Top 10 ABC Sitcoms of the 1980s

Tom Hanks in drag. You're welcome.
Tom Hanks in drag. You're welcome.

The second installment of the best sitcoms of the 1980s focuses on the American Broadcasting Company (you know it as ABC). Unlike NBC, ABC struggled with scattershot primetime comedy programming in the '80s after a massively successful batch of shows in the mid and late 1970s. In the '70s, ABC's theme song was "Still the One," echoing their No. 1 ratings in the latter part of the decade. Unfortunately, that all ended when NBC took hold of the ratings war soon after the start of the next decade.

Nevertheless, ABC produced some memorable sitcoms during that era including a couple of holdovers from their glory days and a couple of gems that spawned a new wave of genre comedies. They also managed to launch the careers of some extraordinary Hollywood stars. Here are the best ABC had to offer.

Note that to qualify for the list, shows had to have spent the bulk of their lifespan in the decade of the '80s, which disqualifies wildly popular shows like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Roseanne.

10. Too Close for Comfort (1980-1983)

Premise: Grumpy comic book artist tries to keep hot daughters away from dudes...and he has a gay neighbor.

Ted Knight was one of the most brilliant and underrated comedic actors of his generation. Whether he was the dimwitted Ted Baxter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show or the blustery Judge Smails in Caddyshack, Knight had serious comedy chops. Which is why it is a shame he was saddled with this turkey of a show in his waning years as an entertainer. Most of the show was spent trying to keep guys from pawing his daughters, who lived in the same building with Knight and his wife, or making thinly veiled gay jokes about his other neighbor, Monroe.

9. Perfect Strangers (1986-1993)

Premise: Quirky, naive immigrant moves in with bewildered cousin in San Francisco.

Throughout my life, I have been haunted by this show because my last name resembles the first name of Bronson Pinchot's character in this tepid sitcom (NOTE: they are NOT pronounced the same, so stop making jokes about Cousin Larry with me.) When Balki arrived in Chicago to live with his cousin Larry, who has just gained independence from his large, annoying family, you can imagine the results. At least Pinchot got to parlay that accent into a minor role on Beverly Hills Cop.

8. Benson (1979-1986)

Premise: Smart, sarcastic head of governor's mansion tries to keep crazy staff and family in check.

In this surprisingly long-running spinoff of the critically hailed '70s comedy Soap, Robert Guillaume tried to keep a scatterbrained governor, his daughter, the hyper sassy German cook and the governor's annoyingly erudite chief of staff in check. The best interactions were normally between Benson and Gretchen, the cook and a fellow Soap alum. In a rather odd twist of Hollywood fate, two of the cast, René Auberjonois and Ethan Phillips, became regulars on Star Trek spinoffs (Auberjonois as the shapeshifter Odo on Deep Space Nine and Phillips as Neelix on Voyager).

7. Growing Pains (1985-1992)

Premise: Mr. Mom as a shrink.

For years, Alan Thicke, a terrifically popular Canadian actor and talk show host, tried to find success on American television. After several failed attempts, he finally hit it with Growing Pains where he played a psychiatrist working out of the family's Long Island home. He suddenly found himself thrust into the role of house husband when his wife returns to the workforce. Of course, Thicke is probably best known now being a father to his real-life son, Robin Thicke, and his smash hit song "Blurred Lines."

6. Who's the Boss? (1984-1992)

Premise: Hunky former athlete (along with his soon-to-be hot daughter) takes job as a live-in housekeeper for uptight advertising exec.

Perhaps the strength of this family, feel-good comedy was in the casting. Tony Danza, fresh off his stint as a failed boxer on Taxi, took on another tough, good-natured athlete character. And I don't know if Judith Light is uptight in real life, but whether it was her character on Ugly Betty, her occasional guest role as a the hard ass judge on Law and Order: SVU or this spot where she plays a tense ad executive, she knows how to play uptight. Of course, the show also introduced the world to a very young Alyssa Milano, which might be its greatest accomplishment.  

5. Head of the Class (1986-1991)

Premise: Too cool for school teacher takes on class full of brainiacs.

For my money, Howard Hessman should always have a job. He somehow manages to blend hippie cool with burnout rock and roller so easily. In Head of the Class, he is part Johnny Fever (his stoner DJ on WKRP in Cincinnati) and part Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society. Tasked with babysitting a class full of know-it-all smart kids, Hessman showed them that it ain't all about the book learnin', y'all. The show also helped launch the career of a young Robin Givens.

4. Bosom Buddies (1980-1982)

Premise: Dudes turn to drag to find affordable housing...and chicks.

If you watch the very first vehicle for superstar Tom Hanks, it is clear to see he is something special. The show, an oddly premised comedy about two guys who decide they have to live in an all-girls' building to save money (sure) when theirs is unexpectedly demolished, didn't last long, but some of the laughs -- nearly all thanks to Hanks -- still echo. The jokes from television in the 1980s so frequently fall flat when seen today, but the clever wit and physical comedy of Hanks and co-star Peter Scolari (now making a comeback as Hannah's dad on Girls) holds up.

3. Taxi (1978-1982)

Premise: A group of down-and-out cabbies snark their way through their days on the job.

Taxi holds the enviable position of making a top 10 list for two networks. Seeing a show switch to a rival network late in its run would be shocking today, but it happened back in the day. The early years of this terrific sitcom were its best, earning it numerous Emmys and critical acclaim. From Danny DeVito and Tony Danza to Andy Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd, it also had some notable and interesting stars. DeVito was at his best here, a tiny raging ball of anger and mockery in a metal dispatcher's cage, and a source of derision among the other denizens of this dingy cab company.

2. Mork & Mindy (1978-1982)

Premise: Alien sent to earth to learn, love and make fat jokes about his boss.

In what has got to be the weirdest spinoff in television history, Mork and Mindy, a show about a reverse aging alien sent to Earth to report on humans, emerged from an episode of, get this, Happy Days, ABC's ode to the 1950s and television version of American Graffiti. But, when you have a comedic talent as large as Robin Williams, who cares? Mork ends up being deposited in tranquil Boulder, Colorado, where he rooms with Mindy, a musician and daughter of an uptight father (weren't they all?). Mork's reports to unseen alien boss Orson closed every show and provided some of the funnier ad-libbed moments, but the show slipped when it tried to introduce Williams's hero Jonathan Winters as his son late in its run.

1. Three's Company (1977-1984)

Premise: Two girls, one chef. Not porn.

Despite being wildly popular, the cast of Three's Company was remarkably unstable. The show went through three busty blonds (the best of which, played by Suzanne Somers, left after only a couple seasons due to contract disputes) and two landlords, but John Ritter's brilliant physical comedy as would-be chef Jack Tripper held the entire production together. Sure, it got tired watching Jack try to pretend he was gay so the landlords wouldn't evict him (No man could live with two women and get away with it!) and the same comedic premise was repeated over and over -- as Chandler from Friends said mockingly about the plot of every Three's Company episode, "Oh, you mean the one with the mixup?" There was even the weird idea that the extremely hormonal Jack would be repulsed by sexy upstairs neighbor, Lana. But, the moments of physical comedy -- Jack trying to extricate himself from an ironing board or when he performed an elaborate salsa dance while addled with pain killers -- were as good as it gets.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >