“If you have to ask, you’re streets behind.” (Pierce)
Seinfeld is the Jerry Rice/Godfather/Cinnamon Toast Crunch of sitcoms. It wins any “greatest” conversation to me (and won the REO staff’s tournament). But in my mind there hadn’t been a sitcom I had been willing to put in the same conversation with it.
Let me be clear that I have thoroughly enjoyed several sitcoms this century. Arrested Development was exceptional from the first second of the first episode and brought the jokes at a rapid-fire pace. Scrubs could be right up my alley in how ridiculous and random it was and yet how it could pull the heartstrings like a well-done medical drama. Park and Rec had the biggest heart and best ensemble cast of maybe any sitcom ever.
Yet one show stands above the rest in terms of comedy, the most basic category for how we rank sitcoms: Community. I say this as purely my own opinion but I will say we have an objective way to measure humor—by how much we laugh and how hard we laugh. The previously mentioned sitcoms (and I’d even thrown in Psych, though it was an hour-long show) were probably better shows. But you can ask my wife; no show that we have watched together has caused me to laugh like Community. To me, no show I’ve watched in the last twenty years is funnier.
We binge-watched it a year ago and my laughter was so long and disruptive, often literally causing me to ROTFL, that my wife had to have the remote so she could pause it so we didn’t miss 5-10 minutes of the show.
And after we finished it, I immediately watched it all the way through again and then asked for it for Christmas to have forever.
It is probably the most creative show I’ve ever seen. And the most meta. It took something that Arrested Development and Scrubs did well (being self-aware, winking at the audience and parodying everything) and took it to the extreme. Yet comedy is laughter when broken down to its most existential form. Here are five episodes that made me laugh till I cried and started beating the floor, begging for mercy.
[Note that this isn’t necessarily a Top 5 list and that two of the best episodes–Contemporary American Poultry and Remedial Chaos Theory–are missing by design. Because I’ve honored them in other REO articles.]
Environmental Science (Season 1, Episode 10)
This was the first episode where I realized Chevy Chase was going to bring all of the magic that made Clark Griswald and Dusty Bottoms great to this role. When he teaches Shirley effective public speaking tips, including “hand them a sandwich,” and she uses them to get a roaring applause, his reactions while sitting in the audience are priceless. This, along with the other episode plots, happens as Abed and Troy sing “Somewhere Out There” as they search for Fivel. And there’s a lot of El Tigre Chino in this episode, making it even more riotous.
Paradigms in Human Memory (Season 2, Episode 21)
It was the climax of the second episode of season one when I realized this show had the ridiculous and random I love so much, when Jeff helped Pierce with his Spanish project and at one point they were waving huge Greek flags. It was the aforementioned Chicken Fingers episode late in season one when I realized just how hard this show could make me laugh. But it was this episode when I knew I was witnessing greatness.
Most sitcoms rely on the clip episode at some point and some shows have even made fun of how lazy that is. But Community is too outrageous to settle for that. Their “clip” show is from entirely made up episodes and in the show’s classic fashion, makes fun of itself by having Jeff bring it home at the end with an insane mashup of his speeches from these entirely made up episodes.
“These drug runners aren’t going to execute Pierce because he’s racist…
it’s a locomotive that runs on us…
and the only sharks in that water…
are the emotional ghosts I like to call….
the dangers of ingesting mercury!…
because the real bugs aren’t the ones in those beds!…”
And on and on he goes as the music builds and we are treated to images like Pierce having a gun to his head in Mexico and the entire group in straight jackets. Out of this world cleverness and tear-producing laughter.
Competitive Ecology (Season 3, Episode 3)
This episode has the distinctive feature of one of the ROTFL moments coming from someone outside of the study group: the mild-mannered, quick-to-forgive punching bag Todd. He’s been paired up with Pierce because the class assignment calls for a partner and the study group is an odd number. And throughout the entire episode, they berate Todd with insults and end with “No offense” before he jovially replies “None taken.” When Pierce calls him petty for showing empathy because Pierce wanted to be with his friends, that was a fall on the floor laughing moment to me. But it was upstaged by Todd’s meltdown at the end, which he punctuates by exclaiming he’s finally going to go home and take his insulin shot. (And don’t miss Abed’s facial reaction to that statement.) It was a rant worthy of Clark Griswald, an appropriate comparison given the circumstances.
Pillows and Blankets (Season 3, Episode 14)
You really never knew what Community was going to do for episode premises. The study group could be video game characters, muppets, claymation, or in a G.I. Joe cartoon. There could be a paintball or a Halloween party with real zombies or a Dungeons and Dragons game. Jack Black could show up, there could be a bottle episode or they could fight Germans for the study room.
So it should be no surprise that truly one of the most special episodes is a brilliant parody of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. As the second half of a two-parter that has Troy and Abed go to battle over the exact thing the episode title says, it opens with noting that Shirley is “AKA Big Cheddar” (a callback to a previous episode where she made Jeff cry when they were kids). And it only gets funnier from there.
Cooperative Polygraphy (Season 5, Episode 4)
This episode holds the record for most times I laughed so hard that my side hurt. The fascinating thing is that most of it was at Pierce…and Chevy Chase wasn’t even in the episode. Mr. Stone (Walton Goggins) comes by after Pierce’s death to be executer of Pierce’s will. Nearly all of what he says is written by Pierce and it is delivered with stone-faced monotone. Yet because of the writing, Mr. Stone captures Pierce’s “voice” and presence perfectly and it’s over-the-top hilarious to me. Because Pierce was one of the greatest sitcom characters ever.
I could make this list 50 episodes if I wanted to. That’s how good this show was. Community overcame a significant amount of obstacles—Chevy Chase being a jerk in real life and departing, Donald Glover quickly realizing how huge of a star he could be to the point of leaving as well, Dan Harmon oddly getting axed for a season (though that season was still great)—to vault itself to the top of the Greatest Sitcom charts. The last half of Season 5 is passable and Season 6 was surprisingly pretty good, with the finale being outstanding. If Troy and Pierce had been present, it would have been the best ever.
But for 4.5 seasons it was white hot. And only Seinfeld beats it to me.
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