There was a certain vibe that reverberated through the comedies of the 1980s. The gritty, biting comedic satire that defined the '70s was out (for the most part) and wholesome ensemble comedies were in. Sitcoms had a certain lightness to them. Even the darker moments were couched in a kind of ABC Afterschool Special lesson. The laughs and the tears were tempered with a can-do attitude and dressed in shoulder pads and, occasionally, dayglo.
NBC began its reign as the undisputed king of primetime comedy during this decade with list of long-running shows and name stars that made other networks jealous. They spawned the careers of quite a few budding actors and breathed new life into a others. From muppet-like aliens to old friends in the twilight of their lives, NBC seemed to hold every demographic and this is a list of the best of what they 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 sitcoms like Saved by the Bell and Seinfeld, both of which feel much more like '90s shows anyway.
10. Alf (1986-1990)
Premise: Alien who likes to eat cats inhabits suburban family's house, causes problems.
There was a Simpsons episode in which Milhouse reveals he traded Bart's soul to a comic book store for Alf pogs. "Alf pogs! Remember Alf? He's back...in pog form!" Honestly, the most memorable thing about Alf was how ridiculous a concept this was. The elevator pitch must have been insane: So, get this, a cute furry alien with a sarcastic streak and a taste for house cats is taken in by a suburban family and teaches them how to love...or something. Part government conspiracy, part group-hug comedy, this was definitely bottom of the barrel stuff, yet it managed five seasons on the air.
9. Taxi (1982-1983)
Premise: A group of down-and-out cabbies snark their way through their days on the job.
This series is unique in two very specific ways. First, it was much more like a '70s sitcom in that it was unapologetically sarcastic. Second, it began on another network, ABC, several years prior to the two years it spent on NBC before being canceled. It featured a who's who cast, most in their first major roles, headlined by Danny DeVito as Louie, the bastard of a dispatcher who was as funny as he was mean. It won a remarkable 18 Emmy awards over its lifespan. It was not nearly as funny in its final two seasons, but still good enough to make this list.
8. Gimme a Break! (1981-1987)
Premise: Sassy African American maid sings and backtalks her way into the hearts of her adopted family.
Nell Carter could sing. She was also sassy. Drop that into a white family and let the hijinks ensue! Nell (character conveniently with the same name) agrees to take on the role of housekeeper and de facto mother for a family as a promise to a dying friend. Naturally, she teaches them about life in here own loud, church choir kind of way. The show managed to squeeze in some notable duets with Nell and Sammy Davis, Jr. and Whitney Houston among others. Also, a very young Joey Lawrence got his start on the show in season three as a foster child.
7. The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
Premise: Four old ladies live in a house together sharing life, love and a witty repartee.
Golden Girls was remarkably unique for its time. Rarely did shows feature a cast almost entirely comprised of women, let alone women that were well past 40 and didn't look like supermodels. The show was anchored by Bea Arthur, who had been brilliant as Maude on the show of the same name in the late '70s, a spinoff of All in Family notable for its title character getting an abortion. Her same spunk was on display even if it was nearly always outdone by Estelle Getty, who played her mother despite being younger than Arthur in real life. The jokes seem pretty tired now, but it was a consistently heartwarming and funny show at the time and managed to break a few molds in the process.
6. Family Ties (1982-1989)
Premise: Hippies turned suburbanites try to raise a family in the narcissistic '80s.
Yet another example of strong family bonds mixed with a diverse ensemble cast, Family Ties relied on the ages old premise of changing times. Perhaps not as dramatic as the backdrop of a show like Downton Abbey, the move from the carefree '70s to the fast-paced corporate culture of the '80s provided most of the fodder for this family's struggles, that and a tie-wearing conservative son played by Michael J. Fox. His Alex P. Keaton character was not only the show's center, but the most compelling reason to watch.
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5. Diff'rent Strokes (1978-1985)
Premise: Poor black kids get taken in by rich white guy.
Everyone wanted to pinch the chubby cheeks of Gary Coleman and that set the initial stage for this complicated family dynamic. Conrad Bain played Mr. Drummond, the philanthropic do gooder who took in Arnold and his brother, Willis (Whatchoo talkin' 'bout?), and Dana Plato, who ironically met her own tragic end years later, played his daughter, Kimberly. More than any series other than the next one on our list, this was a show about trying to separate right from wrong, and teaching an old white man how to high five.
4. Facts of Life (1979-1988)
Premise: Tough den mother tries to corral boarding school girls.
A spinoff of Diff'rent Strokes (Mrs. Garrett was the Drummond housekeeper), the show followed the similar theme of life lessons from an older, wiser adult with a firm but gentle hand. It also had a bunch of rich preppy kids. Mostly, the show was centered around the dichotomous relationship between yuppie rich girl Blair and ass-kicking biker chick Jo. There were certainly plenty of moments in this one where it was hard to tell the difference between a "how to be nice to people" training video and a sitcom, but there were enough jokes to keep the tween demographic captivated. Also, it spawned the career of George Clooney, so there's that.
3. Cheers (1982-1993)
Premise: Boston bar regulars try not to be overly pathetic.
One of the longest running series on TV for many years was this Beantown barroom sitcom featuring Woody Harrelson, Ted Danson, Shelly Long, Kesley Grammar and later Kirstie Alley. Never mind the stars Cheers spawned, just about everything on this show went viral -- at least as viral as things could go at that time -- including the logo, the theme song and people shouting "NORM!" This despite initially being canceled for poor ratings. Somehow, the show made the premise of a bunch of guys sitting around in a bar every single day not seem overly sad and depressing, which was its own accomplishment.
2. Night Court (1984-1992)
Premise: Following the bizarre goings on inside the courtroom
I've never been to an actual night court session, but I have to believe it is downright strange. As the sun goes down, the weirdos tend to come out (or emerge as they drink) and some of them end up inside a courtroom. This was the concept behind Night Court and it managed to hold down a interesting little corner of the NBC "must see" lineup. Between magician/judge Harry Stone's quirky bench wisdom, John Larroquette as the smart ass prosector and Bull, the enormous bald bailiff, there were plenty of circus-like characters to run the asylum and even more introduced as criminals. In an era of good-natured, homespun humor, this show was about as edgy as it got.
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1. The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
Premise: Upper class black family in New York deals with the same issues we all face, just better than most.
And then there was the king. From the minute NBC introduced this family comedy loosely based on the family of the brilliant standup comic, it propelled the fortunes of the network upward and put them in front of every other network in sitcom ratings for years. The Cosby Show was the perfect blend of sage wisdom, adorable kids and crazy sweaters. It also became the standard bearer for the modern family of that decade. They were a family of smart, ambitious people who were funny, loving and open minded. It also shattered stereotypes for black actors on television and was incredibly successful.