Today marks the 40th anniversary of HBO. For the non-math crowd, that means the pay cable network was launched in 1972. HBO has a proud tradition of comedy. Although the channel didn’t kick its sitcom lineup into high gear until the 90s, it’s been home to some of the boldest, most original comedies on television (and elsewhere) ever since. To celebrate the big birthday, here’s a rundown of the 16 greatest comedies in HBO’s history. It’s a perfect, non-subjective list that’s impossible to argue with, so don’t even think about using the comments section to do so. And this list is for intentional comedies, so The Newsroom doesn’t count.
16. Veep (2012-)
Writer/director Armando Iannucci has been skewering politics in the UK for decades now, but he set his sights on the US government (specifically, the office of the Vice President) earlier this year for his new show Veep. Thanks to a talented cast, led by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and including Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, Anna Chlumsky, and skillful newcomer Timothy Simons, and the sharp writing of Iannucci and his team, Veep has become one of the strongest comedies currently on HBO and a worthy successor to its UK counterpart The Thick of It.
15. Dream On (1990-1996)
Folks give a lot of credit to The Larry Sanders Show and Malcolm in the Middle for leading the no-laughtrack/live audience revolution in the 90s and 2000s, but Dream On, the network’s second-ever original sitcom, boldly dropped the canned laughter before they did. Dream On’s biggest legacy, though? The staticky TV opening that HBO borrowed and started using to kick off all their shows.
14. Not Necessarily the News (1983-1990)
Serving as HBO’s first big original comedy show, Not Necessarily the News kept TV’s proud tradition of news satire alive throughout the Reagan years. Most importantly, it was a first job for writers like Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels, Al Jean, and Mike Reiss. Also, sniglets.
13. Sex and the City (1998-2004)
Sex and the City is HBO’s most-watched and most profitable comedy ever, and although it was canceled in 2004, it lives on in the form of reruns, movies, and slot machines.
12. Bored to Death (2009-2011)
Jonathan Ames’s quirky film noir series Bored to Death got a lot of mileage out of its central trio of actors (Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson). Fans were bummed when HBO canceled the show last year, but at least a TV movie is allegedly on the way.
11. Summer Heights High (2008)
Although it was originally made for Australian TV, Summer Heights High made its US debut on HBO, introducing Australian comedian Chris Lilley to our shores, something for which we’re eternally grateful.
10. The Chris Rock Show (1997-2000)
Pootie Tang isn’t The Chris Rock Show’s only legacy. The razor-sharp late night show scored a boatload of Emmy nominations during its five year run, winning once for writing in 1999. Folks like Louis C.K., Wanda Sykes, and Wonder Showzen’s Vernon Chatman cut their teeth writing for The Chris Rock Show before moving on to make great stuff elsewhere.
9. Girls (2012-)
Lena Dunham has engendered a lot of faux-controversy with her new Judd Apatow-produced series Girls, but the show remains bold, honest, and funny, which is exactly what we expect from an HBO comedy.
8. Eastbound & Down (2009-)
Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s bleak look at the life of disgraced ex-athlete Kenny Powers is about as dark and off-putting as a TV comedy can get. Eastbound & Down tells the tale of a baseball player, our modern equivalent to a folk hero, through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” adhering to Campbell’s structure so well that it puts Dan Harmon to shame.
7. Extras (2005-2007)
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s second series, Extras, sees Gervais playing a much more likeable character than The Office boss David Brent while he and Merchant take aim at the entertainment industry via the story of two struggling actors. With Extras, Gervais and Merchant grow more ambitious in their storytelling, employing drama more frequently on The Office, and add in some celebrity cameos in the tradition of Extras’ HBO forebears The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
6. Da Ali G Show (2003-2004)
Sacha Baron Cohen (or rather, his character Ali G) was already wildly popular in the UK by the time he brought his act to HBO for his second series in 2003, but he wasn’t well-known in the States yet. The US version of Ali G wasn’t a breakout hit like it was overseas, but it was no less funny and introduced Sacha Baron Cohen to a small American audience before his career blew up over here with Borat.
5. Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009)
Comedic two-man band Flight of the Conchords, which consists of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, proved they could do much more than just musical comedy with their HBO series, a hilarious sitcom with non-musical scenes that are just as funny as the musical ones. Plus, they got just about every cool comedian on the planet (Kristen Wiig, Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt) to guest star and also, Art Garfunkel.
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-)
Seinfeld creator Larry David had limited acting experience when he began starring as a fictionalized version of himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but he handled the transition from working behind the camera to in front of the camera ably. Curb is HBO’s longest-running current comedy (if David opts to bring it back) and one of its funniest ever, even if Larry David is constantly saying “I never want to do this again” at the end of each season.
3. Mr. Show (1995-1998)
Not just one of HBO’s greatest shows, but one of the greatest sketch shows of all-time on any network, Mr. Show saw creators/stars David Cross and Bob Odenkirk melding their similar-but-different comedic styles together seamlessly for a show that demonstrates the effectiveness of HBO’s “let’s just let creative people do whatever they want and it’ll turn out great” attitude. Backed by an ace writing staff (featuring a young Paul F. Tompkins and a younger Scott Aukerman, amongst others), Cross and Odenkirk created a show that’ll be dissected by comedy writers and fans for decades to come.
2. The Kids in the Hall (1989-1992 on HBO, 1992-1994 on CBS)
Airing simultaneously on HBO and Canada’s CBC, The Kids in the Hall perfectly captured the sensibilities of its eponymous Great White North sketch group. Few sketch entities work together better than the central quintet of Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson. Together, they created a bevy of wonderful original characters and a sensibility that can’t be replicated.
1. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)
An awards juggernaut, The Larry Sanders Show broke away from the tradition of its sitcom peers by not using a live audience/laughtrack and telling more realistic stories in a cinematic way, while sending up Hollywood with its behind-the-scenes tale of a fake talk show. The Larry Sanders Show’s influence is vast and can be found in every other TV and movie comedy today (partly thanks to Sanders writing staff alum Judd Apatow serving as the current mayor of Hollywood comedy). Without it, we wouldn’t have any number of amazing TV comedies that have followed, including The Office (both versions), 30 Rock, NewsRadio, Curb… The list of shows influenced by Larry Sanders goes on and on and unfortunately also includes Entourage.