For some reason, critical discussions of TV comedies often put a premium on a show’s ability to transcend its sitcom-ness and provide a moment of real pathos. This is where we get the concept of a “Very Special Episode,” for example. Only when a show dismantles the perceived limitations of its form does it begin to get real critical attention; only then does it become taken seriously. Think M*A*S*H, The Office, BoJack Horseman. TV dramas, on the other hand, have never really had to be funny to prove themselves. In fact, when some try, it only makes things cringeworthy. They have other expectations to be met—most frequently: does it resemble a movie?—but overall, a funny TV drama is an anomaly. And yet, when a show does display its own distinct sense of humor, it not only elevates the show comedically, but overall. Here are the ten of the finest anomalies.
Chalk it up to ol’ Dutch. Justified’s seven-season run on FX managed to capture the best of Elmore Leonard, most impressively his signature blend of brevity and wit. Also, the opposite of wit. Some of the most endearingly idiotic criminals in recent memory graced our screens from 2010 to 2015—most notably, of course, the bumbling, malapropistic Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman). Witnessing the back-and-forth—between Raylan and Boyd, between Raylan and Art, between Dewey and anybody—was like watching some whip-smart Off-Broadway play. If it didn’t necessarily make you laugh out loud, it always made you grin and think “Graham Yost, you son of a bitch, you did it.”
In an era of Adult Swim, it can be hard to remember the fairly recent time when TV was never as deliberately weird as it was in Twin Peaks. But weird it was, and while the unapologetic strangeness obviously played into the Lynchian tone of eerie unpredictability the show wanted to cultivate, the Twin Peaks craze of the early 1990s could just as easily be attributed to Lynch’s bizarre stabs at an Ionesco-esque absurdist style of comedy. Some things were clear choices (the Log Lady, Lynch’s supporting role as a mostly-deaf FBI Chief) while others were more unintentionally funny (“She wanted to… do me through the bars”). But all were equally vital to Twin Peaks’ unique DNA.
A teen-drama with real teeth, this start to the Rob Thomas cult-TV dynasty was unmatched in both P.I. intrigue and quips that would make Joss Whedon proud. The ensemble cast was packed with comedic talent (Ryan Hanson, for one), but the real find of the series was Kristen Bell, whose plucky, wicked Veronica is still one of TV’s greatest female protagonists. And while there may have been plenty of requisite darkness, even in the sunwashed California setting, the series’ most significant hook was its His Girl Friday speed and charm, manifested in a non-stop barrage of jokes, jokes, jokes.
I blew the phrase “a teen show with teeth to it” too early, obviously. Much of what can be said about Veronica Mars applies as well to Joss Whedon’s signature TV outing—self-aware jokes, a phenomenally charming lead performance, and on and on. And while it does serve as a sort of godfather to Veronica Mars, it’s from the show’s simpler-than-it-seems execution of high-stakes-low-stakes situations that Buffy drew its beating, hysterical heart. Most importantly, Whedon understood that to make a show about teenagers that was funny, he had to commit to writing characters that actually sounded like teenagers—as opposed to some bland facsimile of teens envisioned by adults. Couple that with an inventiveness best displayed in themed episodes (the musical “Once More, With Feeling” takes the cake) and you have the funniest horror show ever made.
This is obviously cheating, but it seems unfair not to include Mike Nichols’ miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play, especially considering how much of a TV-specific event it was to adapt a gargantuan Broadway play for the screen. When you take into account how funny this show is in contrast to it undeserved reputation as a weepy AIDS drama with angels, Angels is practically a sitcom: packed with lightning-fast dialogue, unforgettable exclamations (“Fuck you I’m a prophet!”) and some of the weirdest imagery ever committed to the stage or screen, designed to baffle and tickle the characters as much as the audience. (People also forget how hilariously incompetent those angels were.) It may be the century’s defining representation of an America in purgatory, but that doesn’t mean Tony Kushner can’t tell a damn good boner joke.
Perhaps no other TV drama has as many laugh-out-loud moments as Breaking Bad, especially considering that it’s also one of the most, brutal, unforgiving and terrifying shows in recent memory. But remember; “Fuck your eyebrows!” “A robot?” “Cow house?” The show had an astonishing commitment to its physical comedy—even when that included a bloody bathtub crashing through the ceiling—which it always executed with razor precision, thanks largely to the fact that it didn’t shy away from Bryan Cranston’s past on Malcolm in the Middle. Even better, both Bad and its spinoff Better Call Saul have taken full advantage of Bob Odenkirk’s irresistible sliminess,no doubt cultivated during his tenure as Mr. Show’s “Larry Kleist.”
Thankfully, enough digital ink was spilled in mourning over FX’s largely-unwatched P.I. show that it’s since developed a significant cult following. For those who never got a chance to check it out, Terriers follows ex-cop Hank Dolworth and his partner Britt Pollock as they solve cases around Ocean Beach, California. They embody the idea of “shaggy-dog” private investigators, the way Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe would if he ever traded the suit in for some nice jean cut-offs. But the show’s most direct antecedent is The Rockford Files, whose wisecracking it inherited and evolved with a needed dose of post-modern cynicism. Its lack of a second season, which undoubtedly would have continued to explore the duo’s comedic potential, is one of TV’s great tragedies.
Deadwood was often called Shakespearean in its scope, detail, and language, which usually make’s one think of the Tragedies. And that’s understandable. But David Milch’s gone-too-soon HBO masterpiece has far more in common with the comic-tragic, high-low dualities of the History plays. With many Falstaffian turns in the massive cast, Milch understands that in order to understand the down of Deadwood, you must see an equal parts Richardson for all of Al and Co.’s scheming. I could really go on for a while about how funny this show is, but as Calamity Jane said in response to “Be brief!,” “Be fucked!”
I not only hemmed but also hawed over this beloved show’s status as a drama. If it is one, it certainly has more overtly comedic qualities than any other show on this list. It’s essentially a 70s-style romantic comedy, with Rob Morrow’s Joel Fleischman functioning as a much more successful Woody Allen-surrogate than one might find in an actual Woody Allen movie. Northern Exposure was also frequently experimental in its self-aware meta-comedy—fourth-wall breaks and impressionistic flourishes abound— and would later become a huge influence on shows like Spaced. It’s also the only show I can think of where they get rid of the third wheel in a love triangle by crushing him with a falling satellite? But the unspoken metric of this list stated that qualifying shows show must be a) an hour in length, and b) considered in dramatic awards categories, and Northern Exposure did win the Golden Globe for Best Drama. When have the Golden Globes gotten anything wrong? Okay, yes: it is a drama, and one of the sweetest, funniest ones ever made.
Speaking of impressionistic flourishes… The top spot on this list goes to a show that began every episode under the specter of random death. To be fair, it did so in a way that was frequently as hilarious—one time, a dude fell into a giant bread mixer—as heartbreaking. And for an intimate family portrait that captured, in a few key relationships, the overwhelming capacity for love and loss we have during our short time on Earth, Six Feet Under lived (died?) and breathed with distinctly sitcom rhythms. It had one of TV’s greatest straight men in Michael C. Hall’s gay funeral director, David, and a turn from Frances Conroy as the Fischer family matriarch that can make you shake with weepy laughter. Set against the incredibly bleak but cozy backdrop of the family’s funeral home, and with enough dreams and hallucinations for several acid trips, Six Feet Under adopted the preferred comedy mantra of Chekhov, and in doing so perfectly fused the TV comedy with the TV drama; nothing is truer to life than death, and therefore nothing is funnier.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.