9/21/10

Bracketology: The Greatest Sitcom of All Time


The Purpose: To determine the greatest situation comedy ever as scientifically as possible.

Remember a few years back when Rolling Stone magazine issued its greatest songs of all time list? It was horrible. It contained songs by ‘N Sync and The Backstreet Boys… looks pretty sad and embarrassing now, and it’s a good demonstration of how subjective these lists are. When you get down to it – these lists are just the opinion of a couple folks who happen to have access to a highly circulated print media.

That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary to discount all lists as worthless. There are ways to eliminate some of the subjectivity. In other words, my daughter thinks iCarly should be the greatest American sitcom of all time…. Her opinion is as valid as anyone else’s, right? Well, no. Not if you hold it up to scrutiny and various standards.

I’m in the scientific field and have a couple of degrees in genetics. I say this to highlight the fact that I’m a very logical person (Spockish, you could say), and like to analyze everything… to an almost compulsively absurd extent, as you’ve no doubt learned if you’ve been reading Retrospace for any length of time.

I tried to apply a somewhat scientific method to the selection, and maybe get an answer that’s at least more objective than just picking something out of the air and calling it “the best”.



The Method:

80 situation comedies that could be contenders for the best sitcom ever title were selected. This ruled out shows like Punky Brewster and Family Matters which have no business even being in contention.

I employed a “bracketology” approach to the process; very similar to NCAA basketball tournaments. There are four initial brackets, with each bracket beginning with 16 sitcoms which are pitted against each other and evaluated (see the criteria below). In addition, the 16 are seeded with 4 top seeds - a preliminary rating system was used to determine the seeding. Example, Arrested Development received a preliminary score of 98 out of 100, that = a #1 seed. At the other end, Punky Brewster received a preliminary score of 14, which didn’t make the field of 64.

View pdf of preliminary round

It’s pretty complicated actually. Check out the spreadsheet below to see how it was done. Click the image to view the pdf.



I know your first thought: “Good God. This dude has a lot of time on his hands.” Let’s put it like this – after 15 years at this job, me and the guys are running out of ways to spend our lunch break. It was oddly enjoyable.

So, there you have it. Seinfeld is the greatest sitcom of all time.  Big shocker.  However, now it's scientifcally proven. Take a look at how it was done.


The Criteria:
Each show was evaluated based on a series of standards. The two shows in competition were rated on these standards, with the victor being determined by who had the greatest number of W’s (wins). A tie was settled by the highest IMDb rating.

Rewatchability
This criteria would not apply to movies (i.e. Schindler’s List was a phenomenal movie, but I don’t think I’d want to repeatedly watch it). However, I don’t see how you could say a sitcom is good if it’s not worth rewatching. Thus, shows like The Brady Bunch shine in this criteria (I don’t know if it’s ever been off the air – people can’t get enough of The Bradys).

Interesting and Unique Characters
What made shows like Cheers and Barney Miller so great were their parade of amazing characters. Without a novel personality on screen there’s not much reason to watch…. Exhibit A – Charles In Charge.

Consistently Funny
In the 1970s, a lot of sitcoms forgot that sitcom stands for “situation COMEDY”. In other words, shows like One Day at a Time could be brilliant, as could Good Times, but you only got a couple laughs an episode. They’d make great drama, but if you’re judging the best situation comedy, you’ve got to look at how funny it is.

Variable Storylines
A famous quote from a critic of The Beverly Hillbillies: “One joke, nine years.” Indeed, a lot of shows rode a single plot device week after week, year after year. It’s often funny as hell, but gets old quick.

Acting
When you’re judging the acting on a sitcom, I think it’s important to not focus on dramatic Emmy winning performances; you’ve got to look at comedic timing. How well do these actors and actresses deliver their lines? Michael Gross from Family Ties, for instance, may not be a household name with dozens of Emmys on his mantle, but the man could deliver a line like no other.

Jumping the Shark
A show needs to get credit for knowing when to quit, and for keeping the quality up for its duration. The show’s “brand image”, its reputation, can be permanently tarnished by a few crappy seasons. For instance, Sanford & Son was a great show…. but the last few seasons with Miss Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies and his Sanford Arms hotel were unwatchable. It deserves a deduction for that lapse in judgement.

Sex Appeal
This criteria is probably the hardest to justify. And as it turns out, the top shows in the brackets actually had no sex appeal whatsoever. So, perhaps this basis of judgment was misguided; however, I don’t think it is. The reason: shows like Three’s Company and Married with Children used this to garner interest from viewers, specifically male viewers. And even shows like I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and Gilligan’s Island employed this device on a routine basis. These shows should get credit for that.

Intangibles
When football players are graded by scouts, one category looked at is always something called “intangibles”. It cannot be easily explained, yet you know it to be true. This player is simply someone you want to have on your team regardless of his numbers. In the case of sitcoms, the sitcom that is just intrinsically superior, with no explanation necessary, gets the win.

Note: In the event of a tie, the IMDb rating was used to determine the winner.

The Passing of the TV

The Results:

If you were to ask me, prior to this experiment, what my favorite sitcom was, I would have not said Seinfeld. It was a great show, but I might’ve said The Bob Newhart Show, Sanford & Son, Three’s Company or Arrested Development. However, when you scientifically determine the best ever – the result is hard to argue. Whenever a magazine conducts a “best of list” for sitcoms, Seinfeld always comes out on top. I guess you could say Retrospace simply backed it up with science.

18 comments:

  1. Hey Gilligan,

    I just wanted to say thank you for your blog. I really enjoy it.

    I've given you a blog award. Read about it here --

    Wonderful Wonderblog

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  2. Boy, that Sienfeld regional really was loaded with talent. I guess that show earned its place on top.

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  3. That was fun. I agree with the way you originally seeded the top 64. Some shows can be eliminated and starting with 64 is manageable. My problem with your method is I think that the starting conditions will influence the final results. If you really had a lot of time on your hands you would arrange the original pairings in random order and determine the winner. Then you would do it again in a different random order, Do it 100 times. the show with the highest number of wins is the best show.

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  4. All I can say is WOW! This is the best post I have ever read. Conclusions are backed by plenty of data. I probably would have gone with Arrested Development or The Office, but I guess you can't argue with science. Well done.
    P.S. It is a travesty of justice that My Two Dads didn't make the list. You can't beat Paul Reiser and Greg Evigan, c'mon!

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  5. Wow! Can't argue with the outcome; SEINFELD was the first show I thought of when I saw the title of your post.

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  6. Going on several years without the boob-tube, I can honestly say I don't miss it.
    But reviewing your chart stirred up some latent memories. The only shows on the list worthy of my attention would be MASH and the Brit-Coms (Fawlty,AYBS, & Blackadder). I haven't seen a new Simpsons episode since Sept 2001, but Homerisms and and other one-liners infect my everyday speech to this very day.
    However, when I did get to view reruns of Steinfeld , I thought, "My God, what a lame-a$$ show ! ". I'd have to be super stoned to make it even passably enjoyable. Come to think of it, I probably was for the few times in the 90s that I recall watching that show.

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  7. Seinfeld is a great pick. I might would go with Andy Griffith, but by this process I couldn't block out the color/no Don Knotts' seasons.
    I think you did a good job not letting personal bias get in the way except for having "It's your move" getting a first round bye and I love Lucy getting knocked out by Alice in the first round. Seriously? The best show of the
    50's gets beat by a show that lost it's best character half-way through it's run?
    Also I didn't see the Honeymooners or Big Bang Theory on there. Those are just my opinions though without the science to back them up.

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  8. Sienfeld? Really? It's humorous, but not really funny. Certainly not re-watchable. I'll have to print out the chart and go over it in detail later.
    RetroHound.com

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  9. Excellent post! Seinfeld and Larry David struck gold with that show. Great talent and writing.

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  10. Now that I've looked this over, I have to say that your science sucks. I say that with the utmost love and respect. I don't know that I could do this on my own just from the sheer volume of shows I've never seen or even heard of, especially in the North West bracket. However, I see a definite bias towards the recent. 30 Rock beating Soap? Anything beating M*A*S*H? Just Shoot Me beating anything? Just some of my thoughts, and I will argue against science, I don't care. Besides what's the fun of these lists if we don't argue about them?

    Scholars and Rouges did a battle of the bands where post-Beatles rock bands were bracketed and people could vote on who advanced. That was crazy, but fun. LOTS of arguing there.
    RetroHound.com

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  11. Point taken, Robert. I guess it boils down to the criteria I set. I wouldn't have put Just Shoot Me above much either, but when you itemized it, and look at each individual criteria, it was hard to argue with.

    The truth is: The criteria DOES favor newer shows. Why? Because the really good shows like All in the Family excelled in human drama rather than gags. Remember when Edith got raped? Makes great drama, but comedy? That's the issue.

    It boils down to this - I believe MASH is actually a better show than Seinfeld... I really do. But Seinfeld is a better SITCOM. Does that make sense?

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  12. Wow, a lot of work here, but I'm sorry, on its worst day, Barney Miller kicked the ass of Cheers, and it never even made the list.

    Great characters, and probably the most realistic cop show until the 1990s.

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  13. A lot of work, but man, Barney Miller kicked the ass of Cheers, even on its worst day.

    Killer theme song, great characters, memorable lines (mooshee-mooshee), and probably the most realistic cop show until the 1990s.

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  14. Interesting. Any chance of redoing this and letting your readers vote on the individual match-ups?

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  15. Number 2 brings up a good point. I think it would be very entertaining to let the readers pick the winners and compare to your bracketology. The readers may come up with the same answer.

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  16. Like everyone else has said, there are perhaps a dozen or so of your "play ins" and early skirmishes that I violently disagree with. However, an elite eight of Arrested Development, Sunny in Philly, Cheers, Andy Griffiths, Bob Newhart (the Chicago series), Seinfeld, Black Adder, and Fawlty Towers is hard to argue with. To be fair, I have not seen an episode of "Sunny" or Black Adder, but MANY people I respect speak highly of those shows.

    My largest quibble with you, is that I would add another category, and that would be some permutation of "Breaking New Ground." That might help give a boost to older shows which may not hold up as well, but were still challenging in their day. For example, I Love Lucy beats the pants off of anything from that time period, and also included a pregnant woman for the first time. Dick Van Dyke was also not just funny, but really a New Frontier program (ask your grandparents). Soap and The Munsters would also get a little more love, IMHO.

    Where I am giving you special kudos is with your "rewatchability" category. For example, I remember back in the day laughing my ass off at The Odd Couple. But when I tried to watch it recently, I was shocked at what a complete asshole the Jack Klugman character was.

    I have to admit I am a little troubled by "sex appeal." Now, there's a reason guys are still talking about Jeanie, Ginger, and Maryann (fyi, in that order), and everybody knows why Barbara Billingsly vacuumed while wearing white stilettos, but how did you measure for women sex appeal? Sit-coms were (and are) notoriously heavy handed when it came to feminism.

    Finally, I want to make a couple of specific gripes. You left Bea Arthur's Maude out--and I think that's a better show than several of your contenders...specifically, Perfect Strangers. And Everybody Loves Raymond, a third seed? Bewitched, a fourth seed? Come on!

    I also want to ask what WERE you thinking, even including Family Affair? When was THAT show ever "funny"?

    Still, over all, I think only two shows in your survey really got jobbed, and that's Fraiser and I Love Lucy.

    Finally, I want to throw in a quick plea for a VERY short lived Ron Glass program, Frank's Place, for my vote as a Favorite Son program.

    All in all though, with Arrested Development in the final four, I really can't complain.

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  17. Seriously, even though it technically existed for but one season, NOTHING beats "The Classic 39" in terms of repeat viewing. The Honeymooners is, to my way of thinking, the best fusion of "sitcom" and pathos-laden drama. All that being said, however, I always dig your blog, baby, it's the bestest with the mostest.

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  18. this was lots of fun, and it was noble to try to logically plot this out, but any system that results in Hogans Heroes being a better sitcom than Frazier is waaaaaay out of whack

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