Get two people together and you’ll probably have at least three opinions on the greatest TV comedies of all time.
When Jonathan Miller gave a talk on humour at Cardiff University a few years ago, he was asked for his verdict. Indeed, he came up with three – Seinfeld, Friends and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Dr Miller has been described as being “too clever by three-quarters”, so his view on anything should be taken seriously. And he’s pretty serious about funny stuff.
Somehow, I never got into Seinfeld first time around (and I can’t claim that I was too young – it was 1989-98), but that means I can now enjoy them fresh – a pleasure denied to most of my contemporaries. Even 20 years after it first aired, it’s hilarious: the situations, the dialogue (some phrases have been adopted for real-world use) and those central characters – what a joy.
Friends ran for 10 seasons (1994-2004) – one more than Seinfeld – and made household (and Hollywood) names of its stars. Perhaps more mainstream, it was for many ‘must-see’ TV.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has run since 2000, is a less obvious choice – but is in some ways the succesor to Seinfeld. It was created by the earlier show’s co-creator Larry David, who (as Jerry Seinfeld did) stars as a fictionalised version of himself. This is the only one set in Los Angeles, rather than New York, and – as has become the vogue – is shot is a mockumentary style.
As Brits, we might naturally think of Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers or perhaps The Office as the greatest sitcoms; but Miller’s American choices are a little more cerebral, aren’t they? The Seinfeld characters read books and go to museums. If anyone did that in a British sitcom, they’d be considered a bit weird.
The characters in those US shows are generally pretty smart – I stress generally, acknowledging Joey Tribbiani in Friends and Cosmo Kramer in Seinfeld as exceptions – though Kramer is sometimes the most insightful. Perhaps in British comedy we laugh at characters, who are dumber than us; in American comedy, we laugh with the characters because – hey – they’re smart like us, right?
Well, it needs more analysis than you’ll get from me. I’m sure Dr Miller would have some thoughts.
I didn’t ‘get’ Seinfeld first time round but when it was repeated on BBC2 a few years ago I was hooked. Strange, as all the characters are quite repellent – very different to ‘Friends’ in that respect – but maybe that gives you the distance to appreciate the situations and dialogue without being on anyone’s ‘side’, so to speak.
Are they repellent? Maybe a bit self-centred, but perhaps that makes them more real. I’d like to spend an evening with Jerry or Elaine – though I realise I would not be spongeworthy.
Actually, they *are* repellent. You’re quite right. Who needs Miller, when we have Ceri on hand?