Monday, August 8th, 2011

The Ten Best Comedy Pilots in TV History

More so than drama or sci-fi pilots, which get a full hour (minus commercials) to establish a premise and introduce all their characters, sitcom pilots have an even more Herculean task to accomplish — they've got to do all of this while staying consistently funny with only 22 minutes to pull it off. That's why some of the greatest sitcoms of all time aren't yet fully developed by the time they hit the airwaves, spending a few weeks to find their groove, develop characters, and figure out what works. Take Seinfeld and The Simpsons, two of the most influential and beloved TV comedies of all time, as examples of series whose first episodes, while promising, are pretty unremarkable. Despite the many hurdles that a sitcom pilot must overcome, there have been a few shows that have burst out of the starting gates fully formed. Let's take a look at some of the best sitcom pilots of all time.

The Mary Tyler Moore, “Love Is All Around” (September 19, 1970)
Written by James L. Brooks & Allan Burns; Directed by Jay Sandrich
Chock-full of humor that still holds up over 40 years later, Mary Tyler Moore's pilot changed sitcoms forever, establishing the foundation for the workplace comedy that’s still an effective and often-used model today. The show’s first episode introduced an excellent ensemble of characters, many of who would receive their own spin-offs (and deservedly so). The humor here is character-based, breaking from the jokey nature of Mary Tyler Moore's sitcom contemporaries. Co-creator James L. Brooks was only getting started and would go on to become one of the most significant comedy writers of his generation. With Mary Tyler Moore, Brooks and Allan Burns crafted a TV comedy that was revolutionary in its focus on a central female character who was single and career-driven, as well as a show to which every workplace comedy since owes a debt of gratitude.

Fawlty Towers, “A Touch of Class” (September 19, 1975)
Written by John Cleese & Connie Both; Directed by John Howard Davies
John Cleese and Connie Booth's intricately-plotted farce, Fawlty Towers, kicks it into high gear in its first episode, which involves protagonist Basil Fawlty's attempts to draw classier clientele to his hotel. Cleese has Fawlty's duplicitous nature down pat, bitterly bad-mouthing his guests when they're not around and turning on a dime to cheerily serve them when they are. The pilot also sets up some great comic foils for him in his bossy wife Sybil and Manuel, a waiter who's struggling with the English language. Fawlty's an early example of a sitcom anti-hero, predating a glut of similarly natured English protagonists that includes Edmund Blackadder, Alan Partridge, and David Brent. U.S. sitcoms picked up on how funny it could be to base a show around such a despicable character a little late with Larry David, Michael Scott, and Kenny Powers continuing the trend. Comedy wouldn't be the same anywhere on the globe without Fawlty Towers and it all started here with this excellent first outing.

Cheers, “Give Me a Ring Sometime” (September 30, 1982)
Written by Glen & Les Charles; Directed by James Burrows
Between 1983-1990, Cheers would be nominated for the Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series Emmy an amazing 13 times, including the show’s first episode, which won the award, too. “Give Me a Ring Sometime” begins with Diane Chambers walking into Sam Malone’s titular bar with her fiancée, Professor Sumner Sloane, who says he needs to go fetch a ring from his ex-wife that he wants to give to Diane. He’ll be right back, he swears, and they’ll start their blessed life together. Soon after, Sumner has reunited with his ex-, and the two leave on an airplane together, leaving Diane all alone in a bar in Boston. In the period where she’s waiting around, however, we, like Diane, meet all the regulars, including waitress Carla, bartender Coach, and barflies Norm and Cliff. It’s a brilliant plot device: we know as much about the bar as Diane does, which is to say nothing at all, so by having Sam introduce her to everyone, the audience is establishing relationships with the cast, too, without any maddening and over-obvious exposition. By the end of “Give Me a Ring Sometime,” Diane has joined the staff of Cheers as a bartender, and comedy history was born.

The Wonder Years, “Pilot” (January 31, 1988)
Written by Carol Black & Neal Marlens; Directed by Steve Miner
The pilot episode of The Wonder Years aired twice on ABC in a span of two months. The first on January 31, in the desired post-Super Bowl slot, and the episode’s narration was provided by Ayre Gross, who closed the pilot by saying, “It was the only time Winnie and I ever kissed.” When the episode aired again in March, and in every subsequent viewing, older Kevin was now voiced by Daniel Stern and the line goes, “It was the first kiss for both of us.” The reason: it’s rumored Winnie was originally only supposed to appear in the pilot. Luckily, the writers changed their mind, because Kevin and Winnie’s relationship, and lack thereof, is one of TV’s finest and it’s at the core of The Wonder Years, from the “When a Man Loves a Woman” beginning to the devastating finale.

NewsRadio, “Pilot” (March 21, 1995)
Written by Paul Simms; Directed by James Burrows
The central gag to NewsRadio's pilot — Dave Nelson eagerly starting his new job as news director at a major New York radio station, only to find out he must fire his cantankerous predecessor first — is a strong one, allowing the laughs to build in a natural and farcical way. Paul Simms and the cast get plenty of mileage out of this plotline, playing many different variations on the awful situation between Dave and the man he’ll be firing/replacing. Most of the cast members have an instantaneous grasp of their characters, especially Stephen Root and the late Phil Hartman, who play eccentric millionaire boss Jimmy James and blowhard news anchor Bill McNeal, respectively. There are a few major inconsistencies between the pilot and the series (mainly Khandi Alexander and Joe Rogan coming on in the following episode to replace the actors who inhabit their roles in the pilot), but NewsRadio's first episode is still fast, sharp, and very funny. It’s a strong indication that there’s more to come from this talented cast and crew, who would continue to craft one of the most underrated sitcoms in the history of the medium.

Futurama, “Space Pilot 3000” (March 28, 1999)
Written by David X. Cohen & Matt Groening; Directed by Rich Moore & Greg Vanzo
Futurama had a lot of plot to cover in “Space Pilot 3000.” The episode had to establish the show’s main character, the lovably dim Fry; show us that he’s a loser in the year 1999; send him to the future; introduce us to the world of New New York; bring in three other main characters, robot Bender, senile Professor Farnsworth, and one-eyed Leela; and still have enough time to successfully integrate guest appearances from Dick Clark and Leonard Nimoy. It did all of that, plus the writers were even thinking ahead of time: during the scene where Fry falls into the cryonic tube, a mysterious shadow can be seen on the wall. It belonged to Nibbler, a fact we wouldn’t until season four’s “The Why of Fry.” Even from the beginning, the show knew exactly where it boldly wanted to go.

Freaks and Geeks, “Pilot” (September 25, 1999)
Written by Paul Feig; Directed by Jake Kasdan
The first few seconds of the Freaks and Geeks pilot are like a mission statement, establishing the show as the punk rock alternative to the WB network’s slew of brain-dead teenage soaps that were more intent on showcasing good-looking young actors than telling the truth about American high school. The show’s opening scene is a brilliant fake-out involving a strapping football player and a gorgeous cheerleader spewing innocuous teen soap dialogue back and forth before we’re taken under the bleachers to where the real show is, introducing us to a group of burn-outs and a herd of nerds who actually resemble people we knew in high school. The pilot episode alone tackles so many elements of public high school (the humiliation of being a nerd in gym class, uncomfortable school dances, school faculty who desperately want to be thought of as cool, cutting class for the first time, cruel bullies, and the cafeteria caste system) that it’s a wonder showrunners Paul Feig and Judd Apatow had anything left for future episodes. Apatow and Feig went on to conquer Hollywood, as did the bulk of the central cast, who slip into their roles right from the get-go. The pilot firmly set Freaks and Geeks up to become one of the most truthful depictions of American public high school to date and strikes the ideal balance between the comedic and the dramatic.

The Office, “Downsize” (July 9, 2001)
Written by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant; Directed by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant
Tim plays a joke on Gareth by placing his stapler in his Jell-O, and later drops the same stapler out the window. Tim and Dawn innocently flirt and he asks her out for a drink with some other co-workers, before her fiancée, Lee, visits the office. David plays a practical joke on Dawn, telling her she’s been canned for stealing Post-It Notes, which ends with her crying and him apologizing. “Downsize” quickly showed that cringe comedy The Office would play against sitcom staples by not having any clear-cut good guys and bad guys — even the show’s “hero,” Tim, is kind of a douche. The Office took the idea of a workplace comedy, one of the oldest in the sitcom landscape, and twisted into something new, something more realistic, something more David Brent’ish.

Arrested Development, “Pilot” (November 2, 2003)
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz; Directed by Joe & Anthony Russo
Arguably the most praised and acclaimed sitcom of the past decade, Arrested Development didn't waste any time before showing off what it could do. Even in its first episode, the show is operating at a breakneck pace with its impressive visual and storytelling style already in place, as well as its large cast of characters, each of whom are fully-formed and receive their own complete story arcs. Sure, it would take a few episodes of the show’s trademark callbacks and thoughtful character development for fans to realize just how smart and engaging it could be, but all of the elements of Arrested Development's success were in place from the start. The pilot won several Emmys, including ones for creator Mitch Hurwitz and another for directing team The Russo Brothers. Others on staff have credited the Russos, the unsung heroes of Arrested Development, with developing the show's inventive visual style, and their absence from the show’s third season might be partly to blame for the slight dip in quality that some fans have noticed. In any case, Arrested's pilot was a success because of the large group of talented and funny people, on both sides of the camera, who came together to create one of the most remarkable sitcoms in recent memory.

How I Met Your Mother, “Pilot” (September 19, 2005)
Written by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas; Directed by Pamela Fryman
Robin Scherbatsky doesn’t get enough credit for being one of TV’s best female characters. That’s a shame, because she’s arguably been the most consistent character on the forever-underappreciated How I Met Your Mother. The way a typical (read: bad) sitcom goes is that the woman pines after the man, who in turn doesn’t want to be tied down by the proverbial ball and chain. In “Pilot,” the roles are reversed: Ted Mosby is the one who blurts out “I love you” almost immediately after meeting Robin, and it’s Robin who doesn’t want to get married and have babies and live in the suburbs. Still, for 21 minutes, the episode hints at Robin maybe just not wanting to be a mother now and could potentially see herself with Ted in the future. Then Narrator Ted says to his children: “Because that, kids, is the true story of how I met my good friend Robin Scherbatsky. You know, Aunt Robin.” Six years later, we still don’t know who the mother is, but as the pilot shows us, that’s beside the point. After all, “It’s a long story.”

Josh Kurp got Bradford Evans to say something nice about Glee, but only because it was about the pilot. Don’t stop believing, folks!

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  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    Though I think the Arrested Development Pilot did everything it wanted to do, I don't think it succeeded in showing what the show was truly going to be. I'm not sure that's possible considering all the callbacks and subtle background jokes (like blue paint on the walls).

    When I convince friends who have never watched it to give it a shot, after a couple episodes, they still don't get. It seems like it takes a good four episodes for them to go from "meh" to "omigodif'ingloveit." I even rewatched the series recently, and after an episode or two, I thought perhaps I might have made it better in my memory than it was (which wasn't the case).

    I'm not sure any pilot could truly introduce Arrested Development, so perhaps I'm being unfair, but I'm not sure I'd include it.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Joshua Ungerleider It took me a few episodes to realize how great the show was, but that's not because the first few weren't any good. I didn't realize the pilot was so strong until the second time I watched it because it took being more familiar with the characters to really appreciate it. I see what you're saying about the pilot not being a full indication of what was to come, but I think it's a really strong episode that showcases the cast and the show's style nicely.

    • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

      @Bradford Evans I have to watch it "randomly." When IFC (or G4 years ago) ran reruns, if I caught the pilot, it was hilarious. But the times I decided to watch the show in order, for whatever reason, it doesn't hit with me as much.

      Don't get me wrong, I'll take the Pilot of AD over any episode of some other shows (even ones I like) in a heartbeat.

  • http://videoshare.tumblr.com Firas Alexander

    Nice article, a really great selection of pilots (and eventually shows). I'm watching Cheers for the first time and it's really fantastic. I just wanted to point out a small mistake in the entry for Cheers. Sam hires Diane as a Waitress, not as a bartender. And yes, How I Met Your Mother is unappreciated in the comedy fan community.

  • iamjustryingtolive

    I think Scrubs needs to be on this list. From the first ten seconds you care about the main character. JD struck the right chord. It set up a great, and arguably most underrated-of-all-time characters in TV history, Dr. Cox. It was so fresh and feel good and most importantly funny. Scrubs needed to be on here.

    • Joshua Kurp

      @iamjustryingtolive Scrubs was on the short list of shows to include. Brad and I both love the pilot, love the first season, and love the show in general (well, most of the show…). But it just couldn't eek past Wonder Years or How I Met.

    • Jason Farr@facebook

      @iamjustryingtolive @JoshuaKurp Man I love Scrubs and I do agree with it at the very least being on a short list to make it onto this one. It would be on my list, but it's hard to count out what is on the list and I especially love HIMYM as well. So, this would've just been a list that left off something that deserved to be on it. I love reading comments from fellow HIMYM and Scrubs fans and love that you put one of them on this list.

  • baz1860

    As juvenile as it may be, I think that the pilot of That 70s Show might be one of the better ones. It sets up the cast perfectly, and Kurtwood Smith as Red Forman is at his imperious best from the get-go.

    It even set up the Donna/Eric romance that was ruined in later seasons by the creators inability to work out what to do with them as a couple. But their first moments together were kinda awesomely played by Topher Grace and Laura Prepon, immediate chemistry.

  • Doug Webster@facebook

    The Wonder Years was on ABC, but that's a minor detail.

    • http://splitsider.com Adam Frucci

      @Doug Webster@facebook Thanks for the catch!

  • Steve Austine@twitter

    Ive almost finished watching Newsradio from the start and it is one of my favourite shows ever. Dave Foley is a genius. I also finished Freaks and Geeks and that would have to be one of the best shows to never pass the 1 season mark.

  • Phil Davidson

    Great article, Josh and Bradford. I guess the Modern Family pilot has achieved legendary status in Hollywood as well. I saw a showrunners panel recently (30 Rock, Parks & Rec, Simpsons) and everyone seemed to agree that the Modern Family pilot was lightning in a bottle in that it's one of very few shows where they got it right from the get-go. Unlike most shows, they didn't change the tone or story structure or add new characters after the pilot aired.

  • J-Mac

    Before all those, there was WKRP in Cincinnati, and the first episode set up the character plots perfectly. It took viewers through the rest of its run. Howard Hessman as Doctor Johnny Fever screaming "Booger" live on the air was just perfect! The look on the face of the staff when Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) enters is absolutely priceless! How gut shaking funny was Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), who had a running gag with a bandage on every show. I guess that's what happens when you're too young to remember this show. Try Hulu!

    • Joshua Kurp

      @J-Mac Ha, my mom is a big-time fan of WKRP, and therefore, I became a fan of WKRP. Dr. Fever is still one of my favorite characters of all-time ("God must really hate mobile homes"). The pilot is strong enough, but I do think the show got much better as it went along.

    • Susan Kurp@facebook

      @Joshua Kurp" You tell em!
      "As God is my witness I though turkeys could fly."

      And the one with Johnny pretending to be married to Jennifer — priceless.

    • xbox361

      if it was not listed, one must remember
      even Homer nods
      WKRP will live as long as there are live DJ's and high school kids listening

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

    Must… watch… instant-streaming Wonder Years. But it looks like it's no longer on Netflix. What gives?

  • Darby Green@facebook

    One of my favorite pilots was a one year wonder on Fox back in the early 90's. It starred Jay Mohr, Illiana Douglas and Buddy Hackett. It was called ACTION! and it was f-ing brilliant. It was so far ahead of it's time. Can't believe it didn't become a hit.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Darby Green@facebook I love Action. That was a great show. IFC's supposed to start re-airing it in the fall, I think. I believe it was the first network show to purposefully use a bleeped-out swear word, which is all the rage on sitcoms today.

  • Renee Becerra@facebook

    Last night I rewatched the pilot for Soap, and I think it would be a good addition to your list. Amazing cast, and we laughed through the entire episode, especially the scenes with Benson.

  • Rob

    The Fawlty Towers pilot, I would argue, is one of its weaker episodes; it got much better. The MTM pilot is pretty excellent however; Cloris Leachman has a particularly strong moment. The rest of the first season isn't as great as the first episode but by the third season the show had clicked in a huge way.

  • Joe Veix@twitter

    I can't believe you didn't include Sully Sullenberger.

  • Ferenc Szabo@twitter

    The funniest pilot I can remember is "On The Air", from a very short lived sitcom by David Lynch and Mark Frost almost 20 years ago.

  • SgtSharki

    The Futurama Pilot? Really? Don't get me wrong, I love Futurama but the pilot is easily the worst episode of the shows initial run. The timing is off, none of the jokes work, the character introductions are awkward and worst of all, the episode feels like a pilot instead of a regular episode of the show. The second episode, the one where Fry goes to the moon is a much better intro to the show.

  • Sharron Paul@twitter

    Completely overlooked: The Cosby Show. Seriously one of the best pilots of all time. There were some tweaks to the show afterward, but it was full of quality & memorable jokes.

    • Terrence

      @Sharron Paul@twitter Thank you Sharron! I was aghast that it was not included on this list. In fact, it's almost criminal that it wasn't.

      And also overlooked — "Cosby Show" predecessor "The Jeffersons", which established a helluva lot and had the BEST closing line of ANY TV pilot in TV history. And that is NOT an exaggeration.

      Trust me. If you don't check it out for yourself. It's called "A Friend in Need".

    • xbox361

      is there a link to comedy pilots anywhere?
      not many around who watched '50's to '10's pilots.
      and how many quirky pilots that didn't get picked up?

  • mumra

    "Get A Life" Fox 1990, the pilot was hilarious and the show should have lasted more than 2 seasons. Also "Married With Children" the show was hilarious from the pilot episode on and is my favorite comedy of all time. What about "The Honeymooners" does the show count even though it was derived from characters already established on sketches. That show is hilarious 100 yrs later

    • xbox361

      watch some Jack Benny or Burns and Allen, they will make you laugh.

  • William Ham@facebook

    Three of the above episodes aired on my birthday. I can't help but think that is not a coincidence.

  • Rick Babcock@facebook

    I'd like to see 3rd Rock From the Sun on that list. WKRP is also another excellent example. Not to be completely obvious, but the pilot episode of Gilligan's Island. Arli$$ had an excellent pilot episode and I would be remiss if I didn't mention Police Squad.

    Just a few more for consideration so that next list is bumped up to 20.

  • http://twitter.com/Bhess Bhess

    I agree with the Soap and WKRP suggestions. Soap was the first show I saw that had a regular character that was gay played by Billy Crystal. Chuck and Bob were hilarious. They came running out of the gates.