada itself.—LaToya Ferguson
Absurdity is absolutely the key here. Don’t expect anything resembling sociopolitical commentary or too much in the way of cultural satire. Big Ol’ House of Fun is basically a live-action cartoon that goes out of its way to flout logic, reason, and even the laws of physics, and yet which often abides by a deeply fractured internal logic that it’s still willing to cast off whenever necessary.
It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s also very funny at times. It’s full of ingenious sight gags, unpredictable tone shifts, and seemingly throwaway details that suddenly become the main focus of a sketch. In keeping with the best sketch tradition the show often connects these sketches and ideas together in ways that feel… well, not seamless, but at least with a clear rhythm and sense of purpose. Episodes even have a central plot that weaves through them, and although the show regularly diverges from it, widely and wildly, it still gives a bit of form to the nonsense. In a way it’s like The Young Ones, a sketch show dressed up like a sitcom, only it’s even less interested in sitcom convention or traditional storytelling than The Young Ones was. (The sitcom dressing does lead to a fantastic gag in the last episode, though, that I won’t spoil here.)—Garrett Martin
Being 15 sucks. You’re not sure who you are or what you’re doing or who you should be doing it with, but you’re 100% certain that everyone around you is always laser-focused on every embarrassing mistake that you make. Mindy Kaling’s new coming-of-age sitcom taps into the painful awkwardness of figuring it all out with the same mix of earnestness, realism and humor as Freaks and Geeks and The Wonder Years, but filtered through a cultural lens not often seen on American TV. Devi Vishwakumar isn’t just grappling with typical teenage drama, but is stuck between two cultures that she never quite feels like a full member of: the American life she was born and raised in, and the Indian heritage of her family. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan captures this anxiety and charm beautifully, that weird mix of constant shame and unearned confidence, in what is shockingly her first professional acting role. If you’re looking for a teen comedy that reflects the ups and downs of real life and is actually funny, here’s your chance. —Garrett Martin
Earth to Ned was basically DOA when it dropped on Disney+ in September with barely a whimper. That’s a shame: this absurd talk show deserves attention. Heavily indebted to Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, The Jim Henson Company’s Earth to Ned is a talk show that sends up talk show convention. The show’s host, a budding alien warlord named Ned who came to Earth to conquer it, but then fell in love with our pop culture, actually interviews his guests (including Kristen Schaal, RuPaul, Taye Diggs, Rachel Bloom, and more) in unscripted, improvised segments, but from the vantage point of a giant puppet alien who really doesn’t understand the most basic concepts of human existence. It’s a ridiculous satire of entertainment journalism with a side of sci-fi and some predictably amazing puppetry from the Henson folks, all meant for adults but still appropriate for older children.—Garrett Martin
In its second season (the first of two parts, the second of which will air in 2021 per Hulu), the show continues to explore school-age traumas like gossip, unrequited crushes, being desperate to fit in, trying out new curse words, being mean to your parents and immediately regretting it, and above all becoming self conscious of your own awkwardness. Though Maya and Anna occasionally still play with dolls and engage in incredible silliness, it’s more timid now than when they were in grade school. They’re aware, suddenly, that they might be “too old” for those things, and yet they are still too young to do anything more than dip a toe in the world of adults (drinking, smoking, ideas of sex). Erskine and Konkle capture this by being bold in their performances—one of the show’s greatest, strangest tricks is that the actresses are in their early 30s, yet somehow fit in seamlessly with their teenage co-stars. Thus, they can be as curious, vulgar, and vulnerable as teens really are without worrying about asking actual kids to portray that on screen. Their investigation into this fraught time comes out of love and understanding, their heightened portrayals of junior high life acutely emotionally accurate. —Allison Keene
John C. Reilly, Tim Heidecker and Fred Armisen want to go to the Moon, and I, for one, support them. I hope they make it to the Moon. There might not be much in the way of oxygen or water or food up there, but at least it’s far away from everything happening here on Earth. It’s understandable they’d want to get the hell away from everybody else. And after all the joy John C. Reilly has brought us, he’s earned the right to some peace and quiet.
Moonbase 8 is a timely and far too relatable take on misguided middle-aged white men looking to compensate for their utter lack of success in life through impossibly grandiose dreams. Who wouldn’t want to see Reilly and Heidecker as overgrown failsons, the latter of whom is apparently also a Christian missionary hoping to spread the word of God on the Moon? I’d pretty much watch those two in anything, but Moonbase 8’s concept is especially fertile for what they do well, and at an ideal time, to boot.—Garrett Martin
Network: CBC; Pop TV
“After an award-worthy trilogy of decades together,” Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara) tells her daughter early in the final season of the exemplary Schitt’s Creek, “your father and I still astonish each other.” Of the many things Pop TV’s deeply empathetic comedy gets right—and make no mistake, Schitt’s Creek gets pretty much everything right—the rarest is that exact quality: astonishment. The denizens of this far-from-bustling town quietly astonish each other with great frequency; like most people, they are almost always more than they seem.
What’s most, yes, astonishing about that fact that Dan Levy’s series remains as funny—sometimes acidly, sometimes daffily, never cheaply—as ever. It’s tempting to fold Schitt’s Creek in with excellent shows like Parks and Recreation or the rebooted One Day at a Time, warm-hearted stories about good people taking care of each other. Schitt’s is, at its heart, a story about care, and it is every bit as good as those two series. But it’s tender rather than warm, a gentle thing, as a fragile yet resilient as two beautiful wings pushing mightily to emerge from a chrysalis. Four wounded people were forced to set up camp in Schitt’s Creek, though perhaps none of them truly acknowledged their hurts. To say life in a small town healed them would be to turn Levy’s marvelous series into something much smaller and more shallow; the Rose’s found, stabilized, and even healed their wounds individually, as a family, and with the help of the people who crossed their paths. Of course, those people had wounds, too, which is something—sometimes the only thing—they all shared. —Allison Shoemaker
Desus and Mero’s show can be a little off the radar since moving to Showtime, but it’s still great—the funniest and most vital political comedy show this side of John Oliver, while also having its finger on the pulse of what’s actually important in pop culture in a way these shows rarely ever do. Desus and Mero are two of the most charismatic dudes around, and together they make a peerless duo that’s always on the same page. Their show is always hilarious and never feels nearly as dull, rigid or impersonal as the network late night shows.—Garrett Martin
For those who adored The Favourite, writer Tony McNamara is back with “an occasionally true story” for Hulu focused on the rise of Catherine the future great, when she was just “a 20-year-old who’s been in Russia six months, and who—with the aid of a drunken general, an angry maid, and a nervous bureaucrat—is going up against the violent regime that is Peter’s empire,” (as one character succinctly states). The 10-episode series has a crisp, fast-moving script and sumptuous costuming that looks like a traditional historical drama but feels refreshingly modern in its approach. Bathed in a Marie Antoinette meets Death of Stalin aesthetic (and never going Full Dickinson), the series’ acid, winning humor understands the familiar absurdity of an age filled with the constant juxtaposition of wealth and brutality. Emotionally affecting as a complicated dance of horror and hope, Catherine’s outright victories may be few and far between, but the journey is thrilling.
The Great begins in the mid-18th century, with Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) arrival at the Russian court as a naive German bride for Peter (Nicholas Hoult) the not-so-great and in fact very-much-awful. A script this cleverly bombastic requires very specific handling to balance its humor and drama, and both Hoult and Fanning are luminous as the ill-matched new couple. But though Catherine has a distaste (quite rightfully) for Peter, she does have a heart for her new country. “I want a strong, vibrant Russia alive with ideas, humane and progressive, where people live with dignity and purpose,” she says dreamily. “Russia?” the Emperor’s advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) says in a questioning tone. “It needs to be believable.” Catherine’s maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox)—a former noble lady stripped of her position—adds, “Just tell them … no one will rape and kill you and your children, and you’ll have some bread. That would be sufficient.”
The way the series charts Catherine’s quiet but brave attempts to take power by growing a voice at court and discovering new things about herself is a really beautiful journey, punctuated by completely absurd events. It’s strange and wonderful and a fantastically funny ride. But it will also leave you pondering the nature of sacrifice and real change, and the courage it takes to overthrow a despot. Huzzah. —Allison Keene
Few shows illustrate the fundamental problems with broadcast TV in the 21st century better than A.P. Bio. Mike O’Brien’s hilarious sitcom ran for two seasons on NBC, and despite good reviews and a great cast (including Patton Oswalt, It’s Always Sunny’s Glenn Howerton, and SNL writer Paula Pell), it barely made a dent in the pop culture consciousness. It didn’t get the audience a network show needs to stay alive, but also didn’t get the hype and word-of-mouth buzz that seems to be lavished exclusively on streaming or pay cable shows these days. It was a show stuck between audiences—the people who would most love it never saw it because they’ve largely tuned broadcast out, and the people who still regularly watch the legacy networks didn’t vibe with its slightly surreal tone or surface-level cynicism. That’s a shame, because A.P. Bio is one of the funniest, sweetest, and most charming sitcoms in years.
Thankfully the show’s getting another chance to win people over. A.P. Bio’s third season just launched on Peacock, and it’s lost nothing in the transition to streaming. There’s a long list of reasons that this show is so good: Beyond obvious strengths like the cast and the writing, probably the two most foundational elements to the show’s success is its tone and its setting. A.P. Bio immediately established its own unique voice, one that trickily dances between seemingly opposite notes. And by setting it in a high school, a setting rife with comic potential that’s weirdly underexplored by sitcoms, it found a backdrop almost everybody is familiar with but that hasn’t been done to death. —Garrett Martin
It’s been around for six years, but it’s still amazing how absolutely hilarious Last Week Tonight is while also doing deep dives into some of the most depressing and stressful things you could ever talk about. 2020’s bad rep is absolutely, 100% deserved, of course—this is a year that’ll be remembered for that time we couldn’t leave the house for 10 months and that’s going to end with a 9/11’s worth of preventable deaths every day while our outgoing president and his hostile political party openly try to demolish our democracy and steal an election, after all—and somehow John Oliver was able to wade through the worst of it with humor and something resembling grace intact. Also, shockingly, without ending his own life. He is clearly one of the most emotionally and mentally fortified people on the planet, and to our ongoing benefit he’s dedicated that strength towards entertaining us while also pointing out everything that’s fucked up about this world. We’re not naïve enough to think a TV show can change the world to any appreciable extent, but Last Week Tonight continues to open eyes and influence thoughts, and that has to be good for something.—Garrett Martin
NBC Universal’s The Amber Ruffin Show immediately established itself as one of the funniest shows in late night when it launched on the streaming service Peacock back in September. It helps that the show is nothing but comedy—no guest interviews, no bands, just a monologue and comedy sketches featuring writer/performer Amber Ruffin. If you’ve seen her on Late Night with Seth Meyers, you know how charming and disarming Ruffin can be—she’s almost preternaturally cheerful, using that effervescence as cover for precision strikes against racism, systemic oppression, and the many indignities and traumas of the Trump age. That contrast works wonderfully during her brief appearances on Late Night, and she’s been able to scale it out for her half-hour show without undermining it at all.—Garrett Martin
Network: Apple TV
Seven years ago, NBC Sports released a very funny sketch starring Jason Sudeikis as an American football coach named Ted Lasso who manages to get hired as the manager of Tottenham, one of the top soccer clubs in England’s Premier League, which is one of the best leagues in the world. The comedy is the culture clash—a shouting alpha male with a southern accent trying to figure out a totally unfamiliar sport in a strange place, too stubborn to adapt and bringing all the wrong lessons over from America. As soccer becomes more familiar in the U.S., that sketch becomes increasingly quaint, since even your average deep-south gridiron jock knows more and more all the time about the world’s most popular sport. Which makes the premise of Ted Lasso the 2020 TV show questionable; can you really translate a premise that’s thin in the first place, and extend it to a ten-episode season even as soccer becomes less and less exotic to us all the time?
Wisely, creators Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence didn’t really try. Now focused on AFC Richmond, a middling English soccer club facing relegation, the success of the show begins and ends with Sudeikis (whose Lasso is almost pathologically nice as a coach and motivator rather than tactical genius), but the rest of the cast is also superb. In short, I found it genuinely moving more than it was uproarious, although the climactic scene in the final episode might be one of the greatest athletic set pieces in comedy history, and will make any sports fan bust a gut. There’s also something very timely about the fact that the competitive drama here isn’t about winning a glorious championship, but about avoiding the shame of relegation. And yet, when faced with the unofficial AFC Richmond credo, “it’s the hope that kills you,” Lasso disagrees. “It’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you,” he tells his team, and whether or not that’s strictly correct is irrelevant. What actually matters is, do you believe? —Shane Ryan
Network: Adult Swim
Three Busy Debras, an absurd parody of suburban privilege from Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha, is as surreal as you’d expect from an Adult Swim show. Its 12-minute episodes are basically short films that weave together two or three different comedy sketches built on a similar theme, with scenarios that are based in something resembling reality but always spiral out into absurdity. It’s the kind of show where a pool boy vacantly tends to a driveway with a pool net, where the neighborhood’s mailman is an iguana, and where the police station looks like the waiting room for the kind of doctor who refuses to accept insurance.
At the heart of this weirdness are the three Debras themselves. Dressed all in white, living in immaculately clean suburban homes that are practically identical from the outside, and all driving Escalades, the three Debras are busy with endless brunches where they laugh wildly at each other’s stories without actually listening to them. It digs deep into the vacuousness of these artificial suburban lives, as well as the selfish isolation of wealth and privilege, manifesting a clear political identity that’s both very timely and a bit weightier than the typical Adult Swim show.
Yeah, you can call Three Busy Debras a cartoonish reflection of bourgeoisie anti-suburb displays like American Beauty or Desperate Housewives, which try to flatter and pander to the very audience they’re supposedly satirizing. That’d be selling the show short, though. It’s not just criticizing the culture it parodies—there’s not much skill or inspiration in that, after decades of similar TV shows, movies, and punk music videos. It takes on not just suburbia and the media that depicts it, but targets the socioeconomic conditions that created them—as well as our history-long subjugation and diminution of women—with a gleeful, nihilistic absurdity, wrapped around a core of weary indignation. And then it even makes fun of itself when it seems like it’s getting too close to a message. The Debras themselves might be afraid of their own humanity, but Three Busy Debras tacitly indulges in it.—Garrett Martin
If you live in New York City it seems like there’s a solid chance you’ve walked in front of the camera of John Wilson. The documentary filmmaker films regular everyday scenes from the streets of New York, capturing both unexpected drama and the quiet, quotidian moments that make up life. In his HBO series How To with John Wilson he looks to these street scenes for guidance on topics big and small, from “How to Make Small Talk” to “How to Improve Your Memory,” narrating it all with halting, unsteady observations that are usually as poignant as they are hilarious. Wilson’s power isn’t just in his ever watchful gaze over the city, but in his understanding of our shared humanity, and the empathy with which he views the world—even the guy who not only made a device to restore circumcised foreskins but then wrote and recorded original songs about that device. This is the only show where an episode called “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto” could slowly, unexpectedly become TV’s best work yet on the pandemic and how it’s impacted our lives. Most of How To was shot before the pandemic, but with his patience, understanding and empathy John Wilson is an ideal balm for this lamentable year.—Garrett Martin
Network: Adult Swim
The second season of Joe Pera’s remarkable Adult Swim show started near the end of 2019, but most of its episodes premiered in 2020, so it makes the list. Already one of the most human and empathetic comedies on TV, the second season reaches new heights of warmth, sadness, and humor, with Joe handling the loss of his beloved Nana, lending a sympathetic ear to his aggressively masculine neighbor (Conner O’Malley playing a Conner O’Malley type) as he deals with marital issues, and deepening his bond with his prepper girlfriend and fellow school teacher Sarah (Jo Firestone). A bean arch appears throughout as a potent metaphor. The summer-themed episodes affords Pera a whole new season in which to explore not just Michigan’s Upper Peninsula but the lives of the people who live there, in the process inventing beloved early ‘80s pop songs, planning a real-life Rat Race, and visiting a Milwaukee fashion show. Joe Pera Talks With You is the most singular show on TV, both one of the funniest and one of the most touching.—Garrett Martin
In its first season on FX, What We Do in the Shadows took Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s film to a delightfully banal Staten Island. It was a laid-back good time filled with the hilarious injection of out-of-touch vampires Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Laszlo (Matt Berry) into the land of the living. Things are still hilariously dull in Season 2, but the jokes don’t need too much energy—or even have to be that funny. In the long-nailed hands of these undead roommates, even a protracted “updog” bit slays.
What We Do in the Shadows’ first episodes in Season 2 begin by slowly settling into a sitcom. Still, the groundwork laid last season helps this one stay low-key. We stay in the mansion more. The bigger visual gags aren’t massive setpieces, but sustained silliness (Editor’s Note: Never has a toothpick or the pronunciation of “Tempe, Arizona” been so important). Novak, Berry, Demetriou, and Mark Proksch as energy vampire Colin Robinson sell entire scenes with a look and a deadpan, even if it’s something as high concept as the vampires finding out they’ve all got ghosts of themselves. Nandor’s familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), remains the show’s dynamic center, and it is upon his sagging shoulders that the new season’s plot rests, as he grapples with his genetic predisposition to slay vampires as a descendant of Van Helsing.
In a season that has truly brought joy, the swaggering silliness also includes the acceptance of a smaller, more sustainable comedy that’s less concerned about plotting the future of the undead and more about un-living in the moment. Plus, the Mark Hamill cameo was absolutely killer. —Jacob Oller