Throughout all the talent interviews we’ve done in the television world over the last year, one common thread is that, whether it’s press-speak or not, networks are loosening their grips on the creative process. Out of the box is the starting point and niche is the new norm.
We’ve called this the Golden Age of the TV Sitcom. It’s not just sitcoms, though. It’s dark comedy, it’s thriller-mystery comedy, alt-comedy, web series, broadcast sitcoms (yes those still made the list!), faux talk shows, animated series, and parodies. TV’s investment in the diversity of thought and talent in the comedy world has been years in the making, but it’s really starting to flourish across the entire medium.
The evidence is in the polls. When it came time for the Den of Geek writers to crown the top comedies of 2016, we increased the size of our electorate (10 writers, up two from the previous year) and it resulted in 36 different shows receiving votes. That’s 13 more shows than our 2015 list and it speaks to the volume and quality out there right now. It also speaks to the competition. The top four comedies of 2016 were separated by one vote each. Voting matters! Get out and vote, people!
The top three comedies of 2015 as voted by Den of Geek staff–Comedy Central’s Review and Nathan for You and Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty–all went on extended hiatus and sat out 2016. They’ll return in 2017 (Review, sadly, for the final time), but that means we have an entirely new crop taking the coveted Gold, Silver, and Bronze on our list. Here we go…
Baskets (FX), Love (Netflix), Horace and Pete, Difficult People (Hulu), Speechless (ABC), Great Minds with Dan Harmon (History), Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule (Adult Swim), The Good Place (NBC), Vice Principals (HBO), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW), The Last Man on Earth (Fox), Younger (TVLand), People of Earth (TBS), Drunk History (Comedy Central), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), Haters Back Off (Netflix), Bob’s Burgers (Fox), Fleabag (Amazon).
All Three Televised Presidential Debates
16. The Mindy Project (Hulu)
From a drunken confession at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding to a romantic comedy expert Ob/Gyn, Mindy Lahiri is the perfect combination of comedy, charm, and a bit of ridiculousness (ok, a lot actually.) Mindy’s ability to always be herself adds a realness to an over-the-top, but hilarious, character. Her love for romantic comedies (similar to the real Mindy Kaling) such as You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally is often referenced whether blatantly or subtly and play a huge role in Mindy’s quest for love. She is always striving for that perfect “meet cute” and though it tends to put her in uncomfortable situations, they are memorable moments for audiences.
Every season has returning favorite characters and new cast members that bring a new element to Mindy’s journey. In season five, it’s clear there is no end for fresh plot lines. With new cast members Bryan Greenberg (Bessie, How to Make it in America) and Rebecca Rittenhouse, (Blood & Oil) Mindy and her support group (her co-workers) continue to fuel the heart of this show. Whether it’s the awkwardness or embarrassing moments, Morgan’s plentiful misunderstandings or Mindy’s unabashed trueness to be who she is—no matter how foolish she may seem—it will have you laughing on the floor.
– Lindsay McGhee
15. Broad City (Comedy Central)
There is no series quite like Broad City. If one hundred years from now the human race is no more and the Tralfamadorians come and take over the planet and the only remnant of us is Broad City, that would totally suffice.
The Comedy Central hit stands in a pot-hazed girl-power category all its own and nothing can even top it’s feminism, hilarity, and progressive nature. Even heading into its fourth season, Broad City still has all the gusto and appeal it did when it first hit the Comedy Central lineup back in 2014.
Co-creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer managed to make a third season that topped all the other seasons in ridiculousness while having their characters grow and deal with real-life situations like new relationships, rent money, and unrealized dreams culminating in a “soul-searching” trip to the motherland of Israel, which turns into a hunt for a tampon. We can’t say we’re surprised.
Broad City is best at shining a bright neon light unto the fact that it is okay to be flawed and have no idea where your life is going. Abbi and Ilana make no apologies for who they are and are pioneering this “hot mess” culture and owning it. They are both strong women with strong personalities who aren’t afraid to speak up and be a little weird.
– Daniella Bondar
14. Blunt Talk (Starz)
Starz’s Blunt Talk began its existence last year primarily showcasing a surreal gimmick with the reverential Patrick Stewart playing a narcissistic, emotionally unstable, capricious, iniquitous television journalist Walter Blunt. Those weekly hijinks, complemented by Blunt’s eccentric show staff, worked out well enough for the inaugural season. Yet, with the initial shock of seeing Stewart cursing, drinking and picking up a transsexual prostitute settled, the second season had its work cut out.
Fortunately, Blunt Talk has evolved effectively in this year’s sophomore outing. While the whimsies of Stewart’s Walter Blunt remain the running gag, the supporting cast have stepped further into the limelight, building on the show’s delightfully demented dynamic. The exploits of Walter’s ludicrously devoted manservant Harry Chandler (Adrian Scarborough) shine the brightest. Additionally, staff member Shelly Tinkle (Mary Holland) has become one of the most curious characters on television. While quixotically pursing over-extended ambitions to host Walter’s show, Shelly’s also fielding unrequited romantic feelings for co-worker Celia (Dolly Wells), who’s dating co-worker Jim (Timm Sharp), regularly making feeble machinations to induce their breakup.
Blunt Talk does have its share of warts and there are still occasional moments when it seems to be trying too hard to push the characters’ idiosyncrasies. However, the show has managed to clear a rather sizable second season hurdle, becoming much more than its initial premise. I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed for a renewal.
– Joseph Baxter
13. Always Sunny (FXX)
It’s hard to believe that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in its eleventh season could end up being as sharp and adventurous as the series’ formative years.
I was particularly reluctant and concerned about some of the more outlandish episode titles from the season (“Charlie Catches a Leprechaun,” “The Gang Goes to Hell”), but I found it to be pretty flawless (although “Being Frank” was a total misfire to me, as much as I try to enjoy it). Every episode offers up something new and absurd to this twisted gang’s tried and true formula, where something as pedestrian as the gang going skiing can end up turning into an homage of ‘80s cinema. Fan favorite episodes like “CharDee MacDennis” are satisfying follow-up installments, Guillermo Del Toro makes a bonkers guest appearance as a McPoyle, and there’s a two-part finale that really pushes the limits of just how rapey you can make Dennis (the answer is still very).
Season 11 had some of my favorite material in years. “Charlie Catches a Leprechaun” is truly a feat of storytelling, with not only some inspired Charlie material, but great characterizations all around. And “Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs” is a too good dissection of their relationship that also throws a heavy dose of The Shining in to make things extra upsetting. Seriously, you could watch those two episodes alone and you’d still be getting more laughs there than from entire seasons of other shows. If nothing else though, the season has proven that this show still has plenty more stories to tell. With the Always Sunny gang under contract for several more seasons, we should be excited for the show’s future.
– Daniel Kurland
12. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
In its second season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was the best thing a comedy can possibly be: very, very funny. The 30-minute format on television is considered by default a comedy by the award shows but seems to be trending towards serialized dreamed territory with shows like Search Party and Transparent.
Kimmy has its serialized, emotional-affection elements but at the end of the day it’s a comedy, pure and simple. Characters are larger than life and New York City is a bizarre funhouse where all the strangest people on Earth live and interact (ok, maybe that part is realistic) and creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock don’t let too many moments go by without an offbeat joke or two.
Season two starts a little slow but after a few episodes it’s back to it’s wild and irreverent self. Kimmy deals with the emotional fallout of her time in the bunker, meets a therapist (hey, it’s Tina Fey again!), gets a new job and learns what WiFi is. By the time the finale rolls around with Kimmy meeting her birth mother and Titus finding a new place just for him, the show firmly establishes itself as one of 2016’s funniest shows.
– Alec Bojalad
11. Jon Glaser Loves Gear (TruTV)
Anytime Jon Glaser heads up a project, it’s invariably the strangest and most inventive comedy of the season and Jon Glaser Loves Gear is no different. It’s arguably well-worn territory for Glaser as he plays an impossible jerk who pisses off and pushes away everyone around him (a la his Adult Swim show Delocated), but JGLG breaks comedic ground in other ways. Glaser is a master of parodying the reality TV format to create brilliant scripted television, but where Delocated had a clear narrative focus about a man and his family, JGLG is aping less obviously structured reality shows about things, shows more like American Chopper or Pawn Stars.
JGLG is ostensibly about nothing more than Jon Glaser showing off his love for gear (which encompasses everything from sporting equipment to camping equipment to dog toys) but it actually ends up being a grand tragedy about the downfall of a man, not unlike Barry Lyndon or There Will Be Blood. In just this first season Jon was instrumental in a murder and there was one haunting episode that all took place inside his nightmare—and throughout it all the names and prices of the gear Jon was using continued to pop up onscreen. Insane.
– Joe Matar
10. Better Things (FX)
Better Things is a masterpiece. For fans of Louie, this Pamela Adlon-starring FX comedy is basically Louie through the eyes of a woman. The series, co-created by Adlon and Louis CK, follows single mother Sam as she navigates motherhood, relationships, and her acting career.
There is a moment early on where Adlon’s character, Sam, attends her daughter’s woman empowerment meeting at school. When asked to speak, she gives a long monologue on women and young girls owning their womanhood and their periods. “Look, we’re all girls, and we’re all women and we all bleed and we all suffer. And then the bleeding stops and we still suffer. But you’re going to find your own path because we’re tough and we can take it.”
That moment marked the tone and trajectory for a series that would not shy away from important, and sometimes uncomfortable, issues.
Better Things allows for the imperfect woman. More importantly, it allows for an imperfect mother. Sam is a woman who is trying to live and love and raise her daughters as happy strong independent women, which often makes her the enemy. Sam does everything for her children but can also just hate them sometimes or fuck up, and that’s okay too.
This series deserves a long and vibrant future, and Adlon should be around always.
– Daniella Bondar
9. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Now in its fourth season, some might accuse Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine of complacently coasting on a formulaic sea of gags and zany character quirks. Well, that’s partially true. After a clunky resolution to the season three cliffhanger that found Det. Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Cpt. Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher) hiding in the ass-end of Florida from a dangerous gangster, the returned status quo was given a bit a twist, initially leaving the show’s screwball cops stuck working the night shift at the behest of the absurdly inept Captain Stentley, played by Ken Marino, who, along with regular cast member Joe Lo Truglio, makes for a welcome mini reunion of the 90’s sketch comedy staple The State.
Admittedly, the show’s crucial plot waypoints are already crossed with things like the romance of Samberg’s Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), the impromptu fatherhood of the mawkish Charles Boyle (Lo Truglio), the monumentally messed-up relationship of Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) and the twitchy Adrian Pimento (Jason Mantzoukas) and the hilariously square domestic relationship of Holt (Braugher) and partner Kevin. Plus, Sgt. Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews) is still hulking and emotional while administrator Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti) is still lovably derisive. It’s all comfortably set on autopilot… and that’s fine.
Despite its occasional indulgences in larger storylines, Brooklyn Nine-Nine remains purely a sitcom. Like the great sitcoms of days past, this one has had time to settle its components into place, running a well-oiled comedy engine of tongue-in-cheek quips and stealth sarcasm smoothly as ever.
– Joseph Baxter
8. South Park (Comedy Central)
This was South Park’s second serialized season, telling one continuous storyline over all ten of its episodes. I admired the drastic shake-up of the series’ format when they attempted the same thing in Season 19, but it didn’t entirely pan out; it took some odd contrivances to wrap up some of the plotlines and the climax wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. This season refines the formula and Trey and Matt deserve credit for just how incredibly good they’ve gotten at utilizing the structure of a Hollywood blockbuster. Season 20 plays out like a techno-action thriller (with gross-out gags) and I was genuinely eager to find out what was going to happen next.
A criticism often leveled at South Park is how reductive it is in its treatment of societal issues, presenting everything as equally worthy of ridicule, but here Season 20 also demonstrates an evolution, being less dismissive and more considerate of how complicated the world is. For example, you might assume Trey and Matt would view online trolling as something not worth freaking out about, but, while they do poke fun at online drama to an extent, they also acknowledge its potential for real-world harm. (Final thought: this season gave Cartman a girlfriend and had him actually trying to be nice for a change and it was one of the best character arcs he’s ever had.)
– Joe Matar
7. VEEP (HBO)
VEEP should not have been this good in 2016. In its fifth season it is practically geriatric by premium cable comedy standard. That’s not even to mention that its original creator and showrunner, the brilliant Armando Iannuncci, decided to step aside and hand over the reigns to David Mandel. Then there’s the fact that what once started out as a satirical political comedy is now a sobering documentary of modern political dysfunction as Julia Louis Dreyfus pointed out in her Emmy acceptance speech.
Against all these odds, VEEP turned in what might be its best season yet in 2016. Part of this is, of course, how purely hilarious it is. This is the show that inspired our Jokes Per Minute obsession after all. But beyond that, season five has a wonderfully propulsive plot that doesn’t let up. President Selina Meyer (Dreyfus) is embroiled in a brutal re-election campaign where no one, not even her Vice Presidential nominee (Hugh Laurie) wants her to succeed. The levels of stress and political absurdity are so high that they can’t help but bring out the best in each character. And it all culminates in a deeply bizarre, deeply satisfying conclusion.
– Alec Bojalad
6. Silicon Valley (HBO)
Silicon Valley may be where the world’s smartest tech minds reside, but if you examine the bubble closely, the whole enterprise seems a bit silly. HBO’s hit comedy only fictionalizes the strange nature of it all. Creator Mike Judge has made a career pointing out absurdities, whether it’s poking fun at the excesses and self-seriousness of ‘90s era MTV and music videos (Beavis and Butthead), the inane bureaucracy of a corporate job (Office Space), or the slippery intellectual slope our country is heading down (Idiocracy). With Silicon Valley, Judge skewers the fickleness of the tech boom and the egos of inflated former geeks.
Season three of the series saw things get dark for most of the ensemble, even as the jokes became more hysterical than ever. Richard and his crew get their very own boss from hell and a taste for the unglamorous corporate side of software development. Meanwhile, Big Head and Erlich are served a major lesson in money management. Throw in some graphic horse fertilization, Jared’s inexplicable ability to score chicks, and the continued unraveling of Gavin Belson and you’ve got another memorable crop of episodes in HBO’s best comedy series (until Curb returns, of course).
– Nick Harley
5. The Eric Andre Show (Adult Swim)
Of all the shows on this list, The Eric Andre Show leaves you the most susceptible to a YouTube binge. Eric Andre not only embodies the best of Adult Swim’s brand of alternative comedy, but he can grab your attention like no other performer can in an increasingly fractured media environment. Whether you watch a full episode, a clip of him getting his ass kicked by Sopranos star Steve Schirripa, or find Eric by GIF or Instagram, he’s made his impression on you in some completely manic, grotesque way.
His late-night faux talk show was unhinged in its fourth season. At this point, it’s safe to assume most guests have an idea of what they’re walking in to when they agree to appear on the show. They responded by turning his set into a literal nightmare. Eric made guests squirm from the moment they sat down in his uncomfortable guest chair. Hannibal Buress, the “comedic relief,” threw guests off with his dry, aloof humor. And then you had surprise moments like when a zombie popped out of the floor to attack T.I. and basketball star Roy Hibbert had to grab a bat in self-defense when Eric destroyed his set in the nude for the 5,000th time.
There are shows that took risks in 2016, and there’s Eric Andre, who claims he didn’t bathe, wear deodorant, comb his hair, or cut his finger nails, and put his body in the way of physical harm, all in the name of comedy. There’s no one individual in this medium more deserving to appear on this list. I say that for Eric Andre’s own safety, because who the fuck knows what he’d do in 2017 if he didn’t make it this year.
– Chris Longo
4. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
BoJack Horseman is one of the funniest, most intelligent programs on the medium, but it’s also sad as hell at times. BoJack’s third season expands their universe by focusing on BoJack’s position in the Oscar race regarding his recent star-making role in “Secretariat,” but everyone’s relationships get complicated and enrichened throughout the season. This comedy has discussions about the things that other shows won’t. It’s kind of crazy that a show starring a talking horse is willing to go to these dark places.
Part of what makes BoJack Horseman so distinct is how it pushes its protagonist and what it can say about the human condition. Beyond that, season three also does a fantastic job at proving just how damn funny the show is, too. There’s a confidence in the storytelling and joke telling and some of the results—like the all-silent episode, “Fish Out of Water”—are a true explosion of creative talent.
– Daniel Kurland
3. Atlanta (FX)
Atlanta is the anti-Empire. While the latter relishes in the extravagance and opulence of sitting atop the food chain in the music business, the former shows just how decidedly meager the lifestyles can be for rappers trying to make it in the industry. Atlanta feels like the magnum opus of creator and star Donald Glover, who knows a thing or two about making it as a rapper. Though for the sake of this article we’ve classified it as a comedy, it feels unfair to pigeon hole the series into one genre.
Glover stars as Earnest Marks, a smart, but underachieving new father who believes he can steer his cousin Alfred Miles’ (Brian Tyree Henry), aka Paper Boi’s, rap career to success for the both of them. Stuck between the realities of the ATL’s streets and the glass ceiling of the music industry, Atlanta plays on the surreal nature of everyday situations like trying to pay for a date when you’re flat broke, or being noticed by neighbors for your music while you’re still living modestly. The series is intelligent, moving, and most of all, frequently funny, helping it become one of the best new series of 2016.
– Nick Harley
2. Search Party (TBS) (Best New Comedy Series)
Search Party for me was the second television show of 2016 (Stranger Things was the other) where it felt like an instant cult classic was glossing over my eyes just halfway through season one. Whereas the culmination of Netflix’s nostalgia-driven horror-mystery was a slight let down, Search Party completed the most air-tight first season of any show in recent memory.
The Brooklyn-set dark comedy from creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter follows Dory (Alia Shaukat of Arrested Development fame), an aimless twenty-something consumed with finding a former college classmate after she mysteriously vanishes. Dory ropes her boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) and friends Elliot (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) into a series of twists, dead-ends, and a shocking payoff.
TBS made the wise decision to release all the episodes at once. The binge-friendly format all the more highlights the lean direction of Violet-Bliss, Rogers, and Ryan McFaul and their ability to weave an engaging thriller around four personalities that jump through the screen. Search Party is a show that constantly brings up tough questions in life, love, and self-worth. Based on where television is heading, Search Party is this year’s best new comedy because it rebuttals with clever, yet complex answers, finding fun ways to goof on millennials and say something serious about them, too.
– Chris Longo
1. Documentary Now! (IFC)
In a year where we had far more than the 36 named comedies worthy of this best-of list, I don’t see it as a shock that a niche series like Documentary Now! takes the grand prize. IFC’s documentary parody series went from an honorable mention in 2015 to the mountain top in 2016, and that’s a clear sign that we’re demanding more of our comedies than ever before.
Each self-contained parody is equal parts style and substance. Directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono are the true engine behind the series, solidifying the look and feel of each installment with an attention to detail that should make every great documentary filmmaker proud. There’s an unmatched wit in the show’s writing, from John Mulaney’s nearly shot-for-shot ribbing of the political doc The War Room, to the liberties Seth Meyers took in cooking up his chicken and rice version of Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
It would all be for nothing if not for Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, who anchor these larger-than-life parodies that are simply the best possible evolution of all their great character work on Saturday Night Live. Hader in particular shines as he bookends the season with his James Carville impression in “The Bunker” and his memorable take on the life of Hollywood executive Robert Evans in “Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid,” a play on the documentary The Kid Stays in The Picture. Part of the fun of Documentary Now! is everyone finds a different entry they connect with. Bill Hader’s endless, free-associating monologue in “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” stood above the rest for me, proving that Doc Now could be as laugh-out-loud funny as it is sophisticated satire.
Documentary Now! pulls the upset in the year of the underdog, but you should have seen it coming. As Bill Hader’s Teddy Redbones said, in tears, during his victory speech: “We changed the way that election narratives are hijacked.” Flawless.
– Chris Longo