Our look last week at the decade in television focused mainly on dramas. But the creative advancements in the medium were not limited to that genre; it’s only more obvious there. The Aughts have been a great decade for comedies as well seeing such brilliant shows as Arrested Development, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and many others. There are plenty of reasons why comedies have been so good during the Aughts, and we touched on some already, but the same principles that applied to dramas are at work here: The people making TV realized that there is an audience that actually likes shows that are unconventional, smart, and formally innovative. We’ve seen shows embrace the documentary structure (The Office, Modern Family, etc.), plentiful flashbacks (How I Met Your Mother), third-party narration (Arrested Development), and political satire (South Park). A slew of new comedies from 2009—Community, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family—bode well for the continued success of the sitcom.
Comparing comedies, though, is a little trickier than comparing dramas, since they don’t generally tell one consistent story. Even seasons often contain no “narrative arc,” and, if they do, it often has little to do with the actual comedy. As a result, comedies are much more susceptible to uneven seasons and bad stretches than dramas. Instead, we’re going to compare episodes. And unlike previous lists, we’re going to put a strict cap, of one, on the number of times a single show can appear on the list. Other than that, though, the parameters are pretty loose: Of any show, no matter how long it lasted or where it aired or on which network, these are the Aughts’ ten funniest episodes of TV:
10. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia “Charlie Wants an Abortion” (August 11, 2005)
The manic style of comedy featured on It’s Always Sunny is generally very hard to balance, often veering off into the extreme and the ridiculous (this tendency was compounded once Danny DeVito became a regular). The second episode, though, used their distinct style to satirize the abortion debate. Dennis switches sides on the issue to pick up women, while Mac fakes enthusiasm for the pro-life cause to win over Autumn Reeser. Mac’s “passion” leads to this priceless exchange: “Wow, I love your rhetoric. It’s so hardcore.” “You think that’s hardcore? Look at this.” “What is it?” “It’s a list of doctors I’m going to kill.” “There’s two already crossed off!” “I know.” That exchange alone is worth the episode’s inclusion.
9. How I Met Your Mother “Slap Bet” (November 20, 2006)
This episode is a seminal one in How I Met Your Mother lore: It introduced the “slap bet” and the five slaps Marshall (Jason Segel) would get to give Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), and it first presented us with Robin’s (Cobie Smulders) former career as Canadian pop star Robin Sparkles. More importantly, though, it was the show at its funniest. A show that relies so much on the humor of its entire cast (often to a fault, such as this season, in which they keep giving too many jokes to Alyson Hannigan), this is one of the few episodes that gets truly memorable lines and moments from all of its regulars. It also uses the flashback/rapid-cutting style of humor to great effect (such as when Ted’s promise to keep Robin’s secret cuts immediately to Marshall slapping Barney), and manages to create comedy out of a clear story, without relying too much on lists, theories, and rules, as the show occasionally does.
8. Flight of the Conchords “Mugged” (July 1, 2007)
The understated style of comedy on Flight of the Conchords relies almost entirely on the interaction between Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement, and Rhys Darby or Kristen Schaal; when I watch, I generally don’t care about the plot. At the same time, though, the show needs new stories to keep the jokes fresh: Jemaine and Bret can only fight over a girl or complain about money so many times. That’s part of what makes “Mugged” such a great episode: The dynamic created by Murray’s advising them on how to avoid being mugged, their confrontation with the muggers, the strain Bret’s fleeing puts on the band, and Mel’s sympathy for them after the crime are all brilliantly played. This episode also features Arj Barker’s character, Dave, in one of his best scenes on the show—“He may be dead!” “He maybe did what?”—and one the show’s best songs, in “Rhymenoceros vs. Hiphopopotamus.” Such a great mix of all the shows hilarious ingredients make “Mugged” a phenomenal episode.
7. The Office (US) “Dwight’s Speech” (March 20, 2006)
Look, I’m no fan of The Office (US) anymore. I haven’t made a secret of that. But at the same time it’s hard to deny how funny the show once was. “Dwight’s Speech” is probably the funniest episode from the show’s run of actually funny episodes, balancing so well the ridiculousness of Dwight (i.e. Dwights actual speech, his tackling of Ryan, etc.) with the more nuanced, low-key moments from the rest of the cast: Michael’s arrogance in talking about his awards, Jim’s convincing Dwight that he “majored in public speaking.” This episode also features great character moments from Kevin (setting the thermostat at 69), Pam (discussing her wedding and not wanting “to offend Angela… or someone.”), Ryan (doubting Jim’s trip plans), and Toby (his week/month in Amsterdam). “Dwight’s Speech” is a reminder of what the show did so well before it stopped trying.
6. Extras “Samuel L. Jackson” (August 18, 2005)
Most episodes of Extras are memorable for how the featured celebrity is portrayed, whether it’s Orlando Bloom’s vanity (and hatred of Johnny Depp)*, Sir Ian McKellan’s acting strategy, or Patrick Stewart’s voyeurism. And while Samuel L. Jackson’s performance is good, it’s rather minimalist in terms of comedy. What really separates “Samuel L. Jackson,” though, is the interaction between Ricky Gervais’ Andy Millman and Maggie, as well as Andy’s interaction with an on-set “friend,” played by Steve Speirs. Great scenes like Andy’s racism test, Andy and Maggie in the graveyard, and Andy out to dinner with his new friend, do not need the added humor that comes from making fun of a celebrity in order to be great. This episode shows why Extras was so smart and funny, even independent of movie-star cameos.
*I don’t think my opinion of any celebrity has changed as quickly and dramatically as my opinion of Orlando Bloom did after seeing in this episode.
5. South Park “The Death of Eric Cartman” (April 13, 2005)
One of the best things about South Park, as I’ve said before, is its willingness and ability to do clever and timely social satire. Nevertheless, it’s always refreshing when the show gets the opportunity to do a more grounded story, focusing on the richness of its characters, particularly Cartman. Many of the show’s classic episodes–“Scott Tenorman Must Die,” “AWESOME-O,” “Casa Bonita”–don’t deal with any social issue at all, and “The Death of Eric Cartman” may be the best example of this. When Cartman eats the skin off of KFC fried chicken—“the worst thing he’s ever done,” according to Stan—the boys decide to ignore Cartman, leading him to believe he’s dead. This indulges one of Cartman’s many absurd fantasies: “What awaits each person in heaven is eternal bliss, divine rest, and $10,000 cash.” It also features Cartman teaming up with Butters, the only person who can see Cartman when he’s “dead,” to “make amends” with everyone he has hurt. Anytime the show can pair those two up, viewers can expect a classic episode, no matter what the premise.
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm “The Table Read” (November 15, 2009)
The most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm was a little uneven, but that didn’t prevent it from having some of the best episodes in the history of the series. The penultimate episode, “The Table Read,” featured some of the funniest scenes ever on the show, such as the joke Marty Funkhouser tells Jerry, Jason Alexander’s misuse of Larry’s pen, Larry’s texting relationship with a nine-year-old girl, and Leon’s medical counseling of Kramer. Every season of Curb Your Enthusiasm has episodes like this—ones that incorporate the entire cast in brilliant and hilarious ways—so picking a favorite episode of this series is incredibly difficult; I fully concede that this one may be favorite only because it is the freshest and most recent. Having Said That, though, it’s hard to find fault with an episode that has Leon Black explaining Judaism: “You’ve got to recharge the mitzvah!”
3. The Simpsons “Saddlesore Galactica” (February 6, 2000)
I’m merely pointing out the obvious when I say that this was not the best decade for The Simpsons. Spurious allegations about the show’s declining have been around since 1995, but at this point it is hard to deny their truth. While the show’s overall quality may have slipped, it is still capable of producing great episodes. Resident Simpsons buff Tim explains why his favorite episode of the decade, “Saddlesore Galactica” is great:
“Saddlesore Galactica” opens with a transcendent first act: Homer’s receiving the veterans’ 50-cent discount at the state fair “closes the saddest chapter in American history;” Chief Wiggum summarizes his police philosophy with “I’d rather let a thousand guilty men go free than chase after them;” and Lisa brands it the “state UN-fair” when her band loses a competition because Ogdenville used visual aids. On top of that, this is one of Marge’s greatest episodes ever (I know that’s not saying much): She admits that hitting herself in the eye with the newspaper’s rubber band is “her No. 1 concern;” on Homer deep frying his shirt, she says, “I didn’t say they couldn’t. I said you shouldn’t;” and she later wonders why she can’t just bet “that all the horses will have a fun time.” True, the third act of “Saddlesore Galactica” leaves a little to be desired, what with the journey into the Land of the Jockeys and all, but it’s still the Aughts’ most quotable Simpsons episode, whether something “don’t take no guff from nobody,” you “can’t see the glue factory all in one day,” or “your pro-mop, anti-horse agenda has been clear for some time now.” You really have to “hold on to your monocles” for the last great episode of The Simpsons.
2. The Office (UK) “Training” (July 30, 2001)
When I first watched the original version of The Office, I was actually somewhat skeptical. It was much more cynical and unabashedly awkward than the American version. While this certainly led to a lot of sardonic humor, I wasn’t sure it could attain the kind of uproarious, “laugh out loud” moments of really great comedies. And then David Brent got his guitar, and all those doubts seemed ridiculous. Ricky Gervais’ role as David Brent is one of the breakout roles of the Aughts, and it’s precisely because he has the ability to play a character’s vanity so well that it seems perfectly natural for him to turn an employee training exercise into his own personal concert—that is, after he turns it into a showcase for his acting skills. “Training,” also highlights the role of the supporting characters, with Tim simultaneously encouraging Brent’s absurdity by singing along and asking for an explanation of the lyrics and growing fed up with it. Gareth, meanwhile, demonstrating his provincial ignorance: “Why doesn’t the farmer have a wife?” “Because he’s gay.” “Well, if he’s gay he shouldn’t be allowed near animals.” By themselves, the rest of the cast make “Training” a funny episode, but David Brent’s performance makes it transcendent.
1. Arrested Development “Righteous Brothers” (April 17, 2005)
Who are we kidding? The real reason we had to limit this list to one episode per series is because otherwise, it’s really just a race for 54th place. Arrested Development was the funniest television series of the Aughts; the real problem comes in picking the best episode. “Righteous Brothers,” the finale of the superb second season, makes a strong case for itself, featuring an appearance by Franklin, Tobias’ resignation as Michael’s assistant and his courtship of Kitty (a great idea for a Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts-type movie), and the premiere of Dangerous Cousins (a “relative” masterpiece of complex eroticism).
The best parts of this episode, though, center on the relationship between Michael and Gob, perhaps the funniest pairing of characters on the show (although you could make a strong case for Michael and George Michael). Gob’s desperate attempts to win Michael’s approval (even resorting to “crying like a couple of girls”) while still staying in his father’s good graces, result in some of the funniest moments on the series, including Gob’s rendition of “Everything I Do” by Bryan Adams. This episode features George Michael protesting with Ann—after making a sign that reads “This is a tricky gray area”—as well as Tobias’ elusive masculinity—“I developed an eating disorder working for you, Michael!”—and Gob’s inability to meet low standards—“Great news! Dad wasn’t crushed to death!”; in short, some of the most brilliant moments from three of the funniest television characters of the Aughts. It’s hard to ask a sitcom to do more than that.